2:30 P.M. EDT
NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR
MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the New York Foreign Press Center. We’re happy to have you here for our briefing on U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. After remarks, we’ll open it up to questions. When it’s time for questions, please wait for the microphone and we’ll go on from there. But I’ll pass the attention on to our new Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Doug Frantz, who will introduce our briefers.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: Thanks, Melissa. I’m new to my job, and until a month ago I would have been on the other side of this podium, but I’m very happy to be the new Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. And I’m very happy that we’re able to host this event in the Foreign Press Center of New York. I think most of you probably come here fairly often. I hope you do. It’s a great resource. And we’re especially glad to have such a strong turnout in the press and two such knowledgeable briefers as Ambassador Dobbins and Commander Eggers.
You didn’t come here to hear me, so I’ll be very brief. I covered Pakistan and Afghanistan as a journalist and as a Senate staffer where I worked for a guy named John Kerry. So I’m familiar with the complexity, the history, the problems, and the opportunities of those two countries, but few know it better than Jim Dobbins. He has served in numerous crisis management positions for the U.S. Government, including previously in Afghanistan, and Secretary Kerry was very wise last May when he chose him to be the new Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s perhaps the most difficult job in the U.S. Government, certainly one of them, but it’s also perhaps the most important, or certainly one of them. And we’re very glad that he’s here to talk with you today.
We’re also fortunate to have Jeffrey Eggers, who’s the Special Assistant to the President of the United States for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He’s been on the National Security Council this time around since 2010. He’ll retire from the Navy, where he’s been a SEAL, at the end of this month, I think. And so he brings both the perspective of a policymaker and of a military and strategic thinker. So I think in Ambassador Dobbins and Commander Eggers, you’ll get a good view of the U.S. priorities for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and they’ll give you a readout of how their meetings have gone and what the prospects look like in the coming days and weeks. So thank you all for coming.
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Well, thank you all for coming. I want this mostly to be responsive to your questions. Jeff and I are here to take advantage of the many delegations present to consult on issues related to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Last week, I attended a meeting of what’s called the ICG, the International Contact Group, which is a group of officials, all of whom have jobs somewhat similar to mine. That is, they’re responsible for Afghanistan and Pakistan in their respective foreign ministries. And this has become a regular event. We meet three times a year. There are about 60 countries that send people. Afghanistan, of course, Pakistan both participate. And the focus of those groups is usually progress in Afghanistan across the spectrum of military security and civilian development issues. We’ve also – Jeff and I – of course been meeting with the – both the Pakistani delegation and the Afghan representatives here and with many of the other governments that are concerned about and have an interest in Afghanistan’s progress and stability.
With respect to Afghanistan, our focus and, I think, the focus of the international community has been, in the short term, on the negotiations that are currently underway between the United States and Afghanistan to create a new legal basis for the presence of American and international forces to advise and assist the Afghan National Forces in 2015 and beyond. Those negotiations have been underway for almost a year. They have been increasingly intense in the last couple of months. The site of the negotiations has moved to Kabul. The level of participation has increased. Our negotiators are our ambassador in Kabul and commanding general in Kabul, and the Afghan National Security Advisor and Dr. Ashraf Ghani, the Transition Coordinator for President Karzai, are the negotiators on the Afghan side. And we are hopeful that that negotiation will be concluded in the next several weeks.
The slightly longer-term focus and an even more important issue is the upcoming Afghan elections. There are a number of transitions that are underway in Afghanistan. I think most attention has focused on the military transition from internationally-led combat operations to Afghan-led combat operations, which is underway at the moment and which will reach fulfillment next year.
But the most important transition is the civilian transition, the democratic transition from one elected president to another elected president that will take place next spring. And so this has been a focus of attention. The international community is supporting these elections financially, but also politically. We all believe that it’s very important that these elections take place on time and that they – that the process is a sound and satisfactory process. We’re pleased that the preparations for the elections are on schedule. They are more advanced than they have been in the past. Voter registration is moving forward quite satisfactory. Large numbers of new voters are being added to the voting roll. The Electoral Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission – two separate, independent bodies – have both been selected following constitutional and legislative processes that have been set out and followed rigorously. And we’re optimistic that the elections will not only take place, but will take place in a positive atmosphere and produce a new leadership.
