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Middle East Digest - May 11, 2010


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Washington, DC
May 11, 2010

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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 11, 2010

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1:27 p.m. EDT

MR. CROWLEY: Good afternoon. Welcome to the Department of State. Lots and lots to talk about before taking your questions.

Secretary Clinton and President Karzai launched our strategic dialogue with Afghanistan this morning. The assembled Afghan and U.S. officials made brief presentations to President Karzai and Secretary Clinton and then after the opening plenary session, we broke into working groups led by Afghan ministers and their U.S. counterparts. And those working groups included foreign policy and strategic issues, economic development, agriculture and rural development, human resource development, governance, social issues, and women’s rights and security. We have clear plans for reversing the momentum of the insurgency and transitioning to Afghan lead. The Afghans came here with clear plans to strengthen their institutions and make durable gains and security economic progress and governance, including anti-corruption efforts.

Our partnership in all of these areas will be critical to progress increasing stability and defeating extremism for the Afghan people and the American people. The Secretary spoke today of a long-term partnership and reiterated what she and Secretary Gates have often said, that the United States will not abandon Afghanistan again. She noted that our economic assistance and training for Afghan forces will go on after our combat forces depart. This dialogue is part of shaping that long-term relationship to ensure our interest in a secure Afghanistan regional stability and an end of any sanctuary for al-Qaida.

Later today, President Karzai and the Secretary will have a bilateral meeting to discuss progress made during the day. And I think you’ll have the opportunity to hear the Secretary again with some remarks to a reception following that bilateral.

There was a statement issued in New York a short time ago by the Middle East Quartet. That includes the United Nations, European Union, Russian Federation and the United States. In the text, the Quartet welcomed the first round of proximity talks between Israelis and Palestinians. These talks are a significant step towards direct bilateral negotiations and comprehensive peace in the Middle East, based on the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its neighbors. The Quartet called on the parties to pursue these talks in good faith and offer its support for their efforts.

QUESTION: I just wanted to ask, with these working groups that you talked about earlier – and this is a broad strategic dialogue and we understand that – but are there any specific issues that the Administration is raising with the Afghans beyond sort of the broad commitment on the aid that will continue after the troops leave? Because it – you’ve seen the coverage so far of the so-called charm offensive, and so I wonder if there is anything more specific to it.

MR. CROWLEY: Let’s not get over-simplistic here. We are talking about a long-term relationship between the United States and Afghanistan, and it’s between our country and Afghanistan. So we are beginning to bring into shape and focus what are our – what are the long-term aspirations of Afghanistan and its government, and how do we get from here to there, and how the United States can be most helpful to Afghanistan going forward.

So, this is about the transition that we envision, just as we have done a transition in Iraq from a relationship that is heavily reliant on military force to a relationship that is more strategic and more long-lasting and more closely resembles the same kind of relationship that we have with other allies around the world. And so – but at the same time, in the Secretary’s bilateral with President Karzai, we are going to get into specific issues.

Obviously, as a number of briefers have said in recent days, the next major event in Afghanistan will be the peace jirga that President Karzai will call later this month. We want to fully understand what his goals are for that meeting and how we can be supportive of that. Then we have the Kabul conference coming up in July, and what do we want to accomplish there? We have parliamentary elections scheduled for Afghanistan in September.

So there is a lot of specific work to be done, but – and during the course of the Kabul conference, I think the – President Karzai will put forward a more detailed plan based on the framework that was established at the London conference back in January. So there’s a lot of work to be done here. We will be focused on those next immediate steps. But this is really about a strategic dialogue that gives shape and direction and substance to our long-term relationship.

QUESTION: P.J., if – is there any talks going on during this visit that massive aid or massive construction, just like in Pakistan and Afghanistan also? Because it’s millions of people, young people, are out of jobs or they’re – so you can bring them into the mainstream of – so that way --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, in the breakout sessions, we’ve gone through a number of things. Among the topics discussed of more regional significance is; what is the status of the transit trade relationship with Pakistan and how that can benefit the region as a whole.

