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Middle East Digest - October 20,2010

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Washington, DC
October 20, 2010


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 October 20, 2010

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1:07 p.m. EDT

MR. CROWLEY: The U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue began today – it will run through Friday – of the 13 working groups that make up the Strategic Dialogue, this morning, we’ve had meetings with the agriculture, communications and public diplomacy, and water working groups. The agriculture group discussed post-flood agricultural recovery in the priority areas of Pakistan. The communications and public diplomacy group discussed ways to cooperate in communications policies and technologies. And the water working group has gone over Pakistan’s water security and to strengthen the overall policy and regulatory environment so Pakistan can get the greatest yield out of its available water resources. This afternoon, the defense working group will meet. And then I think there are some public activities tonight, among them Brookings and the Asia Society co-sponsoring a forum with Ambassador Holbrooke, Foreign Minister Qureshi, and USAID Administrator Raj Shah.

This evening, the Secretary will deliver remarks to the fifth annual gala of the American Task Force on Palestine. She will reaffirm the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution and to comprehensive peace in the Middle East. Much of her remarks this evening will focus on our ongoing efforts to support institution building and to salute the leadership of President Abbas and Foreign Minister Fayyad in building strong institutions that could be the foundation of a viable Palestinian state.

QUESTION: On the Pakistan dialogue, the defense working group is meeting over at the Pentagon; is that correct?

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t know. I don’t have the schedule in front of me.

QUESTION: All right. Well, I’m just wondering – there have been some reports today or at least one report that I’m aware of today about concerns that the Pakistani intelligence service is trying to thwart or disrupt potential reconciliation talks between the Afghan Government and militants there. Are there such concerns on the U.S. side?

MR. CROWLEY: We have worked with Pakistan, and I think more importantly, the Afghan Government has worked with Pakistan. We’ve made clear that a solution to the extremist challenge that affects Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the United States and other countries – it will involve effective action and solutions on both sides of the border.

We have discussed this with Pakistan. We have assured Pakistan that it has an appropriate role to play in resolving the situation in Afghanistan. But likewise, the Afghan Government has also made clear that solving its challenge within Afghanistan involves effective action on the Pakistan side of the border. This is an essential element of our strategy. We need to have aggressive action, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, if we’re going to defeat this extremist threat.

QUESTION: Okay, understood. But are there concerns that the ISI is actively trying to scuttle talks?

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t – the talks are moving forward. This is an Afghan-led process. But we will discuss within the Strategic Dialogue this week ways in which Pakistan can be a part of this broader effort. I know there have been Pakistani officials who’ve met with Afghan officials to discuss this very subject. So we do not want to see efforts by any entity to prevent political reconciliation. This is a fundamental part of our strategy, and Pakistan does have a legitimate role to play in supporting this process. But the broader process of reconciliation is an Afghan-led process, but we do see a role for Pakistan to be involved.

QUESTION: What role?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, not the least of which is because we believe that there are elements that – involved in the insurgency that exist in the areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And we understand that there are historical interests here, there are relationships here. That’s why our – we have talked to Pakistan about playing a constructive role in supporting an Afghan-led reconciliation process.

QUESTION: Should Pakistan have a seat at the table in that effort?

MR. CROWLEY: Describing what – I mean, the nature of that role, I think, is up to discussions between Pakistan and Afghanistan. We recognize that countries have an interest in the future of the region and we want – we see this as a – as part of a regional strategy. Pakistan has an interest in a stable Afghanistan. Other countries do as well. And to the extent that Pakistan can play a role in supporting an Afghan-led process, that is something that we have discussed with Pakistan, but more importantly, that’s something that Pakistan has discussed with Afghanistan itself.

QUESTION: One other one on that. You said that you do not want to see any entity acting to – and I don’t remember the verb – but undermine, undercut, vitiate the efforts toward reconciliation. Are you seeing such efforts?

MR. CROWLEY: I wouldn’t point to anything, no.

QUESTION: So nobody’s trying to undermine this?

MR. CROWLEY: Arshad, it’s difficult for me to answer that question, but I think – we are talking to Pakistan. We’ll discuss this as a dimension of our Strategic Dialogue this week. There have been consultations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and we recognize that to resolve the situation there needs to be effective action on both sides of the border.

QUESTION: P.J., do you see this – as far as reports coming out of the region, like a NATO official was speaking about Zawahiri and Usama bin Ladin may be in Pakistan – all these reports and others about Pakistan, do you think it’s a hindrance between these talks going on in Afghanistan and also here in Washington?

