the WHITE HOUSEPresident Barack Obama

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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Press Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on Upcoming Afghan Parliamentary Elections

4:14 P.M. EDT

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Let me just start by saying we’ll do this on background as senior administration officials.  And I just wanted to start by just giving a sense of where we are in Afghanistan.  And we like to take these opportunities occasionally to check in around some milestones as they come up.

But obviously we face a difficult situation in Afghanistan with our ongoing efforts there.  Recently, we just completed the deployment of the planned additional resources that the President announced in December, so we have the resources in place that the President deployed in December and are now at our highest operational tempo with regard to our security operations in Afghanistan.

On Monday, the President held I believe his eighth monthly session with his national security team on Afghanistan.  These are the monthly assessments of his strategy that he asked for after he made the decision about his strategy going forward in December.  And that monthly session, as usual, focused on both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and with regard to Afghanistan, focused on both the security situation and the governing situation. 

One of the milestones that we’re approaching, however, is the Afghan parliamentary elections this weekend, and so we just wanted to take this opportunity to provide a little bit of background and context surrounding this Afghan-led event.  So with that, I’ll pass things over to my colleague.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Let me just take five minutes to outline the basics about this event on Saturday.  So we’ll have the first Afghan-run parliamentary elections since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.  And the most important thing I said there is “Afghan-run.”  And let me just outline what’s at stake here.

The lower house of the parliament, called the Wolesi Jirga, has a total of just under 250 seats, and those seats will all be up for election on Saturday.  Though the 18th itself, Saturday, is the voting, we expect the results will play out over a number of weeks thereafter.  So unlike here in the States where we expect -- we have this expectation that we’re going to wake up the next morning and everything will be final, here we’ll get preliminary results within several days of Saturday, but certified final results are forecasted to take weeks, and are not expected until the 30th of October.

So the election story will begin on Saturday, but will actually play out over a series of weeks.  And we just want to make clear that that’s fully expected, and that’s the published schedule for the results delivery.

For those 250 seats, there are about 10 candidates for every seat.  Now, this presents -- this is both encouraging, but also presents a challenge, because on the one hand it represents a vibrant interest in the electoral process, with 10 candidates for every seat, but it also means that in the aftermath of the election, you’re going to have for every seat roughly one winner and nine losers.  And the losers, of course, will have the potential to want to complain about the results.  And that complaint process, all handled by the Afghans, is why the results will take a while, and we don’t expect final results until the 30th of October.

In terms of just getting your mindset on the scale of this, there are over 5,800 polling centers across all 34 districts in Afghanistan.  And the election itself will be administered -- has been administered, and will be conducted by what’s called the Independent Election Commission.  You’ll see that referred to as the IEC.  This is completely Afghan-run.  It’s a body set up by the Afghan constitution.  And it is -- it’s really the body which pulls off the elections.

There’s a parallel Afghan organization called the Electoral Complaints Commission, or the ECC, and this is the body that considers and decides on all complaints.  This body is already at work, because as you can imagine in the campaign process and in the run-up to the election, some complaints about violations of procedures and so forth have already been tabled.

I think I’ll stop there except to say that in the past in Afghanistan and in similar settings, we know that the insurgents -- in this case the Taliban -- will deliberately target this electoral event.  And it’s clear why they do that.  And that is because if democracy advances, they view it as a loss.  So they’re at work trying to intimidate voters and candidates, and we think they’ll physically try to contest the election event itself. 

But we are quite satisfied with the progress made in the Afghan national security forces, who have the lead in securing these thousands of voting sites and who are obviously a year more mature and developed than they were last year during the presidential elections.  And they are fresh off a rather impressive performance in security when they secured July’s Kabul conference, where over 70 foreign ministers met in a conference hosted by the Afghan government.  And it was uninterrupted by any security concerns in the course of that very prominent international event. 

So we think we’ve got a more -- a well-developed Afghan national security force in the lead here.  But we also think that the Taliban will challenge this, because they’re threatened. 

So let’s stop there and see if you have questions.

Q    Hi, thanks.  About -- in fact, exactly a year ago, the administration established a set of benchmarks and metrics to judge how things are going in Afghanistan, and to sort of present to folks on the Hill every three months.

