Remarks at Dinner in Honor of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Ben Franklin Room
Washington, DC
March 24, 2015

SECRETARY KERRY: Please, everybody, please have a seat. Madam Ambassador. Please, everybody, sit down and take your seats.

Welcome, all. We are really delighted to welcome everybody here to the Ben Franklin Room, which you all know well – most of you know very, very well – named after the gentleman in the portrait down there at the end, Ben Franklin, who was allegedly our first diplomat. And everybody here knows, knowing his life, that he could never be confirmed by the Senate today. (Laughter.) He had a lot of wise sayings, and one of them was everybody should go to bed early. But knowing how much he ignored that advice himself, we don’t expect anybody to do that tonight. We want to have a good time.

It’s our privilege to join together to welcome the distinguished president of Afghanistan and the CEO of Afghanistan. And in welcoming them, we also welcome a really distinguished group of guests tonight: many, many ambassadors from the diplomatic corps writ large, as well as our own ambassadors, many of whom are in town for our meeting of all our ambassadors from around the world tomorrow. We have a dozen or so distinguished members of Congress. I’m delighted to have my colleagues – my old colleagues here; my young colleagues too. And I particularly notice the good ranking member of the intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein, and I know our chairman of the House appropriations committee, Hal Rogers, is here. There he is sitting there. Thank you, Hal, for being here, and for all you do to help us in a lot of ways here.

We have the incomparable former secretary of state, Madeline Albright. Thank you for being with us. A former deputy is here, Tom Nides, and if I start running around, John Podesta – I’m in trouble already. Our director of national intelligence, James Clapper, is here, and I know he’s going to be keeping a close eye on all of us tonight. Thank you, Jim, for being here. And pretty much the rest of the U.S. Government is here too, which goes to show what you can do when you offer a free meal. (Laughter.)

Anyway, to our guests of honor, this has been really an extraordinary two days. I want to share that with all of you. Not so many months ago, I was ensconced in long discussions in Kabul with both of these gentlemen. And as everybody knows, things sort of were hanging in the balance. We didn’t quite know whether or not we’d be able to find a path forward. I want you to know that over the past two days at Camp David, we had the greatest affirmation of the capacity of leaders to put their ego aside and put the interests of their people and their nation at the forefront. Afghan President Ghani and CEO Abdullah have met in the last two days with virtually every top U.S. Executive Branch official, from the Commander-in-Chief on down. And we have something unique here, where since 2001 the United States of America and more than 50 other countries joined together to put themselves on the line to fight terrorism, but also, in the process, to understand that the fight for the long term was the ability to be able to have a sustainable government and to provide the people of Afghanistan with a future that they so desperately wanted.

There were moments in the discussions when the past almost captured people, prevented the ability to move forward. And I will tell you truthfully that it was because of the character of these two men that that didn’t happen and that we have this future that we are able to look at tonight and in these last few days and as we go forward. This morning, respect was repaid with respect when both leaders – President Ghani and CEO Abdullah – went to Arlington Cemetery to honor the memory and the sacrifice of those who helped to put us here. We appreciate it, and they deserve it, and none of us will forget your taking the time to pay that tribute today.

Tomorrow, Mr. President, you will travel to Capitol Hill, and there you will address a joint session of Congress. And I think you will find that not only is Afghan unity important to the United States, but our policy towards Afghanistan has been a source of unity within the United States. Everything we have done in the areas of security, technical advice, and human development has been accomplished with the strong bipartisan backing of the House and Senate and the generous support of the American people, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard any leader come here and thank the American taxpayer the way you did today, Mr. President. Thank you. (Applause.)

Since the president and CEO arrived, we – on Sunday, we’ve had a chance to explore a full range of the issues. We began with an intimate dinner at Teresa’s and my house in Georgetown, and we began talking about reconciliation and the possibilities of the future. And then we have discussed every facet of this relationship: economic reform; security, obviously; political matters; ways to build on the impressive progress the Afghans have already made, particularly in education, health, and women’s rights. And we all agreed that these gains – the blossoming of civil society more generally – are non-negotiable, and they must be made irreversible, as much as any military force, freedom, opportunity, human rights are absolutely essential to maintaining the security of a nation. And they can provide the foundation for a new and an even more ambitious chapter in the friendship between our countries.

