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Preview of the Washington Visit of Afghanistan President Karzai

FPC Briefing
Ambassador Richard Holbrooke
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan
Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
May 10, 2010

Date: 05/10/2010 Location: Washington D.C. Description: Ambassador Richard Holbrooke briefs on President Karzai's upcoming visit to the U.S. at the Washington Foreign Press Center on May 10, 2010. - State Dept Image


4:15 P.M. EDT

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Thank you very much. I’m sorry I’m late, but General McChrystal came over and I thought that might be worth keeping you waiting a few minutes for. So I appreciate your being here. Let me just outline very quickly the schedule in a rough sense so you have the concept of the trip.

President Karzai arrived at 7:10 a.m. this morning, met by the Chief of Protocol of the United States Capricia Marshall and myself and other members of our team. He and his delegation went to the hotel where they’re staying, and he and I had a short talk about the schedule. He seemed very pleased with that, and then we’ve left him alone until this evening, when Secretary of State Clinton will host a very small dinner at Blair House. Deputy Secretary Lew will host a larger dinner for the remainder of his delegation, also at Blair House. And then tomorrow morning, we will reconvene at 8:00 a.m. on the eighth floor of the State Department with the ministers assembled and the American counterparts. There will be – part of that will be open to the press – the remarks of the Secretary of State and the president of Afghanistan. After that, we will continue without the press present and drill down briefly in all the subject areas in a large group.

Then, at approximately 9:30, hopefully, we will break into smaller groups by subjects. And some of them will take place in the State Department, others like the minister of agriculture will go over to the Department of Agriculture with Secretary Vilsack, the minister of defense and the minister of interior will go to the Pentagon with – for an honor guard ceremony in the afternoon and Secretary Gates.

Tomorrow night, there will be a reception at the State Department for leaders of the Afghan American community, Congress, and other distinguished people.

On Wednesday, the President will meet President Karzai in the Oval Office, in the Cabinet Room with the slightly larger group, and will address the media in the Rose Garden.

On Wednesday afternoon, there’ll be other meetings starting on the Hill. Wednesday night, Vice President Biden will host a dinner for about 40 to 45 people. And that will include Congress and Administration officials.

And on Thursday, it will get a little less – it will get a little more expansive and there will be meetings on the Hill, meetings in think tanks. And in the afternoon, Secretary Clinton and President Karzai will have a public appearance which will be, I think, broadcast, in which they will have a discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), moderated by William Taylor, a former American ambassador to Ukraine who’s at USIP.

And then on Friday, he will leave the city and go elsewhere. There are a couple of things still being worked out, so I’ll hold back on those until they’ve been finalized. But that is the core of the schedule.

I think you all know by now because you’ve heard the other briefings done by my colleagues the purpose and background of the trip. So without any further ado, let’s just go to the questions.

MODERATOR: Just a reminder, please wait for the microphone before you ask your question and state your name and your media organization.


QUESTION: I’m Pekka Mykkanen from Helsingin Sanomat, the largest paper in Finland. My question is: What are your thoughts about President Karzai’s plans to engage in talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan, that Taliban would be perhaps part of a future government? And if you could briefly describe your personal relationship with President Karzai.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Well, on the first question, the first part of the question, we’ve said many times that we support Afghan-led reintegration and reconciliation and that our core position is that people coming in must renounce any connections or support for al-Qaida, accept the constitution- there’s to be due respect for those issues-- including, of course, the role of women, and lay down their arms under the DDR process, which the United Nations did so effectively with other groups after 9/11.

On the second part of the question, today marked the seventh meeting I’ve had with President Karzai in the first four and a half months of the year. I’ve met with him in London, Kabul, Munich, now in Washington. We’ve met alone. We’ve met in small groups. We work closely together. I have great respect for him and his achievements. He is without question the legitimate, democratically elected president of Afghanistan. As President Obama and others said, it was a messy election, but it resulted in a clear-cut, unambiguous outcome. And on that basis, we work with him and his government and we welcome him to Washington. My personal relationship with him are cordial and respectful and friendly.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: James Bays from Al Jazeera English. You’re often seen as the hard man with regard to Afghanistan policy pushing the Karzai administration to change things. It seems the policy might have changed, that the stick has been dropped and now the carrot has been picked up. Are you going to have to change your role?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: That’s a very creative question, but it bears no resemblance to reality.