Since then we’ve not really heard much about that.  Can you say whether those -- what those metrics are now showing in terms of the military situation, the social situation, the political situation, and if they’re showing a trend of improvement or a deterioration?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Sure.  Thanks for the question, Steve.  I’d just say a couple of things.  We obviously -- the President wanted to build in a process of assessment into his strategy in a number of ways.  So I’ll talk about several of them.

First, of course, he receives weekly reports, written reports from the field on the military and civilian side in Afghanistan about the progress of the strategy there.

Second, there is the feedback group, of course, of the monthly meetings that he has with his national security team, which we’re able to evaluate what progress has been made and what challenges there are in different aspects of the strategy and to make necessary adjustments as need be.

And then, of course, in December, we’ll have the opportunity to take a comprehensive look at the strategy out of those monthly assessments and make any adjustments if necessary.

With regard to metrics that are delivered to the Hill, there are a fairly lengthy set of metrics that we look at in a number of areas, security and governance, that are delivered on a periodic basis to the Hill, but those are a classified set of metrics.

However, of course, we do look very closely at a targeted set of metrics to assess the progress we’ve been making.  And I guess I’d just point to a number of those, and my colleague may want to jump in.  But I think that with all of the resources that the President ordered into Afghanistan in December now in place, that the administration is particularly looking at several on the security side -- five in particular.

I don’t know, do you want to take those?  Or do you want me to --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, sure.  No, I can take these on.  There are five specific, as my colleague is suggesting, five specific areas that we watch closely on the security side, which is, I take it, sort of the root of the question.

The first thing that General Petraeus routinely reports on is progress in denying the Taliban safe havens or strongholds inside Afghanistan, where over years’ worth of time they have established their marshalling yards and their home bases, if you will.  So you’ll appreciate there’s an active campaign going right now, a military campaign, to deny those safe havens in the Taliban heartland.  And these are the -- critically the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar in the south.

The second thing that General Petraeus focuses on is a ongoing campaign to target Taliban mid-grade leaders.  So these are the shadow governors of provinces and districts inside Afghanistan, and likewise their military Taliban counterparts.  And this is largely a campaign run by Special Operations Forces.  And it has reached a tempo now with the peak of the new assets arriving in Afghanistan that we have never seen before in Afghanistan.  So we’re at an all-time high in terms of tempo, operating against those Taliban leaders.

The third thing is that President Karzai has recently approved two programs that we think will have a sort of bottom-up or a grassroots impact on the insurgency.  The first is what’s called the Afghan Local Police Program, and this is a program where communities essentially secure themselves with assistance through the Ministry of Interior.  And the second program at the grassroots is a program which opens the door to local Taliban fighters to reenter Afghan communities.  This is typically referred to as reintegration.

And then I mentioned five, if you’re still with me -- the fifth program that General Petraeus routinely reports on to the President is progress in developing the Afghan national security forces.  So this is both the army and the police.  So when we talk about metrics from Petraeus to President Obama, those are typically the five categories that he reports on.

Q    Thank you for doing this.  A lot of fraud in last year’s elections was tied to security or a lack thereof.  I mean, how confident this time around that the violence will not cast further doubt on the legitimacy of the Karzai government?  And I would ask, I mean, how much faith do you really have in these so-called independent commissions to settle any disputes in a transparent way?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  First of all, so there’s a lot there in your question, both security and then sort of the anti-fraud measures.  Let me take on the second one first.  There are a number of reforms that have been put in place by these -- by the IECs, so the commission which runs the election, that will mitigate or decrease the risk of the kind of fraud we saw last year. 

And let me just tick off a few of these so that you’ve got a flavor for what I’m talking about.  First of all, over 6,000 Iraqi -- sorry, Afghan individuals who were found to have been involved with fraud last year have been barred from participating in this year’s elections.

Second, provincial electoral officials have been rotated out of places where there were problems last year to other places.  So the idea here was to geographically rotate some of the people so that they were not placed under the same undue influence that perhaps they were under last fall.

There’s also been a series of sort of administrative or mechanical checks put in place.  So these have to do with the tracking and security of the paper ballots and other sensitive materials; had to do with improving the procedures for counting the votes and then reporting those votes higher; and processes in place for improving monitoring and observation.  Now, this is both by Afghan monitors, but also a healthy body of international monitors.  So there’s a whole set of processes which have been put in place.

