Ambassador James Cunningham
August 11, 2014
Ambassador Cunningham: I thought I’d start by discussing a bit the recent visit of Secretary Kerry and the progress that’s being made in implementing the frameworks that were agreed on July 12th.
Secretary Kerry came back to Kabul last Thursday to meet again with Dr. Abdullah and Dr. Ghani, their teams, with President Karzai, and with the representative of the UN Secretary General Jan Kubish, to review the progress that had been made in implementing the agreements and to encourage the candidates to continue their efforts to complete both the audit and a political agreement between them.
I think it’s accurate to say that both Dr. Abdullah and Dr. Ghani in conversations that we had recognized the historic responsibility they have to ensure the establishment of a strong and legitimate government which represents all Afghans, whoever they voted for.
You have seen the statement that the two candidates issued at the end of their talks, our talks with them. I think it speaks for itself. They committed themselves to work through the many issues before them, to work to speed up the audit, and to begin a structured conversation between their two camps and themselves on how to create the national unity government they have agree to form.
We also discussed the audit that’s going on. They have agreed to abide by the results. That audit is being conducted under UN supervision in accordance with the best international standards.
They also agreed that the goal, what Afghans want and what your international partners want, is to try to inaugurate a new president of Afghanistan by the end of August.
There is now a pretty clear path ahead, a pretty clear idea of what needs to be done, and a lot of work and issues that still need to be worked through.
The task for Dr. Abdullah and Dr. Ghani is to come to a durable agreement in the coming weeks that will establish the next government and its program, whichever one of them becomes president.
The successful outcome of the audit and the creation of a unity government as a result of the political discussion are essential for the security and development of Afghanistan, and for the strength of Afghanistan’s relationship with its international partners. We encourage them to continue to develop the political dialogue that has actually begun with the preparation of their joint statement. To do that it will be necessary to make the transition from political competition to cooperation and to gain the broad support that will be necessary to ensure that the next government of Afghanistan is ready to address the serious problems which face the country.
It’s the goal of the candidates, and a goal that we completely support, to have the new president represent Afghanistan at the NATO summit in early September. This will be a very important opportunity for the new president to reaffirm Afghanistan’s engagement under a new government with many of its international partners and to begin building the path forward that all of us want to see. It’s our hope that all Afghans involved in the political process will realize how important this is for Afghanistan and how important it is to turn the page on the political campaign and to begin to focus on what needs to be done for the future of the country.
I’ll take some questions.
Press: [Through Interpreter]. The question is about authorities of the deal. The two candidates continue to disagree on the authorities of the deal. Ashraf Ghani’s view is that this is the president who will assign authorities in the CEO; and Dr. Abdullah’s camp said that the CEO will chair the cabinet also. What is your view about that?
Ambassador Cunningham: I don’t think I know. The role of the chief executive officer needs to be discussed between the two candidates. There haven’t been any decisions made about how that individual will function, what responsibilities he will have. This will obviously be one of the more important points that they will want to discuss and agree on as they think about how the new government will work. But it is clear from the political framework that the chief executive officer will be established by the president by decree. So the person in that job will be responsible to the president.
Press: Thank you, I have two questions. The first one, the International Amnesty Organization released a report saying that since 2009 until 2014 more than a thousand civilians have been killed by, and mostly in foreign troops at acts in Afghanistan. And they have asked especially American forces and USA to take care on their own acts on civilian casualties. What is your opinion on that?
The second question is, exactly as you are aware of that framework between the two camps, they say there have been some rumors that it’s 50/50 kind of division in the government, but still do you accept that it’s 50/50 or it’s not clear at all?
Ambassador Cunningham: Let me talk about the civilian casualties first. I haven’t seen the report. I’ve only read about it, and not very much, about the Amnesty International report, so I can’t comment on the specific allegation. What I can say is in the three years that I’ve been here, what I have seen is that not only do the ISAF forces make every possible effort to avoid civilian casualties, it is increasingly rare that civilians are injured or killed in military action with ISAF forces. This, in the latest year of which I’m aware, it’s a very very small fraction of the civilian casualties. So if the report is generating the impression that somehow there’s a massive amount of civilian casualties that ISAF is indifferent to, that is not correct.
I also can’t help but note that while this discussion is taking place, Afghan civilians are being killed all over the country by the Taliban every day in unfortunately large numbers, including the four who were killed and the 35 who were injured on the streets of Kabul yesterday. In any discussion of civilian casualties, that’s where the focus should be in my view.