I think it’s notable that if – that you’ve had the first peaceful transition from one elected government to another in Pakistan just a few months ago. And Afghanistan is likely to replicate that in a few short months with its third free election in a row and its first peaceful transition from one elected government to another.
So I’ll stop there, and Jeff, if you want to add anything, and then we can take questions.
MR. EGGERS: No, I would just say it’s – I’m glad to be here with you this afternoon. We’re lucky to have the opportunity to be in New York with the delegations of Prime Minister Sharif and Foreign Minister Rassoul and spend some time with those delegations, given all the issues that the Ambassador laid out that we’re working on both bilateral fronts. So it’s been a productive week so far, we have a couple more days to go, and I look forward to your questions.
QUESTION: Iftikhar Ali from Associated Press of Pakistan and The Nation. Sir, a development that could have some impact on the situation in Afghanistan has taken place, which is a confirmation by the Indian Foreign Minister of a meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister in New York. Do you have any reaction to that?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: A very positive reaction. We’re convinced that a rapprochement between Pakistan and India, however long that may take – and it will undoubtedly be a long and difficult process – will be good for both of those countries, will be good for the international community – after all, confrontations between two nuclear-armed powers have profound implications for the whole world – and in particular will be good for Afghanistan.
The Pakistani-Indian competition is not the only reason that Afghanistan has seen conflict, but it’s one of the reasons that have contributed to tensions. And to the extent that that competition is alleviated, it will be – it will help significantly stable Afghanistan as well as advance the economies and the safety of the citizens of both Afghanistan and – both Pakistan and India.
QUESTION: This is Azim Mian from Geo TV, Jang and The News International. My question is: How the U.S. Government is working, and what kind of working relationship is on the withdrawal of the troops? And Afghanistan 2015, between Pakistan and the United States, so I’m focusing on Pak-U.S. relations. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Yeah. Well, it’s certainly an issue that we discuss regularly with the Government of Pakistan, as indeed we do with all of the members of the coalition that support Afghanistan. And Pakistan is – although it doesn’t have troops in the ISAF coalition, is certainly a partner in that regard whose support we value.
We are currently negotiating a basis for a continued American military presence to advise and assist the Afghan Armed Forces. Once we complete that negotiation, NATO will seek to negotiate a comparable agreement that will allow the presence of other non-American forces as part of that coalition in support of Afghanistan. Once we’ve completed our negotiation with the Afghans and have a legal basis for our continued presence, I think the President would intend to make a decision and announce the exact size and composition of our presence. We’ve kept Pakistan fully appraised of this intention and these negotiations, and we look forward to their continued support for the international presence in Afghanistan.
QUESTION: Ambassador, you have not addressed the Pak-U.S. relationship, the points of convergence and point of differences between Pakistan and the United States over the withdrawal of Afghanistan and Afghanistan beyond 2015.
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: I guess I haven’t addressed them because I’m unaware of any. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Yeah. My name is Masood Haider. I represent daily Dawn newspaper of Pakistan. Ambassador, while you briefed in Washington, you welcomed the release of Mullah Baradar, the Taliban leader who was going to go to Afghanistan. How do you justify your confidence in Taliban back again when Taliban ruled in the last – from 1996 to 2001 was, I mean, ridiculed by international community for how – what it did to the women, and especially to the human rights in general. How do you express so much confidence that they will not do it again? Because everybody else believes that they will. What is it that gives you so much confidence that they will not?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Well, I think you may be mischaracterizing what I said or what we’ve said on the topic. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan have told us that they believe that Mullah Baradar, once released, would become a supporter and a proponent for reconciliation, for peace talks. Now our conditions for a successful peace negotiation are well known. The Taliban would have to stop fighting, they would have to agree to respect the Afghan constitution and operate within it, and they would have to cut their ties with al-Qaida. Those are not conditions to begin negotiations; they’re conditions to end negotiations. But that’s the kind of agreement we would support.
