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 June 15, 2011
12:38 p.m. EDT
MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead. Pakistan. Fine.
QUESTION: Can I ask you first about this – the reports that – of the Pakistani arrests of CIA informants linked to the bin Ladin raid? What do you know? What can you say about this, firstly?
MR. TONER: What I will do is just refer you to what the CIA has already said about this, which is related, I believe, in the article that you’re referring to in The New York Times today, that we have a strong relationship with our Pakistani counterparts and work through issues when they arise.
QUESTION: Has the Secretary been in any discussions related to this issue with Pakistani officials?
MR. TONER: Again, I’m not going to talk to the substance of this issue. Obviously, the Secretary was there just a couple of weeks ago. And more broadly, we’ve seen since the raid on Abbottabad a series of visits, high-level visits with Senator Kerry, with Ambassador Grossman, then the Secretary and Admiral Mullen, and then CIA Director Panetta, that I think shows an intensity of engagement that illustrates our commitment to working through these issues.
QUESTION: Fine. But why did you respond to the first question by explaining how you have a strong relationship? What about this story prompts a response? What about this story underlines the strength of your relationship?
MR. TONER: I think we’ve been up front about challenges in the relationship, but we’ve also been consistent in saying that Pakistan and the U.S. need each other. We need to work through these challenges because it’s in both of our long-term – and short-term, frankly – interests to do so.
QUESTION: But you don’t view something like this as inherently hostile, considering the significance of the raid, who the individual was?
MR. TONER: Again, Brad, I cannot and will not get into the substance of what you’re asking, which is this New York Times story this morning. All I can say is that we recognize there’s challenges in the relationship and we’re committed to working through them.
QUESTION: Does this –
MR. TONER: Sure. Go ahead.
QUESTION: To follow up on Brad’s question, I mean, given your response, which was to repeat the line in the story, do you regard such a report – I’m not asking you to comment on the substance of it – as evidence of strength or challenge in the relationship?
MR. TONER: But again, you’re asking me to speak to the veracity of the report. I would just again say what I just said, which is we recognize, in light of the raid on Abbottabad, his whereabouts, this raised serious questions both in Congress and in our government as well as within the Pakistani Government. We’ve all acknowledged that there are challenges to this relationship, but again, I just would go back to the fact that, as the President and others have said, more terrorists have been identified and killed on Pakistani soil than anywhere else in the world. And that’s in part due to this counterterrorism cooperation that we have. So it’s in our interests to work through these challenges as they arise and to move forward.
QUESTION: When you see a story like this on the front page of The New York Times, not just people here in Washington but people across the country are going to ask the question yet again: Why should the United States be working with Pakistan? Is it simply because they are a nuclear power? It seems as if they criticize U.S. policy at every turn. They’ve even criticized the humanitarian funding under Kerry-Lugar. Ordinary Americans will ask the question: Why do we bother with Pakistan if this kind of story can land on the most reputable newspaper, most would say, in the country?
MR. TONER: And the response, I think, to your question is that it is in our national security interest to do so and it’s in Pakistan’s security interest to do so. We have – we face a shared threat from terrorism, and it’s therefore in both of our interests to work together to combat this threat.
Are there bumps in the road? Certainly. Are there challenges? Of course. But we need to work cooperatively together. We need to work past and through these issues because we do have many successes to point to. And we’ve got – I think we’ve seen progress in building this relationship. So we believe it’s in our interests.
And speaking more broadly about our assistance to Pakistan, it’s in our national security interest, our security interests of the United States and Pakistan, to build a prosperous, more democratic Pakistan with stronger institutions and a prosperous economy, because that provides the kind of deterrent to extremism.
QUESTION: Let me ask you this more broadly --
MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: -- not specifically about this case. Is the United States convinced that Pakistan remains committed to counterterrorism cooperation with the United States?
MR. TONER: I mean, fundamentally, you’ll have to ask the Pakistanis that, but we --
QUESTION: Are you convinced that they are?
MR. TONER: We believe that we have a strong relationship and counterterrorism relationship and that despite these challenges that were – that have been acknowledged since the Abbottabad raid, that we need to keep moving forward.