On the second question, the candidates are committed to create a government of national unity and that means a government that’s based on cooperation and joint effort between the two camps, but could include other people outside the camps as well. And by that I mean both of them, whichever one becomes President, may want to consider bringing in technocrats who were not part of the political campaign or other Afghans with particular skills and merits that they can bring to the many jobs that will be staffed under a new government. How that will be done is also an important item for discussion between the two candidates. I’m sure that it will be and I think that that is a discussion for Afghans to have among themselves, and particularly between the two candidates. How will the new government be staffed? How will candidates be considered?
And I want to say this is not at all a unique, an issues that is unique to Afghanistan at this point in time. There are many political systems around the world in other countries where these kinds of discussions about staffing senior positions in governments from different parts of the political spectrum is the normal practice.
Press: So there is not specific division on the framework?
Ambassador Cunningham: The candidates will have to define what the framework and what their own agreements mean. I’m not going to try to preempt that discussion.
Press: [One TV]. Sir, we’ve heard the directive from the very senior officials of the two camps. [Inaudible] said there was a very big gap, there was a very lack of trust between the two camps. Sir, with taking this situation into account, how can someone expect that such a united government will be established? And more important, how this government will work in the future and how this government will last for example for five years. Because there is a very lack of trust between these two camps and we have seen this on the TV as well and also in [back side].
Ambassador Cunningham: I think it is safe to say that there’s an issue of trust and that needs to be overcome. Which they have started to do in the act of successfully including the joint statement that was issued on August 8th.
I said in my statement, we believe and we hope the candidates believe and their supporters believe or will realize that the time has come to turn the page on the political campaign in the competition which is natural in an election and focus on the future.
To achieve that I think the candidates will need the support and encouragement of a broad range of Afghans — political leaders, civic leaders, religious leaders, and the Afghan people who I think want to see the election settled and want to see a president with broad support take office.
No one in the hours of conversations that we’ve had with the candidates and their supporters, no one has ever suggested that this will be easy. Most people believe, though, that with leadership and statesmanship it can be possible to create a partnership.
I know there are some in both camps who think this will not be possible or even that it’s not desirable. I think to them I would say that at this point in Afghanistan’s history, there is a need to take a hard look at what needs to be done to realize the hopes that most Afghans and their international partners have for the future of this country.
Just several weeks ago there was an atmosphere of fear and tension and great concern about the collapse of the political process. Since then the candidates and their supporters and with the help of the UN and my country and others have set out a path forward. It’s not perfect. There are lots of issues and problems that will need to be addressed, but with good faith on all sides I think it will be possible to do that.
What I hope Afghanistan’s leaders and leading citizens will focus on is that several weeks from now there is going to be a new president and he is going to have to govern. To do that, he’s going to have a need for broad support and an understanding of what the path forward for the government is.
Press: Sir, I have two questions. Most of the analysts here in Kabul say the plan of united government was a U.S. designed political solution for the candidates because both of the camps doesn’t want to form such a government but it was a U.S.-designed government, imposed on the candidates by pressure, by U.S. pressure. So do you accept that this political solution imposed by the United States by pressure, by meetings on the candidates, how would you agree with this type of analysis?
Ambassador Cunningham: I completely disagree. Ask the candidates. Nobody imposed the concept of a unity government on them. It wasn’t our idea, it’s something that came up from their own discussions.
For two years Afghan politicians have been speaking to me and others about the need to unite the country after the elections. This wasn’t my idea or an American idea. It’s an Afghan reality.
They’ve agreed on the goal, both the camps have agreed on the goal, and now it will be an Afghan discussion about how to make it a reality, and that’s as it should be.
Press: [Radio Azari]. I have two questions. Afghanistan is going to be the witness of first ever political transition of power from a president to a new president. What will be your expectations of this process?
And the second question is going to be, the New York Post has published an article that military intelligence of United States of America, it is feared that up to 25 percent of Afghan troops are Taliban who are interested in al-Qaida. What will be your reaction regarding these kind of reports, per article in American press?
Ambassador Cunningham: I haven’t seen the New York Post article, but there’s nothing that I’ve ever seen that suggested any analysis like that would be true.
With regard to the transition of political authority from one president to the next, our hope is that that will take place in the next couple of weeks and that that new president with a mandate to government and broad support among the Afghan people, will be in a position quickly to readdress Afghanistan’s relations with the international community and that he will be able to quickly provide a sense of confidence and clarity about the way forward for the country, which many Afghans tell me they want to see.
As I said, it will be an important opportunity for Afghanistan to have a president who can sign our security agreement and provide clarity about what the future of our security partnership will be in the future, and then go to the NATO summit in Wales and recommit Afghanistan to partnership with the NATO allies and others who want to continue a supporting relationship with Afghanistan.