Yes, sir. Here – yeah.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: There’s nothing in your question that relates to anything I do, so there’s no point in trying to explain it.

QUESTION: Would you say the policy has changed, the approach to Karzai?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I certainly don’t think it’s changed.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I think we have a clear and steady policy which takes into account the specific circumstances. And I would just say one more time before I answer your question, as I said in this room and elsewhere, we came to office on January 20 of 2009, and for the first ten months, to the day, till he was re-inaugurated, November 19th, the elections hung over us like a cloud, a very dark, complicated cloud.

That period is long since gone and we are in a period of close strategic cooperation with the government. And my attitude on this has never changed; I have committed myself to this issue long before I came into the government as chairman of the Asia Society, when I hosted President Karzai two or three times – excuse me, as chairman, not president – chairman of Asia Society. We hosted him two or three times in New York; my frequent trips as a private citizen to Afghanistan. I’m committed to helping the people of Afghanistan. I’ve written extensively about that. I care deeply about this country and I’ve committed myself to it.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. Nadia Bilbassy with MEBC Television Middle East Broadcasting Center. Part of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is to build coalition with local militia leaders, and there are many reports indicating that this is not going as well as you want it to be, including the Washington Post article today. And I’m wondering if you can elaborate on that and if you think there has been any setbacks on this progress.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Well, the relationships that are being built have to be between the Government of Afghanistan and the people. We are not replacing the government. On the contrary, if the United States or our allies become the people who deal directly with the people of Afghanistan on a regular basis, we will undermine the government we’re trying to strengthen.

When we took office, less than 9 percent of all American assistance went through the government. So we were undermining the government we were trying to strengthen. That was not right. We set a goal of 50 percent of the aid. We’re up to about 14 percent now. It’s a very tough thing because we – because of government congressional requirements for accountability, we have to be sure that we certify ministries to receive the aid directly. And that’s going at pace.

And so the way you phrased your question is alien to the way we conceive our job, which is to strengthen the government by funneling as much assistance as we can through the government and encouraging them to improve their governance.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador, for coming to the Foreign Press Center and briefing us on President Karzai’s visit. This is Lalit Jha from Pajhwok Afghan News and Press Trust of India. No one knows better than you in this administration about Afghanistan and Pakistan. You have been there for last 14, 15 months. Can you give us a sense of what is the situation now from where you started and where we are now?

And secondly, as a follow-up – a follow-up question – answer you gave earlier, you said your goal is 50 percent, now it is 14 percent to route all the U.S. aid through the Afghan Government. What’s your timeline for that? When do you want to meet that 50 percent?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I don’t know when we can reach 50 percent. I could give you a date today, but it – but we have to certify ministries, and once we certify a ministry, then it can accelerate. There are only something like three ministries that are fully certified, but we’re moving, and that will be one of the topics of the next few days.

QUESTION: Can I ask a follow-up question?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Well, if it’s a follow-up only – if it’s not a follow-up, I won’t answer it. (Laughter.) And we’ll go to you.

QUESTION: Thank you. About this U.S. aid routing through the Afghan people, if you recall, the former UN Special Representative Kai Eide before he left office, he told the Security Council that the current strategy is not going to work unless the Afghans are put in charge and if there is more military boots on the ground, the situation will aggravate.

First of all, do you agree with that assessment? And according to President Obama’s timeline of withdrawing American forces by 2011, do you think this can be met? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Well, you’ve asked three questions and they weren’t really a follow-up. (Laughter.) You went a little far, but let me address them.

First of all, you said that Kai Eide said two things in his final report. I don’t have the exact text in front of me so I don’t want to specifically comment on whether I agree or disagree with your characterization. But I will say that the first statement that you attribute to him was roughly correct, and that’s why we’re trying to put our – to use our aid to strengthen the government so the government takes – has greater governance capacity and the – and is less dependent on us.

The second part of the question, I don’t know what Kai Eide said, but certainly we couldn't agree with that.

