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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on Afghanistan -- Via Conference Call

Via Conference Call

1:12 P.M. BST

MS. HAYDEN:  Hi, everyone.  Thanks for joining us today.  We have a call for you that is on Afghanistan.  The call is on background with senior administration officials.  That call is embargoed until 10:00 a.m. Eastern Time and 3:00 p.m. here in Northern Ireland. 

You’ll have to bear with us a little bit -- our speakers, our briefers are both here in Northern Ireland and in D.C. 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks, everybody, for joining the call.  I’ll just say a few comments and turn it over to my colleague. 

Today is an important day for our ongoing effort in Afghanistan for two purposes.  In Bagram, last year, the President laid out a strategy for Afghanistan and how we could responsibly and successfully end the war there that had five pillars.  And two key pillars of that strategy were the ongoing transition of security responsibility to the Afghans and the pursuit of a political process that allows Afghans to reconcile with one another after so many years of war.

Earlier today, there was an important milestone on the security transition as we fulfilled the milestone that was agreed to at the NATO Summit in Chicago to transition responsibility for security to an Afghan lead across the country so that Afghan National Security Forces are in the lead for the responsibility of security, with our full support, of course.  And this is a key milestone on the way to the complete transition of responsibility for security to Afghans by the end of next year.

At the same time, we also want to discuss today an important development as it relates to the political and reconciliation pillar of our strategy, which is the opening of a Taliban office in Doha for the purpose of negotiations with the Afghan government in pursuit of reconciliation.

My colleague will walk you through some of the details of this.  I’ll just provide some opening context from the President. He has personally been involved in working through this process with President Karzai of Afghanistan since he was in Bagram.  And they have spoken frequently about how to move forward with an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led reconciliation process that provides an opportunity for there to be discussions amongst Afghans and a pursuit of a peaceful resolution of differences among some of the parties within Afghanistan. 

This was a key topic of discussion in January when President Karzai visited the White House and it’s something that the President has spoken to President Karzai about in each of their interactions since then, on the phone and on videoconference. 

Also the President has been involved with the Emir of Qatar in discussions about the support that they could provide to this reconciliation process, and it was a key topic of discussion when the Emir visited Washington earlier this spring.

Here at the G8, the President was able to brief his fellow G8 leaders on this development last night at the leaders working dinner and received a positive response.  I think there’s significant international support for the notion of a reconciliation process even with all the attendant difficulties. So the President was able to update his fellow leaders on this last night as a key part of the discussions on Afghanistan.

With that, I'll turn it over to my colleague to give you some additional context on what’s taking place.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Okay, thank you.  So later today in Doha, the Taliban will release a statement that says two things:  First, that they oppose the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries; and second, that they support an Afghan peace process.  These are two statements which we've long called for and together, they fulfill the requirements for the Taliban to open an office, a political office, in Doha for the purposes of negotiation with the Afghan government.

Accordingly, the Qatari government today will issue a statement announcing the opening of the office in Doha.  And we welcome this.  These statements represent an important first step towards reconciliation -- a process that, after 30 years of armed conflict in Afghanistan, will certainly promise to be complex, long and messy, but nonetheless, this is an important first step.

The outcome of this process marks that the Taliban and other insurgent groups meet three end conditions:  First, that they break ties with al Qaeda; that they end the violence; and that they accept Afghanistan’s constitution, including its protections for women and minorities.  Further, recognizing that the opening of the office later today is but one milestone on the path toward peace, we call on the Afghan government and the Taliban to begin direct negotiations soon.

We commend President Karzai and the Afghan government for their determination to end the conflict and build a future of security, peace, and prosperity for the Afghan people.  The United States will continue to support these critical efforts and our commitment to a unified, democratic, and sovereign Afghanistan will endure.  

We know you'll have many questions about how this office will operate, and I think the statement that Qatar will put out later today provides some important descriptions.  We would direct you to the Qataris for more specific information about the office.  But we will do our best to provide you with our understanding of its mandate and our expectations for the process, as well as our expected interactions in Doha. 

The other thing I would add is that as we pursue this path to peace with this important first step today, our core goal in Afghanistan is always primary, and that is to defeat al Qaeda and ensure that Afghanistan can never again be a safe haven for international terrorism.  While the peace process is just beginning in earnest today with the opening of the Doha office, our troops continue to serve alongside Afghan troops in the mission in Afghanistan.  We plan to continue our robust support to the Afghan security forces, including through our commitments we made at the NATO Summit in Chicago just a year ago. 

