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 25, 2010
MR. CROWLEY: Earlier today, the Millennium Challenge Corporation CEO Daniel Yohannes and Jordan’s Minister of Water and Irrigation Mohammad Najjar signed a $275.1 million compact to reduce poverty through economic growth in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The compact signing was witnessed by Secretary Clinton and Jordanian Foreign Minister Judeh here at the Department of State. As the Secretary pointed out in her remarks, Jordan is ranked among the five most water-poor countries in the world, and this compact will fund projects that will improve water delivery and home water systems and decrease certain household costs. It will increase the volume of treated water that is available as a substitute for fresh water for non-domestic use.
MR. CROWLEY: Later this afternoon, the Secretary will award Anne Patterson, our departing Ambassador from Pakistan, with the Secretary’s Distinguished Service Award, and we extend our deepest gratitude to Ambassador Patterson for her extraordinary commitment to service and for the tremendous job she did in representing the United States in Islamabad at a critical time in our history. And under her leadership, bilateral U.S.-Pakistani relations have grown significantly stronger, as we witnessed last week during the Strategic Dialogue.
Ambassador Richard Holbrooke is in Afghanistan today. He visited the Kabul military training center where he saw firsthand the progress being made by the international community and the Afghan Government to train the Afghan National Security Forces. He will also participate in an intense interagency review of our civilian and military efforts in Afghanistan for the coming year. This is called the Rehearsal of Concept or ROC drill. And representatives from USAID and the Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources are also participating.
QUESTION: Yeah. P.J., on Afghanistan, President Karzai earlier today had a couple things to say that I’d like to ask you about. The first is him saying that he has accepted – in fact, ordered his aides to accept cash donations from the Iranian Government and that this is all very normal. I’d like to know what you make of that.
And then secondly, he also said that the U.S. was providing him with bags of money and I’d like to know (1), if that’s true, and (2), if it is true, how do you get in on that? (Laughter.) I’d like to be the recipient of some of this cash.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, first of all, we do not question Iran’s right to provide financial assistance to Afghanistan, nor do we question Afghanistan’s right to accept that assistance. What we think is important is Afghans having the ability to shape their own future without negative influences from its neighbors. We’ll let the Government of Afghanistan speak to how they spend the financial assistance received from other countries, but we remain skeptical of Iran’s motives given its history of playing a destabilizing role with its neighbors. We hope that Iran will take responsibility to play a constructive role in the future of Afghanistan.
I mean, our assistance is focused squarely on helping the Afghan people and the Afghan Government improve the quality of governance, security, justice, jobs, and services and give the Afghan people a meaningful alternative to the Taliban recruiting.
QUESTION: Well, do you have any concerns about the Iranian contributions?
MR. CROWLEY: I just mentioned that we have concerns about the --
QUESTION: Well --
MR. CROWLEY: -- broader issue of how – what Iran – what role Iran hopes to play in Afghanistan. We recognize that Iran is going to have a relationship with Afghanistan, but we’re skeptical based on their track record.
QUESTION: Yeah, but I mean, it appears that Karzai is going out and basically soliciting these contributions. And if he’s not, then the Iranians are offering it with the intent to wield influence and I’m wondering if that’s a concern.
MR. CROWLEY: We would hope that a government like Iran, just like other governments in the region, will play a constructive role in Afghanistan. It is something that we have talked to the Afghan Government about. But we certainly are skeptical about the role that Iran is playing based on their track record.
QUESTION: Right. So you do have concerns about this –
MR. CROWLEY: We do have – yeah, of course.
QUESTION: Okay. And then on the U.S. contributions, is this really an appropriate way to dispense U.S. taxpayer aid with bags of cash being delivered to the office of the president?
MR. CROWLEY: As I read the president’s remarks going back a number of years, because of the nature of the Afghan financial system, there have been times where assistance has come into Afghanistan in the form of cash as opposed to the form of either – of in kind support. For the United States, much of our assistance is now provided electronically through financial institutions. It’s not for us to characterize the form of the support itself. The real issue is: What is that assistance for? And we hope that Iran will choose to play a constructive role in Afghanistan. But as we’ve said, we have our doubts.
QUESTION: Well, I mean, but is it – are there U.S. officials, civilian or military, showing up at the presidential palace with garbage bags full of dollars?
MR. CROWLEY: At the present day, no.
QUESTION: Well, not just garbage bags; any kind of bags? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Or briefcases or any kind of container?
MR. CROWLEY: Look, as far as I know, our assistance to Afghanistan now comes through financial institutions. I’m not aware that we are – I mean, we do have money on hand, I think, to pay and settle expenses at the Embassy. But that’s not the form that our assistance takes today.
