Interview With Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg Radio

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
U.S. Embassy
Kabul, Afghanistan
November 19, 2009

QUESTION: So, since you’re here in Afghanistan, I wanted to start off by asking you about how U.S. relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai have been strained for years by concerns about corruption, drug trafficking, and the government’s inability to deliver services and security nationwide. What have you heard during this trip that makes you think this second term is going to be different?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I’ve heard a lot, and I’m encouraged. I had a long dinner meeting with a number of the ministers in the government, and they described in depth their plans and their accomplishments, which verified my own belief that a lot of good things have happened in Afghanistan in the last seven years that don’t really get a lot of attention.

It’s the hard, boring work of governing. It’s getting 7 million kids in school, including 40 percent girls, when there were only a million and they were all boys when you took office, or getting wheat seed out to farmers so that they can have a bumper harvest, and yet at the same time, putting aside money in the budget to buy wheat so there’s a strategic reserve.

It’s the sort of day-to-day governing that changes the lives of people on the ground that is happening, which we do need to continue to support. One of my favorite stories was the finance minister describing to me how changing the process for getting a driver’s – getting a car license was not only going to cut out corruption because it cut the number of hands that the money went through, but also put millions more dollars into the government’s revenues.

So I think that there’s a good group of ministers who are well trained and professional. They have a lot of outside experience that they’re bringing to the government. And I had a very long and fruitful conversation with President Karzai where we went over a lot of the concerns. But I also listened to his concerns, because it’s not only a one-way street. I think that there have been some mixed messages sent by the U.S. Government in the prior administration as well.

And his speech today was a visionary outline of what he’d like to see happen by the time he finishes his second term, combined with very specific ideas about everything from the security forces to the anticorruption efforts. It was a good transitional comment that we can take some credit for in the way that we’ve tried to encourage the government to think hard about what they’re doing and what kind of legacy they’re going to leave. But it’s really a window of opportunity for not just President Karzai, but the people of Afghanistan and the international community.

QUESTION: One of the things that President Karzai mentioned in his inaugural speech was this pledge that Afghan security forces should be able to take the lead in providing security from international forces within five years. Is that realistic?

SECRETARY CLINTON: I think that we intend to do everything we can, along with our international allies, to support the recruitment, retention, training, and equipping of the Afghan national security forces, both the army and the police. I spoke with General McChrystal about that last night. He thinks it is achievable. I spoke with Minister Wardak, the defense minister here in Afghanistan. He thinks it is achievable. And we intend to put the time, attention, and effort into making it an achievement of both the Karzai government and the international community.

QUESTION: You’ve said that U.S. civilian aid coming to Afghanistan is going to depend on anticorruption measures. Now, President Karzai said he wants half of all foreign aid within two years to go directly to his government. So what specifics has he given you about his anti-graft plan, and what benchmarks have you given him to say this is what we need from you specifically?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we actually started this earlier in the year. Our Special Representative Ambassador Holbrooke and I decided that we wanted to do two things. We wanted to create a certification process where we would evaluate ministries, determine their capacity, their honesty, the results that they’re able to achieve, and begin to increase the aid that we give to the Afghan Government following that certification. So that we wouldn’t be doing this for the entire government; we would be doing it for those ministries that we think, number one, are most critical, but, number two, really meet our standards. And we’ve been pleased by the results so far. And when we look at the positive actions that have been taken in education, in finance, in agriculture, there is a lot that demonstrates the capacity in those ministries that needs to be further developed.

So today, I spoke with my international colleagues about how we’re going to better coordinate our aid programs, because everybody has a bilateral program, we go through multilateral programs. But at some point, we need to be coordinated so we’re not replicating. We use similar standards so that we don’t have some countries refusing to aid certain programs or ministries and other countries coming in and doing it, when that would undercut our message. So we have to do more on our side to be better prepared to support the capacity of this government.

QUESTION: What about on the military assistance side? Now, experts say that having a counterinsurgency strategy depends on having a capable partner. Will the number of troops that the Obama Administration is willing to bring in here in Afghanistan depend on whether Karzai’s government is seen as a clean and competent partner?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think it’s one of the many factors that we’ve been examining and that the President has been testing as an assumption about how we can be effective. There’s no doubt that if we can move more expeditiously on standing up a well-trained Afghan military that can begin to take more control over their country, that’s a big plus. That is something that, down the road, gives a lot of credence to our belief that one of our tasks is to get them to the point where they can do this for themselves.

QUESTION: Now, you’ve said that the main U.S. goal in Afghanistan needs to be dismantling al-Qaida and making sure it doesn’t again find safe haven here. So are the 20,000 to 30,000 troops that are most recently being talked about, is that the right number to get the U.S. to that approach? And how long would any additional U.S. forces need to stay here to make that happen?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, again, I don’t want to speak either for the President or preempt him from making the announcement that he intends to make soon. But I would say that this has been a very thoroughly examined decision. And there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that the chances for success on any aspect of our mission, including disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qaida, providing the Afghan Government and people with the training and support they need to defend themselves with a military that is under their government’s control – all of that depends upon having good partners. And it’s not only good partners at the national level; it’s good partners at the local level, it’s good partners in the military and police institutions, it’s good partners in society.

There’s no doubt that the people of Afghanistan do not want to see the return of the Taliban; that is an absolutely agreed-upon conclusion by everyone who knows this country. But it’s also true that if you’re living in an isolated village somewhere and you don’t feel connected to your government and there is no presence of an Afghan military force and the Taliban raid your village every night and intimidate your boys to join, you’re going to hedge your bets. How could you not? You’ve got to survive.