QUESTION: But you understand how every time a story like this comes out, Congress then re-looks at the issue of aid --
MR. TONER: I understand, Cami. And I understand that these do raise legitimate concerns, and we’re addressing these concerns with the Pakistani Government.
QUESTION: Isn’t that a problem that weeks after bin Ladin’s death we still have to say that it’s a question for the Pakistanis whether they’re cooperating in the war against terrorism?
MR. TONER: Well, I say that in part because it’s not for me to articulate the Pakistanis’ position. But – nor is it for – it’s not for me to articulate the position of any other government. I can only say what our views are. But again, I’ll just cite what I cited at the top of the briefing, which is that we’ve had a number of high-level visits from Senator Kerry through CIA Director Panetta. This shows our engagement on this issue and it shows our commitment to working through these issues. And we’ve seen that commitment on the Pakistani side as well.
QUESTION: So the --
QUESTION: Does the State Department --
QUESTION: How have you seen that (inaudible)?
MR. TONER: Well, I’m not going to get into the substance of those conversations --
QUESTION: What is there --
MR. TONER: -- but the fact that we’ve had these visits and met with senior Pakistani officials, they’ve been constructive meetings, and we believe that there’s a strong cooperative relationship.
QUESTION: Just to make the point – sorry, Jill – but you say that it’s not your position to speak for them. But when this government provides billions of dollars of aid to another country, it would seem to reason that it would be a reasonable request that you could at least vouch for the commitment from that country to the same principles that you’re pushing for.
MR. TONER: Point taken. And I tried to, I think, respond to Rosiland’s question by saying that this is a relationship that’s in our long-term interests. We believe the Pakistanis recognize it’s in their long-term interests as well and are committed to working through this – these challenges.
QUESTION: And, Mark, speaking of the funding on Capitol Hill, does the State Department believe that the current funding should continue as is in spite of any of this?
MR. TONER: Again, it depends on what funding you’re talking about. But I would say overall, our assistance to Pakistan is worthwhile and is, again, more broadly aimed at building the kind of democratic institutions and infrastructure that is in – going to make Pakistan a stronger country moving forward.
QUESTION: But certainly, you see these sorts of questions being raised right now --
MR. TONER: Absolutely. And we understand --
QUESTION: -- with Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen, who are trying to get money for their own, and by extension at one point did argue for expanded funding for State. They’re getting those same questions from senators. How can you say this is in our national security interest when we’re faced with nearly a trillion dollar budget deficit just this year alone?
MR. TONER: We acknowledge. And ultimately, it’s going to be for Pakistan to show Congress and to answer Congress’s concerns.
Are we done or --
MR. TONER: Sure. Afghanistan.
QUESTION: CNN has a piece today that gets into some of these projects that – like there’s one specific one that deals with energy, there’s another one that deals with a very sophisticated hospital, and there are some others – typical USAID/State Department projects. And one of the criticisms is that albeit maybe the intentions were good, but they’re really unsustainable by the Afghans. They don’t have the money, they don’t have the manpower. And so people draw the conclusion that this is a big, fat waste of money.
Now, I know – I’m not going to ask you to speak specifically to each one, but this is going to be a problem constantly now as we talk about Afghanistan and the unsustainability. How does the State Department – when you look at those projects, do you think of the sustainability? Is there anything built into the --
MR. TONER: Jill, I would just refer you – because I can certainly speak broadly about our development aims in Afghanistan, but we had USAID’s administrator as well as Ambassador Grossman talk specifically about the development projects in Afghanistan, the civilian surge in Afghanistan, what our aims are, what our ultimate goals are, how we’re looking to sustain these projects.
Certainly, the criticisms you just raised, I think extend through development projects throughout the world. They’re not unique to Afghanistan. But certainly, Afghanistan does present a unique set of challenges, given that it’s a war zone. But we take sustainability into account on all of our aid projects and are working hard to ensure that the resources are brought to bear that these projects are not in any way unsustainable. That doesn’t make sense. And I think USAID’s administrator Raj Shah spoke as well about working to get better accountability and to ensure that these projects are a good value for the money.