MR. CROWLEY: Goyal, I’m not sure – you lost me in terms of an anonymous NATO official and what he or she might have said.

QUESTION: I mean, do you have any comments about that as far as – are these talks – do you think --

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not sure what the – I’m trying to figure what the “that” is.

QUESTION: Of NATO official have said that some of the elements are in Pakistan, and including the number one and number two, Zawahiri and also Usama bin Ladin.

MR. CROWLEY: I think there’s – well, there’s no secret that there are activities that move across borders between the tribal areas and Afghanistan. That’s why our strategy is focused on effective action on both sides of the border.

QUESTION: And finally, as far as their – your meeting here in Washington, what is the major problem and what is – what are you going to achieve from these talks now this week?

MR. CROWLEY: So you’re – Goyal, I don’t mean to be picky here, but you’re trying to reduce the Pakistan Strategic Dialogue to one thing and we have to have one solution. We have 13 working groups. We have a strategic relationship with Pakistan. We are doing a variety of things on both the security side, the agricultural side, the institutional side. We’re helping Pakistan build its institutions. We’re helping Pakistan develop a deeper relationship with its own people. We’re helping Pakistan recover from a devastating flood. We are committed to Pakistan for the long term.

This is about a long-term relationship. It’s not about solving one problem this week. This is the third high-level meeting that we’ve had with Pakistani officials this year, and it demonstrates our commitment and the breadth of our engagement with Pakistan to solve not one thing over time, but a variety of challenges over time that we have mutual interests about.

QUESTION: One more on Afghanistan?


QUESTION: Okay. The U.S. has said this is – the reconciliation is an Afghan-led process now. So is the U.S. standing back and watching it all happen? Or what is the level of U.S. engagement in this reconciliation process? Does the U.S. vet who Karzai or his government speak to – which Taliban, which shura?

MR. CROWLEY: We are supporting an Afghan-led process. We recognize that ultimately, the solution in Afghanistan involves effective military action, but also involves political reconciliation. We are supporting this process, but this is ultimately a discussion that has to involve Afghan officials and those insurgent elements that are attacking the Afghan Government, as I just said.

But to the extent that the solution to Afghanistan does involve a regional solution, we recognize that Pakistan, India, Iran, other countries have an interest in a stable Afghanistan and can play a constructive role.

QUESTION: P.J., over the past year, the viewpoint here at the State Department has shifted on how Pakistan is carrying out its responsibilities in fighting terrorists. It’s becoming more positive. But in these meetings that are going on right now, what is the U.S. telling Pakistan specifically that it has to do? The message is always: They could do more. What do you want them to do?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, first of all, to the extent that our tone has become more positive, it’s because Pakistan has been taking increasing action. They’ve had the offensive in Swat. They’ve had the offensive in South Waziristan. We want to see greater action, particularly focused on North Waziristan. We have said that publicly and privately. We understand that Pakistan has a variety of challenges. They’ve got capacity issues. Some of this effort, given the strength of the Pakistan military – as arguably the strongest institution of government within Pakistan – it has been forced to shift its attention from fighting extremism within its borders to cope with the impact of the flood. We understand that.

Among the issues that we’ll be discussing with Pakistan this week are how we can continue to work with Pakistan and increase its capabilities so that it can do multiple things at the same time. But clearly, while we’ve seen aggressive action by Pakistan in recent months, more does need to be done. There are still safe havens within its territory that need to be addressed.

QUESTION: P.J., just on the reconciliation talks, you’ve told us many times that it has to be an Afghan-led process. But are there Americans in the room? Are there Americans at every meeting? Are they from State? Are they from the White House?


QUESTION: No, what?

MR. CROWLEY: The discussions that are going on do not involve Americans.

QUESTION: So you’re blind to the whole process?

MR. CROWLEY: I didn’t say we’re blind to the whole process. You’re – this is a discussion that has to take place with Afghan officials who are able to resolve and see if these groups will commit themselves to the red lines that the Afghan Government, supported by the international community, including the United States, have laid out.

But ultimately, this is about Afghanistan’s future. This is culturally a way in which Afghanistan has traditionally resolved conflicts in the past. We will support this process, but ultimately this is a dialogue and a resolution that will involve Afghans talking to Afghans.