QUESTION: But if this money is spent for the president and his staff for the operation of the president and his staff, is that anything like a slush fund, perhaps?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, this is for the Government of Afghanistan to explain the support they receive from Iran, and other countries for that matter, and what it’s being used for.
QUESTION: But does this cast this kind of money in sort of not-so-transparent a light?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, the president admitted that he does receive assistance from Iran in the form of cash. That is a straightforward acknowledgment based on the story that appeared over the weekend. So that is a form of transparency. But the real issue is: What is –
QUESTION: That’s ex post facto, though. (Laughter.) It showed up in The New York Times. It’s not like it’s filed somewhere and we can all read it online.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I – I’ll defer to the Government of Afghanistan to explain what is being done with the money. We understand that countries in the region may provide assistance to Iran. We would hope that that money would be used for the kind of constructive institution building that we’re engaged in and others within the international community.
QUESTION: Can you –
QUESTION: And also, just a quick follow-up. But he also said that he (inaudible) that kind of money for that purpose from a number of countries. Are you not concerned that there may be a misuse of these funds for personal gain?
MR. CROWLEY: Again –
QUESTION: And that you are aware of that?
MR. CROWLEY: I mean, as we have said in a variety of ways, there’s an enormous amount of international assistance flowing into Afghanistan. That’s no secret. We have strong systems of accountability in place to make sure that the assistance that we provide is being used for the benefit of the Afghan people. There’s no question that given the weak institutions of government that we are day in and day out trying to strengthen that that inflow of international assistance has added to the challenge of corruption in Afghanistan, no secret about it. And I’m not talking about the Iranian cash per se; I’m just talking about the broader universe.
But that’s one of the reasons why we are supporting President Karzai in his decree on strengthening Afghan oversight of private security contractors for that very reason that we want to make sure that in the future this assistance is both – flows through the Afghan Government and is clearly being used for the benefit of the Afghan people. So that’s at the heart of our strategy to build up the institutions of government and channel more assistance over time through a more capable Afghan Government.
QUESTION: Can you rule out the possibility that covert U.S. funds flow to Afghanistan, whether in cash or through other kinds of transactions? Can you rule that out?
MR. CROWLEY: No, I’m just saying that our assistance flows to the government through institutions that have been carefully vetted. Now, I – you’ve asked a sweeping statement. I am unable to answer that question definitively from here.
QUESTION: And given that you can’t answer that definitively from here, and I understand that, but there have been wide-spread published reports, including in The New York Times like yesterday’s report, referring to covert U.S. Government funds that flow to various people in Afghanistan. Now, if that is the case, why should the world, when it looks at the report of Iran giving cash to Afghan officials, look at any such covert funds that the United States might give any differently? Why is it not a similar sort of thing? I’m specifically excluding from this program/project related assistance that goes through the U.S. State Department or AID –
MR. CROWLEY: Sure.
QUESTION: -- and that is tracked in accountable ways.
MR. CROWLEY: Yeah, I am –
QUESTION: I’m talking about other stuff.
MR. CROWLEY: I understand your question. I can’t really comment from here.
QUESTION: Do you consider this act related to any kind of corruption?
MR. CROWLEY: In and of itself, no.
QUESTION: P.J., how long –
QUESTION: Receiving money from another state with bags?
MR. CROWLEY: Right. And Afghanistan has accepted assistance from a variety of countries, and I suspect from country to country to country it can come in a variety of forms. That’s not the issue. The issue to us is: What is that money being used for? What is the motivation for which that money is being provided? And we have concerns about Iran and the role that is played in affairs of many of its neighbors including Afghanistan.
QUESTION: How long have you been aware of this cash from Iran?
MR. CROWLEY: I can’t answer that question.
QUESTION: Well, but –
QUESTION: How long have you been speaking to the Afghans about your concerns about it then?
MR. CROWLEY: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: You said that you’ve spoken to that – the U.S. has spoken to the Afghans about it in terms –
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we – I didn’t say that. What I said was we have had conversations with Afghanistan for some time over its relations with other countries in the region, and that would include Iran.
QUESTION: But so you haven’t had a conversation specifically with Afghanistan to your knowledge, about your concerns over this money?
MR. CROWLEY: I can say that we’ve – since the story broke, I can’t say what conversation we’ve had with Afghanistan about it.
QUESTION: P.J., one more thing. You said that the U.S. is now – no, is now – is not giving bags of cash to Afghanistan now. How recently was this happening?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, I tried to – to Arshad’s question, our assistance to Afghanistan, because we have been at this for coming up for over nine years now, has gone from a situation where I think in many of the accounts of the early stages of our presence in Afghanistan, much of the assistance that we brought with us, and some of that assistance did come in the form of cash. But since that time, we have more institutionalized our support, and the vast, vast, vast majority of that is now – flows through institutions of the Afghan Government or through our international partners, both governments and nongovernmental organizations, and comes in the form of either in-kind or transactions that are done electronically.
