Press Availability On Relief Workers Killed in Afghanistan

Press Availability
Richard Holbrooke
Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan 
Treaty Room
Washington, DC
August 9, 2010

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Thank you, Madam Secretary. I’d be happy to take any specific questions you want.

QUESTION: How do you change the mindset of these people? I mean, there’s a lot of talk about trying to reintegrate and reconcile Taliban into society to have a one united Afghanistan with everybody working towards the future of the country. How do you change the mindset that this type of work is what the country needs and kind of build more bridges among these type of people that maybe don’t have opportunity, don’t see this way of life as the way that Afghanistan should be going?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Elise, there’s a subtext in your question that seems to imply that this is a popular act, and I know you don’t intend that. The Afghan people want this kind of assistance. These people were particularly well-known and revered and beloved in those elements of Afghanistan that knew them.

The Secretary has just described quite clearly what they were doing there. This was an act of a small, ruthless minority, which is what the Taliban are. They do not represent the popular will in Afghanistan and every poll, every survey –I’d particularly bring your attention to the BBC/ABC/ARD poll of earlier this year – shows that their support is in the single digits. But entrenched, ruthless people have the ability to kill unarmed people who were coming back from a humanitarian mission. It’s not hard to do. It just illustrates the nature of the enemy.

But I don’t think in any way, shape, or form it shows that the people of Afghanistan support this – in fact, on the contrary. I just spoke to Ambassador Eikenberry and Ambassador Tony Wayne in Kabul and they said the shock and the reaction has been enormous on this. These were very popular people.

QUESTION: Ambassador Holbrooke, I’m wondering if you could tell us if the U.S. has any – has seen any evidence which actually backs up the Taliban claim for responsibility here? I know that in Kabul the – where the representatives for the aid group that these workers were with has said that the police are talking about bandits, there’s another group which is also possibly claiming responsibility. Why do we say now, outright, that we think the Taliban is behind this?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Well, that’s an interesting question, and you’ll notice that the Secretary phrased it quite carefully on that score. But they took credit for it. And we now have our investigative people working with the Afghans to find out more about that. All we can say is the Taliban claimed credit for this action, which is in itself extraordinary. Let’s see what the detailed facts prove. That’s all we know.

QUESTION: Sir, how do you expect this attack to impact United Nations operations, UNAMA operations in Afghanistan, and already curtailed operations?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I can’t speculate on that. I haven’t talked to Stefan di Mistura about it. But it’s clear that targeted assassinations, targeted murders of vulnerable civilians whether they are humanitarian workers or vulnerable government officials in exposed areas is a time-honored tactic of ruthless guerillas, insurgents, and terrorists. And that’s what we’re seeing and we all understand it.

QUESTION: Can I take you back a little south to Pakistan? How does the flood in Pakistan affect this war on terror, particularly because the Pakistan civilian government is being criticized by everyone in the country for its failure to deal with the situation and because the –

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I’m sorry – you’re asking how the flood affects the war against terror?

QUESTION: And how does the Pakistani civilian government’s failure to attend to it and the president’s absence from the country? How does it affect all these factors?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Let me just say a word about the floods then. First of all, at least 14 million people have been affected. At least 1,400 have already died. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of other people are inaccessible – clinging to rooftops, swept away. The rains are continuing, the great dam above Sindh is in danger. If it breaks, the situation will reach an even more catastrophic level. It’s already exceeded in the number of people affected the 2005 earthquake, but not as many people dead – of course, that was 75,000. So the order of magnitude unkilled is one way, but the number affected is another. It’s destroyed crops. It is a major international humanitarian catastrophe.

The United States has responded with – in great detail. We have led the world. We have sent helicopters from Afghanistan. Today, Ambassador Haqqani and I talked. He is contact now with the Pentagon and the White House. We’re looking for ways to give additional helicopter support immediately. Although that’s tough, too, because of the weather conditions, very dangerous. We are rushing foodstuffs out of our Food for Peace program, some of which are forward-position in Pakistan, others are in the Gulf.

I came directly to this press conference from a meeting I had with my team. We’re having daily calls involving AID, the White House, State Department, and the Pentagon. We are calling on other governments – and when I say calling, I mean, I’m specifically calling some of our key allies, not just making a general statement, to do something about it. We have the special telephone number which Secretary Clinton demonstrated last week, which if you text S-W-A-T and then punch – send it to 50555, and then press yes, you will donate $10 on your cell phone, which I’ve already done. I know the Secretary did it. I hope you’ve done it, P.J., otherwise we’ll deduct it from your next paycheck. (Laughter.) And – but not on your official State Department phone, I’m afraid. This is very serious stuff. We did this for Swat last year. But so far, we’ve not raised as much money as we did for Swat. And I’m concerned that perhaps people think that it’s just another one of the endless tragedies that Pakistan endures.

So I want to say here today that it is a major international humanitarian crisis that the world must rally to, just as we did for Pakistan and Swat last year and in the earthquake five years ago. We are in the process of extended meetings to mobilize the business community, many of whom have said to us that they’re tapped out because of what they already did for Haiti. We understand that issue because Haiti is an ongoing problem and a very important issue. But we are focused right now on doing everything we can for Pakistan. And I stress to all of you, the waters are still rising. It’s still raining. The dams are in danger. This is not – this is not over. An earthquake happens and then you start rebuilding; this thing is still developing, and it is at the top of the agenda of the Secretary of State and Raj Shah and I and our colleagues are focused on, and the Pentagon.

MR. CROWLEY: Thank you.

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PRN: 2010/1082