The Middle East Digest provides text and audio from the Daily Press Briefing. For the full briefings, please visit daily press briefings.
From the Daily Press Briefing of May 6, 2009
View VideoMR. WOOD:
Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the briefing. I don’t have anything.
Yeah, the – I’m curious about the Secretary’s comments upstairs and your statement of last night about the – this bombing – or apparent bombing in Afghanistan. Why is it – are you – why are you expressing such remorse? Is there – are there indications this is a – this is a sign that you do think that there was some American involvement in this?MR. WOOD:
Well, Matt, we don’t have all the facts, and that’s why we’re engaged in a joint investigation with the Afghan Government. But obviously, any time there is a loss of innocent life, we’re going to be concerned about it. And we wanted to make that very clear. And again, we’re going to be looking to see what the facts are and go from there. But the Secretary wanted to be very clear and make that statement very clear, following up on our release last night.QUESTION:
Well, I understand that. But if you don’t know all the facts, is this just a simple flat-out statement that you’re sorry that innocent life was taken?MR. WOOD:
Well, there --QUESTION:
Or is this some kind – is this some (inaudible) for taking someone’s life?MR. WOOD:
My understanding is that there may have been innocent life, and we want to --QUESTION:
There --MR. WOOD:
There are a lot of reports -- let me just finish. There are a lot of reports about what may have happened. And what we decided to do with the Afghan Government was to launch this joint investigation. But clearly, there appears to have been a loss of innocent life. And so we wanted to make it very clear that we regret that any time it happens and – but we’re going to pursue and see exactly what happened.QUESTION:
Well, Robert, even if you don’t have all the facts, which I suppose one never really actually does, are there any facts that suggest that this was the result of U.S. bombardment? MR. WOOD:
I don’t have those facts, Arshad. I have to refer you to the Pentagon for the details on this. I think what was important here is that the Secretary wanted to make it very clear where we stood with regard to, you know, this particular incident. So I don’t have anything further to add on it. We’ll just have to see what the outcome is from the joint investigation.QUESTION:
So the expressions of regret should in no way be taken as any suggestion that the U.S. believes it or its forces may have been in any way responsible for this?MR. WOOD:
What I’m saying is we just don’t have all the facts, Arshad, and we need to have them first. But we do understand that there may have been loss of civilian lives in connection with an operation. But we want to have all the facts.QUESTION:
In connection with a U.S. operation?MR. WOOD:
Well, it would have – I’m not quite clear on all the details on that, and that’s why I’m – I have to refer you to the Pentagon with regard to that. But, you know, we issued, as I said, that statement last night, and the Secretary also spoke to the issue this morning before the meeting.QUESTION:
Well, what kind of operation did you mean? I mean, you don’t mean like a Taliban operation --MR. WOOD:
I’d have to refer you to the Pentagon. I just don’t have those types of operational details.
On the same subject?QUESTION:
Yeah, same subject.QUESTION:
Are you getting your information – you said you understand there may have been loss of civilian life. Is that the U.S.’s own independent information, or are you relying on the Red Cross, which came out today and said --MR. WOOD:
Well, we’re relying on a number of different reports. So, again, for more details on that, I’d have to refer you to the Pentagon. I just don’t have much more in the way of detail on it.QUESTION:
Can I – just to follow up on the same question? Given sort of the history of mistakes and accidental killing of – the accidental killing of civilians because of mistargeting by American planes and so on, this expression of regret, can we consider it sort of a preemptive apology of some kind, or is it – I mean, how does it – why would you say we regret what has happened if --MR. WOOD:
I think I just addressed that issue.QUESTION:
Was it suggested as a matter of diplomacy to us by either of the visiting countries that – I guess by the Afghans, that this particular incident and its timing were of particular sensitivity and that some kind of statement beyond something routine from the Secretary would be required?MR. WOOD:
I think the Secretary felt that it was important to speak out about this incident based on the information that she had available to her. And, you know, as I said, I don’t really have much to add to it now, James.QUESTION:
But – in other words, I guess I’m simply asking if this particular incident has come up in our discussions with the Afghans over the last 72 hours.MR. WOOD:
I would be surprised if it didn’t come up.QUESTION:
Last week, the Secretary of State said that Pakistan needed to have a change in mindset, focus less on India and more on Taliban and on the western border. Today, she reiterated that America is going to increase non-military aid. Is the U.S. going to ensure – have any conditions or any way of knowing that this aid is not being used to aid --MR. WOOD:
You know what? I think I --QUESTION:
(Inaudible) in India?MR. WOOD:
If you were here, you would have seen yesterday I spoke to this issue, I think in a bit of detail. And -- QUESTION:
If you could just go over it again.MR. WOOD:
Well, you can go over the transcript. But what I’ll tell you is that we want to make sure, as we – as I said yesterday, that taxpayer money is being put to good use. And we have pledged our cooperation with Pakistan and Afghanistan to try to help them deal with extremist elements. And, you know, I’m not going to get into discussions that we’ve had with members of Congress with regard – and their staffs with regard to, you know, this money and what types of measurements we may use. So I would just leave it at what I said yesterday. It’s – we’re going to work forward – we’re going to work with the governments of – those two governments, and go from there.QUESTION:
But do you take into account India’s concerns that this money is being used to aid terrorist groups, you know --MR. WOOD:
Well -- QUESTION:
-- conduct activities in India?MR. WOOD:
We’re going to make sure, to the best of our ability, that this money does not go in the aid of terrorist groups. And the Pakistani Government, the Afghan Government, both are committed to doing what they can to make sure that that doesn’t happen. The taxpayers deserve to know that their money is being spent wisely and on things that they expect it to be spent on. And so that will be a very high priority for the Administration, to make sure that those resources are spent wisely, that they’re effectively used, and we have the commitment from both governments to make sure that that indeed is the case.
