Remarks at the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Brussels, Belgium
October 5, 2016

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Federica, thank you. Thank you very much and thank you for your personal leadership.

President Tusk and President Ghani, Secretary-General Ban, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, Your Highness, Your Excellencies all, and friends all, I’m personally really delighted to be here with everybody today. And I want to begin just by thanking our hosts, the combination of the EU and Afghanistan, particularly High Representative Federica Mogherini and Foreign Minister Rabbani for their deep commitment, their close collaboration in organizing today’s landmark conference. The European Union has been an absolutely essential partner to the Afghan Government, to the United States, to the broader international community. And we have all worked together. I look around this room, I look at the numbers of flags, the numbers of people here, ministers, the numbers of organizations, and it is genuinely, in the context of the challenges we face in the world today, an extraordinary gathering with enormous potential, and I’ll speak about that in a moment.

Like others in the room, I feel very personally invested in this journey in Afghanistan and in Afghanistan’s future. I have visited many, many times, first as a senator, then as Secretary of State. I’ve spent countless hours with President Ghani originally on status of forces and on other issues, as well as now with President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. And I thank them for their personal courage and their personal efforts to put political issues, ambition, other things aside in order to embrace the full measure of the hopes of the Afghan people and the challenges that they face.

Despite the many challenges – and we’ve heard about them from each of the distinguished speakers thus far – I want – I am genuine when I say that I come here with an enormous sense of confidence about the future. And the reason is partly because year by year, our shared effort – one of the largest international coalitions ever assembled and maintained over a sustained period of time – is, in fact, yielding encouraging dividends. And I ask everybody here to measure that. Each speaker has focused on one component or another of the changes in Afghanistan, but I just want to highlight a few others.

Since we joined forces 15 years ago – it’s hard to believe, 15 years ago – but since 2001, maternal mortality in childbirth in Afghanistan has gone down by 75 percent. Average life expectancy has risen from 42 years to 62 years. Access to basic health care has skyrocketed from 9 percent to 67 percent. In 2001, there was only one television station and it was owned by the government. Now, there are 75 stations and all but two are privately owned. Back then, there were virtually no cell phones, zero. Today, there are 18 million cell phones covering about 90 percent of residential areas connecting Afghans to the world.

Now, everybody here understands the violence that has plagued Afghanistan for decades. And it has left very deep wounds and those wounds will take time to heal, particularly when new attacks by the Taliban and other armed opposition reopen those wounds or simply refuse to let them heal.

This conference today is another both remarkable and important demonstration of our strong commitment to the people of Afghanistan. And it is, frankly, further evidence of our conviction that the progress made thus far is only the beginning. We know that Afghanistan is going to continue to develop socially and economically. We know the Afghan people are, broadly writ, committed to peace and security, and that is something that they have been denied for too long by a small group of armed insurgents. We all know they deserve a brighter future and we’re all here because we’re committed to that.

Last week, the Afghan Government announced a peace agreement with the militant group headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the country’s most notorious figures. And the agreement requires Hekmatyar and his commanders to cease violence, cut all ties with their international terrorist organizations, and accept the Afghan constitution, including its guarantee of the rights for women and minorities. In return for keeping these commitments, Hekmatyar’s group will be able to emerge from the shadows to rejoin Afghan society. This is a model for what might be possible. We don’t know yet – has to be delivered – but it is a very important beginning and President Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah need to be congratulated together with all of their government for being willing to make this move, for being willing to take this risk.

I think the message from every person here today would be, to the Taliban, take note. Today, the Taliban are again just trying to test the Afghan Government’s resolve. And Afghan forces continue to bravely repel these challenges.

I want to remind everybody, if you have doubts about where we are today, a few years ago, the United States of America had 140,000 troops in Afghanistan. We are now down to slightly shy of 10,000, and we have been there for the last few years. And guess what? The Afghan army, an army of 190,000 forces and a police force of 160,000, 320,000 strong in the security sector, have stood up, have resisted, have fought back within their current capacity, which we all have the ability to grow even further.

Last month the Taliban attacked the American University of Afghanistan, which is a bastion of progress and learning for the next generation of Afghan leaders. A movement that attacks Afghanistan’s youth, my friends, has no legitimacy whatsoever to claim to lead the country’s future.