You’ve heard a couple of times here at this podium from Agriculture Tom Vilsack. He is leading one of the groups in terms of continuing to figure out how we continue to grow the Afghan economy. I thought it was very impressive when President Karzai this morning talked about there’s a long way to go in terms of the Afghan economy, but clearly, it is significantly larger than it was just a few years ago. So there is progress being made, but obviously, there’s more work to be done.

So this is about some – understanding a long-term agenda and then beginning to put into place what we – the United States can do together with the international community to help Afghanistan grow. And clearly, over all of this, is – at the heart of this is the ability of the Afghan Government at the national level and the local level to deliver services to the Afghan people. As I think Ambassador Eikenberry said yesterday, ultimately, that is the key customer for Afghanistan is the people and having a government that they believe in and a government that they deserve.

Lalit.

QUESTION: I still have questions on Afghanistan – today’s talks. What’s the status of the transit trade agreement you referred to – where we are now?

MR. CROWLEY: It is a subject that comes up on both sides of that border. We have talked to Afghanistan about it. We talked during the strategic dialogue last month with Pakistan about it. It’s still a subject being negotiated.

QUESTION: So what are the hurdle statements? What are the bottlenecks? Why it’s not being signed? You know, in the first trilateral agreement – tripartite talks which were held last year, it was signed there and was he told to become prepared to sign --

MR. CROWLEY: I can’t speak to specific – what the specific issues. It is something that we hope that the two sides – two countries can agree to as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: And secondly, you spoke about peace jirga, which is being held later this month.

MR. CROWLEY: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: What are the expectations from this peace jirga?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, that’s part of what we’re discussing now.

QUESTION: Egypt has extended the emergency law for two years. Do you have any reaction to that?

MR. CROWLEY: We are disappointed.

QUESTION: Why? Why are you disappointed?

MR. CROWLEY: Why are we disappointed? Well, I mean, we have questions about how this fits with pledges that the Government of Egypt has made to its own people to try to find a way to move beyond the emergency law.

QUESTION: Change of subject – back to Pakistan. Senators Schumer and four other Democratic senators today sent a letter to Secretary Clinton asking for the Pakistani Taliban to be designed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Have you – well, first of all, had a chance to look at the letter, and are you considering putting them on the list of foreign terrorist groups?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we are considering the question of designating the Pakistani Taliban, as you would envision. There’s a deliberately – or intentionally deliberate process that we go through, and it – any group that is to be designated must meet very specific legal criteria. But it is something that we are considering in light of what happened. And obviously, the investigation will yield information that might give us greater clarity.

QUESTION: And when do you think you’ll make a decision on that? When did you start investigating or looking into putting them on that list? Was that after the Times Square incident?

MR. CROWLEY: It is a group that we have been focused on for some time, but I think, in light of the Times Square attempt, is something we’re looking at very closely.

QUESTION: Well, when you say for some time, for how long have you been focused on them?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I can’t recite the history of this particular group. As a group, it has not been in existence for that long. But obviously, it has come into sharp relief in light of the Times Square bombing, and this is something that we are actively considering.

QUESTION: But I guess that – which just begs the question: Why are they not already on the FTO list?

MR. CROWLEY: Again, there’s a lengthy, deliberative process that goes into designating an individual or a group as a terrorist group, a terrorist – a Foreign Terrorist Organization. So we are working through a process based on the criteria in the law.

QUESTION: But in – while this lengthy, deliberative process is going on, though they are not subject to any kind of sanctions by the U.S., so presumably Americans can still send them money, they can – if they have any assets in U.S. jurisdictions that are not frozen, they can travel here.

MR. CROWLEY: Which is a – which is not an inconsiderable point.

QUESTION: Right, exactly. So I mean, perhaps – has there been – I mean, I guess your critics – I haven’t heard any of them yet, but I can rest assured that there will be some – who say that, you know, you’re basically dithering here and allowing this group to get stronger.

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t think we’re dithering at all.

QUESTION: So is something imminent?

MR. CROWLEY: Hmm?

QUESTION: Is action imminent?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, I’m not going to – I mean, the question was asked: Are we considering this? And the answer is we are considering this. But there is a legal process that we go through both to designate an organization or, at times, to take somebody off that list.

