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Diplomacy in Action

Background Briefing on Meetings in Kabul


Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official and a Senior Administration Official
En Route to Vienna, Austria
July 13, 2014

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SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure. [Senior Administration Official] is going to talk though, I think, a bit more of the detail of what transpired in the meetings, although I’ll contribute to that as well.

But just to give you a bit of the color and the flavor of what happened over the last few days and its worth, [Senior Administration Official] and I were just talking – I think we were on the ground for 44 hours roughly, and other than far too few hours of sleep, we really were in meetings almost constantly for that entire time with very few gaps in between them and really, only time to debrief at the end of the day.

We got in from China – you all remember better than I do, but pretty late.

QUESTION: Yes.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And that first night, the Secretary sat and got kind of a lay of the land from Ambassador Cunningham and talked through what we were going to do for the next day or two until about 3 o’clock in the morning, maybe even later, almost probably 3:30. And then we were up at 8:30 the next morning to sort of start the meeting cycle and it never really stopped from that point on.

We were also dealing with a sort of complicated logistical environment for these meetings because they were all taking place on the Embassy compound, as you know, and for people from outside, getting in and out is not easy. So the constant sort of cycling through of seeing one candidate, seeing the other, and getting their teams in and out made the sort of choreography of the whole thing complicated, and the team that was supporting us on the ground and the team that we brought with us was fantastic in that regard because we were able to just continue to do the substantive work without having to wait terribly long in between meetings since we didn’t have all that much time.

And in terms of the style that was used in the meetings or anything like that, I guess the main thing I would say is the Secretary spent a lot of time one-on-one with both candidates. Often he would start the meeting that way. Sometimes he would spend almost the entire meeting in a one-on-one scenario, and I think one of the things that was quite important to getting anything done was the fact that he came in with relationships with both of these guys that he had built up over a period of years, and a level of trust, I think, that allowed him to jump right into sort of serious conversations that might have otherwise taken some time to unfold and to develop. And I think a lot of the really heavy lifting was done in these one-on-one sessions.

But it was also quite important to get not only each individual candidate brought into a way forward, but also the teams of political leaders that were backing each candidate. And so that was why a lot of the meetings, each candidate would bring with them five, six, seven people who made up their sort of most prominent political supporters. And the Secretary spent a fair bit of time working with and engaging with those people as well because that was a key to getting the candidates comfortable with moving forward.

So I’ll let [Senior Administration Official] talk through a bit more of the policy substance and contribute a little bit.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So as we discussed for – the other night, the approach for several weeks now has been something of a two-track approach, whereby there would be a technical track or a way of elevating the confidence in an audit such that both parties could come back to the electoral process, to the technical process, and then also to – agree to abide by the outcome of that process in the end. So a great deal of time – in fact, I would say the majority of the effort initially, certainly, was spent trying to outline what an enhanced framework and an expanded audit would look like. And of course, that was building on the efforts over several weeks now of Ambassadors Cunningham and Kubis from UNAMA who had been working on this, and we really picked up where they left off and continued that dialogue to culmination.

The second track, of course, is the political track, and that’s an area where there hadn’t been much international mediation to date. The palace, the vice presidents to President Karzai, had been involved in some dialogue between the camps, but there hadn’t been the opportunity because of some of the tensions and the dynamics to really begin that. And so what occurred here was not only agreement to a technical track that both parties would enter back into and then abide by in its final determination, but as well, the initiation of a political dialogue between the two, and something of an agreement on the framework towards a unity government, as you heard.

That started as proximity talks with considerable shuttling. As [Senior State Department Official] has described, it was very intensive. I’ve lost track of the number of back-and-forths between the various sides. But it also culminated in a trilateral format that was, of course, not public, but was the culmination of those efforts.

We will leave it to the Afghans, I think, to describe the details of the agreement. There is the structure of an agreement. It is along the lines of what you would expect for something that would constitute the unity agreement, but the details need to be worked out by them. They’re very complicated given the makeup of the two parties, the two campaigns and so forth. So we hope that that’s something you’ll see continue, is the continuation of that political dialogue, and that the details of that structure would then be forthcoming as they continue the formation of that unity government concept.

