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 26, 2010
1:05 p.m. EDT
QUESTION: P.J., I’m wondering if there’s any update on the talks between the U.S. and other international officials and Karzai and his government about the ban on private contractors – security contractors.
MR. CROWLEY: We continue to work with the government on a path forward that both supports the decree and at the same time makes sure that critical projects can continue to move forward. It is absolutely appropriate that the Government of Afghanistan be able to regulate private security contractors. It is our long-term goal for Afghanistan to take responsibility for its own security. We completely support what the president is trying to do. But this is still a work in progress.
QUESTION: And what do you make of the – of President Karzai’s rant yesterday about the negative influence and impact of the West in Afghanistan?
MR. CROWLEY: I mean, the president has been focused on this for some time. He --
QUESTION: Which president?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, President Karzai. He has in a number of interactions with U.S. officials, including Secretary Clinton, talked about the impact that these operations have on the Afghan people and various incidents that have taken place where Afghan citizens have been killed or injured. We completely understand and support what the president is trying to do. This has an impact on the Afghan people and it has an impact on Afghan attitudes towards the efforts of the international community and the United States to provide security and long-term prosperity to Afghanistan.
So just to reiterate again, we understand and are completely supportive of what President Karzai is trying to do, and we’re trying to help him understand that we have to have a path forward that gains greater visibility. Regulation over these contractors affects the transition from reliance on contractors to a reliance on indigenous security forces but at the same time allows important operations to continue. That is something we’re trying to do. We think that there is a solution that is achievable that can balance these requirements, and that’s what we’re working with the government on.
QUESTION: Are you – in your tweet on Saturday, you talked about the Secretary saying – I think it was a joint plan – coming up with a joint plan with the Afghans to figure out how to move forward. Has the U.S. actually put anything specific on the table as far as a plan to get to exactly what you’re talking about? And if so, what is it? How can you balance these two competing requirements?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, I think we are supportive of a transition where today there is a significant reliance on private security contractors because there is a gap between the security needs in Afghanistan and the availability and capability of Afghan National Security Forces. The issue is how do we get from here to there. What is the path forward and what is the length of time required to make an effective transition? That’s what we’re talking about. It’s --
QUESTION: So have you made specific proposals about what that path is? And if so, are the Afghans engaging with you on those specific proposals?
MR. CROWLEY: We are in discussion with the Afghan Government. We have shared some ideas with President Karzai and his team. We are working through those ideas and we want to get to a place where we can best fulfill the objective – the sovereign objective of the president and his decree.
QUESTION: A follow-up on Afghanistan?
MR. CROWLEY: Sure.
QUESTION: India is having a large number of developmental projects inside Afghanistan and they depend on --
MR. CROWLEY: Start again, Lalit?
QUESTION: India is having a large number of developmental projects inside Afghanistan and they depend on private securities for the protection. Are you having any talks with the Indian authorities on this issue? Are any other countries coordinating with them?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, go back to Sunday. There was a broad meeting, because this is an issue that does potentially affect the United States and our development partners and it also affects the international operations of many other countries that have a presence in Afghanistan. So this is a complex, multifaceted challenge, but not just the United States, other countries likewise rely on private security contractors to secure these operations. And as the international community together with the United States, we’re trying to find a sustainable path forward under the leadership of the Afghan Government.
QUESTION: And following on Matt’s question, what kind of relationship you have now with President Karzai and how is it different from the previous administration when it was very smooth, no public --
MR. CROWLEY: I can’t characterize the difference between now and then. I wasn’t here then. President Karzai is the president of a sovereign country. Our strategy is in support of his government and working with his government to help the people of Afghanistan. We have an effective relationship with President Karzai. The Secretary talks to President Karzai on a regular basis. As we indicated, she was in contact with him on Saturday as part of one of her regularly scheduled calls with him.
We are – he is a partner. We are working closely with he and his government to improve the security of the country. General Petraeus and Ambassador Eikenberry meet with him on a regular basis. So I would describe our relationship as very solid and working to fulfill our mutual interests.
QUESTION: Iran-related. For the past hour, a group – a handful of people and members of the Iranian Mujahedin-e-Khalq have been demonstrating outside this building.
MR. CROWLEY: Start again? I missed the early part of the – for the last hour --
QUESTION: For the last hour --
MR. CROWLEY: -- a group --
QUESTION: -- a group of (inaudible) – a group of people (inaudible) the Iranian Mujahedin-e-Khalq, the MEK, have been demonstrating outside this building, demanding to be de-listed from the group of countries – terrorist groups. Is that something the State Department is considering, reconsidering?
MR. CROWLEY: We review information on a regular basis regarding groups and individuals that are on our terrorism list. That is an ongoing process. I know of no particular initiative right now relative to that group.
