Ambassador Richard Olson Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Press Briefing at NATO Brussels (January 29, 2016)

NATO Brussels
January 29, 2016

Moderator:  I am absolutely delighted to have Ambassador Olson here, the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He will tell you a little bit about his visit here in Brussels and particularly at NATO.  I know you’ve all gotten the bio but I just want to touch on a few highlights of his personal CV.

He was previously, as you know, Ambassador to Pakistan and left that position to become SRAP, the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.  SRAP, as you can see, is easier to say.  And he assumed that duty in November of 2015, so just a couple, three months ago.  He was previously Coordinating Director for Development and Economic Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul from 2011 to 2012.  He served here at NATO as well as Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Mission to NATO.

He joined the State Department in 1982 and has had numerous postings that are particularly relevant to what he’s doing today.  He has served in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Uganda, Mexico, Tunisia and Iraq.  He’s also had some time in Washington.  He was on the NATO desk, the Office of Israel and Palestinian Affairs, the Office of Iraqi Affairs.

He graduated from Brown University and he’s been awarded several awards, several medals including the Presidential Distinguished Service Award, and the Secretary of State’s Award for Public Outreach, and the Spirit of Honor Award, and the list goes on, but you have it.

So without further ado it’s my great pleasure to introduce Ambassador Olson.

Ambassador Olson:  Thanks very much for a warm introduction Shannon.

I’m just going to give you a brief statement then we’ll open it up for questions.  Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today and address some of your questions about the North Atlantic Council meeting today on Afghanistan in which I participated in my new capacity as U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The United States and NATO remain committed to a central goal: a better future for the people of Afghanistan.  We are in agreement that 2016 is a pivotal year for Afghanistan as the government pursues a path towards peace and reconciliation at the same time that it continues to confront a resilient enemy.

Our four objectives for Afghanistan on the coming year are enhancing security, launching a peace process, support for economic development and renewed international financial commitment to Afghanistan’s security forces.

NATO’s decision to sustain the Resolute Support mission in its current form through 2016 was critical.  This decision extended our train, advise and assist support to Afghan Security Forces, and it is going to make Afghan security institutions stronger.

Enhanced security will facilitate the challenging goal of initiating an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process. Greater security will also make clear to the Taliban that negotiations and a real peace process are the best option for bringing an end to the senseless violence we have seen in Afghanistan.

Our third objective is supporting enhanced economic development.  We are committed to working with our international partners to ensure continued financial support for promoting prosperity in Afghanistan.

Our fourth objective is to ensure continued robust international financial support for Afghanistan’s security forces as the government continues to make progress towards self-sufficiency.

The Afghan leadership understands that continued robust donor assistance is predicated on progress on the reforms that will ensure good governance and improved self-reliance.  The National Unity Government has shown itself to be a committed partner and the United States stands ready to maintain its strong financial support for Afghanistan’s security forces.

With that, I’m going to open it up to your questions.

Moderator:  Heidi?

Press:  Heidi Jensen from Jyllands-Posten.

I know that one of your goal is now to get support for financial support to continuing Afghanistan.  How big an amount are you talking about and when are you hoping to be able to make a decision on this? Is that going to be at the Warsaw Summit or —

Ambassador Olson:  What we were doing today was in preparation for the upcoming Warsaw Summit in July was to support the government of Afghanistan’s request that a donor nation support Afghan Security Forces at or near levels, the commitments that they made in Chicago in 2012.  And this is for the period 2018 to 2020 which is a few years out. But what is being sought is a renewal of Chicago commitments at or near the levels that were discussed then.

Press:  Rikard Jozwiak, Radio Free Europe. Just to follow up on that, so that’s something you want to have ready for Warsaw?  Because we don’t really have a timeline.

Ambassador Olson:  This was… We were having a meeting today in preparation to begin the progress towards the goal of at Warsaw renewing the Chicago commitments at or near the Chicago commitments.  And I would say, in that regard, that this is endorsing a call made by President Ghani, and this call was also made by Secretary of State Kerry at the Foreign Ministers Ministerial here at NATO.