We have long said that this conflict will likely not be won on the battlefield, and that is why we support the opening of this office.  But neither do we plan to let up in our fight against international terrorism in Afghanistan, or in our support to Afghan forces who, as my colleague mentioned, today in Kabul, assumed the lead for operations throughout the country.  Our military and diplomatic efforts continue to be mutually reinforcing. 

And we're happy to take your questions, but first, my colleague has some opening comments. 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  Well, I think it's clear that this is but the first step on what, if it's successful, will be a very long road.  Many insurgencies end in negotiated peaces -- those of you who are taking this call from Northern Ireland are in a good place to recall at least one such instance -- but there's no guarantee that this will happen quickly, if at all.

The core of this process is not going to be the U.S. Taliban talks -- those can help advance the process, but the core of it is going to be negotiations among Afghans, and the level of trust on both sides is extremely low, as one would expect.  So it's going to be a long, hard process if indeed it advances significantly at all.

So we're at the beginning of a difficult road.  But there is a pre-history here as well, and I'd like to express appreciation and recognition for some of the people and governments that helped bring us this far. 

First of all, there are Dick Holbrooke and Marc Grossman, who significantly advanced this process, who worked very hard to initiate such a peace process.  President Karzai, of course, has embraced the concept and desire for peace talks with the Taliban many years before the U.S. government itself embraced the concept.  It was Secretary Clinton in early 2011 in a speech to the Asia Society, as I recall, that first announced the administration’s support for direct negotiations with the Taliban.

There’s been a lot of personal diplomacy since then.  We’ve already heard about the efforts that President Obama has made.  Secretary Kerry has similarly been personally and heavily involved in this since his entering office as Secretary of State. 

And finally, there are a number of governments that contributed significantly over the period since 2011 in bringing about this outcome.  Those governments include Germany, Norway, the United Kingdom and, of course, the government of Qatar, who has agreed to actually host these talks and work closely with us in defining the purpose of the talks and arrangements for them.

And finally I’d also note that in recent months, the government of Pakistan has been particularly helpful in urging the other side -- that is, the Taliban -- to come forward and join in a peace process.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Great.  With that, we’ll take your questions.

Q    Hi, everyone.  Thanks for doing the call.  First of all, I’d just like to ask if you could do something on the record that we can actually use with a quote.  But my questions are can you talk about what the U.S. involvement in direct talks with the Taliban will be, if any, and the President’s role in direct talks with the Taliban?  And in light of the violence today with Karzai’s announcement, what confidence do you actually have that the Afghans are ready to take the lead?  What does that mean that they’re going to take the lead role?  Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I’ll just say a couple of things.  First on the process point -- we’ll be doing a gaggle later today so we’ll have an opportunity to be on the record.  We just wanted to give you this context.

The short answer to your question is the U.S. will have a role in direct talks, but this is a negotiation that will have to be led by Afghans.  And I’ll turn it over to my colleague to provide more elaboration on that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, I think the U.S. will have its first formal meeting with the Taliban, and indeed first meeting with the Taliban for several years, in a couple of days in Doha.  And I would expect that to be followed within days with a meeting between the Taliban and the High Peace Council, which is the structure that President Karzai has set up to represent Afghanistan in talks of this nature.

And, as I said, I think that given the level of distrust among Afghans, it’s going to be a slow process to get that dialogue, that intra-Afghan dialogue moving.  And the United States will encourage and help facilitate that.  But the talks are largely going to be paced by the success or failure in that dialogue, and so I wouldn’t be looking for early results.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Let me just add on the milestone and Afghan forces taking the lead.  Look, this is an important inflection point because, as you appreciate, the U.S. forces for years were in the lead; then for a period of years we partnered with the Afghan security forces, fighting alongside of them.  And now we’ve moved in to a support and an advisory role, and the Afghans, as the milestone demarks, are in the lead across the country.

But the fights continues.  We think the Afghan security forces are increasingly capable, but they’re not yet fully responsible.  And that’s what the next 18 months are all about. And that period represents a heavy advising effort and a supporting effort with the U.S. and ISAF coalition forces that remain in Afghanistan.