There is a path forward towards an honorable end to the conflict that the Taliban have waged. It is a conflict that cannot and will not be won on the battlefield. A political settlement negotiated with the Afghan Government is the only way to end the fighting, ensure lasting stability, and achieve a full drawdown, ultimately, of international military forces, which is their goal. So let me repeat it: Their goal of ridding Afghanistan of external forces will not occur by the demand or by the continued insurgency; it will come through peace. Make no mistake: The world community fully recognizes the stakes. And that is why at the NATO Warsaw Summit in July, the United States and other donors pledged to continue supporting the country’s security needs through 2020. And I think everybody here at the table knows and understands that if this progress continues and we continue to see the possibility of Afghanistan free and whole and stable in the future, no nation, I think, will walk away.

In 2012, in Tokyo, donors – including both states and international financial institutions – came together to pledge extraordinary levels of assistance over four years and to agree on a Mutual Accountability Framework, which codified the partnership between the Afghans and the international community. Through that framework, the Afghan Government committed to reforms that would move Afghanistan toward self-reliance, and the international community, in turn, pledged to continue financial support through 2016. The Taliban and their allies cannot wait us out. That’s an important message. That is a message that will leverage talks, it is a message that will excite the possibilities of people having confidence to buy in to the peaceful future, and that is why we are here once again today. We will not abandon our Afghan friends. Now, the past four years have not been easy, but Afghanistan’s upward trajectory continues. President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah deserve credit for coming together following the 2014 elections. And I can tell you that was not easy. The united government has faced challenges and stresses as all governments do. Tell me a government today in the world that isn’t facing some kind of challenge of governance. But here’s the bottom line: Afghanistan’s leaders are committed to and want a better future for their country, and they have demonstrated a rock-solid commitment to achieving self-reliance and they have done so by holding themselves accountable to a standard of transparency and accountability that we all can measure. Two years ago in London, the unity government renewed its pledge to the donor community that it would take a number of steps to improve governance, to get its own house in order. And guess what? It has made good on those promises. It is starting to march down that road with ever-greater confidence and determination.

One of the greatest risks to the country, as we all know, is corruption. And this government has made progress in trying to clean up the system, most notably by requiring that all senior officials declare their assets, a standard of responsible governance around the world. The government remains determined to enforce this standard. And in August, Afghanistan inaugurated a new Anti-Corruption Justice Center, which is committed to prosecuting corrupt officials and doing so without outside pressure or influence.

The government’s revenue performance, as you just heard from President Ghani, who announced that three months ahead of time, they are where they promised to be – that performance remains strong as well, despite the many security challenges that it faces. And this summer, Afghanistan completed its accession to the World Trade Organization. And it has negotiated a new Extended Credit Facility with the International Monetary Fund. President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah also worked – are focused on the vital work of reforming Afghanistan’s electoral system. I urge them to move forward as a matter of urgency to appoint electoral authorities and unveil a realistic timeframe for parliamentary elections. The right to choose one’s government representatives through credible, free, and fair elections belongs to each and every Afghan. And that certainly includes Afghanistan’s women. Where women are both secure and empowered to exercise their rights, we have all learned, particularly in the dawn of the 21st century but also in the history of the 20th century, that where women are empowered to exercise rights, societies are more prosperous and they are more stable. That is not true occasionally. That is true everywhere where you have women empowered and participating.

The Afghan Government deserves extraordinary credit for improving not just the numbers of girls in school, but women’s representation in government and helping them to improve their socioeconomic position in society. Under the Taliban, the only right women enjoyed was the right to remain silent and hidden. In the Afghanistan of today, women hold 69 seats in parliament, four cabinet posts, two provincial governorships, and one out of every four seats on elected provincial councils. There are also more than 160 female judges. And while 15 years ago, those very few children, girls were in school, as we’ve heard President Ghani and others relate, today’s 3 million kids are getting – girls are getting education.