QUESTION: Can I ask --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Wait, before we go, can I just add one small detail to that, which is that nothing – it’s important to know this – nothing in the agreement prejudges the outcome of the audit or the election. And by that, I mean that what is agreed applies to whomever becomes the president of Afghanistan. Both candidates were comfortable with that approach, and critically – which was said in the news conference – both of them agreed upfront to abide by the results of the audit and then eventually the election.

QUESTION: Can I just ask you guys to give us a little of a tick-tock? What were the issues that were dividing them? When did you hit breakthroughs along the way? Was there a point where you thought it was in trouble and then, boom, when did you get the Eureka moment and seal the deal?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On the first part, the technical electoral process track, there were two sub issues, if you will. One was on the scope of the audit and the second was on the implementation measures of the audit. The implementation measures gained a lot of prominence after the first audit that was conducted, which has been criticized for poor implementation. So that highlighted a need to focus on both areas, and there were contentious issues in both categories.

Within the scope, obviously, the endpoint was agreement to a full audit, whereas going in, we had started with a discussion of various triggers that would define the scope of the audit, and much of the discussion was on the nature and number of those triggers. And obviously, resorting to a full audit is simpler. Simpler often makes a negotiation easier. That was the case in this regard. And frankly, a full audit only stands – while it’s more resource-intensive, while it’s more time-intensive, a full audit stands to more significantly improve the credibility of the outcome just because it’s more extensive necessarily.

And then with regard to the implementation measures, there was a number of things that were discussed, mostly with UN expertise facilitating the discussion, because this gets into very technical matters of electoral norms, how to conduct audits, and mostly involved trying to bring as much as possible from international and domestic observation and international supervision within UNAMA’s mandate and within the electoral laws that govern the electoral process. So within that, the exercise was essentially one of maximizing the degree of supervision and hopefully credibility that can be brought with that kind of implementation.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: [Senior Administration Official] alluded to something that I want to expand on a bit, which is the role of UNAMA, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan. And they were critical to everything that we did over the last couple days. And as [Senior Administration Official] said, we were largely building on a lot of the work that they and our Embassy and the Afghans themselves had done in recent weeks.

But what they brought to bear was a level of expertise in things like Afghan election law, international election law, best practices for the conduct of elections, and the ability to draw on that expertise. I mean, they were fully partners in the process of putting together the agreements that were finally reached, and of course led by Ambassador Kubis, who, as you heard in his public remarks, has an eloquence, a savvy, and a sophistication that made him indispensible to brokering the deal that was finally reached.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. Just for instance, because you asked about color --

QUESTION: Tick-tock.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: -- tick-tock, Ambassador Kubis and the UN’s chief electoral officer overall, so one of the UN’s foremost experts on the conduct of elections --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The entire UN, not the --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: -- was brought out in advance of our arrival and was there for the entire week and our two days. And both he and Ambassador Kubis were within five minutes, if not 20 feet, of the negotiations for the entire two days.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Deep into the night, almost (inaudible).

QUESTION: So at what stage did they accept or commit to a unity government? Because I thought they rejected that initially.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There was progress throughout both days. Obviously, everything came into culmination in the second day, today, and we didn’t reach final agreement until the very end.

QUESTION: Was that the main (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I mean, as you’re familiar with, I think, in other context, I mean, the – we’re sort of operating always under the principle that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, so it really wasn’t until, as [Senior Administration Official] said, at the sort of eleventh hour, not maybe more than an hour or two before we saw you that we had a full agreement. But there were elements from the beginning in – of agreement and disagreement.

QUESTION: From the briefing, I got that feeling, yeah.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: One of the things that was obstructing progress on political talks was the dispute over the electoral process. Both candidates had signaled openness to the idea of an inclusive government, to the principle that they wouldn’t be able to – they wouldn’t afford to live by the winner-take-all principle. So there was general conceptual agreement, but the dispute over the electoral process was in some way standing as an obstacle to that. So by addressing both at once and making progress on both, you enable both to come together in the end.

