Remarks With Afghanistan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani At the Opening of Bilateral Commission

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Char Chinar Palace
Kabul, Afghanistan
April 9, 2016

MODERATOR: Honorable Secretary of State Mr. John Kerry, Excellency Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, distinguished ministers, and ladies and gentlemen: Good afternoon, and welcome to the third bilateral commission meeting. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is delighted to be your host. May I at the outset invite His Excellency the Foreign Minister to deliver his remarks.

FOREIGN MINISTER RABBANI: Thank you. The honorable Secretary of State John Kerry, Excellency ministers, distinguished members of the U.S. and Afghan delegations, dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen – good afternoon. We are delighted to host the third meeting of the U.S.-Afghanistan Bilateral Commission at the presidential palace.

I wish to begin by expressing a very warm welcome to Secretary Kerry and your accompanying delegation to Kabul. At the outset, please allow me to reiterate that the national unity government of Afghanistan is fully committed to the Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement with the United States and Afghanistan, as well as to its integral component and implementation mechanism that is the Security and Defense Cooperation Agreement between the United States and Afghanistan.

I would also like to take this opportunity to convey my deep appreciation for the generous assistance, the ultimate sacrifices, and the resolve of the United States and coalition forces as they continue to help our brave forces to secure and defend Afghanistan against our two common enemies that is terrorism and extremism.

As we welcome the United States security assistance to our forces, I would like to assure our U.S. and international partners that we are working hard to prepare for the upcoming NATO summit in Warsaw and the ministerial conference on Afghanistan in Brussels in order to solidify international aid pledges. At the same time, we would like to assure you that Afghanistan is firmly committed to implementing the objectives of our robust reforms agenda and of the agreed terms of the New Developing Partnership and the Self-Reliance through Mutual Accountability Framework.

In this light, we continue to ensure the ongoing institutionalization and protection of human rights, including the rights of women, while strengthening the rule of law and implementing the necessary electoral reform for the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Ladies and gentlemen, as you all know, in the lead-up to our third bilateral commission meeting, this week three working groups met to review the progress made towards the various shared objectives which were set during the March 2015 visit of His Excellency President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani and His Excellency Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah to Washington. We hope that today’s meeting will chart the path forward for future bilateral cooperation in the three areas, especially in the area of security and defense, while building on the economic and social development gains of the past 15 years in Afghanistan. Please allow me to briefly discuss our shared progress in the three areas of ongoing bilateral cooperation overseen by the commission.

In the area of defense and security, the Government of Afghanistan appreciates the delivery of helicopters and aircraft by the United States to our forces, and we greatly welcome the addition of more attack helicopters before August. Also the train, advise, and assist support provided by the United States and our international partners continue to strengthen our forces in their daily battles against terrorists. This critical support, coupled with institutional and technical capacity-building assistance, will go a long way in enabling our forces to achieve full operational independence.

Both sides agree that SPA is the most appropriate value for the continuation of defense and security – venue for the cooperation – continuation of defense and security cooperation. In this light, we too agree that the ongoing threat assessment coupled with the development and sustaining of Afghanistan’s defense capabilities is a necessary step forward. This requires that the Security Consultative Forum under the SPA be renewed for joint needs and threat assessments for appropriate bilateral response, ensuring the defense of Afghanistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This forum, under the SPA, should not only serve as the security component of the bilateral commission framework, but also reaffirm commitment by the United States and Afghanistan to a mutually supportive defense relationship.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Afghan Government is making every effort to advance our peace and reconciliation efforts as a means to achieve a lasting peace for our people. We have invested heavily in this endeavor, and we will continue our efforts with strong resolve and determination. In this respect, we all acknowledge the importance of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group in helping us to achieve our shared goals for lasting peace in Afghanistan. However, we realize that our QCG efforts wouldn’t bear fruit unless the Taliban groups come to the negotiating table. We believe that the international community can help encourage key actors in the region to have the Taliban groups engage in direct talks with the Afghan Government.

Our commitment to defeating corruption is based on our firm belief that good governance and the rule of law are the answer to our long-term stability and prosperity and the foundation for progress in any sphere, be it security, development, social, or political. To that end, His Excellency President Ghani has recently established a supreme council on countering corruption to address the problem systemically. At the same time, we are committed to protecting human rights, including the equal rights of all citizens, particularly those of the most disenfranchised segments of our society, women, children, and persons with disabilities.

A few examples of the national unity government’s major reforms include the signing of the Global Call of Action, the promotion of the National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, which will implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, and the anti-sexual harassment regulation approved by the Council of Ministers and signed by His Excellency President Ghani last September, which is fully enforced in all our institutions.

Additionally, the national unity government is working to revise the penal code, develop child protection legislation, and take major steps to implement the law on the elimination of violence against women. Moreover, we are taking various initiatives to facilitate the integration of Afghan returnees while providing opportunities for the other – through the Jobs for Peace program to avoid risky trains to Europe. In this regard, we are grateful to the United States as the largest humanitarian donor for providing us with $213 U.S. dollars in relief aid for the internally displaced persons across Afghanistan.

