Special Briefing on Trip to Afghanistan

Special Briefing
Richard Holbrooke
Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan 
Washington, DC
October 29, 2010

MR. TONER: Good afternoon. Happy Friday. It’s our great good fortune to have with us today our Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who is here to discuss his recent trip to Afghanistan as well as answer some of your questions.

Without further ado, sir.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Thank you. I just landed a couple of hours ago from Afghanistan and I look forward to discussing with you anything you want to bring up, but let me just start with a brief description of the trip why I was there, what the situation is, and a slightly more expansive look towards the future, because P.J. and I thought it would be useful today to give you a sense of which – of where we think we’re headed in Afghanistan in the coming months.

The main purpose of the trip was to participate in the Review of Concept Drill, ROC Drill, that General Petraeus and I had been co-chairing ever since the beginning of this Administration. We have moved the co-chair to Kabul for the Afghan Review of Concept Drill, so the co-chairs were General Petraeus and Ambassador Eikenberry. This had heavy participation this year from the Afghan ministers, and what it consists of is two days of very intense discussions on every aspect of the situation in Afghanistan, jointly conducted by Afghan ministers and American, ISAF, and other international representatives.

So for example, we talked about the military situation, we talked about governance, we talked about agriculture, we talked about corruption and rule of law. You name it, we talked about it. And it was a very useful exercise. In addition, I saw President Karzai and many other senior members of the community.

General Lute was traveling separately but overlapping with me, and some of the meetings he participated, others he did not. He was accompanied by my senior deputy, Frank Ruggiero, and they are still in the region. In fact, I think they’re in Kandahar tonight. And I mention that only to emphasize the interagency nature of our cooperation. I had a member of the NSC staff on my team, he had my senior deputy on his team; we crisscrossed and overlapped, integrated our schedules, and he will be returning in a few days.

Now, I want to give you a sense of where we are. Oh, there’s one other thing I wanted to mention. Yesterday afternoon in Kabul, I was privileged to be part of a very important ceremony, and that was the signing of the Transit Trade Agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan by the two ministers of commerce. The – as most of you will remember, the agreement was announced on July 19th in Islamabad during the trip that Secretary Clinton made to lead the U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue. And now both governments had ratified it, and the ceremony was held to coincide with the ROC Drill, partially in recognition of the fact that the U.S. had played such a leadership role.

Just to recollect, the decision to negotiate to completion the trade agreement was announced at the White House by President Obama on May 7th of last year. The negotiation had been going on for 44 years without success. With American intermediation, support to both sides, an agreement was reached and initialed on July 19th, and yesterday it was signed in Kabul.

I regret to say I saw no mention of this in any American papers when I landed this morning. I understand there’s a lot of other news, but this is the most important agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan since Pakistan’s independence. And it is more than a trade agreement; it is a political breakthrough as well, and it represents a move in the direction of one of the most critical goals that we have in that region, which is a closer relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan, between Kabul and Islamabad. I cannot stress too highly that unless the two countries close that historic gap and work closely together, this war will go on no matter how successful we are elsewhere, for the simplest of reasons: the Taliban will exploit differences between the two countries and move from one country to the other.

So the trade agreement may seem to you to be just another trade agreement, but it isn’t. It is a very important event. And it’s an important event on the way station to something very fundamental, which is what P.J. and I thought it would be useful to talk about today.

So I want to let you look ahead. On November 15th, the Government of Afghanistan will announce the new rules for private security companies. This will be a – this will outline the process by which there will be a transition from the current situation, which is intolerable and untenable, to a point where private security companies do not exist or exist only under conditions that the government is comfortable with and that they operate – that everything is in accordance with Decree Number 62, issued by the government.

Now, obviously, there was a big dustup last week, which was very well covered by all of you, and there’s no question there was a lot of tension in the air last week. But the issue is under control now, and the government will get Decree 62 implemented. Let me say that we agree with President Karzai about Decree 62. The only question was how to implement it in an orderly way that didn’t put thousands of international civilians at risk because they didn’t have military protection.