Press:  How much….?

Ambassador Olson:  I think that we would prefer to just leave those briefings for allies.  I think that the allies, we’ve seen some detailed briefings today, with some partners, about the overall level that will be necessary to sustain the Afghan National Security Forces.

Let me just say that we believe that support for the Afghan National Security Forces will need to be kept at their current levels from 2018 to 2020.

Press:  John-Thor Dalberg from the Associated Press. Could you say what the U.S. commitment to this would be in terms of finances?  And I also wanted to ask you if you wouldn’t mind giving us sort of a general situation report on how things stand in the country.  As I’m sure you know, the Washington Post had a report this week that senior military leaders in the United States are now concerned that we may need to keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan for decades.  And as I’m also sure you know, SIGAR came out with a report to Congress today that says that the Afghan economy remains in worsening condition; the Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since 2001;  and the military is less ready than, is increasingly less ready than the U.S. thought it would be.  There’s been a drop in capability for the last three quarters.

So, what I guess I’m asking you is how much should U.S. taxpayers spend?  And given the results to date, is this money well spent?  Is that a fair question?

Ambassador Olson:  I think it’s three questions.  (laughter)

Press:  I’m sorry.

Ambassador Olson:  That’s okay. First of all, on the U.S. commitment: We expect to continue to be the largest donor in the security sector and we expect to make commitments at or near current levels.  Like we are asking or supporting with other allies.

With regard to U.S. forces. Look, our policy is very clear.  The President announced in the fall that we would have 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through this year’s fighting season.  By the beginning of next year that will have gone down to 5,500 troops.  And it will be up to the next administration to make any future decisions about troops levels.

The U.S. commitment is 5,500 troops going forward.  That was the President’s decision.

I have not seen the SIGAR report, but let me just say in general terms about the state of the economy.  It was always anticipated that there was going to be an effect from the drawdown of combat forces and the end of combat operations in the end of 2014.  In addition to all the assistance that our taxpayers have provided over the last few years, the simple presence of troops and contracts generated a huge amount of economic activity.  So it was no surprise that it was anticipated that there would be an economic effect.

It’s not all bad news.  The government of Afghanistan has shown resilience in responding to the economic challenges. Just one example. And actually done a significant, has significantly improved their ability to collect customs revenues and it made a significant contribution to funding their own security forces.  Twenty-two percent of revenues go to the security forces which is quite significant.

On that note, the Afghan National Security Forces, look, 2015 was a challenging year, there’s no doubt about that.  They have, however, fought bravely and effectively and have been able to respond to the challenges that have been thrown against them.  The Government of National Unity has also taken steps to reform the Ministry of Defense and President Ghani has, for instance, removed a certain number of senior officers.  But that said, we believe that the train, advise and assist mission needs to continue for some time to come, and that is why we’re here today, to continue to build financial support for the ANSF in not just the upcoming years, but in 2018 to 2020.

Press:  Terry Schultz of NPR and CBS.  Hi. Following up on John’s raft of questions, just to press a little bit harder.  On Capitol Hill yesterday Gen. Nicholson said at his hearings, said that he agrees with the assessment that the Taliban are making a comeback, that the security situation is deteriorating rather than improving in Afghanistan.  I don’t think there’s any way to get away from that, no matter how brave the soldiers are.  If they’re not effective, you’re not going to have security on the ground.

So I’d like to just, I don’t know, just sort of try to pin you down on that.

Then also, can you give us a sense of how allies responded?  Normally it seems here that if the U.S. says they’re going to stay, everybody else kind of says oh, let’s take two or, you know, as long as the Americans are there, people will follow.

Do you get the sense that if you say the train, advise and assist mission needs to continue and needs to be bolstered, the allies would be ready to contribute?  People are kind of ready to get out of there.