QUESTION: Staying on Iran?
MR. CROWLEY: Sure.
QUESTION: All right. Do you have any thoughts, concerns, angry statements to make about the latest developments at Bushehr?
MR. CROWLEY: I’m – there’s nothing new here. We recognize that the Bushehr reactor is designed to provide civilian nuclear power and we do not view it as a proliferation risk because it is under IAEA safeguards and because Russia is providing both the needed fuel and then taking back the spent nuclear fuel, which would be the principal source of our proliferation concerns.
What is interesting about Bushehr is that Iran does not need an indigenous enrichment capability to generate civilian nuclear energy if its intentions are purely peaceful. And Russia’s supply of fuel, we think, is a model that Iran should follow in its ambition for civilian nuclear energy.
But this should not be confused with our ongoing and the world’s fundamental concerns about Iran’s violations of international nuclear obligations, particularly in pursuit of uranium enrichment. Iran says it wants to have full control of a fuel cycle to obtain self-sufficiency, but the fact is that Iran does not have sufficient uranium reserves in the country to meet its daily goal. So this is precisely the kind of international cooperation that we think is appropriate for Iran and it undercuts Iran’s rationale for why it needs to pursue its own enrichment capability.
QUESTION: Not leading anywhere – but what’s new on the Middle East peace talks, if anything?
MR. CROWLEY: I have nothing specific to report to you. We continue our contacts with the parties, and I don’t have anything to report.
QUESTION: Yesterday, you said the meetings would start in Juba. Today, now you are saying in Khartoum.
MR. CROWLEY: No, no. If I said Juba, I was in error. In Khartoum.
QUESTION: It’s in Khartoum?
MR. CROWLEY: And then we’ll move to Addis under the present plan.
QUESTION: On the peace process, President Abbas has said yesterday that Israel has been taking unilateral steps for decades by building settlements. So the Palestinians might take one of their own, asking the United Nations to recognize their independent state.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think our position has been pretty clear. We continue to encourage the parties to avoid unilateral steps on one side of the ledger or the other. Our position on settlements has not changed, and we continue to encourage the parties to resume direct negotiations as the only mechanism to resolve these myriad of issues.
QUESTION: The Syrian President Bashar Asad has said that the U.S. is creating chaos in every place it entered and he mentioned Afghanistan, Somalia, and Lebanon. Do you have anything on that?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, let us just say that we understand that – I mean, put it this way – let me start again. (Laughter.)
MR. CROWLEY: Retake. President Asad is within his rights to provide his critique. Let me do the same. Recent Syrian behavior and rhetoric has had a destabilizing effect on Lebanon and the region, has contributed to recent tensions. We understand that certain actors within and outside Lebanon, including Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran, may believe they stand to gain by escalating sectarian tensions in an attempt to assert their own authority over Lebanon.
For example, Syria continues to transfer weapons to Hezbollah and recently issued arrest warrants for 33 Lebanese and foreign nationals, including the Lebanese Government state prosecutor and head of the national police. These activities by Syria directly undermine Lebanon’s sovereignty and directly undermine Syria’s stated commitments to Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence. So if the issue is who is playing a more constructive role in the region, we stand by our pledge to support a sovereign, stable, and independent Lebanon, the strong Lebanese institutions, as the only way to realize the best interests of the Lebanese people and the region as a whole. We believe we’re playing a constructive role in the region and we believe that Syria is not.
QUESTION: Okay. And then my last one is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees today came out with a statement saying that the latest WikiLeaks disclosures show that the U.S. had knowledge of serious abuses and continue to turn people – by the Iraqis and continue to turn prisoners over to them and says that this may be a gross violation of international human rights law. I know that you talked yesterday about the investigation having to start with the Iraqis, but the High Commissioner is saying the U.S. also has an obligation to investigate. Is the U.S. ready to do this?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I would go back to statements I think that were also made by General George Casey yesterday disputing the idea that we, in any way, turned our back on what we saw. This is an issue that we talked regularly with the Iraqi Government, but at the same time, we have and are continuing to fulfill not only our international obligations, but our obligations to Iraq as a sovereign government. We have an agreement with Iraq where we have turned over responsibilities to Iraq as a sovereign government and these are more appropriate questions to direct to the sovereign Government of Iraq, not to the United States.
QUESTION: Well, but is the U.S. willing to consider opening an investigation into whether the transfer of prisoners to the Iraqis – not current transfers, but past transfers – with knowledge that they – of these abuses could be a violation of international law?
MR. CROWLEY: I will take a question as to the suggestion that our activities in recent years posed a potential violation. I think our lawyers would suggest it does not. But I’ll take that question. Okay.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:35 p.m.)