Ambassador Richard Olson Gives Press Conference at U.S. Embassy Kabul

December 6, 2015

Ambassador Olson:  Good afternoon.

First of all, let me say I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.  We had a busy day of meetings.

I should mention this is my first visit to Kabul since assuming the position of U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, but it is a pleasure for me to be back in Afghanistan.  I served in this embassy 2011 to 2012.

I had a fruitful day of meetings including with President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah.  During these meetings I reaffirmed the enduring commitment of the United States to support a sovereign, stable, unified and democratic Afghanistan that has increasingly taken responsibility for its own growth and development as it moves toward self-reliance.  The United States remains steadfast in support of the Afghan government and the Afghan National Defense Security Forces as they strive for increasing prosperity to Afghanistan.  And I want to express my appreciation for Afghan Security Forces.  They’ve performed bravely this year, the first year they have assumed primary responsibility for Afghanistan security.

While the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan has ended our commitment to this government and the people of Afghanistan and their security forces has not.  The United States will continue to work with and support the Afghan Security Forces and I’m impressed with their growing capabilities.

As you know, President Obama announced in October that the United States will extend our significant troop presence in Afghanistan in light of continuing security needs and in strong partnership with President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah.

I also wanted to highlight the upcoming Heart of Asia Summit taking place in Islamabad.  Stability in this region is crucial and the upcoming Heart of Asia Ministerial is an example of efforts to deepen regional integration, to reach greater peace, security and economic growth in the area.  We appreciate the hard work and commitment of everyone to ensure a stable future for Afghanistan and the rest of the region.  We think this is an excellent opportunity for Afghanistan to play a leading role in developing regional cooperation, particularly in the field of counter-terrorism.

I think with that I’d like to open it up to your questions.

Moderator:   Qasim had a question.  He’s from Radio Azadi.

Press:  Thank you very much, and welcome to Kabul, sir.

Ambassador Olson:  Thank you.

Press:  My question is due to last visit by Pakistani Chief of Foreign Aid from United States and [inaudible] Taliban, is there any hope that peace negotiation and peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government [are] possible?  Thank you.

Ambassador Olson:  Well, we have long supported an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned reconciliation process and we have applauded President Ghani’s outreach to Pakistan on improvement of relations and also in support of peace and reconciliation within Afghanistan.  We think that’s the way forward for regional stability, and also for an Afghanistan that is at peace with itself and with its neighbors.

Press:  I’m [inaudible] from [inaudible].

During your meeting with President Ashraf Ghani, have you convinced him to attend Heart of Asia Conference?

Ambassador Olson:  I think that my discussions with President Ghani, I would like to keep it between ourselves.  We look forward to a successful Heart of Asia Conference in Islamabad.  And I would direct, your question I think should properly be directed to President Ghani and the government of Afghanistan.

Press:  My question is about the [inaudible].  It’s been reported that he is wanted and probably dead, and the Afghan government [also confirms] that he is actually dead.  So what is your say on this?  And are there any reports from the U.S. intelligence?

And the second part of the question is about that there have been clashes between the different groups of Taliban in Quetta City of Pakistan.  So it looks like those guys are free from that city, it seems so.  So are there going to be any more pressure you know, like on Pakistan to fight honestly and genuinely with the Taliban?

Ambassador Olson:  Well we’ve seen conflicting reports about what may have happened and we are going to continue to monitor the situation. We’re actually somewhat skeptical that we will have a great deal of clarity in the near term, but in any case, we believe that stability in Afghanistan and the region requires an end to violence and so I would just emphasize to you that we believe an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process is the surest way to ensure lasting stability in Afghanistan and the region.

Moderator:  Josh, you had a question?

Press:  What is the rise of groups like the Islamic State and these other splinter groups along the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan, what potential implications does that have for relations between the two countries as well as U.S. efforts to try to find peace in the region?

Ambassador Olson:  Our approach is to promote positive relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  We appreciate the outreach that President Ghani has undertaken since becoming President to reach out to improve relations to Pakistan.  And we encourage both sides to work together cooperatively on security matters as well as the broader range of bilateral relation between them.