On the third part of your question, you said withdraw by 2011. That’s just a misstatement of the President’s policy. He has never said that. What he said on December 1st of last year in his West Point speech was very clear and I urge you again to go back and read it, because misrepresenting it the way your question implied is extraordinarily misleading to your readers and your viewers.

What the President said was that he would increase the number of troops by 30,000; that in July of next year he would begin a careful withdrawal of some troops depending on the situation, start a withdrawal. And he – there is no – he did not go beyond that and he said it would be a responsible transfer.

Yes, sir, this is your turn finally. You’ve been very patient.

QUESTION: Ambassador, Aziz Haniffa with India Abroad. You made very clear about your relationship with President Karzai, but in a sense, the genesis to this trip where he’s been accorded the red carpet treatment was the President’s trip to Kabul. And for all intents and purposes, the reports all say that he read the riot act to President Karzai, who turned around and angrily said that he would join the Taliban. Then, of course, there were all of Peter Galbraith’s allegations which were knocked down and slammed by Secretary of State Clinton and Defense Secretary Gates.

Suddenly, reality seems to have set in and he’s been accorded this red carpet treatment. Can you let us know whether Mr. Karzai is now indispensible and all things have been pardoned? (Laughter.)

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: This is – one of my favorite things in the world is when a really smart journalist, as you obviously are, takes a lot of facts, reassembles them, and comes up with a story which just isn’t accurate. Let’s start with the facts.

The President’s invitation was decided on before he went on that trip to Afghanistan. So there are – you’ve related two things which – in which you got the sequence wrong. The President invited President Karzai immediately upon landing and seeing him. It had nothing to do with what you’re referring to.

Secondly, as has been said, there was a period where the waters got roiled shortly after the trip. That’s been much discussed in the press and I don’t propose to revisit it today. What I will say categorically, as I said last time I briefed at the State Department – some of you here were at that briefing – that period ended. General Petraeus and I went to Kabul on April 9th and 10th, a month ago, at the height of this thing that you’re referring to. And President Karzai came to our meetings with our team. He’d never done that before. He sat with us. His ministers sat with us. This was our Review of Concept (ROC) Drill.

And the next day, President Karzai spent two and a half hours with Petraeus and me. They – as I said then and I said subsequently and I’ll say again today, the things you’re referring to are all over. This is not worth revisiting. And so the premise of the final part of your question presupposes a series of prior events which didn’t actually take place.


QUESTION: Thank you very much. I’m Iftikhar Hussain. I work for VOA Pashto Border Region Service Deewa Radio.


QUESTION: Yes. Border Region Service Deewa Radio. Thank you. Would you, sir, elaborate on the broad outlines of the agenda of the meeting with President Obama and President Karzai? And if you could share with us the civilian side of what they will be discussing at the State Department and with other officers, and also, if you could share with us your assessment of progress in Afghanistan in terms of security and good governance, thank you very much.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: We’re going to talk in the State Department tomorrow in our breakout groups about agriculture, about security issues, about training the police and the army, about rule of law, about international issues. I will offer the foreign minister, Minister Rassoul, and the national security advisor Spanta and their team a briefing on U.S. relations in the entire region of Central Asia, East Asia, and into Europe, so that they have an overview of our view of the world, and then solicit their views.

What have I left out? Governance, sub-national governance and governance, how we can work to improve the civil service. And the Afghan side will present their views on all these things. We’re also going to talk about the mineral riches of Afghanistan. All of you know that Afghanistan is potentially a very rich country, but in reality – but right now it’s not, and that a great deal of its resources lie locked under the ground. And we will also talk about the security issues. So we’re going to cover the whole panoply of issues.


QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Merci. Thank you, Ambassador, for your time here. You’re working very hard on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Af-Pak. I’m curious to know if the Talibans in Pakistan are behind the Times Square bombing, what is for you the appropriate answer that this Administration should have?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Well, I think that Secretary Clinton addressed that very clearly last night in her interview on 60 Minutes, although there may have been some misunderstandings about it. We are concerned about any attacks on the United States or threatened attacks. And the man in question has talked about his travels to Pakistan. We have discussed this at the appropriate levels with our friends in Pakistan and we will continue to do so. And we’re working very closely with the Pakistani authorities on these issues and their cooperation so far has been very encouraging.