On my last trip – not this one but the trip before it – I had an experience which only reinforced my feeling that Karzai’s right on this. I was driving through the street in a vehicle. I was a little bit late to a meeting. There was traffic. The vehicle, which was armored, of course, was careening around in a way I felt very uncomfortable about. And I said to the guy sitting next to the driver, who was cradling a big weapon – I said, “You don’t have to drive that way. Slow down. You don’t have to wave people off at intersections, jump out of the car and wave people off.” And he said to me, “I don’t work for you, sir.” And I said, “Who do you work for?” And he just was silent again. And I was outraged. I was embarrassed. So I know where President Karzai’s coming from on this. I know where he’s coming from.

And when I landed in Kabul on Sunday, and this thing was a very dramatic story, I was quite comfortable with pressing for full implementation in an orderly way. President Karzai set up this committee, and November 15th we’ll announce a transitional process. Four or five days later President Karzai will be in Lisbon for the NATO summit, along with President Obama and the governments of not just our NATO allies but all the countries represented in ISAF. And there the emphasis will again be on the same word: transition, this time in terms of transitioning the combat troops in Afghanistan over a number of years towards the point where there will no longer be international combat forces and a transition will have occurred so that the Afghan police and army can deal with their own security, with international help for their training and support, and, of course, with continued economic and development assistance. In the words of someone else – this is not my phrase – the Afghans will stand up, but they will not stand alone. And that is the concept of transition in Lisbon.

There will also be a NATO government of Afghanistan declaration, followed shortly after Lisbon by a U.S.-Afghan vision statement, followed early next year by a U.S.-Afghanistan strategic partnership document. And the team that’s out in the field is gathering material for all of those. And of course, there will be the policy review in December. And then in July of next year the American drawdowns will begin at a pace and speed to be determined by the President in accordance with the conditions.

I want to stress that this is all – you can put all of this under one word, transition. Whether it’s the personal – private security companies or NATO, it’s an orderly transition of our number of years for the Afghans, and it will happen in all fields. We are never going – we are not repeating the mistake of 1989 and abandoning Afghanistan, nor are we going to have an open-ended troop commitment, because no war can go on indefinitely, and Afghanistan cannot bear the pain and costs of a continued war indefinitely. So that is the concept you’re going to hear more and more about. And P.J. and I thought it would be useful to come here to the podium today and give you a sense of the overall philosophy behind what we’re doing.

I think that about covers what I want to say at the outset, except for one thing. Two weeks from now, my team and I will be back in Islamabad for the Pakistan Development Forum. This is an extremely important event. It is the culmination of three prior conferences, two in New York and one last week in Brussels in regard to the floods and their aftermath. But it also a long-scheduled international effort to talk about long term economic development in Pakistan. It will be run by the Pakistani Government. And last week’s Strategic Dialogue with Pakistan, while it also was scheduled before the floods, also discussed this. As you know, we had what we consider a very successful week with the Pakistani Government last week. And in just a few days, President Obama will be in India on his trip.

So you have a picture here of continuous engagement by the United States in these three countries, so different in culture and economic development and history, but living in a common strategic area, where actions in any one of the three affect the other two. The United States has good bilateral relations with Kabul, with Islamabad, and with New Delhi. And the – and we want to be sure that everyone understands that when we pay attention to one country we’re not diminishing our support for the others. When we have a Strategic Dialogue with Pakistan, that is not diminishing our relationships with its neighbors. When President Obama goes to New Delhi, in what will be a very important trip to strengthen U.S.-Indian ties, that is not at the expense of Pakistan or Afghanistan. We work with all three countries for peace and stability in South Asia.

I’ll be happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Mr. Ambassador, Bob Burns from AP.


