Remarks by James F. Dobbins Re: Current U.S. Policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Sept. 16, 2013

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–September 16, 2013 – 2:00 P.M. EDT

AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Thank you. Well, it’s a pleasure to be back here at the Foreign Press Center. I think it’s been 12 or 13 years since I was here last. I had responsibilities for Afghanistan back in late 2001, early 2002 doing rather the similar job as I am doing now as the U.S. envoy for Afghan-related issues in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I then retired from the Foreign Service and went to the RAND Corporation where I worked for 11 years. Came back at Secretary Kerry’s request in May, so I’ve only been here since May and assumed responsibility for overseeing U.S. policy with respect to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

We’re pursuing a number of interrelated transitions and operations with respect to Afghanistan. As you know, the intention is to reduce the American military presence there over the course of 2014, not to eliminate it. There will still be a significant advisory and assistance presence in 2015 and beyond, but the troop numbers will come down significantly from where they are now. We’re currently negotiating an agreement with the Afghans which would provide the legal basis for that continued American military presence, and we also anticipate that there’ll be a continued presence of other NATO partners and nations, probably several thousand as well, in the 2015 and beyond period.

We are supporting the electoral process, which is the, I think, single most important development which will affect Afghanistan’s future over the next year. And we are also, of course, maintaining a significant civilian assistance program, which is not intended to diminish, even as the American troop levels go down.

We’re also working closely with all of Afghanistan’s neighbors – most notably Pakistan, but not at all limited to Pakistan – in an effort to secure regional support for Afghanistan’s stabilization and for regional economic integration, which will make Afghanistan a crossroads and a regional hub for trade, investment, and – throughout that region.

So I’ll stop there and take questions from any or all of you.

MODERATOR: And just a reminder: Please state your name and your media organization.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. My name is Malik Siraj Akbar. I am editor of the Baloch Hal newspaper from Pakistan. Pakistan has recently decided, after an all-parties conference, political parties agreed to negotiate with Taliban, and Pakistan is also involved upon a process of releasing some of key Taliban leaders. How does the U.S. see that? Do you have, like, any objections or concerns with Pakistan negotiating with Taliban, releasing their key figures without consulting the United States? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Well, I think there’s two different – there are obviously two different Talibans, and it’s important to distinguish them. The United States supports an Afghan-led peace process, which involves – which would involve negotiation between the Government of Afghanistan and the High Peace Council that the Government of Afghanistan had established to conduct negotiations with the Taliban – peace negotiations.

The United States supports that. The United States has sought its own contacts with the Taliban in order to reinforce that message with them. Pakistan has also been helpful in this regard. I think Pakistan has also, particularly over the last six months or so, become active in supporting an Afghan reconciliation process and urging the Afghan Taliban to participate in that process.

There has been discussion about opening a Taliban political office in Doha. Some progress was made for that – toward that. There was a false start back in June. The office is not currently open, but we would like to see it open. We would like to see Doha become a forum for negotiations about peace in Afghanistan, negotiations principally between the Afghan High Peace Council and the Taliban.

In terms of the Pakistani Taliban, we, of course, have no direct role in that regard. We do understand that there was an all-parties conference in Pakistan. Certainly, the Government of Pakistan has talked to us about this issue. I visited Pakistan three times since taking up this office and on all of those occasions had opportunities to meet with the Prime Minister and with the foreign ministry and with leaders in the Pakistani military. This issue came up, but it’s not one that the United States is as directly engaged in as it is in the peace process in Afghanistan.

MODERATOR: Let’s go to the front right here.

QUESTION: Hi, Ambassador. This is Chen Weihua with China Daily. I want – are you talking about working closely with Afghan’s neighbors? And obviously, there is recently a trilateral meeting between China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and also Chinese President Xi Jinping talked about this New Silk Road, which is more sort of an economic cooperation that involves Pakistan. So and there is also this Shanghai cooperation that probably take Afghanistan and Pakistan as members. So could you share us with your vision how U.S. and China could work more closely regarding Pakistan, Afghanistan, and in the region? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Thank you. Well, we have consulted regularly and closely with China on issues related to Afghanistan and Pakistan. We support greater Chinese involvement in the stabilization of Afghanistan and in the economic development of Afghanistan, including investments that China has made and investments that China might make in the future.

We know China has also a close relationship with Pakistan. I think Chinese and American interests in this respect are largely aligned. I think China, like the United States, is concerned about the growths of violent militancy in the region. China, like the United States, would like to see greater security, greater – and diminished military in Pakistan, and China would like to see Afghanistan stabilized and no long becoming a source for potential instability in the region.

