Press Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on Strategic Partnership Agreement between the United States and Afghanistan
2:05 A.M. AFT
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hi, everyone. Thanks for joining us here -- or there; we're here. This is on background -- senior administration officials. Once we're completed with the briefing, there's no embargo so you can use it from there. I'll turn it over to my colleague.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Thanks, everybody, for getting on the call. We're happy to talk to you here from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan where the President was just able to visit with some troops. I'll just say a few words about the purpose of our visit and the President's speech, and then my colleague will discuss some of the elements of the Strategic Partnership Agreement that we signed earlier today.
President Obama traveled to Afghanistan today to sign an historic Strategic Partnership Agreement between the United States and Afghanistan, as well as to visit with our troops and to thank them for their service. He'll also shortly address the American people about the five elements of his policy to responsibly end the war in Afghanistan while achieving our objective of defeating al Qaeda and denying it a safe haven.
Again, I'll wait for my colleagues here to brief on the SPA. What I will say is that the Strategic Partnership Agreement that we reached today was something that we negotiated for 20 months with the Afghans. President Obama and President Karzai both had a goal of signing this agreement before the Chicago NATO summit later this month, and we had a goal of signing this agreement on Afghan soil to demonstrate our commitment to Afghan sovereignty and this new chapter in our relationship.
The SPA provides a long-term framework for the relationship between our two countries after the drawdown of U.S. forces. It details how our partnership will be normalized as the war comes to a responsible end. And just as we did in Iraq, we're focused on building an enduring partnership with Afghanistan that strengthens Afghan sovereignty, stability and prosperity while advancing, of course, our shared goals of defeating al Qaeda and contributing to the security of this region.
I think it's important to note that this agreement comes at a time when we have made significant progress toward achieving our core goal in Afghanistan, which of course is to defeat al Qaeda and deny the safe haven. It is also of course the one-year anniversary of the day that Osama bin Laden was taken out -- of course, a terrorist who had brought much suffering to Afghanistan and launched the 9/11 attacks against the United States from within this country. We believe, again, that we have put al Qaeda on a path to defeat, and the effort that we're doing today helps ensure the long-term security of Afghanistan and the region.
The SPA is one component of the strategy that the President will discuss later this evening about how he will responsibly end the war in Afghanistan. That strategy has five elements: Transitioning to an Afghan lead by 2014; training Afghan security forces so that they can provide for the security of Afghanistan, building an enduring partnership with Afghanistan, pursuing reconciliation within Afghanistan, and promoting regional stability.
So first, we have begun the responsible transition to the Afghans, who are moving into the lead for security here in Afghanistan. Already, I’d note nearly half the Afghan people live in areas where Afghan security forces are moving into the lead.
At the Chicago summit, our coalition will set a goal for Afghan forces to be in the lead for combat operations across the country next year. International troops will continue to train, advise and assist the Afghans, and fight alongside them when needed, but we will be shifting into a support role as the Afghans move into the lead.
And then of course we will complete that transition with Afghans taking full responsibility for the security of their country in 2014. In that context, we’ve removed 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan last year. Another 23,000 troops will leave by the end of the summer. And as the President has said, steady reduction will continue after the end of the summer.
The second component of our strategy is training Afghan security forces to get the job done, and as our troops are drawn down, (inaudible) Afghan forces surge in their size and capability. And this year, those forces will peak ahead of schedule at 352,000 Afghan troops and the Afghans will sustain that level for a number of years. In Chicago, we will come together to determine what proposals to support for a long-term security force of Afghan soldiers and police that, again, can provide for the security of their own country into the future.
The third element of our strategy, of course, is the enduring partnership with Afghanistan. And, again, my colleague will address the SPA here shortly. It send a very powerful message that as the Afghans stand up, they will continue to have the support of the United States and our allies.
I would just note within that framework, we will continue to work with the Afghans to determine our levels of support for their security forces and for their effort to pursue greater peace and prosperity here in Afghanistan.
Fourth, we are pursuing Afghan-led reconciliation. As you know, we’ve been coordinating with the Afghan government and making it clear to the Taliban that they can be a part of Afghanistan in the future if they break with al Qaeda, renounce violence and abide by Afghan law.
We believe that many members of the Taliban -- from soldiers in the field to leaders of the Taliban -- have demonstrated an interest in pursuing that reconciliation process. But they who refuse to pursue that reconciliation process now know that they will have to contend with both strong Afghan security forces backed by the United States and our allies, and again an Afghan government that is engaged in the long-term partnership with the United States.