QUESTION: Do you – are you confident that --

QUESTION: Well, what is the U.S. doing specifically? What are they doing?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, I can rehash our discussions of the last week in terms of we have some knowledge of what’s going on. As we have indicated, we have been asked by the Afghan Government, in some cases, to facilitate meetings. That involves just knowledge of a group moving from this location to this location. If you’re going to move around Afghanistan, it’s better that ISAF have knowledge of this and can make sure that there is safe passage for these meetings to take place. But the discussions are between Afghan officials and those elements that may be interested in reconciliation.

QUESTION: P.J., do you – are you confident that you’re getting an accurate picture of what’s going on in those talks if you’re not in the rooms? I mean, the Secretary has stressed again and again that she’s all for reconciliation as long as the constitution is upheld and women’s rights are protected.

MR. CROWLEY: We have complete confidence that the Afghan Government shares our view that any group that seeks reconciliation must renounce violence, cut any ties to al-Qaida, and support the Afghan constitution which enshrines fundamental rights for men and women in Afghanistan, and we have confidence that this is a shared set of guidelines that is driving this process. But the discussions themselves, by definition, will involve Afghan officials talking to those groups that have indicated a willingness in playing a constructive role in Afghanistan’s future.

QUESTION: Do you think they will follow it? Do you think they will go through? They will follow it? Because it has happened even in the past several times but failed.

MR. CROWLEY: Again, our strategy involves effective action on the security side, effective action on the civilian side to build up institutions within the Afghan Government and also involves political reconciliation. This is a fundamental part of the strategy.


QUESTION: Back to the Pakistan dialogue for a second, it’s been widely reported that the main carrot is a $2 billion military aid package to the Pakistani military. Is that accurate? And what can you tell us of the status and contents of the package?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we’re having the defense discussions this afternoon. We’ll have more to say about deliverables later in the week.

QUESTION: I’m sorry, later when? Later --

MR. CROWLEY: Later in the week.

QUESTION: And do you know who’s at the defense working group? Is it Mullen and Kayani or are we still at much lower levels?

MR. CROWLEY: I believe that there were – there have been or will be meetings between defense and military officials and Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen this afternoon at the Pentagon.

QUESTION: With General Kayani?

MR. CROWLEY: General Kayani is here.

QUESTION: No, no, but that – I know he’s here. I didn’t ask you if he’s here. I’m here. It’s a totally irrelevant question. Answer it.

MR. CROWLEY: Again, I understand that. I am sitting here at the Defense Department. This is an interagency process.

QUESTION: You’re actually at the State Department.

MR. CROWLEY: I’m confirming that there will be discussions this afternoon with Pakistani officials and U.S. defense officials. I will defer to my able colleagues at the Department of Defense to describe precisely what’s going on. But there is the defense meeting this afternoon. You (inaudible) necessarily involve on our side Secretary Gates, Admiral Mullen. I know General Kayani is here in town. Other participation, I’ll defer to the Pentagon.

QUESTION: P.J., just a quick follow. Do you see an arms race in the region in between India and Pakistan? Because you have another package for India, billions of dollars, and you have package for Pakistan, now you have package – $60 billion for Saudi Arabia.

MR. CROWLEY: Goyal, it’s not about an arms race. It is about – we have had discussions with Pakistan to build up their capabilities, but also how to direct those capabilities. We have made no secret of the fact that we’ve told Pakistan clearly that we believe that the existential threat to Pakistan is not India; the existential threat to Pakistan involves extremism within its own borders. And we have seen some shifting of emphasis where Pakistan is, in fact, directing more of its effort against these extremist elements that potentially affect us, but fundamentally affect Pakistan and the government itself. That will be – continue to be an area of discussion between the United States and Pakistan, and also between the United States and other countries in the region.

QUESTION: So what is the threat to India? Who is a threat to India?


Go ahead.

QUESTION: Just back on Pakistan and (inaudible) reconciliation talks. We’ve seen a spade of comments recently, including your one just now, and recently about facilitating these talks. To give us a sense of context and to make sure that we’re not getting ahead of ourselves, have you seen any indication that those talks are making progress on reconciliation? I’m not talking about reintegration of lower-level Taliban. But is there any indication at all to date that reconciliation talks with Taliban leaders are making progress?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, if – as Ambassador Holbrooke and others have said, we – the pace of these discussions is picking up. But obviously this is a process that is – having been planned over several months, is really still in its early stages.