I did not rule out that there – I can’t sit here – stand here and say that – is there a cash transaction involving a United States Government representative and somebody in the Afghanistan society? I can’t stand here and say that that does not occur.
QUESTION: On the contractor issue.
MR. CROWLEY: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: The Secretary called President Karzai on Saturday, I believe --
MR. CROWLEY: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: -- to talk about this. I there any resolution yet or – is there any resolution, and if there’s not, are you getting closer to one?
MR. CROWLEY: I mean, just to reiterate, we support President Karzai’s decree. This is part of our broader process of strengthening Afghan National Security Forces and enabling the Afghan Government to assume full responsibility for security in its own country. President Karzai yesterday had a meeting with the international community. Ambassador Eikenberry was – participated in that meeting. And we continue to work with the Government of Afghanistan to implement the decree in a way that supports Afghan sovereignty, the development of the ANSF, but allows critical development work to continue in support of the Afghan people. So this is a process that is ongoing.
QUESTION: So there hasn’t – there’s isn’t a resolution yet?
MR. CROWLEY: But the – this will take some time to work through.
QUESTION: P.J. --
QUESTION: I have a question about Omar Khadr.
MR. CROWLEY: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: Today (inaudible) just said that there was an agreement between U.S. and Canada in regards to Omar Khadr, and I was wondering if you could give us any more information on that or if you could just at least tell us if Canada has agreed to take him back.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think all I’ll say at this point, I believe that DOD was or will – or has or will release a statement that summarizes the charges that Mr. Khadr pleaded guilty to today. I think there’s a sentencing phase that will get underway over the next several days. But we will not comment at this point because it’s an ongoing legal process.
QUESTION: But do you have any guarantees at least that Canada will take him back and not deny his application?
MR. CROWLEY: Again, I’m not going to comment because it’s an ongoing legal process.
QUESTION: Can you go back to Afghanistan? Are you concerned that this money were going directly to president office instead of sending them to the ministry of finance?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, the president is an officer of – the chief officer of a sovereign Afghanistan Government, so that’s not the issue. The issue is what is the money being – what’s the motivation of Iran in providing these resources. And we are concerned about that.
QUESTION: P.J., I’m sorry, my question is a bit of a war and a peace question today, if you’d graciously just bear with me for 20 seconds. As you know, my stations Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic, have been disseminating the WikiLeaks information, the 400,000 classified documents, over the weekend. The three key headlines, as far as I can see, are Iran’s influence in the region, the abuse and torture of Iraqi citizens by Iraqi security forces, and allegations that the U.S. turned a blind eye to that, though the Pentagon denies that.
Now, the United Nations Special Representative for Torture, Manfred Nowak, has said that the White House has an obligation to carry out a full, independent inquiry. So that’s already the administration he was talking about generally. Do you – does State have a reaction to all of this?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, let’s see. Let’s take them one at a time. The first one is concern – documentation of concern about Iran’s influence in Iraq. Just move the same context from Afghanistan to Iraq. We have been concerned about the role that Iran has been playing in Iraq for some time, which is not to say that an Iraqi government or the Iraqi people are not going to stand up for their own sovereign rights. They are. But certainly, we have had and have been vocal in our concerns about Iran trying to undercut Iraq’s sovereignty.
The second point?
QUESTION: The allegation of torture of Iraqi citizens by Iraqi security forces and that the U.S. turn a blind eye to that, by and large.
MR. CROWLEY: We have not turned a blind eye. Our troops will report – were obligated to report abuses to appropriate authorities and to follow up, and they did so in Iraq. Without commenting on any specific documents, obviously these documents have a range of dates attached to them. One of the things that we’ve done in Iraq during our time there has been to partner with Iraqi forces, conduct human rights training. We have done that, and that’s one of the reasons why we continue to have military forces in Iraq to help with ongoing training of Iraqi security forces. And we believe that we’ve seen their performance improve over time.
QUESTION: And just quickly, pressure mounting from the Australian Government, the Denmark Government, the UN, there for a full investigation. Do you think there will be one?
MR. CROWLEY: I think if there needs to be an accounting, first and foremost, there needs to be an accounting by the Iraqi Government itself and how it has treated its own citizens. And that, too, is a conversation that we have had and will continue to have with the Government of Iraq.
QUESTION: P.J., on this specifically --
QUESTION: Stay on Iraq?