QUESTION: Can I also just ask, when – at what stage did the candidates come together for the first time and sit in the same room? And what was the atmosphere like?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It was the very last meeting that took place before the press availability, so --

QUESTION: At the UN compound?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The – where, the location of the meeting?

QUESTION: Where they finally (inaudible) together.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Most of the meetings were on the Embassy compound. We had another trilateral meeting at the end at the UN compound before the press conference.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And that was --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And it was – they were warm, they were – all the meetings were --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That one was very brief, though.

QUESTION: So how many trilateral meetings did you have, then, in the end? And could you tell us whose idea a full audit was? Was it one of the candidates that put that forward or was that Secretary Kerry’s idea?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The full audit question first. The full audit had been discussed at various points. It was always part of the spectrum. It emerged as the resolution to a dispute over the triggers on the second day, and then once it was tabled and there were certain advantages if we could overcome the mobilizing of international resources to accommodate the additional resource costs and the time costs, that’s when it came into focus as a feasible option.

And your first question?

QUESTION: Was how many trilateral meetings did you have?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I would say one trilateral meeting and then a brief huddle before they walked out to do the press avail at the UN compound.

QUESTION: So what was the atmosphere? Did they actually (inaudible) Iftar together? Because there was some talk about some dinner plan. No?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No.

QUESTION: Okay. But can we just have a – sorry to – how many observers, extra observers, do you think you will need for this huge task?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: You should ask the UN these questions because they’re the ones – and the Iraqi – I mean – the Iraqi – the Afghan electoral commission these questions, because they’re the ones that are going to be overseeing and conducting --

QUESTION: And you did raise – they did raise it up on the --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We did talk about numbers, and one of the things that we’re going to be working intensively on over the coming days is helping make sure that that process has all of the international support it needs in terms of personnel and resources, because as Ambassador Kubis said, he basically had put out a call --

QUESTION: He did, yes, yes.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- for that assistance, and we are going to do everything we can to make sure that they have what they need.

QUESTION: Was there an example used of a recount in other countries that was – it would be based on?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: You mean in terms of the – like how the conduct of it or --

QUESTION: No, just the way that – I mean, was there an example in the world that you’ve used to say, “Well, look in -- ”

QUESTION: Like Florida. (Laughter.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’ll say we want it exactly like that, exactly like that, not --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The UN elections experts were drawing on their experience from a global array of these types of recounts and audits, and in the dialogues with the campaigns, it wasn’t really an issue. But certainly, in their counseling of the process, they were drawing on that expertise.

QUESTION: In terms of governance, though, I mean, while the audit is going on, essentially, the formation of a new government is delayed. So when you say a few weeks, I mean, like, is there sort of, like, an estimate for how long that might take? And in terms of governance to ensure stability until that new government is formed, are there new sort of – I don’t know --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, so --

QUESTION: -- support that the U.S. is coming or – I don’t know.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I mean, Afghanistan has a government and that government will be in place until there is a new government. But you can’t form a government until you know who the president is, and at this point, we don’t know the outcome of the election, and that’s exactly the exercise that they’re going to undertake.

And in terms of how long that’s going to take, the Secretary said he thought it would be – “several weeks,” I think, was the phrase he used before we would have an inauguration. Both candidates called on President Karzai to delay the August 2nd inauguration date. President Karzai agreed to do that. We don’t anticipate that delay being – we anticipate that being weeks, not months, I guess.

QUESTION: Was it a steady narrowing of the differences or was it – there was – was there some point where there was a breakthrough moment? And were you at any point concerned that it was all going to fall apart or were you confident?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I guess I would say the most significant evolution – and I really would call it, like, a sort of incremental evolution – was when we seriously began talking about doing a full audit. And for the purposes of bridging differences, there is a significant advantage to a full audit, because when you’re talking about triggers, it allows both sides to characterize the triggers as in one way biased towards one side or the other. And they can do – there is a way of looking at the voting data and calculating which votes in which places are going to be most impacted by the triggers, and then extrapolating from that whose support base is going to be more heavily scrutinized.

A full audit is a full audit. Every ballot will be reviewed. And so it’s hard to argue that that system – that a full audit is in any way unfair to one candidate or the other.

