BACKGROUND BRIEFING BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ON THE VICE PRESIDENT'S TRIP TO AFGHANISTAN, PAKISTAN AND IRAQ
Air Force Two
January 13, 2011
6:36 P.M. Arabian Standard Time
Q I guess the burning question is, first of all, how did the meeting with Karzai go?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The meeting with Karzai went -- with President Karzai went very well. I think what we really concluded from the meeting is that we’re very much in alignment, in terms of the broad strategy that we’re working on in Afghanistan. And this really flows from Lisbon. I think that was a key moment with the President and Karzai and the allies.
And essentially we’re in agreement that this year is a pivot point for Afghanistan and for our policy. We’ve moved from the surge last year to a transition to a -- the beginning of the transition to Afghan lead responsibility. And there is agreement that that transition will begin this year. There's agreement in NATO, with Karzai, with the United States that early this year we’ll look at the beginnings of transition. In July we will start some drawdown of U.S. forces. And by 2014 the Afghans will have responsibility for security throughout the country. And so everyone is in agreement with that way forward, and that's very, very encouraging.
A lot of hard work is required to get us from here to there. And as the President said, as the Vice President and Karzai acknowledge, there are significant problems that we still have to overcome, and the gains that we’ve made to date everyone acknowledges are fragile. They remain reversible.
So to consolidate what’s been achieved, in terms of arresting the Taliban’s momentum, in terms of building up Afghan security forces, in terms of developing Afghan capacity, all of that requires in particular the Afghans to assume responsibility for security and for governance; for us to keep the pressure on the Taliban; for the efforts that we’re starting to see in reintegration and reconciliation hopefully to move forward so that the Taliban, who are willing to cut ties to al Qaeda, renounce violence and embrace the constitution, can be brought into the fold.
So there are a lot of -- there's a lot of hard work, and there are real open questions. But the big picture is that in terms of the broad strategy, we are more aligned than I think we’ve been since the beginning of this effort with President Karzai in Afghanistan as well, of course, with our NATO and ISAF partners.
Q Can you -- having been on the ground and gotten briefings from the military commanders there and met with Karzai, what kind of a drawdown are we going to see in six months? Like how -- what is it going to -- is it going to be significant, is it going to be a small --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s really premature to judge that. The President has been very clear and consistently clear that the drawdown that would begin in July will be conditions-based. We don't know the conditions. And so the pace and scale of the drawdown will be very much dependent on where we are in July.
What we do know is that we will begin a drawdown. What we do know is that this year we are starting the transition to Afghan responsibility. But we don't know yet the pace and scale of that.
Q Can you talk a little bit about the meetings in Pakistan? Did the issue of sanctuaries come up? And did you get any commitments from Pakistan to do more to root out al Qaeda from the sanctuaries?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The issue of sanctuaries did come up, as we’ve said, also consistently. In terms of the effort in Afghanistan, dealing with sanctuaries is an important piece. I don't want to characterize the Pakistani response.
I will say that, you know, what we’ve seen over the past year is a significant effort by Pakistan against a number of extremist groups. The Pakistanis have moved a significant number of forces from the Indian border. They’ve taken significant losses in fighting extremists. They’ve had to deal with Swat. They’ve had to deal with some of the northern parts of the FATA. They’ve had to deal with the flood, which took troops away from the effort. And so I think it’s fair to say we have seen a real effort.
But again, the President said, when we announced the review, that from our perspective, in terms of dealing with the sanctuaries that are affecting Afghanistan, it’s still not enough, and we hope to see more.
I think the cooperation that we have with the military in Pakistan is as good as it’s been in getting -- I think getting stronger.
I think the Vice President has concluded from his discussions that increasingly there's an understanding and an awareness in Pakistan that at the end of the day, extremism is a problem that we both confront. And while there are different groups that have different agendas, we are seeing that these groups sometimes make common cause, and I think the Pakistanis are increasingly coming to the conclusion that extremism writ large is a problem for them. And we see that as well in the assassination of the governor of Punjab.
So I think the conversations were very good with General Kayani, with President Zardari, with Prime Minister Gilani. But there's still work to do, and the Pakistanis have resource constraints. They have challenges that they have to face. And we have to work on it together.
Q Did he express any concerns about -- that U.S. cross-border incursions are a violation of their sovereignty?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't want to characterize what they said in their conversations. I think you’ve heard the Vice President, in the remarks that he made after the meeting with Prime Minister Gilani, talk about a number of what we believe are misconceptions about U.S. policy and intentions. And one of them is this notion that we are somehow violating Pakistan’s sovereignty by helping its military deal with extremism. As the Vice President pointed out, it is the extremists in Pakistan who are violating Pakistan’s sovereignty and sullying its good name. And what we’re trying to do is to help Pakistan restore full sovereignty. And so I think that statement speaks for itself.
