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Special Defense Department Briefing on Afghan Election

Presenters: Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan
October 15, 2004 12:05 PM EDT

Friday, October 15, 2004 12:06 p.m. EDT

Special Defense Department Briefing on Afghan Election

            MR. DI RITA: I'm very pleased to be joined today by Ambassador Zal Khalilzad, who is just back from Afghanistan, where he was certainly witness to something very historic that occurred there. And he's graciously agreed -- he was in a meeting with the secretary briefly and has only a brief amount of time with us today, but has agreed to take -- make a few comments and take one or two questions before he shoves off and continues on with his schedule today.

 

            So, Ambassador Khalilzad, I'll turn it over to you.

 

            AMB. KHALILZAD: Thank you very much, Larry.

 

Well, it's good to be here. I want to make two points. First, what happened in Afghanistan a few days ago, the election, was a remarkable event. Millions of Afghans took advantage of the opportunity and voted in an orderly and in a massive fashion. It was great. I felt personally terrific to be there for this occasion. Afghans, in the face of threats from al Qaeda and Taliban, some of them prepared themselves to die, washing themselves, saying special prayers as if they were going to die. Women, for example, in Bamian did that at 3:00 in the morning to go and stand in line for four hours to be able to vote. Or women and men in Kunar Province not running away, although there was an explosion about 100 yards, I'm told, from where people were lining up to vote. But they said they would not leave until they were allowed to vote, and they did. So that was terrific.

 

            And I took a group of diplomats with me to visit three or four election sites, and we all felt that this was a special moment. Afghanistan is clearly today the front line of freedom, and the Afghans took advantage of the opportunity that was provided to them by the coalition to move towards building a democratic society, and they did very well on that day.

 

            Second issue. I came to the Pentagon to thank the secretary for the fine work that the men and women of our armed forces, along with those of the coalition countries as well as the Afghan security forces that we have been training, did. They provided a secure environment for the Afghans to vote.

 

            By effective preventive and preemptive action, they precluded what otherwise was going to be potentially a very bloody day, because the Taliban and al Qaeda declared war on this election. They took effective measures to prevent them from succeeding in their effort to disrupt the election.

 

            So I think the Afghan people, based on my conversations with them on election day and on other days, the president of Afghanistan are grateful to the coalition forces for their effort in Afghanistan, for providing the opportunity and also for what they did on election day.

 

            That's a kind of opening statement.

 

MR. DI RITA: Well, we'll take a couple --

 

            AMB. KHALILZAD: And I'll take a few questions.

 

            Q:  Mr. Ambassador, one of the criticisms of the situation in Afghanistan is that the government apparently does not control the whole country. In fact, several attempts -- at least two attempts were made on President Karzai's life while he -- in the run-up to the election.

 

            If he wins, as expected, will this suddenly expand his control over the country? Will he be able to travel safely about? Or how long is that going to take?

 

            AMB. KHALILZAD: If the journey of Afghanistan standing on its own feet, being a successful country, is a 10-mile journey, Afghanistan has just, in my view, passed mile three.

 

            The process of state- and nation-building in Afghanistan is progressing very well. Three years ago, Afghanistan did not have a national army. Today it has -- the national army is more than 15,000 strong. Three years ago, Afghanistan didn't have a national police. Today it has more than 30,000 trained national police people. Three years ago Afghanistan was fragmented. Its armed forces, what existed, was in the hands of regional leaders. Some of you called them warlords. Today more than 20,000 of the 50,000 militia forces have been civilianized. Heavy weapons have been cantoned. In Herat, more than 75 percent of the heavy weapons have been cantoned. Kabul -- all the heavy weapons have been cantoned. Nationwide, 57 percent of the heavy weapons in the country have been cantoned.

 

            Afghanistan is heading in the right direction.

 

            It's making progress on the political track, an enlightened constitution, now the presidential election, getting ready for parliamentary election, economic reconstruction is going on, and the people of Afghanistan want the country to succeed. And the country is succeeding, and thanks to the efforts of the United States and other countries, as well as ordinary Afghans taking their future in their own hand.

 

            MR. DI RITA: Barbara?

 

            Q:  Mr. Ambassador, you yourself just brought up the al Qaeda threat to Afghanistan. So in your view as ambassador, how important is it to find and get Osama bin Laden, and do you still agree with General Barno's assessment that he will be found by the end of the year?