We do believe that in the course of these next 18 months, we’ll go from a point where they’re in the lead to a point where by December 2014 they’ll be fully responsible.

Q    How does this fit into -- there were a number of events, other sequences that were supposed to happen, from  prisoner exchange for Sergeant Bergdahl.  I’m wondering if that is also in the works right now and if we can start looking out for that.  And the Taliban statement saying people shouldn’t use Afghanistan for aggressive purposes or to attack other countries -- is that the statement that distances the Taliban from al Qaeda?  I’m just trying to get some clarity on where all that fits in.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I’ll start and then pass it to my colleague.  On the statement, we’ve long had a demand on the Taliban that they make a statement that distances themselves from the movement from international terrorism, but made clear that we didn’t expect immediately for them to break ties with al Qaeda, because that’s an outcome of the negotiation process.  So the statement that we expect today is this first step in distancing them, distancing the movement from international terrorism.  But it’s not as far as will demand them to go at the end of the process.

So, yes, the statement about not supporting international terrorism from the soil of Afghanistan is that first step.

Let me turn to my colleague in terms of the other half of your question.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes.  Clearly, we do want to get our soldier, Sergeant Bergdahl, back.  And I would expect that detainee exchanges would be an item on the U.S.-Taliban agenda.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes.  And I'd just add, Matt, to that is that will be a discussion item.  It's not something that is agreed to at this point, so it's a topic for the types of discussions that the U.S. will have with the Taliban.

And just to echo my colleague’s point, too, our core goal in Afghanistan has always been that it not be used as a safe haven for terrorist attacks against the United States or our allies.  And so the statement begins to move in the direction of the outcome we seek, which is not just a political process, but ultimately an Afghanistan that is not a safe haven for terrorist groups.  But as my colleague said, that’s going to take continued time and effort to reach the outcome of the negotiation that we seek.

And in the interim, we'll be continuing our military operations, both within Afghanistan and, of course, against al Qaeda as well.

Q    Have you guys seen the Karzai statement today saying the talks should move to Afghanistan as soon as possible?  That seems to be setting up quite an unrealistic expectation that the Taliban is going to open this office in Doha and then get up and come straight to Kabul.  Does that cause you any concern, or do you understand how that might work?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I think we would agree with the statement with the qualification “as soon as possible.”  And I think the questioner is right to suggest that it's not going to be possible in the near future, but it is something that one should work toward eventually.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  It also very much reflects this whole process, which began with a series of loya jirgas that Karzai held in 2010 and 2011.  It includes the Karzai visit here to Washington in January.  And this is an Afghan initiative and it's a perfect representation of what we mean by Afghan-led, Afghan-owned.  So if the Afghan delegation makes this a priority in their engagements with the Taliban, then that’s completely in keeping with Afghan ownership.

Q    Thank you for doing this.  Why do you not consider this as a major breakthrough?  Why are you a little bit cautious in explaining this as a big achievement?  And secondly, can you give us a sense of the role that Pakistan played in bringing the Taliban back to the negotiations table?  And finally, when you talk with the Taliban, at what level the talks would be, and who will be representing the U.S. in those talks?  Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, I guess the reason for caution is partially personal; I've been engaged in talks like this before, and some succeed and some don’t.  Also, I spent the last 11 years outside government in a think tank -- and did a number of studies on the peace process, on post-conflict stabilization, and found that most conflicts did eventually end through some process of this sort, but that it many cases, it took a number of years and that there were false starts.

So I think we need to be realistic.  This is a new development, a potentially significant development.  But peace is not at hand. 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  And on the role of Pakistan -- you had address that earlier, I guess. 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes.  No, I mean, I think Pakistan has been genuinely supportive of a peace process for Afghanistan.  I think there has in the past been skepticism about their support, but in recent months I think we've seen evidence that there is genuine support and that they've employed their influence such as it is to encourage the Taliban to engage, and to engage in this particular format. 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Let me just add that Pakistan’s leaders have made clear for several years now that they understand that there's no stability in Pakistan without stability in Afghanistan.  So they understand that the security situation in the two countries are linked very tightly, so their support, as my colleague just described, is very much in keeping with their own national interest. 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, and again, the important point I'd stress is that this fits into a strategy in which we're moving forward on each track outlined by the President in Bagram.  We’re continuing to train Afghan National Security Forces.  We’ve transitioned security responsibility to an Afghan lead across the country.  We’ve negotiated a strategic partnership with Afghanistan that will provide for U.S. support after 2014 in our discussions around how to help them provide for two security missions -- counterterrorism, and training and equipping Afghans.