QUESTION: When did you introduce that? When did – like really --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: As [Senior Administration Official] said, it’s been on the table for a long time, and we started seriously talking about it again today.

QUESTION: This morning, this afternoon?

QUESTION: We’re just trying to get --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: In the middle of the day today roughly, I would say.

QUESTION: Yeah, just trying to get --

QUESTION: Trying to get some (inaudible) on that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I understand. No, I mean, I’m not trying to hide anything.

QUESTION: Yeah.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I just am trying to remember. I think around early afternoon today, middle of the day today.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, I think it was just after (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.

QUESTION: But then who brought it – I mean, not who introduced it, but who brought it up today and said, “Hey, maybe we should think about this a little,” or “Hey, let’s try this”?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, there was – it was --

QUESTION: Not in the passive, but in the active (inaudible).

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It was that – the negotiation overall was dynamic. There were issues that were at some point perceived to be closed and then reopened, revisited among the triggers. And it’s impossible to say when discrete issues were tabled and closed. There was an assembly or a convergence, as the second day progressed, that things might come into place with simplification offered around a full audit, with some initial agreement on the basic contours of a political framework, and then that general convergence allowed, I think, a more cooperative or collaborative spirit toward accommodation and agreement.

And this – Secretary Kerry’s, Ambassador Kubis’s steady style of mediation can bring some confidence to what both sides were signing up to, alleviating some of the perceived risks and moving forward and so forth is what allowed that to happen. So it’s really hard to say where it came from at any one point because it was very fluid and very dynamic.

QUESTION: Can I just --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: In some ways, it was, I think, a natural evolution because the trajectory of the discussion of the scope of the audit moved steadily in the direction of more and more ballots that would be – that would fall under the various triggers that were being proposed, until you got to a point where a full audit was not a giant leap from where we were discussing.

QUESTION: It’s just that, as successful as this negotiation might have been, it sounds incredibly unexciting, and I think something – I mean, there must have been some sentiment in the room that you were accomplishing something significant or that – something very important for the nation of Afghanistan was taking place, maybe in the trilat or just something human that happened, at least, in the last two days.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think the entire scope of it was --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Was it --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I mean, it was – there was never a boring moment. This was --

QUESTION: (Laughter.) But was there a Eureka moment, was there a moment (inaudible)?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The stakes were high. The disputes were very real, very emotional, very meaningful. There was much riding on both sides, both as a collective and then among individuals. There were issues not just among the principals but among their teams --

QUESTION: Did either of them ever --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: -- and their teams were large. We often met with their entire teams --

QUESTION: Did either of them ever --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: -- delegations of seven or eight, and there – we heard from all of them and they all had different perspectives, different issues that needed to be addressed, different personal equities at stake, and that made for a very complex and very rich array of equities, and it was hardly boring.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: These were very intense conversations. I mean, you would – you could say that the --

QUESTION: You can give us an anecdote of anyone involved (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m not going to give an anecdote from a private discussion, but I will say, like, that during the course of these conversations, you saw the sort of full emotional register. You saw people get angry. You saw moments of sort of humor and levity. You saw lots and lots of sort of serious and intense discussion. I guess there weren’t any tears, so that’s a good thing, but really, the sort of – the spectrum of kind of emotional engagement was broad as well at different moments.

There are – because, as [Senior Administration Official] said, the stakes were very high, and high not just for the Afghans – although primarily for the Afghans – but also for the United States, which – as obviously, we’ve invested a lot here, have strong interests in the future here, and so the stakes were high for us as well.

QUESTION: How about a personal --

QUESTION: How detailed did you get about the unity government beyond the technicalities of the audit? I mean, there are only two scenarios, right, in terms of (inaudible) at the end. So talk about the makeup of it. Was it kind of just, like, left to them to figure it out, whoever was deemed winner on one end?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: In – well, the audit will determine who becomes president. How --

QUESTION: Is it a straight 50+1, is it – it’ll be a straight 51 percent or --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the audit only disqualifies ballots which then yield an IEC determination of the final tally, but yes. At this stage, given the runoff --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes, it’s a simple (inaudible)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That’s right, given that it is a runoff and there’s two candidates, two finalists. The discussion on the political framework was really mediated by the Secretary and really held as proximity talks between the two sides. And in that regard, they didn’t get into detail. They got into a lot of different options, a lot of different ways in which the different sides could be accommodated in different ways among ministerial appointments, among the circle of advisors to the president, and those types of positions that are ways of accommodating one another. And again, I would leave it to them to get into those details because then we were really mediating, and I think they need to continue that discussion and allow those details to come forward.