We do support a process of negotiation, of peace talks. We ourselves haven’t had any contacts with the Taliban since early 2012. But we would support a process that would allow both U.S.-Taliban talks, but more importantly, talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban. And we would support an agreement that met those criteria. Now we don’t have an independent basis for judging whether Mullah Baradar would be helpful or not, and we’re not basing our view on our information about Mullah Baradar because we don’t have an independent basis.
All we know is the Afghan Government and the Pakistani Government both wanted this to happen, and both think that it will contribute to reconciliation, a goal we support, and we also support the improved relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And so if this improves the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and if they believe it will support a peace process, then we favor it.
QUESTION: A follow-up: What – you know about Taliban’s rule and the rampant abuse of women, and girls in particular. And do you think that they will not go back to that era again, which everybody else fears that they will?
MR. EGGERS: The Ambassador listed the three criteria we have for the outcomes of any political process. And we share – are in – we are in agreement with the Afghan Government on those three conditions. The other thing that we’re in agreement in is that this should be an Afghan-led process. So these are two areas of agreement between us and the Afghan Government.
You might be right, but the process has a safeguard in place that would allow for that to be tested, and it’s a forward-looking safeguard, that the rights of women should be safeguarded as an outcome to a future process without being prejudiced, even though we’re fully aware of the history. So it’s really, I think, more of a forward-looking process, and it’s not meant to be ignorant of the history. But there is an agreement on those three conditions, one of which addresses your specific concern.
QUESTION: Do you have any caveats to the government – they have one government and the Taliban – that any abuse of the women and girls will not be tolerated?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Well, if they – I mean (inaudible) is they have to accept the Afghan constitution. The Afghan constitution contains protections and legal protections for women. So if the peace process were to meet our criteria and the Afghan Government’s criteria, then the Taliban would be agreeing to cease those kinds of activities. Obviously, the agreement would also have to have provisions that dealt with violations. So it’s not a question of trusting them to be different. The question is testing them to see whether their views have evolved, through a negotiating process which would probably take several years to conclude, in all likelihood.
QUESTION: Stephane Bussard, the Swiss daily Le Temps. I have two questions. The first: Actually, we know that the Russians are very worried about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan because they fear that actually a jihadist cross the border and things like that. How do you see this issue? Because obviously, the Russians have also helped the U.S. with transit of material to Afghanistan and things like that, and they have a lot of expectations as far as this is concerned. They’re very worried by the U.S. withdrawal, so if you could say a word about that.
And my second question is about Pakistan. Once the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan is completed, maybe by the end of next year, what will happen with Pakistan? We know through the NSA leaks that the U.S. is very worried about what’s happening in Pakistan.
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Well, in terms of – I mean, we’ve – Russia is one of the countries that we consult with closely on Afghanistan. We regard them, like others, as partners in an international effort, not partners in the military effort specifically but partners more generally in the international effort. They attended the meeting I spoke of last week. I met bilaterally with their representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who, incidentally, is the same person I worked with back in 2001 when he and I worked together quite collaboratively to create the initial post-Taliban government, which eventually turned into the current regime.
And I think the Russians, as you indicate, have been supportive. They’ve encouraged the countries of the former Soviet Union with whom they continue to have good relations to facilitate transit and logistic support for not just American but NATO and other international forces. And I would anticipate them – that they’ll continue to be supportive in this regard. And I hope they’re reassured by what we’ve told them, which is we’re not withdrawing. We’re reducing our presence, but we will have a substantial military advise-and-assist role, assuming the Afghans want us to stay, which I believe they do.
The second question – anytime I get two questions, you always have to remind me of the second.