But also we feel that a political process is an important part of how we end this war, and so today is an important first step in that process, but it’s by no means the conclusion of that process. 

And then the fifth element of our strategy was having a regional buy-in for stability in South Asia.  And the constructive partnership of countries like Pakistan in supporting reconciliation I think is an indicator that we are moving forward and seeking to get that type of regional consensus.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We’ll take the next question.

Q    Thanks so much for doing this.  You touched a little bit on what you would be talking about in the U.S. talks, but I’m wondering, can you just shape out a little bit about some of the issues that, while you’re not part of the Afghan talks, you said that they could help the reconciliation process?  What specifically beyond detainee exchanges do you expect to be talking about with the Taliban, and how do you think it can help this along?  And are you going to be the one that will be leading the talks?  Could you talk a little bit more about these upcoming talks in Doha?  Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, I mean, I think that the first meeting is likely to be just an exchange of agendas rather than any substantive, detailed discussion.  We’ll tell them what we want to talk about; they’ll tell us what they want to talk about; and we’ll both then adjourn and consult on next steps, and then have another meeting in a week or two later.

One of the things we want to talk about from the beginning is how they’re going to cut ties with al Qaeda -- how quickly, exactly how they’re going to do it, what it means.  So that will be one item.

A second item will be stressing that we do see this as primarily an intra-Afghan negotiation.  The U.S. has certain interests that are unique or at least important to us, but most of the issues that need to be resolved if there’s going to be peace and stability in Afghanistan are issues that only can be resolved among the Afghans.  And so we’re going to be urging them to talk seriously to their Afghan government counterparts.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I would just add to that, as my colleague mentioned earlier, that we obviously have an interest in the safe return of Sergeant Bergdahl who’s been know away from us for four years. 

Q    First of all, I’d like to try to find out how did this all come about.  Did the Taliban reach out to the Afghan government, or was it the U.S. and Afghans who reached out to the Taliban for opening this office and these talks?  And secondly, who’s doing the negotiations here for the Taliban?  Are they senior representatives from Mullah Omar?  And the Haqqani Network, are they involved at all?  And if not, what does that mean for the way forward?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Let me take a stab at this and then I’ll pass to my colleague.  So in terms of the dialogue that led to the opening of the office today, it was the result of multiple parties over several years.  All the parties -- the main parties have already been mentioned.  So my colleague mentioned the international players.  Obviously, the core players here are the government of Afghanistan, Qatar, Pakistan, and the U.S.  And, literally, it’s been months and months of sort of diplomatic state work to get us to a point where we think the office will open later today.

We do believe that the Taliban Political Commission, as they call themselves -- which is now based in Doha -- are the authorized, fully authorized representatives of the movement, and authorized by Mullah Omar himself.  They declare that about themselves, and that’s our understanding based on all the reporting.

Q    The Haqqani Network?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So we considered the Haqqani Network an especially dangerous element of the overall Taliban movement.  So the Haqqanis themselves declare themselves part of the overall movement, and we have all evidence that supports that claim.

Now, they’re especially dangerous because they tend to strike at the heart of the capital, in Kabul.  And they’re an especially capable element of the Taliban insurgency, so we consider them a fully subordinate part of the overall insurgency.

Q    But, again, are they taking part in negotiations or are they on the outside?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So when the Taliban movement opens the office and is represented by its political commission, that political commission represents, as we understand it, the Haqqani element as well.  We don’t know the exact makeup of the Taliban delegation, but we believe that it broadly represents, as authorized by Mullah Omar, the entire movement to include the Haqqanis.

Q    Hi.  Thank you very much for doing this.  I was wondering -- the Taliban have repeatedly said that they want an unconditional withdrawal of all use -- NATO forces from Afghanistan.  What kind of impact the negotiations with the Taliban will have in terms of the long-term or enduring U.S. military presence in Afghanistan?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So as my colleague has outlined, our strategy in Afghanistan has these five elements and you’ve just addressed two of them.  So one of them -- and there will be an intersection between the talks that this call addresses and our long-term enduring commitment to support Afghanistan even beyond 2014.

