Ambassador Hugo Llorens Special Chargé d’Affaires Remarks at the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies – June 15, 2017

Key Elements: 

  • Again, we have now a new administration. As Davood mentioned, we are, have been in the last several months, in a policy review process which is normal.  But again, the interesting thing is that Afghanistan is one of the first countries where the new administration conducted its policy review, which again, although it’s not concluded, it was, it’s one of the first issues that the administration has tackled on the national security side.
  • So there’s been a tremendous amount of discussion within our interagencies and the new administration to put together an integrated strategy that involves the Department of Defense, the State Department, clearly coordinated by the National Security Council and the President’s staff, as well as the other elements. The development piece, USAID, Department of Commerce.  It’s been a government-wide review, and I think that this review is very far advanced.  But what we have now, everybody’s been waiting with baited breath.  The reality is that the administration continues its review because it’s looking at Afghanistan within a broader context of the region.  That for too long we’ve looked at Afghanistan sort of in isolation and we’ve put a lot of focus in previous administrations — and by the way, as a career diplomat, I’m not detaching myself either from the Bush administration or the Obama administration.  I served them; I was one of the people involved in the policy.  But I can tell you that this administration is a lot more focused on treating Afghanistan into a broader context of the region, a broader regional context, and a lot of the discussion that’s going on right now involves that.
  • Also I think Pakistan is a critical element, so I think there’s a lot of thought in the administration being given to getting our policy right in Pakistan. Pakistan is a very complicated country, and a country that has a direct impact on Afghanistan.  A lot of thought being given on Pakistan.
  • In terms of my instructions, and again, this doesn’t change between administrations, the Obama administration and the Trump administration, very much. We support the government of Afghanistan.  Our policy is to support the National Unity Government.  That is very much our policy.  But at the same time, it’s a policy of reaching out broadly to all Afghans.
  • You know, we have a relationship with this government, but we also have a relationship and we’re accountable to the Afghan people. So my job as a diplomat, and my entire team in the embassy, is we’re talking to hundreds of Afghans every day.  Yes, within the government, managing the day-to-day bilateral relationship, but also more broadly, trying to talk to people outside of government, political opposition groups, civil society, women’s groups, and get a real understanding of what’s happening in the society.
  • One thing I want to mention is that again, Afghanistan is going through difficult times, complicated times. The security situation is difficult, as we know, you know, just go back to May 31 and the devastating bombing attack right outside the Green Zone. You know, the deaths, I believe it was over 150 Afghan civilians hundreds of people wounded.  A cowardly attack.    I know what a blow it’s been to this city, the great city of Kabul.
  • It was also a big blow to us. I lost 10 Afghan Security personnel that worked for us.  They’d been with us for a long time.  They were great Afghans.  They were right at the point of the explosion.  You had the German Embassy, at the circle of the German Y, then you have Camp Eggers.  And Camp Eggers, we continue to have a lease on that, so I have a number of security people who were there.  So I had 10 of my brave Afghan Security staff killed.  We had 36 wounded, including 11 of our American staff.
  • I just, again, for me, and for us, my President, and what happened is just a reaffirmation of why we must stay here. We are facing a very [bad enemy].  It is resilient enemy, but a very bad enemy and it’s just a reaffirmation of why we need to be together in this fight.  And the important because Afghanistan is on the front lines of the fight against global terrorism.  You are taking here, we’re supporting you in a very strong way, I believe, but you’re taking 99 percent of the fight and 99 percent of the suffering.  People need to be mindful.  This is a partnership where you’re in the lead in the fight.
  • But I want to just say that despite all the problems, when you look back, Afghanistan has still made amazing progress. When you go back to what this country was like in 2001, I remember one of the great American diplomats at the time, Ryan Crocker, a good friend of Dr. Spanta.  When I came here to serve as one of his deputies back in 2012 he told me he came here in November of 2001, returning with several hundred Marines right after September 11th, to reopen our embassy.  And he described to me when I met him in my meeting with him in May of 2012, what Kabul looked like when he came here in 2001.  It was a city completely destroyed.  The devastation, the misery, the suffering of the people, and he described it as Dantesque, it was a Dantesque scene, something akin to going to the ruins of Europe after World War II.  As he traveled around the country in 2001 and 2002 he saw that.  He saw the devastation and the suffering.
  • And when he came back as Ambassador 10 years later, 2011, you know, he was shocked by how in a really short period of time, and in the midst of Kabul how much progress Afghanistan had achieved. Again, my government is very proud to have been part of that.  Again, the vast amount of credit goes to the Afghan people, but I think the United States and members of the, your friends in the international community, were able to give you a little bit of space in the security area, in the political realm, in the economic realm, so you could have a chance to stand up and begin to rebuild your country.  And you’ve done it in a remarkable way.