QUESTION: Could you tell us a little bit more about this safe passage? I mean, trying to make sure that ISAF knows when these meetings are taking place. What does it involve exactly? I mean --

MR. CROWLEY: Again, for getting down to the nuts and bolts, I’ll defer to my colleagues at ISAF.

QUESTION: Okay. Can I ask another question about the Middle East?

QUESTION: Can we stay on Pakistan?

QUESTION: Okay, sure.

QUESTION: Yeah, you mentioned just a few minutes ago that Pakistan has changed its view towards the threat against – from – coming from extremists when it’s within its own borders. What about extremists just across the border from Afghanistan? Do you see any sign that it’s changing its view about the threat from there?

MR. CROWLEY: Lach, I would flip that around. There’s a lot of history in this region. Pakistan has an interest in the future of Afghanistan. It wants to make sure that there’s a stable state on its border. We understand that. We want to make sure that Pakistan is playing a constructive role in the region and is establishing an appropriate and constructive relationship with Afghanistan going forward.

Afghanistan is sovereign. It has a right to chart its own future. But it will also, we recognize, have relationships with its neighbors, which will include Pakistan, which will include India, which will include Iran, and will include other countries. And so we are in dialogue with all of these countries to try to build effective, sustainable relationships across the region. It’s one of the reasons, in past trips to the briefing here, Richard Holbrooke has talked about the importance of the transit trade agreement.

To the extent that you’re building a regional economy, trade relationships, political relationships, other kind of the normal relationships that countries have among each other, that’s how you eventually develop long-term stability. That’s what we’re trying to do. But we recognize that in this broad equation, Pakistan and Afghanistan will have a relationship going forward, and we’re trying to encourage both of them to have that be a constructive one.

QUESTION: But you – then you artfully dodged the question, which is they’re not ready to go after the Haqqani network, the Afghan Taliban, and the Hezb-i-Islami.

MR. CROWLEY: We want – I can repeat – I don’t think I have dodged this question. There’s no question that Pakistan has taken major strides in the past year to combat extremist elements within its borders and there’s no doubt that there is yet to more to be done.

QUESTION: But not those three groups.


QUESTION: It’s not gone after these three groups, though.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, as I said, I earlier pointed to the fact that having taken effective action in Swat, South Waziristan, we’ve definitely recognized that there are safe havens in other parts of the region, including North Waziristan, and we will be encouraging Pakistan to take steps there as well.

QUESTION: P.J., twice now when talking about Pakistan’s neighbors, you’ve mentioned India and Iran. I’m less concerned about India in this question, but I’m wondering, as you’re talking about Pakistanis having a role in the reconciliation talks, do you see a role, a similar role, for Iran in those talks?

MR. CROWLEY: It’s a good question. There have been diplomatic contacts between Iran and Afghanistan. We recognize Afghanistan’s need to have a dialogue with its neighbors. We have had concerns about Iran’s meddling in Afghanistan, just as we’ve had concerns about other countries meddling in Afghanistan.

That said, at the same time, going back to the Bonn process in 2001, we also have seen where Iran has the ability to play a constructive role in helping Afghanistan advance. I mean, I’m not an expert on this region, but there are a wide variety of relationships that countries in the region have with different groups who have the ability to play a positive or negative role as Afghanistan advances. To the extent that India, Pakistan, Iran, or other countries can play a role in shaping the future of Afghanistan, we will be talking to some of those countries about how to best do that. And we have not ruled out that there are overlapping areas of interest that we have with Iran with respect to a stable and prosperous Afghanistan. We’re not ruling out that as an area of potential dialogue with Iran. We also recognize that Afghanistan will also have to build its own relationship with Iran going forward. Again, this is an Afghan-led process. And to the extent that Afghanistan has – discusses with its neighbors how they can play a role in encouraging groups to reconcile, I won’t rule out anything else, but these are decisions to be made by Afghanistan.

QUESTION: All right. I’m curious about your use of the word “meddling.” You said Iran was – had been meddling in Afghanistan. You said other countries are meddling in Afghanistan. Would you put Pakistan’s – would you characterize Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan as, quote, unquote, “meddling?”

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t think it’s a startling revelation that Pakistan has had relationships --

QUESTION: I’m not talking about Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. I’m talking about now.

QUESTION: Okay. That would be a – to the extent that the Taliban once ruled Afghanistan, there were a small number of countries that recognized that government. Pakistan was one of them. So Pakistan has played a role in shaping Afghanistan’s past.

