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 September 20, 2010
QUESTION: The first question is – it has to do with the Afghan parliamentary election. Some number of the candidates are – represent a party that’s connected to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who, as you know, the United States considers to be a terrorist. I’m wondering if the – does the Administration have a concern about these folks, if they win seats, having power that could undermine the effectiveness of the central government?
MR. TONER: Well, first of all, just on the elections writ large, we congratulate the people of Afghanistan for carrying out what were fully Afghan-led parliamentary elections under extremely difficult circumstances. We believe the Afghan people can be proud that millions of their citizens, courageous men and women, went to the polls, exercised their democratic right to vote, despite repeated threats and intimidation by the Taliban.
And we also want to recognize the excellent performance of the Afghan national security services in protecting yesterday’s elections. This election saw significantly fewer security incidents than last year’s presidential elections, and that’s important.
As to your specific question, we had elections yesterday – or over the weekend, and we’re going to wait and see how the results play out. I think we’re looking at, for preliminary results, in early October. About that party, I’ll have to take the question as to any specific concerns we might have about them.
QUESTION: So what message you think this election sends to the Taliban and those who are halting or trying to disrupt the democracy in Afghanistan?
MR. TONER: Well, I think it sent a very clear signal that the Afghan people are not backing down. It wasn’t under perfect security conditions, but the security forces did perform admirably and people got out and voted. I believe somewhere between 3.5 and 4 million citizens went out and voted. That’s a significant turnout, and we believe really speaks to their thirst for democracy and democratic change.
QUESTION: And finally, you think Karzai government is now in control or they can – Karzai government is now, you think, in control and they can run the country? Like, Karzai government was saying that – let us rule our own country and our own future.
MR. TONER: Well, obviously, the long-term goal in everyone’s interest is to have Afghan governance throughout Afghanistan, to extend that governance, to provide stability and security for the Afghan people. It means our troops can go home. It means the Afghan people can enjoy the real fruits of democracy. Yesterday was another step in that direction. I don’t want to overplay it, but – or overstate it, rather, but the fact that violence, although terrible and tragic for the victims, was less than last year’s presidential elections, is significant. And again, the security forces did a good job.
QUESTION: One more. I’m sorry, one more, if I may. As far as telling in advance that U.S. and NATO will withdraw from Afghanistan by next year, July 2011, one, what kind of message you think you are sending to the terrorists? And second, many regional governments, including India, it may have come – this issue – here at the State Department – India is asking that it’s not time for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan next year because it will send a wrong signal and those terrorists will come back, and you are telling them that just wait, we are leaving. So you --
MR. TONER: Well, Goyal, I think we’ve said repeatedly both here and in Afghanistan that no one is talking about the U.S. leaving next summer, and any kind of assessment would be based on conditions on the ground. I believe General Petraeus has said that repeatedly. But – and in terms of a broader commitment, the U.S. is obviously engaged in Afghanistan for many years to come, as is the international community.
QUESTION: Can we go to the peace talks?
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Mark, there was a report in the Los Angeles Times saying that the Secretary of State is quite frustrated with last week’s results of the talks, that they really achieved no progress whatsoever and there’s more intransigence and there seemed to be no flexibility. Could you share with us how the Secretary feels about her effort this week?
MR. TONER: Well, I think the Secretary remains upbeat in the sense that we’ve got both sides in direct negotiations, which was a longstanding goal. Are there going to be frustrating moments? Most likely. These are tough issues, and they’re issues that need to be discussed. But we remain optimistic because we believe that both parties talking will lead to progress, eventually. So I don’t want to get into any of the details, but –
QUESTION: Well, some of the details are out. It seems that the Secretary of State offered or made some offers last week: one, to stop the – I mean, to continue with the settlement freeze; second, to extend it for three months; and third, if it goes on, that the negotiations go on, and once the borders of the Palestinian state are determined, then the Israelis would roll back whatever settlements they did or quit building settlements altogether. But it seems that the Israelis are not too enthusiastic about any of these offers. Could you share with us some of the --
MR. TONER: It really isn’t for me from this podium to get into the substance of the negotiations. I believe Senator Mitchell has been quite clear that we’re not going to do that. We know what all the issues are; you’ve mentioned just a few of them in your question. We are – we had good talks last week. Those talks will continue. I believe Senator Mitchell is in New York this week. And we’re not going to prejudge anything. All the issues are on the table; we’re just going to let them run their course.