Tonight, not the evening for a policy speech, and I’m not going to make one. I just want to highlight a few areas where our bilateral cooperation is yielding some extraordinary dividends. As you can imagine, music and culture were not high on the Taliban’s agenda. And so when the extremists were in charge, there was just enormous damage done. At our reception earlier, you all had a chance to hear a Kennedy Center performance from two years ago by the Afghan National Institute of Music. And on my very first day as Secretary of State, purely by serendipity, I had the privilege of speaking to members of that orchestra who, with the help from the United States and other donors, are preserving their country’s rich musical heritage. As a one-time aspiring guitarist in a high school rock band, frankly, I am in awe of those who actually know how to make good sounds come out of their instruments. But I’m also really pleased that the State Department next year is going to join with the Smithsonian and co-sponsor a very important nine-month celebration of Afghan art and culture here in Washington.

And obviously, society is shaped by music and art, but it’s also shaped by young people. And we are joined tonight by a group of Afghan men and women who are here in America on Fulbright scholarships. I talked with President Ghani and CEO Abdullah with them a moment ago in the back room here, and I can tell you they all plan to go back and be president of Afghanistan. (Laughter.) The women too. They’re smart, they’re articulate, they’re deeply committed to helping their country move forward. And I asked them, “Are you all going to go back when you finish school?” And to a person, they said, “You bet. We are going to go back.” So I want them, if they would – by the way, with me standing there was a Fulbright alumni himself, and that is Dr. Ashraf Ghani, who, when he was a professor at Johns Hopkins, actually went the other way and on a Fulbright went to study, of all places, Pakistan. So this is a president who understands his neighbor pretty well. It is my privilege to welcome all of the Fulbrights here, and I’d like all of them to stand and everybody to recognize them. Would all our Fulbrights – thank you. (Applause.)

So let me just share with you that we are not only going to continue the Fulbright program in Afghanistan, we’re going to expand it by 50 percent, making Afghanistan’s program one of the largest in the world. (Applause.) And we’re going to make this commitment a five-year commitment, and I know I can count on you, Hal Rogers, to help us make sure that happens.

Finally, I just want to acknowledge the members of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, and I really want to thank them for their hard and their courageous work. I have visited Afghanistan many times. I see General Petraeus here; he and I went back and forth when we were negotiating some time ago on the BSA and other things. The thing that really struck me as much as anything were the remarkable women that I met. I remember on one visit, Anne Smedinghoff, who lost her life a week later when she went to a school to take books – many of you remember that – she was my control officer, and she arranged this meeting with 10 brilliant Afghan women, all of whom were leaders in business and politics and the professions.

And among those with us tonight is Dr. Sima Samar, who is a former deputy president and minister of women’s affairs, now serving as head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. And we all have our loyalties – let me tell you something: Dr. Samar is loyal to the truth and has spoken truth repeatedly in the face of fierce opposition and personal threats, and we welcome her here tonight. Fantastic. (Applause.)

Camilla Sadiki (ph) is now the deputy – the president’s deputy chief of staff. She’s also here. I met her on my first trip to Kabul when I was Secretary of State, and she is a very brave entrepreneur who started her own business in her home at a time when the Taliban kept all women off the street. And I would like to honor her also if everybody would – where is she? (Applause.)

So when Dr. Samar and Ms. Sadiki (ph) return home and the rest of the Afghan delegation return home, I hope that they will carry with them one message loud and clear: that the United States stands with the women of Afghanistan today. We will stand with you tomorrow and we will stand with you for years to come, not simply because you merit our support, but because without women’s participation and talent, Afghanistan simply will not be able to build the future that its citizens urgently desire and deserve. (Applause.)

I ask you now to join me. I’ve been so struck by Dr. Ghani’s eloquence and his reasonable approach to almost every issue that we have talked through. He was not required by any law, by any rule, by any precedent to share power and create a unity government. But he did so because he believed it was in the best interests of Afghanistan and it was the best way to move forward. So welcome with me, if you will, please, the president of Afghanistan, Dr. Ashraf Ghani. (Applause.)

PRESIDENT GHANI: Mr. Secretary, distinguished guests, thank you for those generous words. I want to begin with thank-yous to so many familiar faces in this room. General Petraeus is here, Ambassador Cunningham is here, Ambassador Neumann, Mr. Sedney – I don’t want to name everybody, because it would take all the evening. But what I would like to say on behalf of a very grateful nation is: Thank you for your service. You’re remarkable friends, you’re remarkable leaders, and you have made a difference. Secretary Nides is here. Again, I’d like to thank him for many hours where I caused him lack of sleep. (Applause.) Mr. Podesta is here.