About a meeting this morning, what can you tell us about a breakfast meeting that the Secretary had with President Zardari? And why is there a need to give the Pakistanis extra time? Holbrooke said he had – I think he had dinner with the Pakistanis on Tuesday night, and now she’s got an hour breakfast.MR. WOOD:
Well, I don’t have anything for you at this point. I’ll see if I can get you something on it, but I don’t have anything at this point.QUESTION:
Do you know if – can you confirm that at this point?MR. WOOD:
I’m not able to give you anything on that at this point. I’ll see what I can do.
Has the State Department been having any discussions with Nawaz Sharif lately? The New York Times
has been reporting this.MR. WOOD:
Well, our Embassy in Islamabad has discussions with a wide variety of people in and out of government. Certainly, it would not be unusual for us to have conversations with, you know, the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. I can’t tell you when the last conversation took place, but I can – it’s something that we – you know, we have routinely with leaders of the opposition.
Same issue, yeah. QUESTION:
Thanks, Michel. The Pakistani military has launched an offensive in the Swat Valley and claims to have killed 64 militants. After all the anxiety and criticism that U.S. officials have voiced in the last couple of weeks, notably Secretary Clinton’s comment before Congress two weeks ago about Pakistan abdicating to the Taliban, and her comments in the Fox News interview in Baghdad in which she raised the specter of the Taliban getting the keys to the Pakistani nuclear arsenal, is the U.S. Government pleased to see the military actions that the Pakistani army has – that the Pakstani Government has taken in Bonaire and now, most recently in Swat?MR. WOOD:
Oh, without question, and we want to see those types of operations sustained. These extremists are not going to go away after a week-long battle with Pakistani forces. They have an agenda. They want to bring their ideology to not only Pakistan and Afghanistan, but other countries throughout the region.
It’s important that these militants be taken on. Pakistan has said that it would. It’s taken some steps over the last several days that show that it’s moving in that direction. But this is not something that you – you know, one does for a week and then, you know, goes back to barracks. This has to be a sustained effort. And we have pledged our support to the Government of Pakistan and to the Government of Afghanistan as well to help them deal with these militant elements. So these actions that the Pakistanis have taken are certainly very, very positive. And we need to work with them to make sure that these actions are sustained.
Let me go to Michel.QUESTION:
Do you have any update on Assistant Secretary Feltman’s and Daniel Shapiro’s trip to Damascus?MR. WOOD:
Yeah, I don’t have any further details on that other than the announcement we issued. I’ll check a little bit later today to see if there is, you know, any update to that. We’d be happy to provide that for you.QUESTION:
On that same – in the same topic, President Ahmadinejad said yesterday from Damascus that those who one day called Iran and Syria part of – part of the axis of evil now want to develop relations with Iran and Syria. He added that the Syria-Iran alliance had achieved victories in preventing the big powers’ offensive to dominate the region. Do you have any reaction?MR. WOOD:
I don’t have any reaction to those statements. One of our efforts in terms of engaging in direct diplomacy with both, you know, Iran and Syria is to try to change their behaviors. We’ve been very concerned about a number of activities they’ve been engaged in in a number of places around the world, and you’re well aware of those cases. And we want to do what we can to try to influence those behaviors. We will engage in dialogue when and where we feel it’s appropriate. But we think it’s time for both countries, instead of it being part of the problem, that they become part of the solution. So I don’t have anything to – I don’t have any further comments on that.