QUESTION: And do you feel that the lack of – or, in fact, the absence of Prime Minister Netanyahu from the General Assembly this week, is that --
MR. TONER: Now, we’ve said all along that these talks are going to take place in a number of different levels, and that’s fine.
QUESTION: Okay. But – I’m sorry, but –
MR. TONER: That’s okay.
QUESTION: Since Abbas is there and he will be meeting with the Secretary of State, meeting with Senator Mitchell, and meeting with President Obama, presumably, on Thursday, how is that – who is going to represent the Israelis?
MR. TONER: Well, the Israeli defense minister is there and he’ll be meeting with the Secretary later today, and I’m sure he can express the views of his government.
Go ahead, Lalit.
QUESTION: India’s foreign secretary was here last week and she had a series of meetings over here. Do you have any readout on it? What will the meeting be about?
MR. TONER: I don’t, Lalit. I mean, I know that the Secretary did meet with them briefly, I believe on Friday, late Friday. She had a very full day at the end of a very long trip. But she did meet with them, and obviously they discussed the wide range of issues that are integral to our strategic partnership, but I don’t have a specific readout. I can try to get something for you tomorrow.
MR. TONER: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: China is going to help Pakistan build another nuclear facility. And I know that there are U.S. objections to – already underway that China is helping Pakistan build. Do you have any comment or concerns about this latest announcement?
MR. TONER: Let me see if I have something here. But just generally speaking, we would ask China, as a member of the Nuclear Supplier Group, to live up to its commitments.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: But I’ll see if I can get more on that for you.
QUESTION: Just a couple of questions about Iran, please. Has the United States reached out to Mr. Ahmadinejad to thank him in a note or otherwise for his role in the release of Sarah Shourd?
MR. TONER: Has the U.S. –
MR. TONER: -- reached out? Not that I’m aware of. We’re very, very pleased and happy to have Sarah Shourd home. We also call on the Iranian Government to release the other two hikers who remain in Iran. I think as P.J. expressed last week, they’ve shown they have the capacity to resolve this issue internally, and we hope that they would extend that to the other two hikers who are still there. But I’m not aware of it. We’ve obviously expressed our deep gratitude both to the Swiss protecting power as well as to the people of Oman – the Government of Oman, rather.
QUESTION: Just following that, are you aware of what specific role Mr. Ahmadinejad may have played in the release?
MR. TONER: Frankly, I’m not, no.
QUESTION: And from where you stand, does the release provide some kind of opening, possibly, during Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York this week?
MR. TONER: Well, I mean, to that regard, I mean, there’s always an opening. That door always remains ajar for us to – part of the essence of the two-track approach that we have towards Iran is to keep that door open to engagement, to discussion. So I mean, absolutely, that’s true.
QUESTION: Did the release nudge that door a little further open?
MR. TONER: We’re just pleased to have her home, but we still are cognizant of the fact that two hikers remain in Iran.
QUESTION: Also related?
MR. TONER: Sure, go ahead. And then –
QUESTION: Ahmadinejad said that a list of Iranians detained here in the U.S. was given to the Omani representative who picked up Sarah Shourd from Tehran. Have you received that list? And they want these people back: Is that something that –
MR. TONER: I’m not aware of any list that we’ve received or not received. I’m aware of the comments he made, I believe, in a couple of interviews he gave yesterday in New York. And we would just say that there’s no equivalence between these individuals who have been either charged or tried and given – afforded due process in a court, and these hikers who were –
crossed an unmarked border and have yet to be charged. So I would just call people’s attention to that.
QUESTION: I have another question. In one of the two interviews that he’s done so far, he said that the U.S. should accept Iran as a major player in the world. Is that an idea the U.S. Government is willing – ready to entertain?
MR. TONER: We would like to, as I just said, in response to Charley’s question, we would like to have more engagement with Iran to talk to them about their nuclear program. And from there, seek greater engagement. We’ve always said that door remains open. So we recognize the people of Iran as important to the region. We recognize that they can play an important constructive role, but really that’s a decision for Iran and the Iranian Government to make. They need to live up to their international commitments. It’s really – I hate to use the expression the ball’s in their court, but in fact, it is.
QUESTION: Mark, do you have a figure on the number of Iranians in U.S. custody and the nature of their offenses?
MR. TONER: I don’t. I can try to get that for you, but I don’t have one.
QUESTION: Thank you.