In order to provide that support and continue the partnership, the United States and our partners need to see that there is a president and a government in Afghanistan that has the support of the people and that can provide leadership, and we need to see that we have a partner that we can work with.
Press: Thank you, I have two questions. First, lack of information about the national unity development. People have called the national unity government coalition government. Do you think it’s a coalition government? If no, why?
My other question is about the report released by Amnesty International, it called operations conducted by U.S. forces a war crime and says the cases have not been investigated. It caused the U.S. government to investigate the cases. What’s your view about this?
Ambassador Cunningham: I confess, I have a bit of difficulty understanding the distinction that some Afghans are making over the title or the label for the government that will result from this election. The word coalition, in my experience means, in a political sense, describing a government, means that you have different political parties represented in the government as part of a broader grouping. While there might be elements of something like that in the government that’s eventually formed, you don’t really have those kind of parties and that kind of framework to create what I would think of as a coalition.
What we’re talking about here is how to create a political cooperation between the two candidates and their teams, and Afghans more broadly.
The task is how to create a government that represents different interests that are involved, have been involved in the political context, and get them organized round the principles and programs that will allow that kind of political cooperation to develop. Again, how to do that will be a big part of the discussion that’s beginning now with the candidates.
On the Amnesty International report. Again, I want to repeat I haven’t read it, I don’t know what it says. But if it says that foreign forces are responsible for what the report charges are war crimes, all I can say is that any allegation of any improper behavior is thoroughly investigated, and if there is evidence that wrongdoing has been committed, the process is continued and we in our case as U.S. armed forces, have, as I’m sure you know, conducted several prosecutions of improper behavior in the field and we are committed to do that.
Press: [Through Interpreter]. The question has two parts. The first is about the CEO, the position of CEO. Do you know if talks between the two candidates about the position and it authorities have begun already?
The second part of the question is about BSA. Last year the United States was providing deadlines for signing of the BSA. It looks like most recently you are not talking about deadline. What’s the reason for that?
Ambassador Cunningham: I don’t know if the discussion of the CEO has begun or not. I understand it will begin soon. I don’t know if that’s begun or not.
On the timing of the BSA, yes, we had at several points asked that it be signed within certain time limits, but for a variety of reasons that didn’t happen, including after President Karzai decided not to sign the BSA after the Loya Jirga.
Given our conclusion that President Karzai was not going to sign it, we agreed to adjust our plans to try to create as much time and space as possible for the agreement to be signed by the next president, and this was at the request of many Afghans. I’m confident it will be signed once there’s a new president in office.
Press: [BBC] It’s clear that the two candidates have signed the communique the other day and they have agreed to work on formation of a government of national unity, but there are concerns among the people because past experience shows that the two candidates have problems and they continue to have problems to form such a government, and they have a long way to go.
What assurances are there that this time they will succeed in moving forward with what they have agreed?
And is the United States ready to intervene for a third time?
And is Secretary Kerry going to come again if the candidates do not make any breakthrough in their talks this time?
Ambassador Cunningham: As I said, I think there is a commitment, and not just on paper, I think a personal commitment by the two candidates, to move forward and to move forward pretty rapidly with this discussion. We and many others will encourage them to do that and I hope, as I said before, that the most important voices for them to hear will be the voices of the Afghan people and Afghanistan’s leaders.
Politics and political competition is difficult and it’s challenging. People are invested, they’ve dedicated themselves to a political campaign and there are strong feelings and that’s completely understandable. But at some point in a political process like this, which happens at different times in other countries as well, the political campaign needs to stop and the people who are providing political leadership need to step back and say okay, we fought hard but now we need to think about what’s best for the country.
I think that may Afghans understand and want the political uncertainty to be clarified and want to move forward with completion of the political process that we now see an end to. There is no guarantee or assurance in a situation like this about what will happen, but Afghan voices continuing to make themselves heard as they were in the election to produce a spirit of cooperation among the political class I think will be an important factor in encouraging candidates to continue and to move quickly down this path that they have agreed to.
This is really one of the essential points about democracy. Democracy isn’t just about voting in elections, although that’s an important part of it and I do want to note that whatever else happened in the election millions of Afghans did go to the polls and did cast their votes. But the heart of democracy isn’t just about running an election, it’s about what you do with your victory in the election. And in many cases a very important part of that is how do you reconcile competing political interests and other interests that are involved in a government and in a society. That’s what Afghanistan’s political leaders now need to do.
Thank you very much.