  • There was no country here in 2001. This was like, Taliban Afghanistan was like North Korea.  You could never open it up.  It was a closed society.  It was run by a very extremist sect of people who had closed Afghanistan off from the world.
  • Today, Afghanistan is a completely different country. It has, with all of its problems, with all of its dysfunctions, with the corruption and everything we know, it’s still a country that has a real government, it has had elections, it has a chamber of commerce, it has a parliament.  You can criticize it all you want.  It has made vast strides in individual rights, the rights of women.  Women in this country back in the Taliban time were in the Dark Age when you looked at it.  And again, the gains in health and education.
  • Back in 2001 there were something like 600,000 students in the school system, from kindergarten through university. Women were not in the public school system, as we know.  Today there are a eight and a half million young people in Afghanistan studying from kindergarten through university, and 40 percent of those, 35-40 percent of those are women.  And that’s the future.  Think of the young people.  There’s a whole generation of young people being educated right now.  That’s something that the terrorists and the Taliban are not going to be able to stop.  This goal is a very powerful force.
  • The same thing in health. The reality is, there was no health system that existed in Afghanistan in 2001.  It was non-existent.  There were volunteer doctors that were there in a very humanitarian way helping people, but it didn’t exist.  Today you have a health system.  It has a long way to go, we all know that.  It has great deficiencies.  But 60 percent of Afghans today are a 45-minute walk from a clinic.
  • So you deserve credit. The Afghan people are strong.
  • You know, there’s nothing new about the struggle in Afghanistan. This is as old as history itself.  It is a struggle at the very elemental level.  We can talk about the complexity of the strategy and we’ll do that in the Q&A, but it’s pretty basic, the vast amount, the number of people, the vast majority of Afghans.  The only thing they want to do is they want to build a better life for themselves and rebuild their country after decades of suffering.  And it’s a very powerful force because the Afghan people are very powerful as a force of people.  You’re very brave, you’re very resilient.  And you have a small number of very extremist people who are very destructive.  Human nature, human heart has that element of destruction.
  • That’s what the fight is really all about, and it’s the old as history itself, and as old as humanity. So, but again, Afghanistan is a focal point of this struggle.  The struggle we face against terrorism and extremism.
  • And I just want to make sure that you all know that with my new president and the new administration, we’re not going anywhere. We’re going to stay right here.  We’re not focused on any time line.  We’re going to stay here as long as it takes to do the job.
  • And again we’re doing the job with you. Because at the end of the day, you’re out on the front lines and our job is to support you and enable you.  We will continue to do that.
  • We are, again, I am very hopeful that come the end of next month we will conclude our policy review. I know some people have been anxious, but I think it will be a policy review that will be very well thought out and again has, it completely encompasses the region.
  • But in the meantime, we’re going to remain very heavily engaged. Okay?  I mean we have one of the largest development programs in the world here in Afghanistan.  We have the second or third largest embassy in the world.  I have 5,000 people under Chief of Mission authority.  And we represent 23 different U.S. government agencies.  We do everything.  We have development programs of every kind.  We’re working in the rule of law, the justice sector.  As well as obviously the key, security.  Our job, as you know, is two-fold, post Bilateral Security Agreement.  One, first and foremost is to enable the Afghan National Defense Forces to be able to defend their country against its enemies.  And to be able to also strike at our common enemy, particularly those transnational groups like al-Qaida and ISIS-K.  So we maintain a train, advise and assist force, and we also maintain Special Forces where we are directly involved in the fight.  As you know, there’s tremendous fighting going on right now in eastern and southern Nangarhar where we’ve really taken the fight to ISIS-K. And that’s an important part.
  • But we’ve also done, the bulk of our work is really, again, to enable the ANDSF.
  • And speaking of the ANDSF, you know, coming back from my time here in 2012, 2013, I was away for four years. I’ll be very honest with you, I am very impressed by the ANDSF.  I remember when I was here and we spoke and I was listed as the senior person in the field working with Mr. Spanta.  We launched the Bilateral Security Agreement negotiations.  And we would wonder, you know, we were now ending our direct combat role.  And a military that didn’t exist 10 years before, did not exist.  A new military.  How they would be able to take the fight to the Taliban when they were on their own.  And we felt we had a good plan, but there were many, many question marks.
  • So our job is to make you stronger and stronger all of the time.
  • And I could talk right now about some of the things that the Trump administration has already done. It doesn’t need a policy review to do that.  You know, we have, as you know we have approved, our Congress has approved the funding for the Afghan Air Force expansion project.  And Congress has allocated the first $815 million, the first tranche, which will allow 165 new air frames and completely modernize the Afghan Air Force, because the Russian equipment, the MI-17s are really running to the end of their operational life, and really, the way to get the Afghan Air Force to the next level in terms of both close air support as well as mobility of the force requires getting the new, the U.S. era, and that’s in track.