QUESTION: And are you going to --

MODERATOR: Please wait for the microphone.

QUESTION: Are you going to discuss with it – sorry, are you going to discuss with President Karzai the issue?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: It wasn’t on our original agenda, of course, but I don’t see how we can ignore it. It’s related. But it did not happen – it did not involve Afghanistan in any direct way. All it does is emphasize again the fact that what happens in one of these countries can affect what happens what happens in the other, and that there is a very serious center of international terrorism that exists along the border, and that close cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan is an important part of dealing with this threat. But it is not a major subject of this trip. The trip was planned for other purposes. And Afghanistan is not involved in this event at all.

Back in the back.

QUESTION: Thank you. I’m an Afghan journalist. Regarding --

MODERATOR: Say your name, please.

QUESTION: My name is Syed. I’m an Afghan journalist.


QUESTION: From Afghanistan.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: But from which – which --

QUESTION: BBC for Afghanistan.


QUESTION: Yeah. Regarding to the reconciliation and negotiation with the insurgents, you said that the insurgents should accept the constitution and respect for women rights. But in Afghanistan, in general, even the common people, many people do not accept the constitution. So do you think if that’s the condition, if they do not accept the constitution, the United States is not going to support Karzai in this negotiation process?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I don’t understand the premise of your question. You’re saying the people don’t accept the constitution.

QUESTION: Many people. I mean, they do not accept because they think it was drafted during the occupation of the United States.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: It was approved by the people of Afghanistan. It’s the legitimate constitution. It was approved by a loya jirga. And the international community, the Security Council of the UN, and all the countries supporting Afghanistan and the international coalition, plus countries not in the coalition, all accept it. So with great respect, I must honestly reject the premise of your question.

And I do not understand how anyone could say that the people of Afghanistan reject the constitution. Maybe some people do and they fight with the Taliban; that’s the point. But every public opinion poll, including your own – the ARD-ABC-BBC poll – all show support for this government and for the system overwhelmingly. And that was a BBC poll taken only three months ago.

QUESTION: Thank you. This is Tulin Daloglu with Haberturk. It’s a daily Turkish newspaper. Can you –


QUESTION: Haberturk. Can you please talk about the international community’s commitment to Afghanistan? Do you see it strengthening or do you see that there is a growing loosening bond? And especially, can you talk about the countries like Turkey, France, and Germany? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Well, countries like Turkey, France, and Germany? (Laughter.) I’ll talk first about Turkey. Turkey is a very important participant in the international coalition. I have gone to Istanbul and Ankara several times in this job, and as you know, many, many times in my career. I work very closely with President Gul, Prime Minister Erdogan, Foreign Minister Davutoglu, and their colleagues. And Turkey’s increasing involvement in Afghanistan is a very good development.

As for France and Germany, they each have their own situations and I think I’d let it speak for themselves, but both countries have very important contingents of troops there, very important. For Germany, it’s been a difficult experience and a painful one, because of their history and because of the process which has led to the current situation. But I was in Berlin a week and a half ago talking to my new German counterpart, Michael Steiner about this issue, and my French counterpart, Jasmine Zerinini was here last week. We had very extensive talks with both of those counterparts and I’ve talked to senior officials in both governments and I look forward to going back to both Paris and Berlin shortly. And in early June the Spanish will host in Madrid a meeting of all my counterparts under the leadership of our coordinator, who is the Chairman, Michael Steiner. And that’s over 30 countries by now, including among the OIC countries that you alluded to. We will have representation from the United Arab Emirates, from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, other countries in the OIC. And these meetings represent a growing international support for our effort and we are very grateful for it. Many of the countries are still working out details.

I want to stress that I focus primarily on the civilian side, but this does include close collaboration with the ISAF command on police training and army training. That’s a shared responsibility and that’s what we’ve been working on. It’s one of the issues I was talking to General McChrystal about just a few minutes ago.

My friend.

QUESTION: Thank you. Raghubir Goyal from India Globe and Asia Today. Mr. Ambassador, you are a household name in the region and also here in the U.S. My question is that today –

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Less so here, I think. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Well, one day someday you might run for office in the region there.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I can guarantee you no. (Laughter.) As for household name, don’t confuse any of us with Betty White.