Ambassador Olson:  Well let me answer that one first.  I would say that the allied response today generally was, in fact I could say entirely was very positive.  Everyone who spoke at the meeting agreed about the commitment that the Alliance has made.  Of course this is the largest operation the Alliance has ever undertaken and the commitment to Afghanistan will continue.  The purpose of today’s brief meeting was really to share information and to share our analysis of the Afghan National Security Forces and the train and advise mission going forward.  It was not to reach decisions today.  Those decisions will be reached at Warsaw.  But, in that context, the response was very positive.

Press:  In the sense that if you need us we’ll stay on?

Ambassador Olson:  In the sense that the response was positive.  It was agreed that there was an Alliance commitment that would be maintained.

Press:  And on the first question?

Ambassador Olson:  On the first question, I think we can all agree that 2015 was a difficult year for the Afghan Security Forces, and this is one of the reasons that we have to continue the train, advise and assist mission and I think it is one of the reasons that the U.S. decision, the President’s decision — The President made a decision to retain 9,800 troops through this year’s fighting season, and to retain a presence of 5,500 going forward.  So I think there is a recognition of intelligence of the situation.

I would also say that it calls into high relief the need for a peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan.  We have long supported an Afghan-led, Afghan owned reconciliation process and there have been some promising developments in that regard.

Press:  Lailuma Sadid, the Kabul Times and Ariana. As [inaudible] about the peace process, it’s a long time with the process [inaudible] and the Afghan people believe there is no really good reason for that.

And then really, the Afghan people, they are not believe for the progress on everything, with something happen exactly by first they are showing some reactions like everything one day, start the negotiations, and the same day or the next day they start some strong sources of that.

And this side, they ask from there, especially from their [inaudible], put a little bit pressure on the Pakistan side to be really honest to plan bad for this the right way.

Do you think in this year like for Afghanistan the New Year is starting in the Spring.  If you hurry, the Afghan delegation, Afghan authorities, and Afghan people, they always say for the New Year’s it is more dangerous than last year.  But it’s been very also, last thing they note, and they said next year will be very difficult and challenging for Afghanistan.

What do you think, for these kind of things, there is, for ten years, there is more done by the 50 countries in Afghanistan, but the situation has never changed.  What do you think for the future in Afghanistan?

Also about the Afghan Taliban.  Before the peace process they are in negotiations with the Taliban.  They announced and they said we want to, for the international community, they want to recognize, and the Taliban office in Qatar and also they said when you [work] off the Taliban names from the black list of the UN, and also they said they want to relieve the Taliban leaders, the prisoners from the Guantanamo, back in Afghanistan.  And also they said we don’t want to talk with the Afghan authorities like they said, we want to talk [inaudible] American and ask for the [inaudible].  What do you think for this?  Do you think it will be help for the future of Afghanistan?  Or, you know, because really Afghan people, a lot of them they say for the future because there is nothing changed for the Afghan side.

Ambassador Olson:  Okay, thank you.

On reconciliation, I think that there actually has been some progress over the course of the last year in our view.  First of all, it’s important to note that the Taliban did sit down and negotiate or at least hold preliminary discussions with the government of Afghanistan in Murree on July 7th of last year,   just outside of Islamabad.  That process later broke down with the revelation of the death of Mullah Omar.  But one of the most important developments, which has continued with ups and downs, has been the improvement in the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This was exemplified by the visit of President Ghani to Islamabad on December 9th where he was hosted by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the Heart of Asia conference, in which Prime Minister Nawaz pointed out that he supported Afghan territorial integrity, Afghanistan’s sovereignty, and legitimacy of the Afghan government under its constitution.  This on the margins of the Heart of Asia meeting, there was a quadrilateral meeting that established what has now become institutionalized as the quadrilateral coordinating group which is to say delegations from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States which meet to plan out a road map for peace negotiations.

We have met three times on January 11th in Islamabad; January 18th in Kabul; and we will have a third meeting next week in Islamabad on February 6th.

So our belief is that face to face negotiations with the Taliban should get going as soon as possible.  We would hope, Inshallah, much before Naruz.