Press:  Sorry, I mean the rise though of for example, again, the Islamic State which has significant presence now along that border.  Does this complicate you know, those efforts in the Afghan military?  They point to Pakistan as the source of that problem and it seems like there’s a lot of mistrust there.  What does that mean concretely for those efforts?

Ambassador Olson:  We think that the way forward is to build greater trust between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  We think that that is something that President Ghani has been doing.  And of course Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was here recently and talked about his commitment to improving relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  And that’s with regard to all of the challenges that the two countries face including counter-terrorism, including the potential threat from Da’esh.

Press:  Sune Engel Rasmussen with the Guardian.

Can you confirm reports in Newsweek based on statements from U.S. congressmen there’s still at least one U.S. hostage being held by [Haqqani] in Pakistan?

Ambassador Olson:  We don’t want to get into specifics on hostages.  All we would say is that we would want to see the release of anyone who is being detained by any of these groups.

Press:  You won’t confirm that an American is being held by the Haqqani —

Ambassador Olson:  I don’t want to get into specifics.

Press:  Sir, my name is [inaudible].

Sir, just recently [inaudible] said that [inaudible] trying to, Haqqani is working to [inaudible].  What is your reaction to this?  Your [inaudible]?  Does the United States [inaudible]?

And sir, we had a very [inaudible].  Can you state that you would have [inaudible] in the upcoming [inaudible] and any possible problems [inaudible]?

And also, the Afghan government is always complaining that Pakistan is not [inaudible] for a fruitful engagement in the peace process.  Do you agree with this statement of a log of Afghan government officials that Pakistan is not [inaudible] for peace process in Afghanistan?  Or do you expect Pakistan to do more [inaudible] peace process?  Thank you.

Ambassador Olson:  With regard to Pakistan, again, the Prime Minister was here recently.  He made statements in favor of a, well, I would draw actually your attention to the statements that were made in Paris, made by Prime Minister Sharif and President Ghani which called for work on reconciliation and for improvement of relations between the two countries.

So I think that is the way forward.  We have always encouraged the best possible relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan and especially with an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned reconciliation process.

Press:  Thank you so much.  The other questions —

Ambassador Olson:  Remind me —

Press:  One question, that [inaudible] [Indian] Ambassador to Afghanistan.

Ambassador Olson:  Okay, on the question of leadership.

I’m not in a position to comment on the leadership of the Taliban.  I think it would be, it would not be a good idea to speculate at this point on any of those possible outcomes.

Press:  Okay, and [inaudible]?

Moderator:  He asked about Kunduz also.

Ambassador Olson:  Look, with regard to Kunduz, I think what is important, obviously the government of Afghanistan has faced some security challenges and it is responding to those challenges, building up its forces with our assistance, the assistance of the international community to be able to make sure that territory can be held.  And of course Kunduz was briefly raided by the Taliban, but returned to government control.  So I think there will be security challenges in the area, but the Afghan Security Forces have performed in our view exceptionally well, and we have great faith in them.

Moderator:  I think this is probably going to have to be the last one.

Press:  There is a new audio message from Akhtar Mansour late last night.  Can you comment on the authenticity of that?

Ambassador Olson:  I’m not in a position to comment on the authenticity of the video message.  As I said before, we’ve seen conflicting reports on what may have happened with Mullah Mansour and we’re not certain that we’re going to have clarity in the near term.

Thank you very much.

Moderator:  Oh, Ambassador, one more.

Ambassador Olson:  Okay.  One more.

Press:  I’ll be really quick.  The [inaudible] has shifted towards Helmand and there are concerns that we could be facing another Kunduz-like situation there.  How concerned are you by the situation there and what kind of measures are you considering to protect Helmand?

Ambassador Olson:  That would probably be a better question to ask Resolute Support.  I’m a diplomat and I think that I can say that Resolute Support is very focused on the situation in Helmand, but I think you would have to ask them what specific measures they would consider taking.

Moderator:  Thank you.