QUESTION: My vote will be for you. ( Laughter).

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: (Inaudible) campaign manager. Definitely (inaudible).

QUESTION: At least you have my vote. Mr. Ambassador, today at the White House, two great gentlemen were there, of course, General McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry. What they were saying that there’s much progress in Afghanistan, but there’s a long way to go and things are working well compared to last year. And of course, you also said same thing.

What I’m asking, Mr. Ambassador, what will be your message to President Obama as – during this President Karzai’s meeting as far as progress or future of Afghanistan?

And second and final, many young people are misled in the name of religion or Islam in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. That’s why you have many more like this Shahzad here in the U.S. What message you think you will have for these two presidents? What can you do to bring them online – these young people which are being a problem?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Well, on the first part of your question, I’ve had private meetings with both Ambassador Eikenberry and General McChrystal already today, and I’m very familiar with what they said in the press conference, of course, since we all coordinate very closely. And I wouldn't add anything to that. We all speak with one position on that.

On the second part of your question, this is something I really think a lot about. Communications with young people who are susceptible to the kind of agitprop information propaganda is an enormously difficult issue. President Obama addressed it directly in his famous speech in Cairo last year, as well as his speech in Turkey and other public appearances he’s made, repeatedly.

The article in the New York Times yesterday about the American Yemeni, the Yemeni American who was the inspiration, apparently, for some of these recent events, was, I thought, a very illuminating article. And if any of you haven’t read it yet, I’d urge you to read it because it shows how a clever person can twist facts and history once again, as has happened so often in the last century, into a – and weave a theory of the case which somebody who can be influenced by -- either because they’re not well educated and they don’t know history or they are just susceptible for one reason. The overwhelming majority of people reject this, but there’s always a small number who do accept it. This has been true throughout history.

And that’s the threat we face now, and the fact that it’s an internationally based threat using modern communications makes it more serious than it otherwise would have been in the past. And we just are going to have to keep working on it. Everybody at the United States surely must understand by now that this aspect of the – of our efforts to protect ourselves and to work with our allies is going to go on a long time.

The government in Pakistan recognizes this. The leadership of Pakistan has stated it repeatedly in public. We work closely with them. The governments of Europe understand it and have talked about it. And we will continue to work on it. But it’s not – this is not going to go away with a few speeches. It has to have a sustained policy of demonstrating to people that what they’re being told by these incendiary people is simply false. It’s a long-term issue.

MODERATOR: We have time for one more question.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador Holbrooke. If I may go to –

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Better identify yourself for those --

QUESTION: My name is Ali Imram. I’m correspondent for Associated Press of Pakistan. If I may go to neighboring Pakistan, how would you see Pakistan’s role in bringing regional security and stability, especially along Afghanistan? And secondly, in the Pakistani media today, Secretary Clinton’s statement about consequences is being interpreted as if it will impact the flow of aid into Pakistan. Would you like to comment on those things?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: What was the first part of your question, Ali?

QUESTION: How is Pakistan helping in bringing regional security?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: First of all, as I’ve said in this room and elsewhere repeatedly, we think our relations with Pakistan have improved greatly in the last year. And we have increased our civilian aid enormously with Kerry-Lugar-Berman. We have increased our military assistance. We have refocused. We’re trying to find ways to help Pakistan in regard to such critical issues as electricity, energy, and water. We are making progress on a whole range of issues. The Pakistani army has taken some very courageous actions in Swat and South Waziristan. There’s a lot left to be done. But I’m not here to criticize the government but to thank it for what it’s done.

As for Secretary Clinton’s interview on 60 minutes, as I said a moment ago, I think that perhaps it was not fully understood, for what she was saying, by some people who didn’t see the full text or didn’t appreciate what she was saying. And of course, it was an edited interview and you need to go to P.J. Crowley and ask for the full transcript. It was just a small couple of minutes at the top of a long profile piece on Secretary Clinton.

And in this regard, we – she herself praised the Pakistan Government for what it’s done and so I urge you to – not to react to a misrepresentation of what she said, although I think that happens from time to time.

MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Thank you very much.

MODERATOR: Thank you all.