Press:  Guldener Sonumut¸ NTV Turkey. I have a couple of short questions.  First is, how important is it to the deliver from the allies and the nations CT mission as well as the financial assistance to the Afghan National Security Forces?

In other terms, if it’s not delivered does it mean that every man is able to in ground in Afghanistan since it is a regional?

How Europeans are supporting these efforts, keeping in mind that there is a feeling that there would be [inaudible] the flow of refugees — Syria, India, Yemen, Afghan and Iraq.

The third thing is whether we have reforms saying that some Talibans are starting to gain ground again in Afghanistan, but our nations are really committed, except the United States of America which [inaudible] are really [inaudible].  The United States of America by itself is not enough.  It also needs to have still this coalition with France, Turkey, and others on what they’re permitted to, or they intend — Is there any sign of ISIS or Da’esh or I don’t know the acronyms used but these groups on the various countries to which side you are or which country you come from [inaudible] via [inaudible].

Ambassador Olson:  Okay.  Thank you.  A number of questions.

First of all the train, advise and assist mission,, that is NATO has extended the Resolute Support mission for another year.  Of course the President’s decision, our President’s decision to extend the forces, the 9,800through the fighting season and 5,500 beyond, they will have two missions.  They will have a train, advise and assist mission and they will also have a counter-terrorism mission.

Yes, we believe that the train, advise and assist mission continues to be essential.  The Afghan forces have made progress in terms of development, but they still need the assistance, they need certain critical enablers, and they will continue to need engagement we think by not only the U.S. but by the alliance for the years to come.

You mentioned, and again, we’re talking in the context today of 2018 to 2020.

In terms of the other challenges, we fully recognize that there are many challenges faced by all of our countries and our European partners in particular, and we are certainly sensitive to that.  At the same time we think it’s really important for the Alliance to continue to invest in Afghanistan.  We’ve made a big commitment over many years and there have been significant changes in Afghanistan.

If you look at, and with all due respect to our Afghan friend’s comments, if you look at the longer term perspective between Afghanistan in 2001 and Afghanistan in 2016, there has been a remarkable amount of transformation, whether it’s in health, education, in many many other areas.

You asked about allied commitment.  As I said, the sense around the table that I got today was a strong sense of commitment.  Absolutely the United States believes that we have to go forward in partnership with our allies and other partners in Afghanistan.  And certainly we would not want to go it alone.

Finally, you asked about Da’esh.  This is of course a topic that has come up in discussions.  And there are naturally concerns about possible expansion of Da’esh into Afghanistan.  We believe, it is I think important to note that up until now this has been the result of certain Taliban commanders abandoning their allegiance to the Taliban and shifting their allegiance in to Da’esh.  Nevertheless, I think it remains a concern and we in the United States will be vigilant about pursuing Da’esh anywhere, , anywhere it is to be found.

Heidi Jensen:  Just as a follow-up on that.  Do you have worries that the situation in Syria will make the situation in Afghanistan worse, in the sense that Da’esh will move into Afghanistan as they, the media get more and more pressure in Syria.  And also you just talked about now that their presence is mostly because that money there has shifted alliances, might that happen to a greater extent?

Ambassador Olson:  We are of course vigilant to any possibility of expansion of Da’esh’s presence in Afghanistan.  I’m really, I don’t deal with Syria on a day to day basis so I’m not sure I would want to comment in any detail on the Syrian situation.

As I said, our analytical decision is that this is primarily Taliban commanders who have shifted on allegiances, but there’s no grounds for complacency in this regard, and I think that everyone who is looking at the situation is seized with you know, the potential threat that it represents.

Press: I wanted to ask the same question she did. Celine Schoen, Asahi Shinbum. Yesterday Mr. Stoltenberg was saying that meet by keeping up, having a presence in Afghanistan, just meetings fighting terrorism.  Do you agree with that?

Ambassador Olson:  Well, as a technical matter as I understand it, the Resolute Support mission is primarily about train, advise and assist.  That is the mandate for the resolute support mission.  That’s with regard to NATO.