Yes, Nina. QUESTION:
Back please to Pakistan. The Pakistani army (inaudible) authorities placed great emphasis on India. There’s always a great concentration of troops in Kashmir and that kind of thing. Has a key part of the discussions this time been in trying to convince Pakistan to put its resources into, you know, anti-Taliban efforts, rather than all this emphasis on India all the time? MR. WOOD:
Well, I think that we have made very clear to them that the existential threat to Pakistan comes from the Taliban, not India. And I think you’re seeing a number of elements within the Pakistani Government, society and the military (inaudible) realize that. We’ve seen a number of recent attacks in Pakistan that have made very clear the seriousness of this threat. And they certainly, I believe, understand that. Look, they have been geared for many years to deal with what they perceive to be a threat from India. As I said, this existential threat is coming from within and across the border in Afghanistan. So I think certainly the leadership of Pakistan understands this and is focusing its resources on trying to deal with these extremists that threaten them from within and across the border. QUESTION:
Are you convinced that they’ll take practical steps to focus their, you know, intelligence and their military – not in India, but --MR. WOOD:
I think that’s something they understand they need to do. And these recent operations that they’ve carried out against the Taliban I think show that, you know, they cannot afford to sit back and let the Taliban take the fight to them; they’ve got to take the fight to the Taliban. And so, I think that view is becoming much more prominent throughout Pakistani society. QUESTION:
Can I follow up on that? MR. WOOD:
Yesterday, the Pakistani ambassador said in the media that they have told the U.S. that the U.S. needs to tell India to pull back troops on the eastern border. Only then will they be able to focus more on the western border. What would your response be to that? MR. WOOD:
Well, my response again would be all the Pakistanis have to do is take a look at what’s going on inside their country and where this threat is, you know, coming from. And it doesn’t take much to realize that they have got to deal with this threat. I mean, I believe that the agreement that was made with militants in Swat, as I think President Zardari pointed out, has basically collapsed. And I think the realization is that these militants need to be taken on and need to be confronted, and his government is taking steps to do that.
With regard to India, you know, I think I just addressed it in the previous question. The existential threat is coming from within and across the border – on the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that’s where Pakistan needs to focus its efforts. QUESTION:
So you have not or will not suggest doing that to pull back troops? MR. WOOD:
I am, of course, not going to talk about discussions we may – or the substance of any discussions we have had or will have. But it’s very clear. And as I said, I think the Pakistani Government understands what it needs to do to deal with the real threat that’s – that it faces, and that real threat is not coming from India. QUESTION:
Last – just lastly on this. MR. WOOD:
So President Obama said there’ll be no blank checks. Pakistan will have to be accountable. So does this mean you’re going to have conditions to the non-military aid you give out to Pakistan?MR. WOOD:
Well, I think the President’s words speak themselves. You know, Pakistan is going to be – it has to be accountable for how it uses money that’s provided by the U.S. taxpayer. You can only expect that. The American people deserve nothing less than that. But what’s important here is that we focus our efforts, our resources, on dealing with these extremists. And Pakistan and Afghanistan face some very serious challenges. Both governments are well aware of these challenges. And so we’ve got to find a way, we in the international community, to help support them as they go about trying to not only defeat the Taliban, but also to try to improve their economic situation. And as I think you saw upstairs today, the signing of the agreement, the Transit Trade Agreement, it’s a very important step in helping to strengthen the economies of both countries. QUESTION:
Can I ask you one thing about that? MR. WOOD:
Can you explain in really simple terms what the agreement does and whether it is – an agreement to actually do certain things or whether it is an agreement to sort of work on or work toward doing certain things? MR. WOOD:
Well, I think that question is best left to both governments, because it’s an agreement between the two. But I think as the Secretary pointed out upstairs, this is an agreement that’s going to help encourage direct foreign investment in both countries, improving road conditions, creating roads where they’re necessary, and just improving the environment on the ground for, you know, facilitation of trade and investment. This is something that has been in the works, I think, since 1965. This is long overdue. I think this is a very positive step for both countries and for the region. But for further details on the agreement, I’d have to turn to those two governments.QUESTION:
Robert, what they signed today was an agreement to begin negotiations, correct?MR. WOOD:
That’s my understanding. QUESTION:
Okay. So there was – there’s nothing really -- QUESTION:
Well, there is no agreement.QUESTION:
Yeah. (Laughter.)MR. WOOD:
Well, look, this is – they’ve obviously worked out some aspects of this.QUESTION:
Well, the Secretary said that they have been – MR. WOOD:
The details have to be fleshed out.QUESTION:
Well, the Secretary said they wanted to get one – they wanted to get – complete this agreement by the end of the year.MR. WOOD:
But – you know, which is all well and good, except that they’ve apparently been negotiating this since 1965.MR. WOOD:
Yeah, that’s – there’s no question. I mean, this has been a very long time. But I also think both countries realize -- QUESTION:
This has been going on as long as I’ve been alive. (Laughter.)MR. WOOD:
God, you’re that old? (Laughter.)QUESTION:
That is -- MR. WOOD:
I wouldn't have known.QUESTION:
You are 50. (Laughter.)QUESTION:
No, you don’t look a day over 51. No, I was just teasing, Matt.