 

            AMB. KHALILZAD: Well, I don't want to get into predicting any dates for his capture. He is one of the people that we're looking for. He will be caught. I don't know when. But I think ultimately one day they will find him -- we will find him in a hole somewhere. And his days are numbered, but I'm not predicting any particular date.

It's also important to remember that the struggle against terror is against networks and it's not only about one person, although important symbolically as it will be to capture him, and he will be caught. But this is a long-term struggle as the process of building a country, rebuilding a country standing on its own feet is a long-term process. But clearly in the case of Afghanistan things are going in the right direction.

 

            Q:  Can I just make sure. When you say important symbolically, is it your assessment that he -- just to make sure we absolutely are clear on what you're saying -- is he only important symbolically to the security question at the moment, or is Osama bin Laden more than a symbol? Do you believe he is directing and still has some operational control?

 

            AMB. KHALILZAD: I don't want to get into the details of exactly what he does or what he doesn't do. Clearly what's important in terms of dealing with this issue of terror, this global terror threat that is a dominant feature of the new security environment that we live in, in the aftermath of September 11th, it's these networks that are important, especially marrying this terror network with weapons of mass destruction. It is the challenge of our time, the defining threat of our time. And the role of a particular person, Osama bin Laden, is one issue. It's largely symbolic. But the larger problem is the problem of these global terror networks and the potential that they could marry up with weapons of mass destruction. This is the kind of problem equivalent to the challenge of the Cold War, which was a defining event of a previous era.

 

            This is the defining issue of our time.

 

            Q:  Sir?

 

            AMB. KHALILZAD: Yes, ma'am.

 

            Q Secretary Rumsfeld is fond of pointing out that it only takes a few terrorists to cause a great deal of trouble. Could you give us your assessment as to why there was not more violence in the Afghan election and what lessons we can take from that experience and apply to the upcoming election in Iraq, where a great deal of violence is already predicted?

 

            AMB. KHALILZAD: Well, I can speak to Afghanistan as experience. I think that the terrorists -- al Qaeda, Taliban and Hekmatyar's forces -- wanted to, first, prevent this election. They threatened people not to participate. And having failed in prevention, they went to disrupting the election, and they did try. As you know, they wanted to do some spectacular attacks, potentially. But effective work by coalition forces, by Afghan forces disrupted their attempts to disrupt the election, and they failed. We succeeded. Our forces succeeded. The Afghan forces succeeded.

 

            For example, in Kandahar they caught two cars, one a tanker truck that had five tons of explosive material on it. God forbid if that tanker truck had exploded in downtown Kandahar; quite a lot of people would have been killed. There were lots of rockets caught in Kabul, in Jalalabad, in Helmand. That was effective preventive and preemptive action by -- by the Afghan and coalition forces.

 

            Also I have to take advantage of the -- of the opportunity to say Pakistan played a useful, important role to cooperate, to prevent as much as possible cross-border operations. So they deserve a -- a --

 

            But you know, on UBL I want to say that, while it be very important to catch him, that will not end the war against terror; that, in order to succeed in the effort, though symbolically it will be important to catch him or if he gets killed in the process of going after him that the war will go on; that in order to succeed in this war, it will take a long time. It means getting -- destroying these networks. It means a transformation of regions, countries that produce extremism and terror, and that's going to take a long time. That's -- well, I defined -- I said that this issue, dealing with terror and extremism, is the defining issue of our time.

 

            MR. DI RITA: We have, I think, only time for one because --

 

            Q: Ambassador, you talked about Afghanistan's journey to standing on its own feet in terms of distance. I wonder if you could talk about it in terms of time as well. Are we talking about a 10- year journey as well as a 10-mile journey, and is that how long it's going to take?

 

            AMB. KHALILZAD: I think you could think about it in terms of time as well. It will take time; could take as long as 10 years for it to be a truly successful country in terms of security, in terms of economic development, in terms of being a successful democratic state.

 

            Q:  I'm asking about how long it's going to take to have coalition and NATO forces --

 

            AMB. KHALILZAD: The question of forces, of course the plan is for Afghanistan to stand on its own feet as soon as possible. That depends at the rate at which the forces that are needed will be produced. At the present time, the Afghan National Army -- the goal is to have a 70,000 large army, and maybe about 80,000 to 100,000 large police. We could get at that number sooner if we put more resources in. We are looking at that, how to expedite the standing up of the army getting to the 70,000 as soon as possible. The current plan is to get there in five additional years. We could do that at a faster rate. We are looking at that.