If I had to cite only one, the one process that I think will make a difference is that in conjunction with the United Nations, the Karzai government declared 30 days in advance of this coming Saturday -- so 18 August -- they declared precisely which polling stations would be open and which closed.  This is a decided advantage over -- or improvement over last year when, before the presidential elections, this final list wasn’t established until just two or three days before the election itself, therefore opening up opportunities for fraud on a massive scale, which we don’t think, because of this preparatory step, will be on the scale this year.

So there’s a number of reasons for us to think that the process, the administration of the elections, by way of these Afghan electoral bodies, has shown improvement.  Now, that is not to deny that the Taliban will contest these.  And it’s (inaudible) suggest that in its first-ever Afghan-administered election, that this is going to be a perfect process.

Q    Thank you.  That was kind of my question, just in terms of the potential for fraud.  I mean, part of the problem is that a lot -- in a lot of the country the security situation is not -- so that a lot of the candidates haven’t been able to get out and campaign all that much.  And so, in a lot of ways, people are voting on these campaign posters that are kind of plastered all around the country.  And what do you think the potential is for, given the fact that people aren’t allowed to go out and campaign, that votes can be bought?  I mean, maybe not necessarily that there’s fraud in the sense that like the actual vote is tainted, but the whole idea that because there isn’t like a robust campaign process, that these votes can be bought?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, you know, there are large swaths of Afghanistan which don’t suffer the level of insecurity that people in some areas of the south and the east suffer.  And those areas in particular, campaigns have been robust and active and so forth.  But as I’ve said a couple times, this is an election being held for the first time ever by the Afghans themselves, and there’s no denying that it’s being held in the face of an active insurgency, so security is going to be a challenge.

What I’m suggesting is that the Afghan forces who are in the lead in dealing with that security problem are also a year more mature than they were last year.  And we are partnered along with our NATO allies -- we’re partnered closely with these Afghan forces.

So we think given the set of circumstances that Afghanistan is in that appropriate measures have been taken.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Okay, we’ll take one more question.

Q    Hi, thanks for doing this.  My question goes back to these two commissions.  Last year, the one that was the real backstop was the second commission, the Electoral Complaints Commission, which basically called out the IEC for having been involved in a lot of fraud.  There was a huge kerfuffle about whether they’d be any international members of that this time.  What now -- where does that stand?  How confident are you that this ECC is truly independent and will, if there are examples of fraud, be able to actually call it out?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  You’re right in your depiction.  Last year the ECC was sort of the arbiter of these complaints, and that’s actually by design.

This year there are five commissioners -- like last year.  There are three appointed by President Karzai and there are two international commissioners.  The two internationals are internationally recognized election experts.

And so, in a way, the international community has partnered with the Afghans inside this five-member commission, not unlike we’re partnered with Afghanistan in almost -- in a lot of the roles, to include the security forces and so forth.  So it is a Afghan-international partnership at the ECC.

And our sense is that both the IEC -- so the administering commission -- but also the complaints commission, the ECC, are in manning, leadership and process improvements over the 2009 version.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, and I’d just close by building on my colleague’s comments to say that what we’re focused on is supporting the Afghans as they lead this electoral process.  As my colleague has pointed out, there have been steps that have been taken in a number of areas to strengthen, for instance, the security forces who will be having lead responsibility for security and some of the processes around the election to ensure the credibility of the election.

Of course, this is a challenging situation -- holding an election in the context of -- in parts of the country there being a violent insurgency.  However, I think that the fact that the Afghans are leading this election and holding it underscores their commitment to take responsibility for their own future and their commitment to building their own democracy.

So we certainly anticipate challenges associated with an election taking place in the kind of context that we have in Afghanistan today.  But we also have a great deal of respect for the Afghan people for their commitment to moving forward with this process and with the process of building their own democracy.

And that’s, of course, what we continue to support them on every day, along with our international allies and partners. 

So, with that, I thank everybody for getting on the call.  We just wanted to, again, provide an update on where we are in Afghanistan and also look ahead to the weekend.  And as my colleague said, this will then be a process that will play out over a period of time as results are tabulated, complaints are processed and eventually results are certified.  So we’ll, of course, be in touch throughout that process, and particularly in Kabul.

So thanks, everybody, for joining the call, and look forward to being in touch in the days and weeks ahead.

4:35 P.M. EDT