QUESTION: You never mentioned in your comments the nascent peace feelers that have been talked about over the past week or so. Could you bring us up to date on whether that’s still happening and to what extent, in what forum?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Bob, as I’ve said before there’s been more written about it than has actually happened. And I didn’t mention it because I wanted to give you, frankly, the narrative looking forward, the overall strategic vision we have for the next few years. But let me be – let me try to address this.

The intense – there has been an increase in the number of people who have fought with the Taliban who have been reaching out, picking up the phone metaphorically or literally and calling up people and saying, “I’ve had enough of this war. I’d like to talk to you.” Well, most of this is at the local level – individual provincial leaders, individual commanders with their units. A lot of these groups, if you know the history of Afghanistan, you will know were not hard-core ideological Taliban; they’re independent groups who defend their local valley and move back and forth, and they’re feeling the pressure. The – General Petraeus has put the Taliban under the most immense military pressure with his operations. And the battle rhythm in the small unit operations has been unprecedented levels and has produced the pressure which has led to this increase.

This is not, however, the kind of high-level talks which all of you are writing and speculating about. And those are not taking place. They’re just being written about. And there’s a great confusion in the readers’ minds. There is less here than meets the eye. There is no indication at this point that the Taliban leadership wishes to change its course. If there is, you won’t be the first to know about it, obviously. Confidential things must remain confidential in order to be confidential, and I believe in the confidentiality of serious discussions. But the United States is not involved in anything like that at this time.

QUESTION: But what you say – if I can just follow up real quickly.


QUESTION: But what you do know about it at this stage, does it give you an expectation or any indication that it will lead to high-level negotiations?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I have no idea. You used the word “negotiations,” which is a bridge even further. I would not use any word beyond “talks” and “discussions,” and those aren’t even taking place. Negotiations – I know something about negotiations and I know them when I see them. And I know the difference between talks, negotiations, talks about talks. And we’re not even at that stage.

However, President Obama and Secretary Clinton and myself have always said that there’s – and President Karzai, most importantly of all, have always said that there’s room for discussions with people who have fought against us if they accept what are called our red lines.

And just to repeat them again, although you all know them: Renounce al-Qaida is number one. Number two is respect the constitution with special attention to its clauses about respect for minorities and women. Number three is lay down their arms and participate peacefully in the process. Thousands of Taliban did that in 2002, 2003. Then it dried up. By the time our Administration took office, it was the big missing hole in our policies. We all agreed on that, but because of the elections in 2009, we couldn’t get the Afghans to get the program up and running. It now is running.

And I had a very lengthy lunch yesterday with Minister Stanikzai, who some of you know, who is the minister for reintegration. And he now – he told us story after story about individual groups in such-and-such a district and such-and-such a province who were kind of fighting with the Taliban but weren’t Mullah Omar-style Taliban, weren’t quite a Shura Taliban, who were now in contact because they were feeling the pressure.

I’ve known Stanikzai for almost two years. I’ve never heard him talk like that before. I’m not out here as an optimist or a pessimist. I just want to give you the facts, and the facts were Stanikzai was presenting a different picture, and it was quite impressive.


QUESTION: Welcome home, sir. Sir, you said that you discussed with the Afghani president military aspects and cultural things, all kinds of things. Did you discuss with him the money that he’s received from Iran and the impact on – the perception, at least, of the integrity of the government or it being perceived as a corrupt government and so on?


QUESTION: You thought – you think that’s an issue that should be --

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: He had – he said – he had his say in public, newspapers had their say in their print pages. It just didn’t come up in our discussion. I didn’t go there to discuss his public statements or articles written in newspapers. I had more – I frankly had more important business.


QUESTION: On the security contractor issue, I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit about why that sort of blew up as it did last week, what sort of miscommunications --


QUESTION: -- there were. And secondly, what U.S. expectations are for the new Afghan plan. I mean, what will – will the situation on the ground look very different in six months’ time, say? And the last part of the question is: There’s been concern raised that already, some development projects were slowing down or being drawn back because of this concern. Is this – has this been a setback for the --

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: On the second part of your question, was that they were on the edge of doing that. They were going to start doing it very soon because they had to for contractual reasons, but it didn’t happen. But it was damn close, like a couple of days away.

