Interview With Masood Farivar of Voice of America

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
October 10, 2014

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you for joining us.

SECRETARY KERRY: Delighted to be here.

QUESTION: Before we launch into our conversation about Afghanistan, I wanted to get your reaction to Malala Yousafzai’s winning of the Nobel Peace Prize.

SECRETARY KERRY: I think it’s terrific, and shared, of course, with Kailash Satyarthi. I think the two of them together represent an incredibly appropriate statement about the importance of women and children. And, of course, Malala has been a courageous and incredible spokesperson for the rights of women and girls. So given what’s happening in Afghanistan and our commitment – deep commitment to empowering women – now so many girls in school, so many women entering business, it’s really a very important part of the future of the country. And no country can maximize its potential and opportunities with half of its population pushed to the sidelines. So I think both of these awardees represent a tremendous statement about the importance for all governments in the world to be focused on women and children.

QUESTION: Turning to Afghanistan, you have been credited with almost miraculously saving the country from plunging into civil war. How did you pull it off?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I – it’s not me pulling it off. It’s really a tribute to the people of Afghanistan, who were incredibly patient during a very long and drawn-out, difficult election process, and to the statesmanship of both now-President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the CEO. I think they came together with a deep realization that they needed to be patriots, that they needed to lift Afghanistan. I mean, we could exhort and push – and we did, believe me – but they had to make decisions. And I think they made the right decisions. And now, Afghanistan, hopefully, has this opportunity to define its future. And that’s what’s important.

QUESTION: How confident are you that the national unity government will last and that it won’t require further intervention by you in the future?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think expressing notes of confidence is not what’s important here. I’m very hopeful, obviously. But in the end, it will depend on the leaders, it will depend on their teams, and it will depend on staying focused not on patronage and smaller political issues, but staying focused on the big issues that confront Afghanistan and being determined to try to find the high ground for all of Afghanistan. And I think if they stay focused that way, this can be very, very productive. We, of course, are prepared to be cooperative and work and support, and we care enormously. We have great, great respect for the very tortured, difficult journey that Afghans have traveled these last years, after maybe 25 years or more. I mean, this has been a long process.

I would hope Afghans themselves would just be tired of the violence and tired of the war and reject – wholly reject those who engage in it, make it clear that they want to participate in an open political process, that they want to be able to speak freely and organize freely and be part of a vibrant political process. And history has shown that where that happens, countries are stronger, and people have greater dignity and respect and opportunity. And that’s, in the end, what this is really about.

QUESTION: You have spent countless hours and days trying to broker a deal between the two candidates. Was there a moment that you feared you might lose the battle?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m an eternal optimist, so I don’t – I can’t tell you that I ever thought we weren’t going to get there. But there were moments of great difficulty, and sometimes even exasperation. But in the end, I really felt that the candidates needed to do exactly what they did, which is put Afghanistan above all else. And I think both of them made tough decisions, and I have great respect for them for having done so. Now the challenge is to bring the country fully together around a common agenda. I think the first steps of articulating that agenda for economic reform, for growth and development, for electoral reform, for inclusivity, have been very important. And I think they’re off to the right start.

QUESTION: Cabinet formation – how important is that and how --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s always important. You have to build a team that can implement; you have to build a team that can work together. And as Dr. Ghani said many times, he didn’t want to build a government that by definition couldn’t work. So putting that team together is obviously very important.

QUESTION: Most Americans seem to care very little about Afghanistan. Of all the global hotspots, why did you and the President choose to invest so much political capital in Afghanistan?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, for a lot of reasons. First of all, Afghanistan is important as a country in and of itself, in its history. We have all grown to have great respect. As I said, this has been a long journey for Afghans, and they have fought – and do fight – with courage for their independence and their sovereignty, for their dignity and their future. And we didn’t want to turn our backs on that.

Number two, it is an important, broad commitment of the global community. I mean, ISAF is represented by more than 50 nations, the United Nations. There are many countries that have an interest in a peaceful, stable Afghanistan – China, Russia, the neighbors to the north, the neighbor to the south, India, others. All have an interest in an Afghanistan that works.

Third, we made a commitment we would deeply involve. Our soldiers spent their treasure, their lives, their sweat, their days fighting for this freedom, and I don’t think that was something that either the President or I or anybody in America wanted to just brush aside.

And I think that the importance of Afghanistan as this island in a very critical place in terms of future trade, the movement of goods, the New Silk Road, the possibility of a stronger trade relationship with India, with the ‘Stans, with ultimately even to the west, all the way through to Iraq and Israel – I mean, all of these things are a possibility of the future. And I think we wanted to put our bet on that future.