QUESTION: You said you’re going through the lengthy, deliberative process. How far along are you? I mean, you said that you’ve been looking at this for a while, so are you close?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we’ve been focused on the Pakistani Taliban for some time. But obviously, we are gleaning information in this investigation based on the information that the suspect is providing us.

QUESTION: Would it be fair to say then that this group’s kind of slipped through the cracks when it comes to being on FTO list? Why was it not on there a couple of years ago? I mean, would that be a fair assumption? People are surprised that it’s not on there.

MR. CROWLEY: Sue, Sue, Sue, as you all have reported, in a number of ways, we have been focused on this group for some time. You will understand that it has gone through some leadership changes that we have helped them with. So the idea that we have not been focused on this group as part of our broader struggle against political extremism is not true.

QUESTION: Hold on a second.

QUESTION: Can I just ask --

QUESTION: Leadership changes that we have helped them through? (Laughter.) P.J., that’s –

MR. CROWLEY: Charley.

QUESTION: What does that mean?

QUESTION: Doesn’t it –

QUESTION: You know, that – are you trying to say –

MR. CROWLEY: Charley, I’m not – go ahead, Charley.

QUESTION: I fear my question is in the same –

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not going --

QUESTION: -- same vein. (Laughter.) Is it – can you help us understand –

MR. CROWLEY: No.

QUESTION: -- the apparent disconnect between –

MR. CROWLEY: There’s no disconnect. We --

QUESTION: -- military attacks –

MR. CROWLEY: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. No, I mean --

QUESTION: -- against a group and the –

MR. CROWLEY: To the specific point, we have been focused on this group for some time. And without being specific, we have been working with our Pakistani counterparts and we have taken appropriate action to diminish the capabilities of this group and others in the region. I’m not going to go any further, but to the idea that we have not been focused on the threat that has been emanating from this particular group, the answer is that’s not true. It’s patently not true.

QUESTION: Why can the United States launch drones or take --

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not going to --

QUESTION: -- covert military action on one hand –

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not going – having a discussion --

QUESTION: -- but on the other hand, take months to reach a deliberation of designation?

MR. CROWLEY: -- of specific actions.

QUESTION: P.J., on the Karzai visit – back to that – it feels like one of the warmest receptions a foreign leader could receive from the United States when you consider the scope of the various officials he’s meeting with and the amount of time he’s here. And I’m wondering, is this – is it fair to call it a new approach after, perhaps, some tough love a couple of months ago? Help me understand this.

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t think it’s a new approach. It’s the approach that we’ve been taking since the Afghan election. As the Secretary and others have said, President Karzai set out an aggressive and broad agenda in his inauguration speech and this is part of that process of translating that vision into very specific, long-term programs that will help Afghanistan progress in ways that are good for the Afghan people and good for the American people.

QUESTION: It was announced today that the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan will be meeting in July – mid-July sometime in Islamabad. How do you see the development there and how is it helpful to your efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, we always welcome dialogue and better relations between India and Pakistan, but the pace, the scope, and the character of that dialogue is obviously for the Indian and Pakistani Governments to decide. But they do have some meetings coming up in the near future. We certainly welcome that dialogue.

QUESTION: Do you see any role for the U.S. in this?

MR. CROWLEY: This is – I mean, we have a strong relationship with India. We have a strong relationship with Pakistan. But we’ve encouraged better relations between the two countries. But the nature of that relationship is ultimately up to them. They are neighbors.

QUESTION: Are you satisfied –

MR. CROWLEY: Samir.

QUESTION: -- with this pace at which they are moving ahead in reducing the tension?

MR. CROWLEY: Again, those are decisions for the governments to make.

Samir.

QUESTION: There is a report in the Middle East that Hamas is exchanging letters with the Administration.

MR. CROWLEY: That report is completely false.

QUESTION: Can I ask another report that’s in the – about Mullah Omar that he’s been captured? There’s a report out on the internet that he’s been captured.

MR. CROWLEY: Hope it’s true. I’m not aware if it is, but that would be welcome news.

QUESTION: Separate. Brazil. I’m wondering if you could comment on Lula’s – President Da Silva’s visit to Iran and whether his increasing closeness with Iran is affecting his stature.