And fifth and finally, we are building an international consensus to support peace and stability in South Asia. Within that context, we believe Pakistan can be an equal partner if they are -- can be an equal partner, and we believe that that can be done in a way that respects Pakistan’s sovereignty interest in democratic institution. What we’ve made clear here in Afghanistan and to the Pakistanis is that the United States has no design beyond, of course, an end to al Qaeda safe havens and respect for Afghan sovereignty.
I would just note again that we’re essentially pursuing several phases of our effort to responsibly end the war. We’ve already begun a phase of transition where Afghans take over parts of the country. Next year, they will be fully in the lead across the country. In 2013, we will be in a support role when we cross that milestone. And then, in 2014, this process will be complete -- the Afghans will have total responsibility for the security of their country.
And the enduring commitment to the United States on the security side beyond 2014 will be focused on two very narrow missions: continued counterterrorism efforts if we need to target al Qaeda and their affiliates in this part of the world, and continued training of Afghan security forces on Afghan facilities here in the country -- so an entirely different set of missions and presence for the United States.
With that, I’ll turn it over to my colleague. I’ll just say before I do that, of course, another critical part of this visit is thanking our troops. The President, I know, is always energized and inspired to see our men and women in uniform, and that is certainly the case here today. And so I think it’s an important opportunity for all Americans to recognize the sacrifices that they and their families are making.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good, thanks a lot. So I want to just go in depth on one of the lines of effort that my colleague talked about -- mainly partnership.
Back in May 2010, President Obama and President Karzai committed our two countries to negotiate and conclude a strategic partnership that would provide a framework for future relations, not just on security issues, but on a wide range of regional, economic, government and development issues. The two Presidents signed the agreement about an hour and a half ago down at the palace in Kabul.
The agreement details how the partnership between the United States and Afghanistan -- two sovereign powers -- will be normalized as the war comes to an end. Similar to what we did in Iraq, we are seeking an enduring partnership with Afghanistan that strengthens Afghan sovereignty, stability and prosperity, and that contributes to our shared goal of defeating al Qaeda and its extremist allies.
Importantly, the Strategic Partnership Agreement comes on the heels of two very important memoranda of understanding that were negotiated and signed by Ambassador Crocker and his counterpart, and General Allen and his counterpart, here in Kabul over the course of the last two months -- one on detention operation and the other on night operations or special operations -- both designed to put Afghans in the lead on those two crucial issues.
In 1989, the international community abandoned Afghanistan to years of civil war followed by Taliban rule. That’s a mistake that President Obama is determined to not repeat. This agreement will make clear to the Taliban, al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups that they cannot wait us out. The SPA is not only a signal of long-term commitment by the United States, but a document that enshrines commitments by both countries to each other and with common purpose.
Our commitment to support Afghanistan’s social and economic development, security, institutions and regional cooperation is matched by Afghan commitment to us to strengthen accountability, transparency, oversight, and to protect the human rights of all Afghans, men and women.
The SPA is also a crucial component to bring the war to an end responsibly. It does not do that on its own. There are still challenges ahead. And we must continue pursuing the other pillars of our strategy that my colleague has laid out. But the SPA complements and strengthens each of those efforts.
A framework for our long-term partnership is necessary to make credible the sufficiency and sustainability of the Afghan National Security Forces. It is essential to our plans to transition to Afghan security lead, that bolsters our efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, where they can talk about the future of Afghanistan with the Afghan government, and publicly outlining plans for our future presence, will help reduce anxiety in the region about our intentions and provide Afghanistan’s neighbors with the assurances they need to take their own steps critical to supporting long-term Afghan peace and stability.
When it comes to an enduring U.S. presence, President Obama has been clear -- we do not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan. Instead, the Strategic Partnership Agreement commits Afghanistan to provide U.S. personnel access to and use of Afghan facilities through 2014 and beyond. The SPA provides for the possibility of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014 for the purposes of two clear and cavined missions: training Afghan forces and targeting the remnants of al Qaeda.
The agreement commits the United States and Afghanistan to initiate negotiations on a bilateral security agreement, to supersede our current status of forces agreement. To be clear, the strategic partnership itself does not commit the United States to any specific troop level or levels of funding in the future, as those are decisions that will be made in consultation with the U.S. Congress. It does, however, commit the United States to seek funding from Congress on an annual basis to support the training, equipping, advising and sustaining of Afghan National Security Forces, as well as for social and economic development assistance.