Q What kind of reaction did you get from the Pakistanis about what he said, in terms of the misconceptions?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Extremely positive. In fact, after the statements, as they were walking out, Prime Minister Gilani complimented the Vice President on his statement, and seemed extremely positive about it.
Q Did he know he was going to say that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No -- well, we told the Pakistanis generically what the statement was about. We didn’t share it with them in advance, but we told them that there would be a strong statement about the governor and that we would be dealing with some of these misconceptions, and also reminding people of the partnership that we’ve been trying to build, and the way we’ve delivered on that partnership over the past year, in terms of the civilian assistance, in terms of military assistance, in terms of flood relief, in terms of moving away from this transactional relationship, building a long-term partnership. So I think that was all very well received.
The other thing that was striking -- I talked to our ambassador the day after, as did [my colleague], and the coverage in the Pakistani press and media of the Vice President’s remarks was quite remarkable. Urdu-language papers and media, English-language -- covered the remarks extensively. They were quite positive, including publications that are typically not enthusiastic about the United States. They underscored the remarks that he made about the assassination of the governor, particularly the comment that the societies that tolerate such actions often are consumed by them. And also actually the question of sovereignty -- that was picked up a lot.
So our Embassy thought it was quite -- the coverage was quite significant, both in terms of the fact that they repeated verbatim a lot of what the Vice President said, and also the commentary on it was positive.
Q So the purpose of that -- was that to prepare the Pakistani people, perhaps, for these kinds of aggressive tactics -- cross-border operations -- to tell the Pakistanis that we’re not their enemy; change public opinion in Pakistan? Was that part of the purpose?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It was to communicate directly with the Pakistani people and to deal with the fact that, as the Vice President said, when you read the newspapers and magazines in Pakistan, and opinion leaders, when you watch the media, you often hear things and read things that, as an American, you think just do not reflect our intentions or our policies.
And it’s not that we’re immune to this -- it happens in our own media from time to time, as well -- but the Vice President thought it was very important to, in a very straightforward and direct manner, to take on some of these misconceptions, but also to acknowledge criticisms of the United States by Pakistan that we think are legitimate, particularly the concern in Pakistan that we will abandon them after the problem that we’re trying to deal with now together, al Qaeda, is resolved. And that's very understandable, given the history after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath.
So that was the purpose. And, you know, I think the Vice President believes that speaking very directly and candidly and taking on these criticisms with a partner is a very effective way to do business and to reach people. And the reaction of the Pakistani media suggests that that's correct.
Where this goes from here, I can’t tell you, but this is an enduring -- this has to be an enduring conversation. The relationship with Pakistan has been based on trends and policies that have built up over decades, and turning around problematic aspects of the relationship takes time, and it requires sustained dialogue and conversation.
I should add Secretary Clinton, when she was in Pakistan a year ago, did a tremendous job in really starting that conversation and addressing many of these issues also very directly. And I think the reaction she got was extremely positive.
But you have to do this in a sustained, consistent way, and the Vice President thought it was important for that reason.
Q How do you do that in a sustained, consistent way? I mean, what’s the next steps --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, for example, of course we want to have as much senior-level engagement as possible, but day in, day out our Embassy and our State Department are engaged in an effort that is, I think, unique in taking on what we believe are misplaced criticisms and misunderstandings of the United States and our policies. And over time, if you’re doing that and engaging in a very proactive way, hopefully over time you have some impact.
But look, at the end of the day, changing the perception about any country has to be based on the policies you’re pursuing, not what you’re saying about them. And so we also have to demonstrate that the kinds of policies we’re pursuing are policies that make sense for the people of Pakistan. We think that they are. We think that the more they understand the work we’re doing with the government, with civil society, with businesses, it is something that's benefiting them. And the more we get that word out, the more we think we can change the perception over time.
Q The other thing on that was, was what the Vice President said was somewhat of a preview of what we’re likely to hear from the President when he travels there later this year?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't want to in any way preview what the President may do or may say. We’ll let him speak for himself. But I think you’re seeing a fairly consistent theme from this administration, including Secretary Clinton, including the Vice President, including our daily interactions, where we are working very hard to, in a very direct way, talk about the differences of opinion that we have, to talk in a very direct way about the perceptions, some of which we think are ill-founded, and to tackle them head-on, because that's what friends and partners need to do. You need to speak very clearly and truthfully to each other and to listen.
We’re also trying very, very hard to listen in Afghanistan, to President Karzai, in Pakistan, to the government, to the people. And I think the more we reflect that and the more we act on that, the better off we’ll be.