MR. CROWLEY: We’ve gone through this a number of times. The Secretary, when she was in New York last week, met with Foreign Minister Amorim. They talked about this upcoming trip. The Brazilians are still pursuing the engagement track. We respect that. If President Lula can turn Iran in a constructive direction, we’d obviously welcome that result. But let’s see what happens this weekend.

QUESTION: Iraq question?

MR. CROWLEY: Yeah.

QUESTION: There were reports out of Baghdad that the U.S. is considering delaying the troop withdrawal. I recognize that’s not your lane.

MR. CROWLEY: That’s true.

QUESTION: But I’m wondering if the ambassador has expressed concern with the security situation and whether he may be on board with the idea of perhaps keeping U.S. troops there longer.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I’ll point to the Pentagon. But I think there have been a number of comments by senior Pentagon officials that have said right now our plans are unchanged.

QUESTION: Do you have any comment on the Israeli Government’s announcement that the weapons seized in Bangkok in December were actually bound for Hamas and Hezbollah?

MR. CROWLEY: The – which –

QUESTION: The Israeli Government’s announcement today.

MR. CROWLEY: About which shipment? The shipment that was intercepted in Thailand?

QUESTION: The North Korean shipment.

MR. CROWLEY: Hmm?

QUESTION: The North Korean shipment – arms, weapons –

MR. CROWLEY: Do I have a comment on that? No.

QUESTION: -- in December.

MR. CROWLEY: Michel.

QUESTION: Russian president has called in Syria today for a more active U.S. role in the peace process and saying that the situation in the Middle East was very bad. Do you have anything?

MR. CROWLEY: I think – (laughter). I think we have a pretty active role in the peace process right now. And as – I think George Mitchell has, in fact, returned to the United States, having been delayed in coming back from proximity talks, first round or second round. And we are obviously intensively engaged in trying to move the parties towards direct negotiation, which I think everyone supports, including the Quartet.

QUESTION: Has he met with (inaudible)?

MR. CROWLEY: No, not yet.

QUESTION: I just had a quick general question as far as corruption. We talk about corruption in Afghanistan, corruption elsewhere, wherever U.S. giving money or aid, so --

MR. CROWLEY: We hate corruption everywhere, Goyal.

QUESTION: Yeah. What I’m asking is that – have you made any changes since Afghanistan – Afghan president and his delegation is here, ministers are here, and we’re talking about corruption. Have you made any changes as far as accountability of the – by the U.S. wherever they give money?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, let’s turn that around. Part of our discussion today will be continuing to build strong institutions of government in Afghanistan. Dealing with corruption is a dimension of that. I think as Ambassador Eikenberry talked about, we’re encouraged recently by the Karzai government’s appointment of a commission to look at and root out corruption, and that commission has been given a high degree of independence.

QUESTION: So most of the money can be spent on the development for the people?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, well, in our own provision of aid to Afghanistan, we are channeling that aid through the specific ministries that we have reviewed and consider effective and relatively free of corruption.

QUESTION: Talking about money and about the interview of Hillary Clinton in the program 60 Minutes, in --

MR. CROWLEY: What’s that got to do with money?

QUESTION: Yes.

MR. CROWLEY: (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Some congressmen have said that if Pakistan is not cooperating, it is time for the U.S. to cut all the subsidies and all the help, aid that Pakistan is receiving.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, as the Secretary said in that very interview, we are satisfied with the cooperation that we’ve received from Pakistan in this investigation. As she said, we’ve seen a sea change in change of attitudes within Pakistan over the last couple of years, but that we have – we want and expect more from Pakistan going forward.

QUESTION: So the matter is – this was the matter of the conversation?

MR. CROWLEY: This was what?

QUESTION: In between the talks that the U.S. is having with Pakistan, this was in the conversation, that the U.S. may cut all these --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, at – no, no, no, no, no, no. In the recent strategic dialogue with Pakistan, terrorism was a major topic of discussion because it is a shared responsibility and a shared threat. So this is part of our ongoing discussion with Pakistan.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:06 p.m.)



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