There was an agreement there. It is set. That was part of the agreement at the end. But I don’t want to go into those details because that’s really for them, I think, to disclose when the time is right, and hopefully that’ll come forth as this continues.

QUESTION: Can I just ask – sorry, [Senior State Department Official] – how confident you are, given how divisive and bitter the election has, that the – that both candidates will actually abide? I know they’ve said they will. Are you confident they’ll stick to their promise to abide by the results of the audit?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t have any reason to believe that they won’t. Certainly, the atmospherics and the dynamic this evening as things culminated and we wrapped up were positive.

You asked about a human dimension. Both candidates expressed while – a very kind of serious approach to these negotiations, and clearly, they had strong convictions about their views. There was also a clear demonstration of a national interest in the interest of Afghans broadly, in a patriotic, albeit at times political, mode of putting broad national interests first. And they demonstrated a very sincere attempt at the end of the day to continue working with one another on this. And there’s no reason to believe that it – that won’t continue, and we’re hopeful that it will.

QUESTION: So what does this do for the U.S. standing in Afghanistan? As you know, we’ve been going through the (inaudible) of tensions between you guys and Karzai. And, I mean, it really does, doesn’t it? I mean, the fact that they called you guys in, the UN couldn’t do the – clench the deal. So what does that do for you? It’s true.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Can we answer the question without granting that premise? (Laughter.) So --

QUESTION: Well, you can’t say that there were not tensions and (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don't know, I’ll leave it – I’m not going to speculate about what this does for U.S. standing. I mean, this is very much an event that’s for, about, and most meaningful for Afghanistan and for the Afghan leaders who were directly involved in these talks. As I said, the United States has a very strong interest in the success and sound future of Afghanistan, and we make no secret about that. But in terms of what this does for our standing, I mean, I’m not going to --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I mean, I think it demonstrates that the U.S. is committed and remains serious about the strategic partnership. Both candidates, before this crisis and even as we went through the discussions, reiterated their commitment and their interest in concluding the BSA if either one of them was inaugurated.

The strategic partnership requires the BSA, but it also requires that this political transition process culminate and conclude in a credible way that maintains the support of the international community. And so moving through this crisis and highlighting a way forward for this political transition process and the election process and resolution was vitally important, and I think now that we can see perhaps a way forward through that, perhaps see a way toward inauguration – the signing of a BSA, the signing of a NATO SOFA – that we would see the strategic partnership as intact. And you heard President Karzai make reference to that tonight, you heard even Ambassador Kubis highlight that this demonstrates that Afghanistan has a partner in the United States.

QUESTION: Okay.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So we’ve gone through – one last thing. You asked about an anecdotal moment, and I’m only going to give you this one because I’ve now seen the photograph in the public domain. So the only trilateral meeting that we had was sort of towards the end of this evening before we went over to do the press conference at the UN. And the way it played out was that Dr. Abdullah was in the room with us and meeting, and Dr. Ghani was sort of called over to join.

And when Dr. Ghani walked in, the two sort of approached each other and immediately and quite warmly embraced, and there was clearly a degree of affection between the two of them, which for those of us who had sat through these meetings over 48 hours, was both a welcome sign that yes, for one thing, we might get to an agreement, but to your earlier question, a signal that actually this is something that may stick, because it’s going to require the personalities involved being committed to it in order for that to be the case.

But that was a moment, I think, that was quite significant, both – most likely for the two of them, but also for everyone who participated in the sort of 44 hours of very intense discussions leading up to that point.

MODERATOR: Okay. Thanks very much, guys.

QUESTION: Thank you.



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