We want to see Pakistan play a constructive role in helping to shape Afghanistan’s future and the relationship that Afghanistan has with other countries in the region. There is clearly a level of concern that Pakistan has about what’s happening in Afghanistan, Afghanistan has about what’s happening in Pakistan. We have the ability, having strong relations with both countries, to help encourage them to have further dialogue and see where they can effectively cooperate.

Likewise, we’re having a similar conversation with a country like India. We believe that there the potential for cooperation certainly outweighs what might be perceptions about – perceptions about competition in the region. We want to see a stable, peaceful region, and a significant part of that involves helping to shape a stable, peaceful Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Change of subject, Middle East?

QUESTION: One more.

MR. CROWLEY: One more. Last one and then we’ll shift.

QUESTION: On the reconciliation thing, are you saying it’s up to Afghanistan to involve – choose countries it wants to involve in the reconciliation process, or the U.S. will have a say? For instance, can Afghanistan ask Iran to step in or India to step in, or neighbors like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, what we’re saying is that Afghanistan is going to have relations with neighboring countries. That means Afghanistan is going to have a relationship with Iran, Afghanistan is going to have a relationship with Pakistan, Afghanistan is going to have a relationship with India, Afghanistan is going to have a relationship with other countries. This is the neighborhood that we’re talking about. The real issue is what is the texture and tone of those relations. We believe that there is a significant opportunity for us for cooperation, dialogue, trade, cultural exchanges, the kinds of things that countries have with – the kind of things that we have in this hemisphere with Mexico, Canada, and other countries in our neighborhood. We want to encourage countries to have effective dialogue with Afghanistan, cooperate where they can, play a constructive role where it’s appropriate. But ultimately, they have to build the kind of relationship with Afghanistan and their government and their people that is appropriate and sustainable.

QUESTION: The news reports have said that the Administration has secured the pledges from senior Middle East leaders to continue their peace negotiations until after U.S. midterm elections, largely to avoid handing the Obama Administration an embarrassing diplomatic setback before the November 2nd elections. Can you confirm that?

MR. CROWLEY: That story is nonsense. We are pursuing peace in the Middle East, comprehensive peace in the Middle East, because it’s in our interest to do so. We are going to pursue comprehensive peace in the Middle East for as long as it takes to gain a successful agreement on the Israeli-Palestinian track, on the Israeli-Syrian track, on the Israeli-Lebanese track, that ultimately ends the conflict. That is what we’ve pledged to do from day one of the Obama Administration. We are not – we’re doing what we can, not on a political timetable in this country but to gain an agreement on comprehensive peace that ends the conflict once and for all. If that takes a year, if that takes two years for all tracks – (laughter) – I saw Matt stirring here.

QUESTION: It’s a good thing that it’s coming.

MR. CROWLEY: We’re in this for as long as it takes. We are trying to get the parties back into direct negotiations. We’re focused on how to succeed. We’re not focused on failure.

QUESTION: A follow-up. McClatchy has quoted a senior member of the Palestinian negotiating team saying that both parties, Israelis and Palestinians, have been asked not to issue announcements that could embarrass negotiation officials.

MR. CROWLEY: Again, we are trying to create conditions for the direct negotiations to continue, and we are in – continue in consultations with the parties on how to achieve this. And I wouldn't say that what we’re doing today – we’re doing what we’re doing today and we’ll be doing what we’re doing today tomorrow, the next day, if that’s November 1st, if that’s November 3rd. We want to get the parties into direct negotiations because that’s the only way to reach an agreement.


QUESTION: Sorry. On the Middle East, can you tell us a little bit more about what the Secretary will be saying this evening? I’m sorry, I don’t want to preempt the speech, but I mean, does she have anything new to say, or is it just about calling for continued patience as you try to keep the process together?

MR. CROWLEY: Boy, that’s a – how can I answer that question without getting myself in trouble? (Laughter.) Of course, any time the Secretary of State speaks on a vitally important issue like the Middle East, it will be important and it will be newsy. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: (Off-mike.) (Laughter.)

MR. CROWLEY: I think she will be affirming our commitment to this and continue to encourage not only support for the process, support for President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, but also the important role that other countries in the region play in helping to advance this process. I’ll leave it to you all to decide what the headline is.

QUESTION: P.J., on the Omar Khadr case, can you confirm that Secretary Clinton did speak with the Canadians about this yesterday, this plea deal, supposed plea deal?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not aware of any conversation that she has had with a high-level Canadian official in the last 24 hours.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:51 p.m.)

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