Now the United States, of course, has two missions.  We have train, advise and assist, and we have additionally a counter-terrorism mission.  I haven’t seen the Secretary General’s comments, but I think it’s safe to say, as a broad measure, that anything that is done to enhance Afghan stability and security, serves the ultimate purpose of denying space to a potential terrorist.  I mean the core goal here is to make sure that Afghanistan does not return to say the pre-2001 state of ungoverned space in which various terrorist groups were free to flourish.

Press: Gerard Gaudin, Belga. You mentioned the need of some [enablers] of the condition of the forces.  What kind of [inaudible]?

Ambassador Olson:  I think it would be better if that question were addressed to my Defense Department colleagues because that’s really their area of expertise. So I would refer you to the Department of Defense.

Press:  So trainers also in this case.  One —

Ambassador Olson:  Look, it —

Press:  — hard to find those and —

Ambassador Olson:  Yeah, I mean there are specific sectorial areas and I’m sure that my colleagues from the Defense Department will be able to brief you on that.  But clearly as you suggest, there is also, there are questions of building capacity for the Afghan National Security Forces, especially I would say in respect to the ministries.  The Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior in Kabul, and that’s certainly part of the train, advise and assist mission.

Moderator:  We’ve got time for one or two more questions.  Lailuma?

Press:  I’m going to do just the one question because last week in Afghan Radio more focused on that, and they analyze also the, from Afghanistan.  They said sometimes U.S. also plays two kind of game in Afghanistan.  On one hand they support the Haqqanis and the terrorist groups; and the other hand they support the Afghan government.  And they say if like that the future will be never changed.  Do you think this kind of thing is true —

Ambassador Olson:  I think it’s categorically false.  It’s absolutely not true.  I can completely deny that.

The Haqqanis have been designated as a foreign terrorist organization and we have not supported them.

Now what is true and it has to be said, is that reconciliation in our view, should be open to all groups, and the Afghan government has made that clear, that all groups are prepared to negotiate and can come to the table.  The Deputy Foreign Minister, Mr. Karzai, made the statement just a few weeks ago in the context of one of our multilateral meetings.  And the United States, as does the government of Afghanistan, has no preconditions for the beginnings of reconciliation talks.

We do have outcomes. That is to say we have objectives that would have to be satisfied before we would accept any agreement.  Those are, you know, for the Taliban to break with al-Qaida and international terrorism, to renounce and actually cease violence, and to respect the Afghan constitution including its provisions with regard to minorities and the rights of women.

So those are outcomes, those are not preconditions for beginning any negotiations.  So the broad point, as many people have made many times, is one does not negotiate peace terms with one’s friends.

Moderator:  Good point.

Press:  [Inaudible] the West, there is a [current condition] between the West and Iran.  Is there any reducing impact on the ground with reverse of the [inaudible]?

Ambassador Olson:  Well look, we don’t, I would say with regard to Iran, we urged Iran to take a constructive approach to Afghanistan.  We believe Iran would be well-served by having a stable, peaceful, and prosperous Afghanistan as its neighbor to the immediate East, and I’ll leave it at that.  Thank you.

Jensen:  Could I just ask a little follow-up?  Because there are also some [inaudible] Pakistan. But could you maybe say a few words, what you are hoping to see from Pakistan, and it’s a crucial country to create stability in Afghanistan.

Also if you believe there is a willingness to actually do what’s necessary.

Ambassador Olson:  It’s a good question, and I think that Pakistan’s thinking on these issues has evolved over the past several years.  They have been very supportive of a reconciliation process through the quadrilateral mechanism that I described before and I think that they have shown that they’re interested in improving the relationship with Afghanistan.

Pakistan is absolutely key to the reconciliation process in Afghanistan.  In essence they can use their influence to bring the Taliban to the table which is an important aspect of it, and it’s been a very positive experience so far.

Moderator:  Thank you.

Ambassador Olson:  Thanks.