 

            Police, similarly. The Germans have the lead on the training of the police. We this year -- or rather, last year, '04, helped train 20,000-or-so police force. We are looking at ways to make that police training program into an effective program, and we're looking at lessons learned in Iraq as to how the police training program went there and see whether we can import some of the positive features of that with regard to Afghanistan.

 

            So, it depends on the security environment, what happens also sort of the standing up of the Afghan security forces. Our preferred approach is to get the Afghans to stand on their own feet as soon as possible. But clearly, for some time to come there will be a role for U.S. and coalition forces and NATO, and looking at the option of bringing all of this together as one way for the situation security- wise to evolve and the role that the international forces will play. But the most important thing is to get Afghans to do as much as possible as soon as possible, because that's the way it ought to be.

 

            MR. DI RITA: Let me expand on that just a little bit, Nick. It would be manifestly incorrect to come away from what the ambassador just said as the following or something like it: "U.S. forces to remain in Afghanistan for five more years." What is happening in Afghanistan is there is growing international cooperation. There's growing coalition forces. The NATO ministers of Defense talked about this in great detail this week, and Ambassador Khalilzad was not part of those conversations. But there's a number of expanded opportunities and roles being played by the coalition.

 

            We're not working against any timeline in Afghanistan with respect to the presence of coalition forces; we're working against results. There's an enormous amount of energy being put into training the Afghan forces, to developing the Afghan forces. There is sufficient attention being paid to that at the moment. There's always a desire to make sure that whatever the people there need, they have, to get these forces trained and ready to go. The cantonment of weapons that Ambassador Khalilzad talked about is an enormous success story. The so-called warlords or the regional leaders who had a lot of these weapons area turning them in and they're being used for the Afghan National Army. So that's helping the process.

 

            There's no timeline against which we're operating with respect to how long U.S. -- coalition forces and U.S. forces in particular are going to be needed in Afghanistan. They'll be there, as the president has said, for as long as they're needed. And what we saw this week is an enormous milestone having been passed to demonstrating or determining how long that may be.

 

            There is now a sovereign elected government, or there will be soon, in Afghanistan. The parliamentary -- or the National Assembly elections are next. Those are all very important things.

 

            And with respect to the timing that Ambassador Khalilzad talked about, the secretary was just in Macedonia this week and he talked about it. And 10 years ago in Macedonia, that whole region was in some turmoil, and 10 years later it is a country that has a routine of elections and has a routine of democratic practices. And I think when Ambassador Khalilzad talks about that in the context of Afghanistan, that's what people think about. At a certain point in time it will become a routine -- God willing and everything goes well, and that's what everybody expects will happen -- this will become a routine pattern of behavior in this part of the world. That's certainly the objective.

 

            And how long does that take? Well, it took 13 years in this country to get a constitution after we had independence. So I think --

 

            AMB. KHALILZAD: And the Afghans did it in --

 

            MR. DI RITA: And the Afghans did it in 13 months.

 

            AMB. KHALILZAD: Right. And a very enlightened constitution, by the way.

 

            MR. DI RITA: So I caution you --

 

            AMB. KHALILZAD: (Inaudible.) (Laughter.)

 

            MR. DI RITA: I caution you right now --

 

            MR. DI RITA: I want to be clear about cautioning anybody that takes away from comments that are being made here today to suggest that there is a notion of a timeline against which we're working. We simply are not.

 

            Q:  Are you saying that this whole process --

 

            MR. DI RITA: I'm saying we're done. Thank you very much.

 

            Q:  -- is beyond unraveling?

 

            AMB. KHALILZAD: I think Afghanistan is firmly heading in the right direction. I think the Afghan people would like to succeed.

 

            They demonstrated that in coming to vote in the ways that they did, even in the face of threat. The people of Afghanistan want economic progress. They want security. They appreciate the help that the United States is providing for them, and they want a democratic government. They showed that by coming and voting. And that was an important, as Larry said, milestone. Afghanistan is heading in the right direction. I think I can say that with great confidence. Thank you.

 

            MR. DI RITA: Thank you very much.

 

            Q:  Thank you.

 

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