I think what’s happened here is that both countries have come to a realization that they are at pivotal points in their countries’ histories. They need to take steps to better integrate their economies. It’s trade, foreign investment that is going to help alleviate a lot of the poverty that exists in both countries, and so this is clearly a very positive step. And it’s been a long time coming, no question, but the conditions are such that these types of – they’ve got to overcome the problems that they’ve had in the past in trying to reach these types of agreements. And there is clearly a commitment and a will here to do that. And – but that’s not all that needs to be done. The region has some other major challenges. And – but this is a good step, and we have to give it its due.QUESTION:
Is there any consideration – did anyone give any consideration to the fact that improving cross-border access might actually not be good, that it might be taken advantage of, not by legitimate commerce but, in fact, by the same people who you’re trying to fight?MR. WOOD:
Well, you raise a good point. That’s why it’s important to continue to carry out the battle against these militants. There are a lot of details that have to be worked out with regard to this agreement, but what’s important is that they have the political will to deal with these extremists who could threaten some type of, you know, arrangement that they’re working on. And the fact that they are willing to try to improve cross-border trade and encourage outside investment, that can only be a good thing.
But you’re absolutely right. I mean, it’s something that the two governments are concerned about. We are going to be there to support them as they work on producing this agreement and implementing it, and also, to try to help them, as I said, deal with these extremist elements that pose a threat.
One more on Pakistan. Both you and the Secretary and others have been very forthcoming in telling us that you’ve received assurances from the Pakistanis about the security of the nuclear arsenal. Have you also received assurances from the Pakistanis about the levels of infiltration in ISI among or by terrorist or extremist elements? Have they – have the Pakistanis given you any assurances about the problem or that – being contained in that sense?MR. WOOD:
They have basically given us assurances that there are no elements in ISI who are cooperating with the militants and extremists. We take them at their word. You know, this is – as I said, the challenge that Pakistan faces on the security front is an immense one, and it cannot afford to have rogue elements of the military, of ISI, working counter to what it is they’re trying to achieve on the security front. And so, you know, we have no reason to doubt what Pakistan has said. What we want to do is support them in their efforts to try to deal with extremists and – you know, but this is going to be a tough and long fight. But as I said, you know, what’s important here is the will to carry out that fight. And both – well, the Pakistani Government is committed to this. So is the Afghan Government.
When were these assurances given? Was it during Admiral Mullen’s visit or -- MR. WOOD:
I mean, we’ve been given these assurances on numerous occasions, so --QUESTION:
And for numerous years, if I’m not mistaken.MR. WOOD:
Yeah, I mean, we’ve – this has been a concern that’s been voiced in the international community. But again, when you’re facing an existential threat, as Pakistan is, from these violent extremists, I think the Pakistani Government understands that it cannot have rogue elements operating within its military or within its other security services that threaten, you know, to bring further instability to the country, and I think they get that very clearly.QUESTION:
Have they given you descriptions of efforts to combat it, or they’ve just told you it’s not a problem?MR. WOOD:
Well, again, I think we also – they’ve given us these assurances. But again, making sure that there are not rogue elements operating within their security services is something that’s in their interests. And so they’re committed to dealing – you know, they said they’re committed to dealing with any rogue elements. They do not believe there are any rogue elements operating in ISI. And, you know, we take them at their word. And – but it’s important to understand this is not something that – you know, that we can really do for them. They have to take all the steps necessary to make sure that there aren’t these types of elements in their security services.QUESTION:
But have they described those steps that they’re taking to actually --MR. WOOD:
Well, I wouldn’t obviously discuss those types of things here. QUESTION:
I didn’t ask you to discuss them. I just asked whether they have, in fact, described them to you.MR. WOOD:
Well, I don’t want to even get into the substance of those types of conversations, but just to make clear once again that Pakistan is committed to dealing with not only the extremists, but any elements out there that may be supporting these extremists. QUESTION:
Do you mind if I come back to Iran briefly?MR. WOOD:
Are you – is the United States considering any incentives to Russia and China so that they help put more pressure on – I mean, I’m thinking of the change of heart and the missile shields and so on. Is that -- MR. WOOD:
I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.QUESTION:
Are there any incentives that the United States is willing to provide to Russia and China so that they step up their pressure on Iran to rethink its nuclear program?MR. WOOD:
Russia and China are under no illusions about Iran’s nuclear program. And, you know, through the P-5+1, we’ve been cooperating closely. We’ll continue to work closely with those countries and others because we have very serious concerns about what Iran is doing with regard to its nuclear program. And what we’ve said over and again, that while Iran has a right to peaceful use of nuclear energy, it also has responsibilities. And it needs to address many of the major concerns that the international community has about what it’s actually doing with regard to its nuclear programs.