President Obama intends to maintain the downward trajectory of our troop numbers as he has announced. He will not make specific decisions on further drawdowns before the current drawdown is complete in September in 2012. But you’ve also all heard him say that reduction will continue at a steady pace. When he makes these decisions, he will do so based on our national interest, taking into account the advice of our military and in consultation with Afghan and ISAF partners.
So let me just, in closing, list the six sections that encompass the Strategic Partnership Agreement, which if it is not yet made public, it will be made public shortly, so you’ll be able to see these for yourself: Protecting and promoting democratic values; achieving long-term security; reinforcing regional security and cooperation; social and economic development; strengthening Afghan institutions and government; and finally, a section on implementing arrangements and mechanisms.
Importantly, the agreement creates a United States-Afghanistan bilateral commission that will be chaired by foreign ministers on both sides that will meet semi-annually and that will oversee implementation of this agreement and other agreements with the Afghans.
So with that lay-down on the SPA, why don’t we open it to questions.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Operator, we’ll be happy to take some questions.
Q Thank you very much for taking the time to do the call and thank you for your service. I’d like to ask a question about the reconciliation piece you mentioned. You didn’t talk at all about the month-long effort by the administration to negotiate directly with the Taliban a deal that would involve the Taliban opening up a representative office in Qatar and the potential release of five Taliban commanders from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay. Could you please tell us what’s the status of those negotiation? Are you still in direct contact with the Taliban and are your discussions with the Taliban part of the conversations that you’re having with the Afghan government today in Kabul? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks for the question. As related to reconciliation, it is one of the five lines of effort that my colleague laid down. It’s a critical piece of the puzzle. We do, obviously, continue to remain in contact with various Taliban leaders that we have several indications of intense interest in the reconciliation process.
As it relates to the one strand of reconciliation that you referred to, for reasons that appear to have to do with internal political turbulence among the Taliban, those efforts have been basically put on hold for the time being. The Taliban understands very well what needs to happen in that channel for those talks to re-continue and I think to restart and we’ll see what they do with that knowledge. But it’s quite clear to us that there’s a range of interest among Taliban in reconciliation and there’s quite a bit of internal political turbulence within the Taliban on that score.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And I’ve got one or two quick points. First of all, as these reconciliation discussions have been ongoing, Afghan-led reconciliation discussions, we’ve see continued progress at the integration of certain lower-level fighters who have sought to leave the Taliban insurgency and become a part of Afghanistan’s future. So that line of effort continues as well.
And then just secondly, with the Strategic Partnership Agreement that we’re reaching today, coupled with the Afghan security forces that we’re building and garnering international support for going forward, there’s a clear message to the Taliban that those who pursue a path to peace can be a part of a better future in Afghanistan. Those that do not will have to contend with a very strong Afghan National Security Force that has the backing of the United States, NATO and the international community.
We’ll take the next question.
Q Hi, two things. First, I guess this will be answered when we see the specific language of the agreement, which we haven't yet, but can you just tell me whether it does indeed cover the 10 years that had been planned for it to cover earlier? We haven't seen any specific reference to the expiration date yet. And more generally, aren't you opening yourselves to charges of fairly craven politics here by doing this on the anniversary of the bin Laden raid? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'll take your second question first. I think that what could not be clearer is that for 20 months, the United States and Afghanistan have been negotiating a Strategic Partnership Agreement. The negotiations were completed in recent weeks, and the documents of the Strategic Partnership Agreement went to the Presidents for their review. The two Presidents had set a clear goal for the agreement to be signed for the summit in Chicago. So we had a window of time here of a number of weeks to sign this agreement. It was the President's preference to sign that agreement on Afghan soil. It was President Karzai's preference to invite President Obama to sign that agreement on Afghan soil, because it's an indication of the progress that we have made together and the future that we are building together here in Afghanistan.
Given that window of time, it is certainly a resonant day for both of our countries given the anniversary of the bin Laden operation. Osama bin Laden set up his safe haven for al Qaeda here in Afghanistan, and frankly, his actions brought great suffering to the Afghan people over many years. Of course, his attacks on 9/11 also began our involvement in Afghanistan and the war that we are seeking to responsibly end today.
So the bin Laden operation, of course, is a part of our core objective here in Afghanistan, which is to destroy al Qaeda and to deny them safe haven going forward. And the Strategic Partnership Agreement that we're signing, the very important piece of business that we accomplished today, is a part of that effort.
I'd also just add that it was already the President's intention to spend this anniversary with our troops because, of course, it was an extraordinarily capable group of U.S. servicemembers who carried out that operation. What better place to spend time with the troops than with those here in Afghanistan who are in harm's way? So I think this was a unique opportunity to achieve a core objective of our policy in Afghanistan -- to sign this agreement, to do it on Afghan soil, to visit with our troops, and again, to do so as we mark a point in time that put al Qaeda on the path to defeat, and again, helps open the door to a better future for both Afghanistan and the United States.