Second, I’d like to pay tribute to my mentor, Secretary Albright. You’ve been always remarkable, Madeleine, and it’s always a pleasure to say that I’m your student and I’ve learned a lot. I’d also like to pay tribute to the unique courage of Senator Feinstein. It took immense courage to reveal what was wrong, and I hope that our human rights commission, our government can follow your example. Where there are abuses, we must acknowledge and put an end to it, because without that capacity for self-examination, a free society can never thrive. Members of Congress, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, you’ve been examples in terms of values that we must hold together in order to bring stability. Particularly when we are challenged by the menace of terror, we must not engage in practices against our citizens that will alienate those very citizens from the fabric.

Secretary Kerry has been a remarkable friend of Afghanistan. Dr. Abdullah and I are in total agreement that he has been a friend in need and a friend indeed, so I would like everybody to thank Secretary Kerry for his immense effort. (Applause.) My clan is known for mediation, but until I saw you at work – so you’ve given us some example of what real mediation is like. (Laughter.) And we thank you for that.

I’ll be brief. First, the government of national unity is an enduring phenomenon. For 200 years, the Afghan political elite has not had the wisdom to think beyond its immediate needs. I hope that we have established a precedent where national interest would always be considered above the immediate needs of the moment, and that a precedent would have been established that people think of the medium and long term and not just immediate satisfaction. Leadership is about sacrifice. Leadership is not about privilege. And sacrifice means putting country first and putting our affairs in order. Leadership is about commitment to reform. It’s about the honesty of knowing that we are among the most corrupt countries on Earth, and this is a national shame and we will not tolerate it. We will overcome this national shame the way we have overcome other forms of adversity. (Applause.)

I also want to say that we are very openly proud of our foundational partnership with the United States. Your sacrifice, the sacrifice of your troops – they would follow you to hell and back, General Petraeus. Are you getting any more sleep than you got in Kabul? (Laughter.)

GEN. PETRAEUS: Vastly more.

PRESIDENT GHANI: No, because General Petraeus slept in a very small room and hardly slept. And it was an example that is shared by General Campbell and all the distinguished generals.

PARTICIPANT: General Allen.

PRESIDENT GHANI: General Allen is here. Oh, yes, of course. I want to acknowledge General McNeill, General McChrystal, General Petraeus, General Allen, General Dunford, and General Campbell.

PARTICIPANT: Eikenberry.

PRESIDENT GHANI: And Eikenberry, of course. I usually count him – I don’t want to count him twice, because he was also ambassador. (Laughter.) These have been remarkable friends of Afghanistan. They have been patriots, and they’re – I’m proud that they are personal friends of mine. In the course of difficult years, we got to find a common path, and you have left us a legacy. And that legacy of yours has met its first test: 120,000 international troops, 100,000 of them American, have withdrawn, and none of the predictions of those who counted on chaos in Afghanistan has come true. The Afghan National Army is an enduring tribute to your investment and sacrifice, so I want to thank you and the 2,215 American service men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice and the over 20,000 Americans wounded in action. (Applause.)

We have also – I just saw Ambassador Olson. You see, I need to wear glasses to see everybody. We’ve also had remarkable ambassadors. The diplomatic community has worked shoulder to shoulder with the military community and it’s done immense work, so I would like to congratulate you on presiding now over an institution that, in terms of Afghanistan, has endured every sacrifice and served in the remotest corner of our country. On behalf of the Afghan diplomatic community and the Afghan people, I want to thank you, Mr. Secretary, for the collective service of the State Department, USAID, and other civilians that came. (Applause.)

I see my distinguished friend, Mr. Hadley. Nobody will have your calm, Steve, under pressure. And for wisdom we always turn to you. And thank you again for your current support and for your current guidance; you have been the bridge of continuity and I want to say how grateful we have been for your continued attention to Afghanistan inside or outside office.

We have a saying in Afghanistan: A gift must be reciprocated. You have given us generously. It is time that we reciprocated the gift. The way we can reciprocate that gift is by building institutions that would be a legacy of this partnership. I want to say how pleased we are with the decision that the President of the United States has made today to provide us with the flexibility and stability for 2015 and to affirm commitments in the longer term to the support of – (applause) – of Afghanistan.