Yeah. Go ahead.
MR. TONER: We can switch to Syria.
QUESTION: Our reports are that thousands of Syrians have fled from the second town, the one that we discussed yesterday, in Maarat al-Numaan.
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: Does the added threat that these people who are voting with their feet perceive, has that had any influence in your efforts to secure Security Council backing for the non-sanction Syria resolution?
MR. TONER: Well, you’re right – just a brief update because you did mention the refugee – we provided a total on just – today’s figure is around 8,500 Syrian citizens who are being sheltered in four Turkish Red Crescent camps and 73 Syrians are receiving medical treatment in Turkish hospitals. And I believe there’s a fifth camp under construction. And the Turkish Government has assured that the border will remain open.
Without a doubt, speaking broadly about recent events in Syria, every day we’re barraged with a new set of outrageous actions by the Syrian security forces. We have seen Syrians fleeing, both displaced internally as well as fleeing over the border to Turkey. In terms of what you’re asking me about the Security Council resolution, we continue to believe that a Security Council resolution, as one tool, if you will, would be useful to put pressure on Asad and his regime, and we continue to pursue those efforts.
QUESTION: But is it making – is it helping you make your arguments there? Do you sense any change?
MR. TONER: We believe it is. I mean, in the sense of – there’s increasing – it’s more and more unavoidable, I think, to people who are watching this from the outside, that what Syria is doing is – shouldn’t be allowed to continue.
QUESTION: Has the Secretary had any recent conversations either with Foreign Minister Lavrov or with Foreign Minister Yang?
MR. TONER: Foreign Minister --
QUESTION: Yang, the Chinese foreign minister.
MR. TONER: Oh, sorry. No, not recently, but she did – this was – Syria was a topic of discussion at all her meetings in the Gulf and in Africa, and we look forward to keeping this dialogue going, or keeping this pressure going as we move forward.
QUESTION: Are the recent events making the United States work with any greater urgency toward the possibility of additional bilateral sanctions, understanding that there are many people who believe the Administration – or the U.S. Government – has over the years largely sanctioned itself out of influence with Syria. But are you giving – does the latest violence – has that accelerated your thinking about additional bilateral sanctions?
MR. TONER: We do – as you noted, we do have a robust set of sanctions already in place that, in fact, target President Asad himself. But I would just say that that is indeed one option that remains on the table.
Yeah. Go ahead, Kirit.
QUESTION: On Libya, if I may, there was a reference in The Washington Post this morning to a meeting between a Senior Administration Official and an emissary from the Qadhafi government. I was curious if you could tell us if that’s happened already and who exactly was going to be holding that meeting, where and when.
MR. TONER: I don’t have any details to share and I’m not aware that such a meeting took place.
QUESTION: Okay. Is that to suggest that that report is incorrect or --
MR. TONER: Again, I don’t want to in any way call on the – I haven’t read the report. I’m aware of the issue, and I don’t have any – I can’t confirm it.
QUESTION: Have you – sorry, just so we understand, have you checked and you have – there’s a difference between your being --
MR. TONER: I have checked and my understanding is that the meeting did not take place.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Yeah. Sorry. Clear.
QUESTION: Is that the one I was just talking about?
MR. TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: Does that mean --
QUESTION: You checked on it and there was no meeting that has taken place and --
MR. TONER: Yes. And you asked, will a meeting take place, and I said --
QUESTION: Okay. But nothing has taken place?
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: Do you know who it would be if there would be a meeting?
MR. TONER: No.
MR. TONER: Nice try.
QUESTION: But – so just to make sure – but there is an emissary here?
MR. TONER: Not that I’m aware of. There’s – again --
QUESTION: Does that mean, again, that you’re ignorant of whether there is an emissary here – (laughter) – or whether there is an – or whether --
QUESTION: We’ll ask it in the broadest way; how about that?
MR. TONER: Right, right. Again, my understanding – I checked on this – that no meeting took place. As to whether there is an emissary here on the ground, I don’t believe so, so.