MR. EGGERS: Pakistan beyond ’15. The resumption of our Strategic Dialogue that Secretary Kerry essentially initiated or re-initiated last month is part of a bilateral plan with Pakistan that extends beyond the end of next year. It has the potential to continue what has been, I think, an improvement in that bilateral relationship among kind of a realistic but important set of areas. And the agenda for that strategic dialogue has a horizon that goes beyond the end of 2014, certainly, and that – and in fact can allow, I think, that relationship to focus on a broader array of issues than perhaps has dominated the agenda in recent years, just because of a focus on Afghanistan. So to your question, there is the possibility that there are some concerns, but there’s also some opportunity there, and I think we both see that.
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Yeah. I mean – I think as regards Pakistani attitude toward Afghanistan, we know and take very seriously the statements by the Pakistani Prime Minister, who always emphasizes that Pakistan can’t be secure if Afghanistan isn’t at peace. And so we believe they will make an effort to contribute to Afghanistan’s stabilization beyond the drawdown of international forces that we envisage. But we also want a relationship with Pakistan that transcends Afghanistan – doesn’t ignore it, but goes on to a broader relationship.
QUESTION: Hi. I’m Rameeza Majid Nizami. I represent Nawa-I-Waqt and The Nation. And sir, you just mentioned assuming the Afghans want us to stay, which we think they do. President Karzai has chosen to visit China instead of being present at the UN General Assembly to take advantage of the opportunity to talk with the Americans, of course, about the potential bilateral security arrangement. I would like to invite your comments on that.
And there’s a second question, which I’ll remind you of later as well: Your reaction to today’s statement by Imran Khan, if you have one, about the suggestion that the Taliban should open a political office in Pakistan. How would you respond to that?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Okay, now you have to remind me of the first question.
MR. EGGERS: Karzai went to China.
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Oh. I mean, it’s not – Karzai has been talking to American officials almost every day. I mean, the chief negotiator is our ambassador and the commanding general there, and they have regular access to Karzai. So, I mean, he – we’re entirely supportive of going to China. China is playing an important role in leading a regional process to integrate the economies of the region. China is making investments in Afghanistan. China, I think, is supportive of the upcoming elections. They’re supportive of a continued international role.
I met with Chinese officials just at lunch on last Friday and discussed the entire agenda. China participates in these regional forums. China is going to be chairing a regional forum looking at the integration of the economies of the countries surrounding Afghanistan and a way to make Afghanistan a peaceful commercial bridge. And as far as I know, China has no difficulties or complaints about our intended drawdown and continued commitment of military advice and assistance to the Afghans. So there’s – we’re perfectly happy he’s going to China. If he’d asked us, we would’ve urged him to do it.
MR. EGGERS: I didn’t see the comment by Imran Khan. I missed that. But I think the first important question back to you was which Taliban, because of course, the new government in Islamabad is undergoing an internal deliberation about whether or not to conduct or how to conduct talks with their Pakistan Taliban, the TTP.
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Is that what – did he make clear whether he meant the Afghan or Pakistani Taliban?
QUESTION: I’m not certain that he did, but he did indicate, I think, after the Peshawar bombings that there should be a political office which should be opened to facilitate --
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: (Inaudible) talking about the TTP.
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Yeah.
MR. EGGERS: I think it’s important to keep in mind that from the Pakistani perspective, the idea of talking with the Taliban is most frequently today particularly in the context of the TTP and the prospect for potential talks there, even as we continue to have our own plans or desires or policies around talks with the Afghan Taliban.
QUESTION: So do you support talks with the TTP?
MR. EGGERS: I think that’s an issue for the government in Islamabad.
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: We’re not objecting to them.
QUESTION: But in this connection, what is the status of the talks that were planned in Qatar?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: They’re still in abeyance. We would still like them to go forward. The opening of the office created a brief disturbance. There were clear undertakings between the Government of Qatar and the Taliban, between the Government of Qatar and us, between us and the Afghan Government about how that office would be described. And it was clear that the office would be described not as the embassy of a government in exile, but as the political office of a political movement.