Fred Starr is here, and I really would like, if there’s one book that you want to read please do read The Lost Enlightenment. I didn’t think that I would learn so much from a book about my past, but I did, so thank you, Fred. (Applause.) And the story that Fred tells is not the story of the past. Its good news is that it’s the story of the future. Once we were the place where all roads led to us and from us, and that exactly is the vision that we want to create. So the past, I think, will be recreated and that enlightenment that was lost would be restored.

We must have the courage to speak truth to terror. Speaking truth to terror means speaking from within the world of Islam openly, clearly, and with a clear conscience in crystal clear voice about empowerment of the women, children, and citizens. So I would like to honor Sima Samar and assure you that this government will stand very firmly behind the human rights commission. (Applause.)

We are going to have a tough year. We probably will have several tough years. But one thing must be certain: We will never yield; we will seek peace, because peace is an imperative. We’ll sacrifice for the sake of peace, but not at the expense of our gains. We will stabilize Afghanistan and we will create the regional framework of cooperation that is necessary to bring stability, not just to us but to the region, to the Arab Islamic world, and stand firm against the threats.

In all of these, your inputs, your support, your engagement – and of course, your criticism – are necessary. So I want to thank the journalistic community for focusing on us. Even if you criticizes us, Matt, we will not expel you. (Laughter and applause.) So New York Times can advocate withdrawing from Afghanistan; we will still honor you and try to convince you. (Laughter.)

I hope that the American taxpayer would not listen to you and listen to the President of the United States and the Secretary of State. (Laughter.) But free debate is what makes a free society, and the contribution of the journalists, particularly those who, again, have sacrificed their life, is essential to keeping this relationship. So seriously, we very much appreciate the presence of the American press and the international press in Afghanistan and would always engage with you.

Last word about the children and the women’s activities. We have just managed to name four women to the cabinet of Afghanistan, so that brings the percentage to 20 percent. (Applause.) Dr. Abdullah and I are committed to increase the number of women ambassadors, women deputy ministers, or others. But what we are asking for you is not to count the numbers but to engage with us in a partnership of quality to really train our women to give them an equal chance – not two-day training courses but support, for the women’s university that is in the stage of design at Kabul, for women’s leadership networks, so that the parity can be established. And that, again, is not just the job of governments, but you leaders to mobilize the necessary support for full engagement.

Again, on behalf of the people of Afghanistan, I want to thank everyone for their immense inputs, foundations they’ve done all this year. All of you have so many – made so many contributions and the results are an Afghanistan that can today not just deal with the past but envision a future, one of hope, one of prosperity, and one of stability. Thank you. (Applause.)

SECRETARY KERRY: I want you to know that in the course of the discussions that we were having, there was a lot of humor here and here, particularly between President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah. And it was really fun to see and I think indicative of the relationship that is building between the two of them. But at one point in the discussion up at Camp David, Dr. Abdullah was talking about some aspect of policy and he said to the effect that, “As former President Ghani said,” and everybody sort of was startled for a moment. And he quickly recovered and said, “Oh, as former President Ghani in five years from now would have said,” and the place broke up and everybody was relaxed. (Laughter.) And I think it’s indicative of really the remarkable nature.

You heard President Ghani just say that this unity government is here for this period of time through this term and it’s a reality. And the other half of that reality is a man who ran for president twice – once came very, very close, second time came very, very close – was urged by many of the people around him to walk away, not to take part in the process. And through his own commitment to the country, but also through the remarkable awareness and sensitivity of President Ghani, they managed to come together. And so we have this remarkable phenomenon that is not only the first unity government but is the first democratic-elected transfer of power to one – from one elected president to another in the history of Afghanistan. And the other person who helped make that happen is now the CEO, and I want you all to welcome Dr. Abdullah. (Applause.)

CEO ABDULLAH: Good evening. (In Dari.)

President Ghani, Secretary Kerry, distinguished, honorable guests, ladies and gentlemen: I am delighted to be amongst friends that have made so much personal sacrifices. There are friends among you that have made personal sacrifices, and there are friends of Afghanistan who have invested their political capital in order to support our country. And as a result of your support, Afghanistan is a different place.