QUESTION: -- you said that they – troops hadn’t turned a blind eye and that they were obligated to report and to follow up. What was – what’s your understanding of how they were supposed to follow up after they reported the --
MR. CROWLEY: Well, in detail, I would probably defer to the Department of Defense on these issues. But – and I’m constrained because I don’t want to get into a discussion of any classified document. We, of course, abhor the release of classified documents. We think they put our troops and our interests at risk.
Our troops are well trained on human rights issues. And where they have seen issues of concern or outright abuse by any country where we have a partnership, they are required to report that, and they did.
QUESTION: P.J., on Iraq. Last Friday, former ambassador to Iraq, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Mr. Ryan Crocker, spoke at SAIS and he said he believed that whatever government comes into being – whatever Iraqi Government, a new Iraqi Government – they will request that SOFA be renegotiated to extend U.S. presence in Iraq. Is that your thinking? Are you working towards that? Are you working towards sort of revamping the SOFA agreement?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we have a Status of Forces Agreement and a strategic framework. The Status of Forces Agreement expires at the end of next year, and we are working towards complete fulfillment of that Status of Forces Agreement, which would include the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of next year. The nature of our partnership beyond next year will have to be negotiated. On the civilian side, we are committed to Iraq over the long term. We will have civilians there continuing to work with the government on a range of areas – economic development, rule of law, civil society, and so forth. But to the extent that Iraq desires to have an ongoing military-to-military relationship with the United States in the future, that would have to be negotiated. And that would be something that I would expect a new government to consider.
QUESTION: But you do have a contingency sort of to deal with this issue provided that comes up?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, first and foremost, we are going to fulfill the terms of the existing agreement, which means that the roughly 50,000 troops in Iraq today will go to zero by the end of next year. Should Iraq wish to continue the kind of military partnership that we currently have with Iraq, we’re open to have that discussion.
QUESTION: On the Middle East, last – on the Middle East, last week you commented about statements from Middle Eastern leaders tying the results of U.S. midterm elections to going forward on the peace negotiations. My question in general is that there’s a sentiment that whatever political party wins the majority in the U.S. elections will somehow influence the extent to which the U.S. will pressure either side in the negotiations. And obviously, people will read into this whatever they want, but how do you counter that perception?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we continue to encourage direct negotiations. And those direct negotiations, to the extent the United States is involved in them, is a province of the executive branch. And we continue to encourage the parties to engage in direct negotiations. That has been our – we’ve been working intensively on for months and months. We have the direct negotiations that did launch within the last couple of months. We’re trying to find a way to resume those direct negotiations. And this interest is not dependent on any political cycle.
QUESTION: Beyond the encouragement of the talks to go forward, can you share with us a status report of where we stand today?
MR. CROWLEY: We continue to be intensively engaged with the parties to try to find a way forward and create conditions --
QUESTION: Like, is there anything that is happening today? Can you say?
MR. CROWLEY: Other than saying we remain in close contact with the parties --
QUESTION: I have a related question --
MR. CROWLEY: Sure.
QUESTION: -- on the Jewishness aspect of the state. Is that something --
MR. CROWLEY: On what?
QUESTION: The request or the demand by certain Israeli politicians – in fact, by the Israeli prime minister – that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Is this a topic that you are devoting a research group to see how it will impact your own recognition of Israel and so on and how it will go --
MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, it reinforces why we believe that direct negotiations are the only path forward.
QUESTION: Has Secretary talked about the – how to resume direct talks with the Jordanian foreign minister? And did Senator Mitchell attend this meeting, or he is in New York?
MR. CROWLEY: That’s a good – I believe Senator Mitchell is still in New York. I think the Secretary did have a few minutes alone with Foreign Minister Judeh on the margins of the MCC signing, and I suspect they talked about the peace process as well as other bilateral issues. I wasn’t in the room.
QUESTION: Can you at all quantify what you’ve been doing, the intense effort that you talk about to encourage negotiation – direct – the resumption of direct negotiations?
MR. CROWLEY: I don’t have a catalog in front of me. The Secretary, Senator Mitchell, others have been on the phone, and in some cases in the region, meeting directly with representatives from other governments. Beyond that, I don’t have a list.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, do you still expect Mitchell to go out soon?
MR. CROWLEY: We have nothing to announce.
QUESTION: Well, but wait. Do you expect --
MR. CROWLEY: That is still something that we are – yes, we do expect George Mitchell to travel and we’re still evaluating the timing of that.
QUESTION: Well, the timing is – would it be better to send him after a particular date, maybe November 2nd, as opposed to him going out before?
MR. CROWLEY: Again, we will send Senator Mitchell out when we think that his trip can be most fruitful?
QUESTION: Well, would that be --
MR. CROWLEY: It’s not tied to a particular date in early November.