And I'll turn it over to my colleague on your other question.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, Anne, on the question of whether the 10-year agreement -- it is a 10-year agreement.
Q Hi. I wonder if you can talk a little bit more about the long-term troop presence. Is there any discussion between President Obama and President Karzai today on how many troops you've outlined, what those missions would be? Do we have any greater clarity of what the post-2014 troop strength will be?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, thanks for the question. It was a very good bilat that the Presidents had. They did not discuss numbers of troops. As you understand, I think the agreement itself allows for a troop presence after 2014, as was agreed in the Lisbon summit by the ISAF countries and by NATO, obviously. But it does not commit it to any particular level.
The bottom line is that that kind of decision will be made on a national basis, and as I said, in consultation with ISAF and the Afghan country. But the purpose of that goes back to our core goal, which is to dismantle and ultimately strategically defeat al Qaeda, and to deny them safe haven in Afghanistan. So any decisions about post-2014 presence will be guided by that fact and by our efforts to train Afghan National Security Forces to ensure that this does not become a safe haven again for al Qaeda.
Q Thanks very much. You guys have lots of positive language about responsibility, social development, enduring partnerships, ending the war. But in strict military terms, the U.S. is withdrawing while the Taliban think they're winning the war, and the Afghans are reorganizing their politics in expectation of a Taliban greater power. So, frankly, are you simply spiking the ball and walking away from the fight with the Taliban?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The short answer to your question is no. The longer answer to your question is that every indication is that the Taliban as well as other actors in the region recognize that a Strategic Partnership Agreement between the Afghan government and the United States, as well as the Strategic Partnership Agreement that the Afghans have signed now with five or six other countries are indications that they -- nefarious actors cannot wait out the international community; that the Afghans will continue to have partnerships across the international community, including with the United States. And we'll continue to make sure that we are providing them the resources, for example, to train and equip the very capable Afghan National Security Forces who have performed exceedingly well in light of a series of very significant challenges over the course of the last several months.
So we’re very realistic about the challenges that we face here. The Presidents were very realistic about the challenges we face when they had the discussion in their bilateral meeting today. But the bottom line is this agreement, like the memoranda of understanding that has been signed over the course of the last two months, are indications that we have the pieces in place to successfully execute on our core national security prerogative in Afghanistan, which is to dismantle and ultimately strategically defeat al Qaeda and to ensure that it can never come back here to a safe haven.
Q Hi, there. Thank you all for doing the call. Two questions. If we could go back to the troops, again, who could potentially remain beyond 2014, is there a way to say, definitively, whether or not this might include combat forces? And then secondly, can you talk a little bit about how much the recent incidents -- the burning of the Korans and the killing spree that left a number of Afghans dead -- how much did those incidents complicate the efforts to finalize the Strategic Partnership Agreement?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, just on your second question, I think the clear point is that they did not complicate that progress. In fact, we were able to negotiate very complex issues like the transfer of detention facilities to the Afghans and the transition of special forces operations to the Afghans in the context of those very difficult and tragic circumstances, and then close out the Strategic Partnership Agreement. So I think it shows that the United States and Afghanistan, even given the tragic incidents of war, are able to work together on very difficult issues.
On your first question, I think what’s clear is we are going to be dramatically reducing the number of U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan as we move forward with our transition to 2014. We’ll be down to 68,000 by the end of the summer. There will be steady reductions after that. Our missions will change as we move into a support role and the Afghans are in the lead next year. And then of course, the Afghans will be fully responsible for security.
If we do have any presence here after 2014, it would be on Afghan facilities. We will not be building any permanent bases in this country. We will not be patrolling Afghanistan cities and mountains. That will be Afghan security forces who will carry out those functions.
The only missions that we are contemplating and discussing with the Afghans involves counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda, which we would need to carry out to ensure that al Qaeda cannot reestablish a safe haven in Afghanistan, and then continued training of Afghan forces. But again, these would be dramatically reduced number of U.S. troops focused on a very narrow set of missions that would be entirely different from the type of combat that we’ve been engaged in over the course of the last decade. This would be counterterrorism and training of Afghan security forces who will have the responsibility for carrying out combat operations.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay, guys, we’re going to have to wrap this up. I want to thank you for your participation. Thank you all very much. Have a good night.
END 2:34 A.M. AFT