  • Also, General Nicholson is very much working with the Government of National Unity. This year they will double the size of the Special Forces of Afghanistan.  Because as you know, the four-year road map that President Ghani has launched is very much focused on the need to double the size of the Special Forces because it’s the most effective, the most offensive-oriented part of the ANA.  And this year we will double the number of cadets that graduate.  So again, the doubling of the Special Forces is very much on track under the Trump administration and we’re supporting that.
  • As you know the President extended General Nicholson’s authority that gives him the ability to, for strategic effect, to use our air power in support of, and our Special Forces in support of the ANDSF, and it’s been used to very good effect in the current fighting season.
  • And remember, President Obama had given those new authorities to General Nicholson a year ago, they were for 12 months. President Trump has given it, there’s no time limit. It’s an open-ended, for his authority.
  • As we’ve heard, the President has granted Secretary Mattis the [SMLA] so he can determine the amount of troops that he will need, the command in the field that he needs. More, again, what we’ve been, what General Nicholson’s been requesting is a modest amount of more advisors.  So that authority has been given to the Secretary of Defense.
  • So right there when we talk about the security issues, there are three or four measures right there that show the commitment of President Trump and his administration to stand by you. As I said, we’re really not going anywhere.
  • Let me just touch very briefly on a couple of issues, and then we’ll turn it over to Q&A.
  • You know, again, first of all to maintain political stability in this country you need to support the government that exists. I know some people disagree with the concept of the National Unity Government, but it’s something that was a concept, where there was a lot of contribution from senior members of the Obama administration in helping broker the political agreement between Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah, but it’s also something that is supported by the current government. And we believe that very much the center of gravity, political center of gravity of Afghanistan begins with these two men.  And we will continue to support this government until its last day in office.
  • The other thing is, at the same time, the importance of elections. You know, it’s very important.  There’s nothing that more regenerates governments than to have regularly scheduled elections.  So my government very much supports, and I’ve mentioned, reiterated on many occasions, you know, elections to be held, parliamentary elections, as soon as possible; presidential elections.  Because the Afghan people have a right, the Afghan political class has an obligation under the Afghan constitution to go to the people at regularly scheduled intervals, and go to them and let them make the final word.
  • Remember, in a democracy the people have the final word. Not the rulers.  The people in the end have the final word.  So we will support that and we will be looking, the criticality of having better elections, significantly better elections than happened in 2014.
  • Remember, we all know that the National Unity Government was born, using a Christian term, in electoral original sin. We know that the government exists because it was a flawed election.  Okay?  We’ll leave it at that.  So I think there’s a commitment on the part of the National Unity Government, that there must be, must be significantly better elections.  More transparent, significant reduction in fraud in the parliamentary elections, and even more so for the presidential election.
  • And then finally, I’d just mention on the economic side, you know, we will stay very heavily engaged on the development side. You know, and we will want to work very hard to make sure that there are no reversals of the social gains that Afghanistan has achieved in the last 15 years.  The social gains like education, like health.  I mean this is part of the compact that the Afghan people have with their rulers, making sure that you have, can sustain these social gains.  So we will still be there with our international partners.
  • But also, President Trump is a believer that the only way that Afghanistan can generate long term sustainable growth, sustainable growth, is through more private sector investment. So I think we will be looking at, post review, very carefully how we can do our economic development programs in a way that we can help Afghan businesses — small, medium, large investors, people who with very complicated ties, serious security situation, are putting their good, honest money in their country and creating jobs.
  • Again, I would close it by just simply saying that you know, Afghanistan is not a poor country. I have served in many poor countries that are, they have demographic problems, they are very resource poor.  Afghanistan is a remarkably rich country, and it’s a remarkably rich region.  You have young people who are full of life and energy who want to rebuild their country.  Those are two very powerful forces.  You are resource based, and you’re an immensely rich country.
  • So again, let me just end by saying one thing. The reality is that there’s no military solution to be had.  There really isn’t.  There’s no physical military victory to be had.  So that’s something I think we need to be mindful of.
  • However, at the same time, we don’t see any possibility, any possibility for the Taliban to win a strategic military victory. They are not going to seize Kabul.  They’re not going to take Mazar or Jalalabad or Herat or Kandahar.  They don’t have the physical force, and we will continue to support the ANDSF and enable them in every way.
  • So there is, so the Taliban and our common enemies have one choice. They can either continue the fight — which they probably can, as I said — continue killing their fellow Afghans, or finally realize that the only way is to sit at the table.  It will be an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led process that will result in a political settlement so Afghanistan can finally move on, which is what all Afghans want.  But again, that has to be done consistent with your constitution and consistent without giving up the gains that you have achieved with so much blood, that we’ve achieved together with so much blood and treasure in the last 15, 16 years.
  • I’m an optimist. I believe if we stand firm, if we send the message back to the leadership that we’re not walking way, we believe that, you know, reason will prevail and we will be able to get on with hopefully a peace process in the future.