But the first part of your question’s really interesting and I’ve thought a lot about it. And here’s my honest, candid answer to you: It’s that the international community, including our own government, did not pay enough attention to the Afghan Government’s repeated statements that they were serious. President Karzai told us that – he told me that he had spent four years talking about this issue. He had not talked to me about it directly, but he had spoken to many other people. And finally, he issued things in – I think it was August; is that right, Ashley or Freeman? Was it in August?

STAFF: (Off mike.)


STAFF: Yes, August.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Yeah, in August he issued this decree. And here we were in mid-October and the international community, not just the U.S., but ISAF and the UN, everyone, they just weren’t getting – and he just said, “Enough.” And he – in my view, he was correct on this issue. And we didn’t – the international community did not take it seriously enough and we should have. And now we are. And I saw one story in one of the papers that he had backed down. He didn’t back down; he just insisted on compliance with his previously issued decree.

It’s – Afghanistan is a sovereign country and respect for its sovereignty was necessary. You had tens of thousands of security guys from all sorts of countries wandering around heavily armed, some of them illegal, some of them highly corrupt, some not corrupt, under multiple contracts. You can’t have a country in a situation like that. So I’m – now, to get it under control and still be able to protect the international aid workers if they need protection, to get it under control without creating different sets of problems is a real challenge. But the goal of getting rid of private security companies, illegal and even legal ones, is certainly one I have sympathy with.


QUESTION: Ambassador, looking –

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Can you identify yourself?

QUESTION: Yes, I’m Flavia Jackson from Bloomberg. Just a follow-up on Andy’s question. I mean, going forward when troops do eventually begin at whatever pace is decided to retreat from Afghanistan, I mean, how do we resolve the question of who’s going to step into – I mean, how can you do, essentially, without contractors in that part of the world?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I’m not sure I follow your question.

QUESTION: I mean, in view of the situation in Iraq –

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: You talking about private security companies or contractors?


AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: You said contractors.

QUESTION: Well, PMCs. I mean, essentially what I’m trying to –

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I mean, when you’re going to build a dam or something you have to have contractors. No one’s said about ending contractors.

QUESTION: No, what I’m referring to specifically is, for example, right now in Iraq there’s going to be a greater reliance on private security firms doing certain jobs that the military did beforehand. Are you concerned about what would happen in Afghanistan going forward when this situation –

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I don’t know anything about Iraq, but I am comfortable that the government has a right to bring these companies under its control and decide how to move forward. I support President Karzai’s desire to do that. The United States Government supports it. We now are going to work out the details between now and November 15th for an orderly transition. I’m not going to prejudge the outcome and I’m going to leave it to Ambassador Eikenberry, General Petraeus, Steffan de Mistura of the UN, the British Embassy, and DFID to work out how – and other foreign agencies to work out what they need to continue their invaluable work with an environment which is compatible with Afghan sovereignty. But I’m not going to second-guess the details from here.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir. I have three questions, basically. One, on the historic Transit Trade Agreement which was signed after negotiation of 40 years, one of the major (inaudible) was India factor. Can you give us an insight into what happened to that and how the two countries agreed on it?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: The 19 – it’s a very good question. The 1965 agreement between India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan did not have adequate implementation machinery and never really got going. The attempt to negotiate a trilateral trade agreement was not going to work in the current environment. We recommended to all three countries that Pakistan and Afghanistan have a bilateral negotiation with a clear understanding, which is written into the agreement, that if at any time India and Pakistan begin to work together towards their own trade agreements that Afghanistan will be able to enter those on an equal basis. The clause is called the National Treatment Clause. Some Americans would call it Most Favored Nation, but National Treatment is what it’s now called. And that was very key and I’m very grateful to the Indian Government for not interposing any objections to this bilateral trade treaty and we hope that the Indians will find – Indians and Pakistan will find a way to join it at their own pace. But we will leave that to New Delhi and Islamabad to work on.