We and China – the United States and China have collaboration. For instance, just last week I welcomed 15 new Afghan diplomats to Washington for two weeks of training. This was a joint Chinese-American program. The Chinese charge joined me in welcoming them. After they spend two weeks here in Washington, they will in a month or two also spend two weeks in Beijing undergoing training from Chinese diplomats in the arts of diplomacy. And this is only one of several areas in which the U.S. and China are collaborating in this kind of advisory and capacity-building for the Afghans.

MODERATOR: Let’s go to the young lady over here.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador, for doing this. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about whether you think there’s a new opportunity (inaudible) and whether you think or how events in Syria could impact that and whether you could comment on (inaudible) following (inaudible).

AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Well, I think that if Iran and the United States are able to overcome their differences regarding Iran’s nuclear program, if there begins to be some progress in that regard, then I do see opportunities for dialogue and cooperation on a broader range of issues, including my issues, which is to say Afghanistan. As I said, I held these responsibilities back in 2001 in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and did work with all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Iran, in organizing the Bonn conference where a new government was – interim government was put together. And Iran was quite helpful. The Iranian representative at that meeting was Javad Zarif, who is now the foreign minister.

I think it’s unfortunate that our cooperation, which was, I think, genuine and important back in 2001, wasn’t able to be sustained over the past. And I think if we are able to make real progress on the nuclear agenda, then the opportunities for progress on these other issues is definitely there. I think objectively, Iran and American interests and Afghanistan are if not coincident, at least overlap significantly. Iran has historically wanted a stable, peaceful Afghanistan. It would like some of the Afghan refugees that are in Iran to go home. It would like to reduce the drug trafficking that crosses its border and creates significant problems in Iranian society. Iran has historically had bad relations with the Taliban; it’s had good relations with President Karzai and his government. Iran has contributed significantly in the economic sphere, particularly in western Afghanistan.

So there are certainly the makings of cooperation, but I think it will depend on whether the more significant problem in U.S.-Iranian relations can begin to be alleviated.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. My name is Akmal Dawi and I’m an Afghan journalist working for Voice of America. President Karzai has sought a clarification on your recent remarks about civil war in Afghanistan. Have you or your office provided that clarification yet?

Also, some Afghan officials who talk to us have increasingly expressed concerns about your position in regards to Pakistan, some even accusing you of being too much pro-Pakistan. Would you like to clarify your position on that? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Well, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul has put out a statement clarifying the issue of civil war and how one describes the situation there. I wasn’t trying to make any particular point in that interview and don’t have any problems with the way President Karzai describes the conflict that both he and we are engaged in. So I’d direct you to the statements that the Embassy put out.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MODERATOR: Wait for the microphone.

AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: I’d direct you to the statements that the Embassy has put out on that.

On the issue of Pakistan, I don’t know where those allegations would come from. I was heavily associated with the creation of the existing governance arrangements in Afghanistan, the creation of an interim government, which, of course, eventually led to the constitution, and remain heavily committed to the survival of the new democratic constitutional arrangements as they exist in Afghanistan.

MODERATOR: We’ll go to the back and then here.

QUESTION: Hello, I’m John Harper with the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun. Can you give us an update on the status of the bilateral security agreement talks, and when do you anticipate that an agreement will be reached? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Their talks are underway. They’re taking place in Kabul. And we’re hoping the agreements can be reached sometime in October, and we’re reasonably optimistic that it will be.

QUESTION: I have a couple of questions.

MODERATOR: State your name, please.

QUESTION: Ayeesha Tanzeem with Voice of America. I have a couple of questions. (A) The recent Washington Post story a couple of weeks ago about the surveillance of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and the added concern, how severe is that concern in U.S. about the lack of information and the safety of those nuclear weapons?

AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: I don’t think I’ve got a comment on what we still regard as classified information, even though, unfortunately, it’s widely available.

QUESTION: And just about the new government in Pakistan, it’s been now in power for a couple of months. How do you see this going forward? The last government, U.S. and Pakistan kind of reset their relationship. Is it continuing on that pattern post-reset, or is it changing with this new government?

AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: I think the relations did go through a difficult period in 2011-2012. They began to improve before the new government took office, and I think that has been sustained. Secretary Kerry had an excellent visit, his first as Secretary of State to Pakistan but not his first visit to Pakistan as an individual. He’s on a first-name basis with the Prime Minister and knows the country well, has visited it often. It’s clear that we now have a government that has a mandate from the people, that has a clear majority in the parliament, that is committed to moving forward both on the security and the economic agendas, and we’re anxious to be helpful and they’re anxious to work with us in order to allow us to be helpful.

MODERATOR: We will go in the back and then come here.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. I have – in the (inaudible) process we had news that Dr. Barnett Rubin was involved in the peace process.