But here’s the importance of it: It’s not just that girls are going to school today. We’ve been at this for 15 years. And a whole generation of children started to go to school 10 years ago, 11 years ago. And for those who are nine and ten years old or twelve years old, today they’re adults, young adults participating in society, going to university, part of those people presenting their resumes to President Ghani to help with the future of Afghanistan. That’s how transformation takes place and that’s why our longevity, our prolonged commitment is so critical to this transformation. The gains made in recent years are absolutely indisputable. But they’re also fragile. Collectively, we have a responsibility to ensure that positive changes continue and that they become permanent. To that end, I can assure you that even after our election in the United States of America, I have absolutely no doubt the United States is going to continue, there will be a renewed commitment, and the next administration will remain at this table as committed as we are today.

We pledge to deepen our strategic partnership with Afghanistan and to work with Congress to provide civilian assistance at or very near the current levels, on average, all the way through 2020. That is our financial commitment. And we expect to continue a significant – though gradually declining – level of support as Afghanistan later becomes more self-reliant through the end of the transformation decade.

We look forward to hearing other pledges that are made over the course of this conference. Every person here has a key role to play, but let me just say there are several countries that actually could help come together, and I urge Russia, China, Pakistan, India, and Iran to think about the special role that they could play in this region in order to help make a major difference not only in the long-term economy and future and social structure of Afghanistan, but in reaching peace with the Taliban. The more integrated the Afghan economy is with those of its neighbors, the more expansive economic growth will be, the more jobs that are going to be created, and the more investors will be attracted to the region. And I just remind everybody, when we started talking about the drawdown from 140,000 troops to 10,000, everybody said, well, my God, what’s going to happen to the Afghan economy with the withdrawal of those kinds of funds and that kind of spillover into the economy? Well, Afghanistan has made that transition, we’ve made that transition, and ultimately, sustainable growth will depend on the private sector. So it’s up to the Afghan Government and the leaders throughout Central Asia to create the kind of investment climate that will serve as a magnet to capital and thereby unlock the full potential of Afghanistan and the entire region. It’s also important to remember that the pledges we make here are only as valuable as the degree to which they are implemented. We have to make sure that the funds we invest are wisely spent and they go as far as they possibly can.

With that in mind, the United States joins with other donors today to work closely with the Afghan Government to improve the efficiency with which they deliver our aid. And I’d just underscore this is a goal that our Afghan partners share. Their strategic vision is reflected in the new Afghan National Peace and Development Framework, the National Priority Plans, and the renewed mutual accountability indicators that will be endorsed today. These documents will serve as the blueprint for all of our assistance going forward. They will also enable us to hold each other accountable in the years to come. So, colleagues, we cannot forget what has brought us to this effort. Fifteen years is a long time. I don’t know of any other opportunity where as many nations have come together in a coalition – except at the United Nations itself – and stayed as committed to an ad hoc effort that is outside the UN in some ways. I know many of our nations have now committed far more to this undertaking than we ever thought we were going to, and that is both in blood and in treasure. And I also know that the progress that we’ve made together, though substantial, is often overshadowed by what is blown up in the media as the challenges that still plague the people of Afghanistan.

I just ask everybody here to remember that in this new, interconnected, smaller planet on which we all live, where power is far less hierarchical and far more dispersed and there are many more players at a table at any given time, it is absolutely vital for us to succeed. There are not a lot of examples of that. And what we see that we are fighting against is connected, whether it’s the attacks in Paris or in America or in Belgium or anywhere. If we don’t succeed at this, we all know that we face a more complicated challenge in many ways. And that is because we are fighting a kind of nihilism. We’re fighting a primitive and sometimes barbaric, destructive reflex resistance to progress and to modernity, obviously tinted with a great deal of religious distortion, extremism based on lies.

So we, all of us represented in this room, need to remember the old Afghan proverb that there’s a path to the top of even the highest mountain, and there’s no question that the goal we share – an Afghanistan that is prosperous and secure and free and peaceful – that’s a tall mountain to climb, I know. But I hope everybody here will remain committed to recognizing that we’re working against people who have no goal of building a health care system, no goal of building schools, no goal of respecting history, no goal of doing anything except telling other people how to live. And it is clear that everyone in this room, our Afghan partners particularly, have made a different choice for themselves and for the future.

And so I think what we’re doing here today could not be more important and I thank everybody for being part of this effort.