The Indians, however – the Indians were fully informed on this. I went to New Delhi, I talked to my friends in the foreign ministry and in the prime minister’s office, and again, just to repeat, I’m very grateful to the Indians for not interjecting any concerns on this.

QUESTION: And secondly, sir, about the tripartite talks between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the U.S.A., what happened to that? (Inaudible.)

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: We had them in – in February of last year, we had a foreign ministers level. In May of last year, we had presidential level and that’s the one that led to the trade agreement. Then came the Afghan elections and 2009 was just impossible. We wanted to resume them this year, 2010. I was very anxious to do that. The calendar was so full of events, including the next Afghan elections, including the floods in Pakistan, including the Strategic Dialogue that we just couldn’t find a window on the calendar. I’m very sorry that happened. We should have had one. But both foreign ministers came back to us and said, “Let’s resume this.” So Secretary Clinton has agreed, but we haven’t determined the date yet.

QUESTION: And finally, sir, in the last 18 months, there has been a drastic change in the tone and tenor of President Karzai’s statement and relationship with the U.S. Is it reflective of the relations you have personally with President Karzai?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I’m not sure I understand your question.

QUESTION: In the last 18 months –

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I heard it. I’m not –

QUESTION: -- the statements coming from President Karzai with regard to U.S. has totally changed what he had with the previous administration. Is it reflective of the nature of personal relationship you have with President Karzai?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: You mean me personally?


AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: (Laughter.) I don’t think – that question requires me to buy into your premise which I’m not going to do. But I have very good relations with President Karzai. I just saw him for two hours yesterday. We were scheduled for an hour. He waved people off, changed his schedule twice, we had a very intense discussion about every conceivable issue of mutual interest. I’ve seen him – let’s see. I’ve seen him at least 10, 15 times this year in London, in Washington, in New York, in Munich, in Kabul, everywhere. I don’t have any problem with my relations with him. He represents his country; I represent mine.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: Time for just a couple more questions.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. Raghubir Goyal, India Globe and Asia Today. Welcome back. As far as President Obama’s trip to India is concerned, what advice or any consultation you may have given him or he may have asked you as far as your regional security
of Afghanistan or India and Afghanistan is concerned?

And second, sir, is it – because it comes every time, and even President Obama spoke several times then – that if he sees any signs of Usama bin Ladin in Pakistan or elsewhere in the area and al-Qaidas, is it some kind of policy don’t ask, don’t tell and don’t say anything about Usama bin Ladin?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: (Laughter.) That’s very creative.

QUESTION: And finally, as far as your vision in the region is concerned, you have been more in Pakistan and – than in Afghanistan. What do you think now this $2 billion will bring? Why I’m asking you is my extensive talks with the Pakistani community here yesterday, before you came here today, was that they are not still getting any help as far as poor people are hungry and food and shelter and medicine and all that. What they are telling me to tell you, Mr. Ambassador, where is that money going?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I think I saw that movie. It’s called Jerry Maguire.

QUESTION: Yes, sir.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Show me the money.

QUESTION: Yes, sir. (Laughter.)

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: First of all, it’s not quite right that I’m paying more attention to one country or the other. I’ve been to each country 18 or 19 times since I took this job. I have focused more on Pakistan in the last three months because of the floods. The floods just were unbelievable, and I came to this podium and Rajiv Shah came – and I don’t need to repeat that. But we have never taken our eye off Afghanistan as the previous administration did. And we are focused on it very heavily and will be talking about it at Lisbon.