In the area of counter-narcotics, we understand that achieving notable progress in this area helps to ensure the well-being of our citizens, strengthen governance and the rule of law, and deny terrorist financing to destabilize Afghanistan. This past October we adopted our National Drug Action Plan, which demonstrates our resolve to fight opium poppy cultivation and drug production and trafficking, while highlighting the respective roles and responsibilities of the Afghan Government and those of our regional and international partners.

In the area of freedom of the press, Afghanistan has the freest media in the whole region, in accordance with the World Press Freedom Index 2015. To build on this major achievement, the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture, with the help of private media, has endorsed the law of access to information. In January, His Excellency President Ghani instructed the attorney general’s office to reinvestigate unsolved cases of murdered journalists, and instructed key ministries to develop legislation to better regulate the classification of and access to government information.

Ladies and gentlemen, in the area of economic and social development, we realize that human and protective security is intertwined in Afghan context. Therefore, sustainable development is a major priority of the national unity government. So far we have proven our firm commitment to fiscal and financial sector reforms through the International Monetary Fund and staff-monitored program. Furthermore, Afghanistan’s accession to the World Trade Organization and our plan to meet the terms of the World Trade Organization accession are good examples of the national unity government’s determination to achieve self-reliance in economic and social development. Indeed, for all these notable gains that need ongoing consolidation, I would like to thank the United States of America for providing the Afghan Government with $800 million in financial pledge of support to be administered by the World Bank Trust Fund with a set of benchmarks.

Mr. Secretary, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, despite the numerous achievements by the national unity government of Afghanistan, which could have been impossible without the assistance of the United States and our international partners, a lot more remains to be done. Indeed, the Afghan Government considers the SPA bilateral commission an important forum to ensure strategic communication between our officials. This forum not only report on our shared achievements, but also frankly discuss issues of mutual high concern and interest.

Some of these concerns and interests include our ongoing effort to eliminate the networks and sanctuaries of support for terrorism and extremism outside of Afghanistan while enabling us to develop on a sustainable basis through private sector development integration with the regional markets and implementing regional projects such as CASA-1000 and TAPI and others.

Ladies and gentlemen, as we continue consolidating our hard-earned gains of the past 15 years thanks to the ultimate sacrifices of the American and Afghan forces, I would also like to acknowledge that the people of Afghanistan remain grateful to the American people. And I kindly request my dear colleague and a great friend of Afghanistan, Secretary Kerry, to convey this message of deep gratitude and sincere friendship to the American people from Afghanistan. And I thank you very much.

May I now invite my dearest friend Secretary Kerry to take the floor and deliver his remarks. Mr. Secretary, the floor is yours.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, thank you very much, Minister Rabbani, Salahuddin. I’m very appreciative. I want to thank you for your generous words, on behalf of every American. We are obviously humbled to hear your words of gratitude. We are engaged here in a mutual effort, but we’re very appreciative for the words that you’ve expressed.

May I also say that I think you’ve just made some important statements about the commitments of your government, and we welcome those commitments and those statements.

Let me just begin by extending my greetings to the members of both delegations. I’m particularly happy to be back here. I’ve spent many hours here within the palace grounds in discussions and negotiations, and we’ve been able to accomplish a great deal in the last years, even as we know there are some very significant and important challenges that we face right now. But I am convinced that the level and the scope of the discussions that we’re going to be able to have today and ongoing are going to be able to enhance the progress that we’ve made in the past. It will clearly reaffirm the strength of our bilateral ties, and through today’s discussions we have the ability to be able to deepen our cooperation on security, on economic, and on political matters in all of their aspects.

So I’m glad, my friend, that we are picking up on the commission work, the bilateral commission. I’m glad you wanted to proceed with that here today, and we welcome the opportunity to be able to have our teams share some important discussion today.

To begin, let me be clear: The United States continues to support the sovereignty, the independence, and the territorial integrity of a self-reliant, democratic, and increasingly prosperous Afghanistan. And these goals are at the heart of the 2012 Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement between our governments, and tracking their implementation is a major priority for this commission. And that’s why the work that we do here today is so important.

Now, obviously, this is an important moment. But I have to tell you I’ve been coming now to Afghanistan for at least 14, 15 years, and I think it’s possible that underscoring the importance of the moment is probably true for almost every one of those years. When lasting and historic change is the goal, there are no opportunities to relax. And when you have terrorists who are attempting to stop that work or stand in the way of that work, limit its success, or even turn the clock backwards, obviously there’s no time to relax.

Vigilance has to be constant. The effort has to be constant. And this coming July, NATO allies and partners will gather in Warsaw in order to consider the next round of assistance for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. And then in October we will meet in Brussels to review development aid. Both of our governments want these meetings to be a success. But I have to tell you very directly that to make them a success, we need to maximize each and every day between now and those meetings. We need to make certain that the government of national unity is doing everything possible to be unified and to deliver to the people of Afghanistan. We each have a huge stake in continuing your country’s forward momentum. And that is precisely what today’s bilateral commission meeting is going to seek to ensure.