QUESTION: And do you see it as a foreign policy success for the Obama Administration?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think it’s too early to be measuring and counting and sort of – I think it was a success in that we helped resolve a momentary crisis. So it was the winning of a battle, but there’s still the winning of the war, writ large, not just the counterterrorism component of it but the economic, the rights, the development of society, the full development of the democracy. This is a long effort, but if this is the opening of a wider door to that possibility for the people of Afghanistan and they grab it, then history will hopefully be able to judge that this was a turning point.

QUESTION: With regard to U.S.-Afghan relations, some analysts believe that President Ghani needs to reach out to Washington to mend fences and put relations back on a good footing. What are your expectations of President Ghani when it comes to relations with the U.S.?

SECRETARY KERRY: First of all, I think people make too much of the differences that existed with President Karzai. President Karzai, I thought, was a very intelligent, very skilled advocate on behalf of his country and his interests. It is true that he saw things differently from us in certain ways, and sometimes obviously it bothered us a little bit that his perception of our intent or our goals was as divergent from his perception as it was, but that’s the way it is sometimes. All in all, President Karzai led his country through a very difficult period. He transitioned peacefully through an election to another government. That’s historic. And he has laid the foundation for President Ghani and the new government to define the next chapter of Afghan history.

So I don’t think it’s worth getting caught up on whatever the differences were. This is an historic moment for Afghanistan and we all need to pull together, including President Karzai, former President Karzai, in order to guarantee the best opportunity for Afghans.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, we have had reports of ISIS-inspired violence in Afghanistan, including beheadings of women and children. Are you worried that ISIS, if left unchecked, could spread its tentacles to Afghanistan and Pakistan?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s not going to be left unchecked. I mean, the fact is that we are in the process now of building up the coalition. There will be disappointments in the course of that, as there – as we are witnessing in Kobani and in other places, in Anbar or elsewhere, because it is just ramping up. It is just getting going. But I am confident that ISIS is not going to be unchecked. We are going to pursue this effort with many allies, with many interested parties, and in the end ISIL will recognize that the power of justice and of law and rule of law and civility is much more powerful that their hatred and their atrocities.

QUESTION: The Turkish foreign minister yesterday said that setting up a buffer zone along the border with Syria is a condition for Turkey’s participation in the coalition against ISIS. How close are we to getting an agreement on a buffer zone?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we actually had a different conversation with them. I don’t think that’s an accurate reflection of exactly where things are with Turkey. Turkey is participating and Turkey will be helping in certain ways, but it is clear that different parties don’t want Turkey on the ground in Kobani, ranging from Kurds themselves to Iraqis to Syrians and so forth.

So I think people need to just kind of calm down, take this one step at a time. General Allen was in Ankara; he’ll be having meetings today even, and we’ll see exactly where we are at the end of those meetings.

QUESTION: Last question on U.S.-Russia relations – relations are at their lowest point since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, some say. How do you see things moving forward? And in retrospect, do you think the reset policy was overly optimistic, and perhaps based on a misreading of Putin?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I never sort of bought into this idea of just pushing a button and somehow everything’s different, though our interests have always been there with respect to Russia and the United States and the West and that relationship. I believe that we are cooperating effectively on a number of different points, even as we obviously have a major difference in opinion with respect to Ukraine. We’re cooperating on Iran; we’re cooperating on North Korea; we’re cooperating on counterterrorism; we’re cooperating on nonproliferation. There are a number of things. And my hope is that the groundwork has been laid in Ukraine with the Minsk agreement for a way to go forward that can reduce those tensions.

From the United States point of view, we are not seeking a new period of conflict with Russia. If Russia will abide by the agreement that it has entered into in Minsk, there’s a way out of this mess, and we are very anxious to be able to find those areas of cooperation. But we’re not going to bend on a matter of principle; we’re not going to shy away from standing up for those things that we think the global community cares about, which is basic rule of law, the sovereignty of a country, the rights of people to make their own decisions about their future within their own country and not at the force of a gun barrel or a tank or an invasion.

So we’re very hopeful that we can have a dialogue. I noticed that Foreign Minister Lavrov a few days ago talked about the concept of a reset 2.0, whatever that means. I don’t like the term “reset,” but I’m anxious to explore what they see as the possibilities of our relationship, and I think it is to the world’s benefit if the great powers of the world can find a way to reduce friction, reduce conflict, and work towards solving some of the common problems that we all share. We have enough big problems that are shared by the great powers – and particularly the P5 countries. We need to cooperate and find the ways to do so if we can.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for joining us.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thanks for having me. Thank you.