QUESTION: Dr. Barnett Rubin. And if you could please update us, there were reports that he is no more with peace process. Or do you think if – in the upcoming negotiation process, do you think he will be involved?

AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Well, I’m not sure what you mean by “involved.” In the end, there never were any discussions in Doha because the —

QUESTION: He obviously works with the State Department, then? What is his position?

AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: He – during the period when we were moving toward the opening of the Doha office, he was working with the State Department. He still is. I can’t predict the future. He – and his involvement was the same as my involvement, which was to say we were seeking to open a dialogue, but it never occurred.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador Dobbins. I have a two-part question. My name is Ali Imran, a correspondent for Associated Press of Pakistan. An important piece of the pie for regional peace is Pakistan-India relations.


QUESTION: And recently there have been tensions between the two countries —


QUESTION: — in disputed Kashmir region. And the two prime ministers of the two countries are expected to meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York –


QUESTION: — later this month. Are you supporting that endeavor towards peace, especially in the context of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s offer and emphasis on restarting, resuming the peace process between the two countries?

And second part of my question is that Pakistan has been seeking trade access – greater trade access to the United States. In the past, there have been efforts to materialize preferential trade access programs for Pakistan, but not much progress has been made. Can you update us, please, if there are any recent efforts?

AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Well, on India and Pakistan relations, we would support any initiatives which led to an improvement in those relations. We think it’s important for both countries, it’s important for the stability of the broader region, it’s important for the world. They’re both nuclear-armed powers, and a conflict between them would be disastrous not just for them, but for everyone. And we support improved Afghanistan-Pakistan relations specifically because it would alleviate some of the pressures and tensions that give rise to the conflict in Afghanistan. And so from our standpoint, there’s everything to be gained from an improvement in that relationship.

On the issue of preferential trade, I don’t know that there are any new developments. I’m unaware of any in that area.

QUESTION: Thanks. Shaun Tandon with AFP. Just to follow a bit on what you said about the Doha office –


QUESTION: — obviously, there is the – there are the hiccups with the flag, et cetera.


QUESTION: What – how do you see it now? Is there a possibility of restarting that? What do you think needs to happen to have a dialogue in Doha or elsewhere?

AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: I think that the hiccups, as you call them, were the result of a genuine misunderstanding, but – as to what arrangements for the office were intended to allow and what they were intended not to allow. But I think the Taliban are now, as a practical matter, unwilling to engage with the United States, with the Afghans, with anybody, as a practical matter. And we’re not sure when they’ll emerge from this.

So we would still like to see that dialogue initiated, a dialogue which would involve the U.S. and Taliban directly, but also would involve, in parallel, the Taliban and the Afghan Government or its High Peace Council. The Taliban don’t seem to be ready for that for the moment. We’re not giving up. We continue to hope that there will be a positive development at some point, but we can’t predict when.

MODERATOR: We have time for one more question.

QUESTION: Ihar Tsikhanenka, Voice of America Russian Service. Russia’s leadership, including Vladimir Putin, on a number of occasions stated that they are not particularly happy about the U.S. troop withdrawal, for understandable reasons – security and the drug trafficking that you mentioned earlier being the two main ones. Are you aware of any negotiations between the U.S. Government and Russia’s leadership on maintaining the stability in the region after the U.S. withdraws its troops next year?

AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Well, I don’t know that I would characterize them as negotiations, but there are certainly frequent consultations between the United States and the Russian Government. The Russians were among those that I collaborated with quite constructively back in 2001. After 9/11, the Russians participated in the Bonn Conference and were very helpful there. Interestingly, the Russian representative in Bonn in 2001 continues to be my opposite number in the Russian Government, that is, the one who has responsibility similar to mine. And so I’m now dealing with the same person that I did back in 2001. So we have a personal relationship as well as a history of cooperation.

Afghanistan is one of the countries where, at least since 2001, the U.S. and Afghanistan – the U.S. and Russia have had a largely similar interest, largely similar views, some differences of perspective, but not differences, I think, in – that affect our operations, not differences that affect our activities in the country. I think that they continue to be quite compatible.

QUESTION: And what are those issues?

AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Support for the Karzai regime; support for Afghanistan’s stabilization; support for the continuation of the current constitutional arrangements; opposition to Islamic militancy and terrorist networks that operate through or in or potentially could operate in Afghanistan; a desire to reduce Afghanistan’s production and export of illegal narcotics. I think those are all areas where the U.S. and Russia have similar interests and similar policies.

MODERATOR: Thank you for joining us today. Thank you, Ambassador.

AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Pleasure. Thank you. Good seeing you.