Everybody at the dais, on both sides, comes here with a commitment to work as hard as we can to be as successful as we can and to make certain that we use the time between now and the meeting in Warsaw and the meeting in Brussels to make sure that we are putting Afghanistan’s best foot forward, that we are going to come to those meetings with the ability to have confidence in the future.

Our discussion will cover a full range of topics, including complex questions of security, economic reform, political issues, and ways to add to the impressive programs that you have already made and the impressive progress that you’ve created out of those programs that you’ve implemented in areas such as education and health, where there are particularly important steps that have been taken.

We, I think, are all agreed that these gains – and frankly, the growth of a increasingly active civil society – are fundamentally non-negotiable in this process. We have to guarantee that those gains are irreversible. And as much as any military force, freedom, opportunity, and human rights are essential to the security of a nation. And they can provide the foundation for a new and even more ambitious chapter in the friendship between our countries.

So our working groups today will focus on three specific areas, one of which is security cooperation. Over the past decade and a half, hundreds of thousands of young men and women from our countries – and many others – have risked their lives to protect Afghan civilians from extremist violence and to ensure that this country never again becomes a safe haven for international terrorist groups.

To permanently achieve these goals, the Afghan Government must fully succeed in meeting its own responsibility for security. There is no question that Afghan security forces have become much more capable and professional over time. And they have fought, they have sacrificed, and they have persevered, and they deserve continued support.

That is why last October President Obama announced that the United States will maintain 9,800 troops in this country through most of 2016, with a view to moving to the 5,500 troops thereafter. And this presence will enable us to continue our train, advise, and assist activities as part of the Resolute Support Mission and further strengthen Afghan forces’ leadership and effectiveness. We will also continue to support Afghanistan as you deny safe haven to extremists who threaten people here and across the globe.

In February, your country became the 66th member of the Global Coalition to Counter Daesh, and the first in Central Asia to join. And I want to underscore the importance of that step, and your gratitude for your willingness to step up and be part of that significant initiative. We hope that your membership is going to inspire other nations to follow your lead. Clearly Daesh is a threat to everyone, and it ought to be opposed by everyone.

A second area of discussion today concerns good governance and electoral reform. I know that from my own discussions right here in the palace with then-President Karzai originally, and then subsequently with President-elect Ghani and with then-to-become CEO Abdullah, as we talked hard about the election that had just taken place, there was a huge amount of commitment to and discussion about the importance of electoral reform. That is critical, and this effort today to talk about governance and electoral reform really speaks to the basic effectiveness of governing institutions – the importance of building trust between the public and those people who are in positions of official responsibility. Nothing fuels extremism more quickly than the perception that leaders are corrupt or they don’t care whether the people get their education, their health care, their access to electricity, and other services that they need.

Democracy is the path that Afghans have chosen to achieve a better life, and Americans know from our own history that the democratic road is not easy. It’s a hard road. It’s filled with obstacles, and the journey is not completed overnight. We are still engaged 300-plus years into our democracy with tasks to make it better, to improve it – including our electoral system. So I don’t come here with any sense of arrogance or any sense of uniqueness, but with a knowledge that the commitment to do it is what makes the difference.

Democracy requires credible institutions. Even more than that, it requires a willingness by people from various political, ethnic, and geographic factions to put away those factional divisions and work together for the common good.

I intend to focus on these themes with President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah when we meet today. And I can affirm today that the United States of America and the international community will stand with you and fully support the government of national unity in its efforts to combat corruption and expand opportunities for all of your citizens. And that is not a commitment that you just make one of you to the other, or the president to the chief executive officer, or vice versa. It’s a commitment that defines a bond between you and all of the people of Afghanistan.

A third focus of our discussions today concerns cooperation and development. Since your leaders visited Washington in March of last year, our two nations have been implementing the $800 million New Development Partnership. This initiative will strengthen accountability by linking funds to specific reforms in promoting the rule of law, encouraging private sector growth, and enhancing women’s rights. And your government frankly has made significant progress in meeting performance benchmarks that will unlock opportunity and strengthen security. And we firmly stand behind all of these efforts.

So I’ll just close by noting that I had the privilege – and I referred to it a moment ago – of – during the post-election period here, of spending quite a few hours with President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah. And as I said back then, either one of them could have made a simple decision to walk away and say, “I got elected,” or “I’m going to be the one and we’re not going to have an outcome that will provide governance to the people for who knows how long.” Or you could have had enormous doubts about the legitimacy of whatever government did emerge. But I saw two men, who remained determined to work together to lead their country to a more secure and proper and prosperous future, come together in a way that put personal ambition aside. And each sacrificed. Each gave up something that they thought they had a right to in order to make the Government of Afghanistan work.

And that is the spirit that the United States of America is prepared to support. And it is vital in these next days leading into Warsaw and leading into Brussels that everybody in government comes together with this spirit, with a sense of country first, of people first, in order to be able to succeed in meeting difficult challenges that everybody knows the country faces.

We look forward to standing with you in that spirit and working with you in that spirit. We have hard work and substantial challenges ahead of us, and we pledge to face those challenges together. And I guarantee you that together we can succeed. Thank you.