So, China and Russia have been very supportive. They will continue to be. And we will always be looking for ways to try to get Iran to comply with its international obligations.
Also on Iran and on the Middle East, Defense Secretary Gates seemed to be downplaying the possibility of a major breakthrough between the U.S. and Iran, saying “I believe that kind of prospect is very remote.” And you voiced your concerns about Iran. Is the U.S. still optimistic for a response from Tehran, from the new Administration? MR. WOOD:
Well, I don’t think we’ve ever used the word “optimistic” about a response. We hope that Iran will certainly respond, first and foremost, to Javier Solana’s invitation to attend the next P-5+1 meeting. But it’s really up to Iran. I mean, we have, you know, as we’ve said many times, reached out our hand. We’re willing to engage in direct diplomacy. We have said that.
But, you know, Iran needs to take some steps as well. And one of the things that Iran can do to, I think, improve the atmosphere, certainly, is to release Roxana Saberi and – you know, but again, it’s up to Iran. We have reached out and we’ll have to see what Iran, in the end, decides to do.QUESTION:
What type of --QUESTION:
What’s your understanding of her situation right now?MR. WOOD:
Well, I don’t have any update from the one I gave a couple of days ago. I know that – I know that we are working very hard diplomatically. The Iranians have not been forthcoming in terms of providing additional information. However, we understand that there is going to be an appeal, I think, coming up fairly soon. And we hope that this process is very transparent and open. But again, we believe that the charges against her are baseless, without foundation, and we want to see her released so that she can rejoin her family.QUESTION:
What about this – the other one, the – who was working for the American NGO, Silva Harotonian?MR. WOOD:
Yeah. I don’t have an – we do have something. We can get you an update on that. I believe there is one. I just don’t have it with me. But we do have an update on it.QUESTION:
Are there specific concerns from allies in the Middle East, be it Egypt or Israel, about the U.S.’s new approach towards Iran? Are they voicing concerns to the United States?MR. WOOD:
Well, look, you’ll have to speak to those governments about, you know, concerns that they may have with regard to Iran. But many countries, if not all countries, are well aware that we have decided to engage Iran in direct diplomacy. Because we believe, over the last eight years, our policies haven’t worked, and we want to try to reach out and engage them and see if Iran is interested in a real dialogue.
But, you know, with regard to other countries’ concerns about our engagement, I don’t think they have any need to be concerned. We’ve been prepared and have briefed them on, you know, our activities and the outcome of our Iran policy review. So there are no secrets here, and we will keep them informed as we go forward. But again, I think the ball is clearly in Iran’s court in terms of reaching out to the United States.
Yes, Raghida. QUESTION:
Ambassador Nicholas Burns testified this morning at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about Iran, and he said that he believes that the threat of use of force should be kept over Iran for the possible negotiations to work. Is – any comments on that?MR. WOOD:
Nothing other than to say that I didn’t realize my good friend, Nick Burns, was testifying this morning. But our policy is very clear: We’re pursuing diplomacy, a two-track approach with our other partners in the P-5+1. And that’s where our efforts are focused.
On the Middle East, Middle East Envoy Tony Blair talked in the Palestinian territories about a new U.S. initiative or a new U.S. strategy coming up in the next few weeks. Do you know what he’s referring to?MR. WOOD:
We’ve – we’ve – I’m not quite sure. I haven’t seen his comments, but --QUESTION:
Send them to you maybe.MR. WOOD:
Well, you know, I mean, we’re – look, I’m not going to talk about what we may be thinking about in terms of our policy in the Middle East. Senator Mitchell, as you know, is working very hard in engaging the parties. And, you know, we’re looking at ways to try to move the process forward, trying to get to that two-state solution. So, you know, we’ll certainly make you – let you know about any new ideas we may have or new approaches. But right now, what’s important is trying to get those parties back to the table so that we can finally get to that two-state solution.