When the office presented itself as, in effect, an embassy of a government in exile, the Government of Qatar reacted and took down the flag and took down the sign. And now the Afghan – the Taliban now feel that they have somehow been disrespected and are insisting they won’t go forward until they have their sign and they have their flag. Initially, we thought this was bad faith on the Taliban part, but we’ve refined that and we believe it was a genuine misunderstanding, that we weren’t talking directly; we were talking through intermediaries. And so we’re not blaming them; it was a genuine misunderstanding. But they would still, if the office was to operate, would need to operate under what were supposed to have been the agreed framework.
I think we’re hopeful that eventually they will come around and see the value of talking to us and talking to the Afghan Government, and we believe it’s important that the core of any negotiation be among the Afghans. I mean, the United States can’t negotiate peace in Afghanistan. That’s something only the Afghans can do. So we haven’t given up, but – and there may be activity on that front at some point, but for the moment, it is stalemated. And we’ve had no contact since June. In fact, we had no contact since June.
MODERATOR: This is a reminder to our colleagues in Washington, if you have a question, please go to the podium.
QUESTION: So in brief, as of today, can you tell us the status of your negotiations with Pakistan about the smooth withdrawal of the U.S. (inaudible) Pakistan? Is there anything happening?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: I don’t know that there’s any difficulties there. I think Pakistan has indicated that they continue to offer the lines of communication so that the withdrawal can take place. There may be some technical talks that have taken place, Jeff, that you’re familiar with. I’m not.
MR. EGGERS: We have an understanding. We have arrangements for those lines of communication which, before the crisis in the bilateral relationship with Pakistan in 2011, were predominantly used to bring material into Afghanistan. And the understandings were built around that relatively singular direction of flow. After we resumed improved relations after that period, we undertook new arrangements by which we could actually use those same lines of communication to bring material out of Afghanistan. So they’re absolutely relevant to the retrograde of the military equipment.
But to your broader question of whether or not a reduction in troops has Pakistani interest because of potential stability implications, the international community has said – not just the United States, but through the NATO summit in Chicago last year, the Tokyo conference – that it will remain committed, and the United States will remain committed, not just with the provision of troops to do the train-and-advise mission, but as well with financial assistance and security and civilian assistance forms.
And that model, beyond the end of the combat mission in 2014, is designed to protect the gains that have been made and to promote stability beyond 2014. So we fully expect Pakistan to have an interest in the stability of Afghanistan, but clearly, there’s a plan, an intent to promote that stability.
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: I might – on the withdrawal, I think it’s important to stress that there’s not going to be a sudden surge of withdrawing troops that might burden Pakistani roads or railroads. I mean, a third of the force has already left. So we had 100,000 troops there; there are now 60-some thousand troops. So a third of the force has already gone. Half of the force that’s there will leave by March, leaving 30-some thousand for the rest of the year, and then that force will gradually be drawn down to some lower number.
But I think the important thing to recognize is the troops there are on one-year rotations, right?
MR. EGGERS: It varies, but that’s about right, the average.
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Okay. So that means the entire force is replaced every year, so it means that if we had 100,000 troops, there would be 100,000 troops going in and 100,000 troops going out. So I would guess that the heaviest traffic through Pakistan probably was a couple of years ago, several years ago. So there will certainly be – and even if we have a much smaller number there, Pakistan will still be logistically important as one of several ways of supplying those troops, but as, frankly, the cheapest way.
QUESTION: Sir, how far do you see the relationship with the present Pakistani Government, vis-a-vis the previous Pakistani government, and in accordance with the U.S. foreign policy to those areas, specifically Pakistan?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Well, I think what distinguishes the current Pakistani Government from the previous one is this one has a much stronger mandate. It has a majority, an absolute majority in the parliament. It had a strong electoral result. It is therefore potentially a government that’s more capable of delivering on its promises, a government that’s more capable of addressing Pakistan’s pressing economic and security needs, and therefore is potentially a more powerful partner.
MODERATOR: Any last questions in New York?
Final call for Washington?
Okay. Well, with that, we conclude today’s event. Thank you so much for being here. Have a good afternoon.
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