I join President Ghani in thanking those distinguished guests which were named and those of you who are present, but at the same time thank the American Administration, American people, American Congress, American service men and women, who have served in Afghanistan, and honor the sacrifices of your sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, alongside the sacrifices of our own people, and also thank your taxpayers for your generous contributions.

And I am here to thank one special friend especially – that is Secretary Kerry – which turned the idea of national unity government from an idea – when I first heard the idea from Secretary Kerry at your embassy in Kabul, you remember what was my response? No way. (Laughter.) And now, the unity government is formed under the leadership of President Ghani, and we are committed to serve the interests of Afghanistan, the interests of the people of Afghanistan, and being amongst our partners, our common interest in facilitating for a stable Afghanistan, a democratic Afghanistan, Afghanistan which lives in peace within and without, and respect the universal values that makes our humanity proud of the achievements of our heroes, men and women which have made it possible for us in that remote corner of the world, in that distant corner of the world called Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is a different place because of your contributions and sacrifices. You will be delighted to know that, first, I am not good at long speeches; and second, I have sore throat. So with your permission, this is my name so I take my – okay – glass of water. And then first day of our arrival, we were – excuse me – invited in John Kerry’s dining room, and tonight we are in Benjamin Franklin’s room. Thank you for facilitating very fruitful discussions, engagement, and trip, which I am sure could be another step forward in strengthening our bonds of relations and friendship beyond where we started with 13 years ago because of a common threat which had hit us long before it hit you but continued to hit and continued to hurt humanity.

Now it’s a foundation which is unshakeable, and you have in your partners in Afghanistan, and not only in the leaders but also in our nation, a grateful nation for your sacrifices, for your contributions. So thank you all for what you have done for us. And as President Ghani mentioned earlier, it’s our duty and our responsibility to make it work for the best interests of our people and also for the best interests of our partnership.

Talking about Afghan-American Women’s Council, I am proud to mention this, that we established it together with Secretary Powell quite a few years ago – and they say that I was much younger that time – (laughter) – and continued as co-chairs with Secretary Paula Dobriansky for many years until I was the foreign minister, and I see that Afghan-American Women’s Council has made achievements and also has made its marks in relations between both countries.

Talking about Fulbright, young students around here and their aspirations to become the president of Afghanistan – we welcome it very much, but try this only after 10 years from now. (Laughter and applause). If you are around, we will vote for the brightest of you regardless of gender; that’s a promise. (Applause.)

And names were mentioned here, including Mrs. Kamila Sidiqi I make a revelation, Mr. President: Her son, a year and a half year old or two years old, Nalbian (ph), called Nalbian (ph), is my supporter and was my supporter during the elections. (Laughter.) Okay?

PRESIDENT GHANI: Excellent. (Laughter.) But the mother was mine.

CEO ABDULLAH: No. (Laughter.) No, that’s fine. But no, but why did I take your permission? Why did I take permission? (Laughter.) So that will not reflect on her mother’s career. (Laughter.) So yes, Nalbian (ph) is a very sweet, sweet boy, and he is quite ahead of his parents. (Laughter and applause.)

Last words: Thank you from the bottom of our heart, and assure you that bloods of your sons and daughters sacrificed their self, your service men and women, has not been in vain. And we are here to honor those sacrifices, but more than that, to make a commitment with ourselves to make it work in respect of what is a major historical engagement. If some years down the road people look at it and historians write about it, it is a phenomenal event in the history of mankind. Towards the end of the second – 20th century, you stood by us, you helped us in the – that led to the end of Cold War. You were with us. And at the beginning of the 21st century, once again you are with us, and that is in dealing with a menace which mankind has to deal with it, but you have been our great partner and friend in this.

And as far as leaving egos, I leave my ego here. It’s up for grabs. (Laughter.) We will only consider the interests of the country and our common interest and make it work for all of us. Thank you very much. Thanks. (Applause.)

SECRETARY KERRY: We’re going to eat now. We’ve starved you all. But before we do, a point of personal privilege. I think at some point we’re going to have wonderful rolling strings come through and entertain us all. It will not be an evening of speeches. But one thing I want to ask: I would like all of the active duty and retired military who served in Afghanistan and those diplomats who served in Afghanistan, if you would all stand and we can say thank you to you.

General Campbell. Please, General. (Applause.)

Thank you, and please enjoy your meal. Thank you.