Q When you say, “We’re trying to listen,” what are they saying? And in particular, how did the meeting with the military leaders in Pakistan go?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me give you an example, in terms of what they’re saying. President Karzai has had concerns about some of the policies we’re pursuing, particularly -- I would say -- better to say some of the tactics that are involved with the policies we’re pursuing, which he’s been quite vocal about. He’s had longstanding concerns about civilian casualties. We’ve made a huge effort to reduce them, and we have, and that's paying dividends. He’s had concerns about some of the other aspects of our strategy that we’ve also worked hard to see if we could change to -- again, make sure that we’re all on the same page.
So we’re trying hard to hear what our partners are saying and make sure that, to the extent it advances our interests, as well, we’re acting on them.
Q Did he bring those issues up in the meetings this trip?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What he reflected was, I think, again, being more in sync and in alignment than we’ve been on the strategy, and what we’re trying to accomplish. I think the meeting was extremely positive in that sense.
But again, there's also an acknowledgement by President Karzai and certainly by the Vice President that we’ve got a lot of hard work to do, and none of this is without real -- without fragility, none of this is irreversible, and they certainly both acknowledge that.
Q Can you just --
Q Can we ask about Iraq?
Q Yeah, tell us about Iraq.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, sure, sure. Look, in Iraq, as you know, this was the Vice President’s seventh trip since 2009. I think as you all saw, he has rather significant relationships with virtually all of Iraq’s leaders. He knows them well. They know him well.
And really this trip was designed to do two things. First of all, it was to underscore the fact that Iraq has had a very significant achievement with the formation of a new government. As the Vice President has said, the really big story in Iraq over the last couple of years is the emergence of politics as the basic way of doing business, and not violence. And that's paying huge dividends. It took the Iraqis a long time, but they got a government and they got it by working together in the political system. And the government they produced is broad-based, it brings in virtually all of the different major blocks representing the major communities, and that has real promise for moving Iraq forward. So that was the most important aspect of this.
But second, the Vice President spent considerable amount of time with each of the leaders talking about the agenda going forward. The Iraqis have a lot of important work to do internally now that the government has formed to move forward. There are big issues that need to be resolved: oil law, dealing with disputed internal boundaries, working on the relationship with their neighbors, bringing all of their Chapter VII obligations to a close. The Vice President presided over the closure of most of those obligations in December, but there remain, for example, the issues of Kuwait that need to be resolved.
And also, tremendous potential. The Iraqi economy is projected to grow at over 6 percent this year, over 7 percent next year. We’ve seen oil production increase as more and more production is coming online. But there’s a lot of work to do to bring that forward and to actually maximize the potential.
And so that was really the conversation. And in particular, what the Vice President heard from everyone he talked to was the desire for a strong relationship with the United States and to bring the Strategic Framework Agreement that we have, which calls for cooperation across the board -- economic cooperation, trade and investment, culture, education, security -- to really bring that to fruition. And so one of the things we focused on is how we move that forward and how we bring our senior officials together to work out very concrete projects.
And then finally, I think as you heard, the Vice President wanted to put a spotlight on the military, the U.S. military, that remains in Iraq. They continue to pursue a very important mission and a dangerous mission, and he wanted to make sure that they get the credit they deserve for the extraordinary job that they’re doing every day, as well as to talk to our folks at the State Department at the Embassy for assuming a tremendous responsibility, going forward, as they pick up a lot of the responsibilities that our military has had.
So that was pretty much the agenda. And I got to say it was very positive across the board. I think we came away feeling that the Iraqis, for all of the remaining challenges, including closing out some pieces of government formation, like setting up this National Council on Higher Policies, naming a Minister of Defense, Minister of the Interior, that they were in a good place in terms of the potential for cooperation.
Again, none of this is easy. There's a lot of effort that still has to be made. But I think we come away feeling like this is moving in a good direction.
Q How much longer do you think the Vice President will play this role in Iraq?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President asked him to continue to play this lead role in overseeing the implementation of our Iraq policy, because we’ve got a very important year, going forward. We are going down from 50,000 troops to no troops, as we make good on the agreement between the United States and Iraq. We are building up our civilian engagement, building up the Embassy effort. The State Department, the Embassy, as I said, are taking responsibilities that are quite remarkable in their breadth and in their depth.
And so the President is very intent on keeping a sustained focus from the White House on Iraq as we move forward this year to ending the war responsibly, because that's ultimately what this is about, and building a strong relationship with Iraq. And so he’s asked the Vice President to continue to do that. The Vice President will continue to convene monthly Cabinet-level meetings on Iraq. I suspect he’ll continue to go to Iraq on occasion. He’ll certainly continue to be in regular contact.
Q Will he want to bring us with him when he goes? (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He said to us that he thinks that we cannot go to Iraq unless you guys are along, so we’ll be getting you frequent flier miles and all the other benefits that come with that.
Q Thanks a lot.
END 6:57 P.M. Arabian Standard Time