As far as your comment about, what I called “show me the money,” I hear this from Pakistanis a lot and I particularly hear it from Pakistani Americans, and I kind of resent it. The American public and – through the Congress has appropriated seven – has authorized $7.5 billion in economic aid over the next five years. We were the first country into Pakistan after the floods with the most assistance. We have diverted some of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman money to flood relief with the permission of the Congress. And we have discussed this at length with the finance ministry, with Finance Minister Shaikh and Finance Secretary Hina Rabbani, both of whom I look forward to seeing again in two weeks.

Secretary Clinton herself has spent more hours on this issue than probably any other, with the arguable exception of the Mideast, in the last six months. And the aid is there, and if you go out in the field you can see it. And people sitting here in the U.S. are complaining, and I run into this everywhere I go. I run into Pakistani Americans on the street telling me one of two things, either you’re not giving the money, which isn’t true, or something even worse; they say don’t give the money because the government’s so corrupt. I don’t buy either of that.

The people of Pakistan need support. It is very difficult to get support out to these isolated people in refugee camps clinging to dykes before the water receded, and I know it’s going a little bit slowly. But consider Pakistan and compare it to five years ago, our problems with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, in our country, in a much smaller area with all our communications and transportation capability, our own failures to satisfy. And the Pakistani people should know we’re there for them on this.

QUESTION: And the presidential visit, sir?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I’m not going to comment on what the President’s going to talk about. I’ll leave that to the White House. But I can assure you that what I said earlier about Afghanistan, India, Pakistan being three countries with great – all of which we have good relations, all of which we want to improve relations with and which we fully take into account the effect of our actions on one on the other’s is the underlying principle with which our government approaches our policy.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir.


QUESTION: I’m a little confused by something you said earlier. If I heard you correctly, you talked about not taking Karzai seriously. You said the international community didn’t take him seriously when he first announced these measures. I guess my question is: How did that happen with all of the effort you and many, many others are putting in? How did that happen, slip through?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: They – I – this is something that the details of which I’m not going to kind of deconstruct, because it’s not something that would interest everybody. All I can say is that it is my personal view that the – after the announcement of Decree 62, the international community, including our own government, did not respond quickly enough to work with the Afghan Government to implement Decree 62. That’s the short version of the story. By the time it came to your attention, I doubt there’s a single person in this room who knew Decree 62 was issued the day it was issued. But by the time – after two months and with the deadlines approaching, President Karzai was – felt frustrated. And you guys got the backlash of that and reported it, and that didn’t – that was a big story. It didn’t do any harm. It helped get us to where we are today, and we’re in a better place this Friday than we were five days ago, six days ago, when I got to Kabul. But the details of who did what and who didn’t do what are not worth deconstructing.

MR. TONER: Last question.

QUESTION: Just to follow up on that, with the issue of the private security firms --


QUESTION: I’m sorry. I’m Shaun Tandon. I’m with AFP.


QUESTION: Is there a timeline that would be acceptable for the U.S. for the withdrawal --


QUESTION: The withdrawal of contractors. Oh, sorry, excuse me --

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I’m not going to get into – I have a clear agreement with Karl Eikenberry that I will leave every operational detail of these discussions to the Embassy in Kabul. I will only talk about the macro story. So that’s way beyond my level of detail knowledge. It’s not for me to negotiate. It’s contractual, it’s complicated, involves billions of dollars worth of contracts. I haven’t read the contracts. I’ll let them sort it out.

So one last question then, because I didn’t answer that one.

QUESTION: Michel Ghandour with Al Hurra Television. Don’t you --


QUESTION: Al Hurra Television.


QUESTION: Don’t you consider Iran giving bags of money to President Karzai and trying to influence members of parliament in Afghanistan as a serious business for the United States?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I think P.J. answered that already while I was traveling, and I’ll just stand with what he said and just leave it at that. It’s not my issue. It’s – I didn’t give them money. President Karzai has talked about it publicly. Let’s just let it go at that.

Okay, thanks.

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PRN: 2010/1561