So the exact shape of our commitment, of our presence beyond 2014, has not been decided.  The President is considering a range of options.  And I would just say at this point that while that decision is still pending and now we have the potential to move into talks, that the five lines of the efforts that my colleague has outlined are very much mutually supporting and interdependent.  So as you make a change on one of those lines -- so, for example, open peace talks, you can imagine that it will have an impact on the others.  So exactly what those impacts are and how these lines are interdependent is not predetermined, but it’s certainly something that we’ll watch carefully as we move into talks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Let me add -- obviously, we hope these talks will lead to a diminution in violence in Afghanistan.  We don’t expect that to happen immediately, perhaps not even quickly, but we certainly hope that they do contribute to that.

The levels and nature of our presence are obviously going to be influenced, on the one hand, by levels of violence in Afghanistan, and on the other hand, by the presence or absence of international terrorists in or around Afghanistan.  To the extent the talks contribute to diminishing violence and eliminating international terrorists in and around Afghanistan, that will have an impact on decisions regarding our future presence.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  The other potential early impacts of a reduction in violence could include a facilitating of the transition to Afghan security lead.  So if Afghan forces, which are now in the lead, continue that transition under reduced violence, you can imagine that that process will go more smoothly.

And also, as we look forward to the April 2014 Afghan presidential and provincial council elections, you can imagine that a reduction in violence, if achieved by then, could have a good effect on the mechanics in the administration of that election.

Q    Hi, thanks for the call.  I just wondered if you could talk briefly about the security transition itself.  It would be my understanding that this came a little bit faster than folks expected, and I just wonder if you could speak to the confidence level that presumably General Dunford has and you all have in security forces to make this transition now.  And what, just roughly, are the zones that they are now taking that they didn’t have before?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Right, so it’s actually occurring on schedule.  So the milestone, which was recognized today in Kabul, was actually conceived and agreed among 50 heads of state at the Chicago summit last May.

The idea here is that while today Afghan forces pass into the lead for operations across the country -- so they’re doing the day-to-day security operations across the country.  The Afghan chain of command is overseeing those operations and so forth.  We still have 18 months before they’re fully responsible, meaning that we move out of the combat role in December 2014, and the Afghans are left fully responsible.

So the fact that they’re not fully responsible yet but in the lead represents the next 18 months where our forces will continue to be there in an advise-and-assist role, and further their development so that we do have confidence -- as Joe Dunford, the commander in Afghanistan stated today -- we do have confidence that by December 2014, the Lisbon goal of Afghan forces being fully responsible is achievable.  So this is just the next phase of a multi-year approach towards December 2014.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  And the only thing I’d add is with respect to both the milestone and reconciliation, including the Doha office, these have been subjects of frequent discussion between President Obama and President Karzai, and were both really the two main agenda items at the January meeting at the White House.  So in January, they had a discussion around the timing of the milestone with the understanding that that would be further worked out between ISAF commanders and Afghan National Security Forces.  But the two leaders were comfortable giving guidance to set that milestone in the spring. 

And they also discussed the opening of this office as a potential vehicle for Afghan reconciliation.  And as I said, President Obama has been frequently consulting with President Karzai about this in the months it’s followed. 

So on both these issues, we've been very tightly coordinated with the Afghan government, and feel confident that we're moving forward in a manner that advances our broader strategy; that these aren't steps being taken in isolation, but rather they're part of responsibly ending the war through a transition to Afghan security and through an open door to a political process. 

So again, we still have much more work to do in Afghanistan, but on two elements of that strategy -- transition and reconciliation -- we note some progress today that will also lead to important work to be done in the months ahead.

With that, as I said, we'll have an opportunity to speak to this later in our briefing out of the White House, but we wanted to give you this context for the developments that you're seeing unfold throughout the day.  So thanks, everybody, for getting on the call.

MS. HAYDEN:  Sorry, this is Caitlin.  Just wanted to remind people, anyone who missed it at the top, the ground rules here are these are senior administration officials, may not be named.  This is on background.  This call remains embargoed until 10:00 a.m. Eastern Time, 3:00 p.m. Northern Ireland time. 

Thanks a lot, everybody.

1:47 P.M. BST