And what we hear over and over again from Afghans is: We want you to help us defend ourselves. That’s what we are looking for. That goes hand-in-hand with our desire to capture or kill al-Qaida.

QUESTION: Just quickly on neighboring Pakistan, where we were recently, and – you said that it was hard to imagine that some officials there don’t know where al-Qaida is hiding. If our intelligence shows that they are there, then what leverage does the U.S. have with our Pakistani partners? What can we do to finally capture Usama bin Ladin and his top lieutenants?

SECRETARY CLINTON: I think we have, over the last 10 months, developed a much higher degree of cooperation and communication between our governments, between our militaries, between our intelligence services, which was just missing. It didn’t have the necessary trust that you have to have in order to listen to the other side and say, okay, I agree with you and I’m going forward. We still have a long way to go, but the cooperation between our militaries, the personal relationships that have been established between, for example, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen and chief of the army in Pakistan General Kiyani, are incredibly important in helping to break down barriers.

So when we said at the beginning of this Administration that we were disappointed that the Pakistani Government was not going after the Taliban – because we saw them as a direct threat to the Pakistani Government – and that then the Pakistanis themselves reached a consensus they had to do that, we thought there was a very significant change in attitude.

QUESTION: Going to the other neighbor of Afghanistan, Iran, the foreign minister has said that they will not ship out their uranium for use in the medical reactor. And I’m wondering if you take the foreign minister’s statement as the last word, or is the U.S. waiting for Iran to make a formal declaration to the IAEA? And what options do we have if this is the end of that road?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I don’t take it as the final word, because there is a process here that we are respecting. Our representative to the P-5+1 discussions about Iran’s nuclear program, Under Secretary Bill Burns, will be meeting with his counterparts in Brussels on Friday. And we have an IAEA Board of Governors meeting next week, and we are continuing to press the Iranians. I even talked with some of my colleagues today, who have relations with Iran, to continue to press them to follow through on the agreement they accepted in principle some months ago.

We’ll see. I mean, they are the ones who need to demonstrate a recognition that they’ve violated international rules. They have an opportunity to begin to reverse the perception that many have of their nuclear program by sending out the low-enriched uranium. It’s up to them. They have to make the decision. But there are consequences to their failure and refusal to participate.

QUESTION: So what are those consequences specifically? And how much time does the international community have before Iran, on this track, is going to be able to produce a nuclear weapon?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think that the agreement that was reached by the foreign ministers, including myself in New York, about the Iranian nuclear program was very clear that we’re going to pursue a two-track approach. One track would be negotiation and diplomacy, and we have been faithful to that commitment. That is part of President Obama’s larger outreach to not only the Muslim world, but the broader family of nations, even those that we don’t agree with.

But in that very same agreement, we said this is a dual-track strategy, that in the absence of cooperation by the Iranians, there will be consequences. And we have held off having the kind of in-depth discussions that would be necessary to trigger those consequences, but we’re going to proceed with them if the answer from Iran is no.

QUESTION: Now, together with the death sentence that’s been announced on the five protestors involved in the election protest in Iran, does this mark the end of the Obama Administration’s efforts to peacefully engage the Iranian regime?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, it sure doesn’t help it, does it? This has been a series of actions by the Government of Iran ever since their disputed elections that raise serious questions about their behavior, and we often engage with countries with whom we have serious disagreements. But it is really regrettable that Iran would be imposing death sentences on demonstrators who have every right to express their opinions. But again, we’re going to wait to see what the response is on the Tehran research reactor. And depending upon what it is, we will proceed to the next set of deliberations and actions.

QUESTION: Just on one other issue, North Korea, the President today said that the U.S. and South Korea are going to work together to try to break the pattern of North Korea using negotiation and then defiance. Now, you’ve said yourself many times, we’re not going to buy this horse three times. So tell me, what specifically can the U.S. do to change their behavior?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we will be sending Ambassador Bosworth to Pyongyang in early December. I think the President announced the date at the summit in South Korea. And we are going to go with a very clear message that there are significant benefits to North Korea if they recommit to the verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

On behalf of the United States, we would explore some of the issues which they have raised continually with us over the years; namely, normalization of relations, a peace treaty instead of an armistice, economic development assistance. All of that would be open for discussion. But the North Koreans have to commit to denuclearization. And we also think it’s important to do so within the context of the Six-Party Talks.

QUESTION: All right, last question since we’re leaving Afghanistan today: This is your fourth visit since 2003. Tell me what have you seen this time that has been the most positive change and the most negative change from your previous visit?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, on the positive side, I think the quality of people, the capacity of the people in the government, the amount of economic activity that’s taking place in most of the small business arena, the creativity of a lot of the people of Afghanistan in making a better life for themselves is immensely not only positive, but really inspiring.

On the negative side, the security situation is very dangerous. Unfortunately, some of the tactics used in Iraq and elsewhere have been imported into Afghanistan with all kinds of suicide bombs and improvised explosive devices that just put people in an insecure position. But life goes on, and there seems to be a lot of energy and a renewal of optimism following this inauguration that we’re going to work hard to help translate into reality.

QUESTION: Thank you so much for your time, Secretary Clinton. I really appreciate it.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you. Good to talk to you.

PRN: 2009/T15-26