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Media Availability with Secretary Hagel in Kabul, Afghanistan

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel
March 10, 2013

            SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL:  Good evening.  I appreciate you all coming by.  Let me begin with -- which I think you know George gave you some explanation of why the joint news conference was pulled down.  I just came -- we all just came -- the ambassador's here somewhere, I think -- where is he, there -- from the palace with Ambassador Cunningham and Gen. Dunford and others. 

            Long meeting with President Karzai, dinner.  Good exchange.  I've known President Karzai for many years, since I think December 2001.  I think I'd mentioned that I was the coauthor of the Afghan Assistance Act, along with the chairman then of the House International Relations Committee, Henry Hyde. 

            So I became familiar with Mr. Karzai back in those days and known him since and always had a good relationship with him.  We talked about everything, all the big issues.  You all know what they are.  I thought it was a very direct conversation.  

            Past friendships and relationships, I think, are always helpful in these cases.  John Kerry has had a long friendship and relationship with President Karzai.  That doesn't mean anyone changes their opinion on anything, but it does -- it does matter, I think, in trying to resolve issues. 

            We'll get to specific questions here in a minute on -- on the Karzai dinner and meeting tonight.  But before we get right into that and talk about anything you want to talk about, let me just take a minute to give you some inventory of the last two days. 

            You've been with me for a number of these things, so you've seen essentially where I've been.  If you haven't been in the meetings, you know who I met with, so I'm not going to walk back through all that.  You know who they are. 

            As I said at the beginning of the trip, even though it's just two days, I wanted to get back over here to reconnect with the people, with the leaders, both on the Afghan side, on our side.  Ambassador Cunningham has been very helpful.  I've known Ambassador Cunningham a long time.  He's one of the premier career foreign service officers that we have in the United States, so I think we're all happy that he's here and still is here.  And I want to acknowledge that, because people like Ambassador Cunningham, who are on the firing line every day and on the front line every day, hear everything that's wrong, but they don't always hear things that go right.  And a lot of things have gone right, and it does matter who leaders are and how they respond to issues.  So I wanted to acknowledge the ambassador, as well as Gen. Dunford and all the other professionals here. 

            One -- in my observations, there's no question, the last time I was here was with then-Senator Obama and Senator Jack Reed, summer 2008.  A lot's happened here in this country.  And -- and a lot of it's been very good.  And I think that's always important to acknowledge when we are framing up big complicated issues.  Yes, a ways to go.  Yes, issues.  So that's first. 

            Second, the quality of -- of our people doesn't really ever change.  I mean, the American serviceman and woman are diplomats, all of our Americans who are here and other places, but especially in war zones.  What they have to deal with everyday and the sacrifices they make is pretty remarkable, that quality of individual, and Americans are very, very fortunate to have that in our career, foreign service and military.  So the quality of our people, it really doesn't change, the quality of our leadership. 

            Third, this is, I think, a critically important time as we transition, as we redefine our role, the United States role here, certainly the ISAF forces are transitioning, as well.  But that also acknowledges that there will be new challenges.  There will be new issues.  And that shouldn't come as a surprise.  It's a -- it's a different time.  It's a different dynamic, different environment. 

            And you look over the past 11 years, it's pretty dramatic, what's happened in this country.  Yes, a ways to go.  Yes, challenges.  Yes, issues.  Yes, differences.  But I don't think any of these are challenges that we can't work our way through.  And we'll see.  But I'm confident, after being here for two days and getting a renewed sense of commitment, both from the Afghans and our partners, coalition partners of the United States, that we're on the right path.  And I think we will -- we'll meet these transition dates as to when we are able to make these shifts and changes as we go along. 

            I guess the last observation I would make is, when you spend 48 hours in Afghanistan or any part of the world, it's still dangerous.  You, again, recognize the complications that exist every day in these parts of the world.  They are imperfect solutions.  We should always be mindful of the higher purpose of what we're -- what we're doing and -- and why. 

            Sometimes I think we can get bogged down in the day-to-day evaluations of the minute or the week or the month.  Those are all metrics.  Those are all good guideposts.  But we've got to keep in mind the larger context of where we've been and what we've accomplished, where we're going with the big issues still hanging out there. 

            I will now go back to meeting with President Karzai, and then we'll open it up and talk about whatever you want.  I told the president that I was looking forward to renewing our friendship and an opportunity to work with him again on some of these big issues, some of these defining issues of our time. 

            I told him that he could, should call me directly, if there's anything that I can do to help facilitate any of these -- of these issues that we're working with.  I have great confidence in our military leaders here, beginning with Gen. Dunford.  I have great confidence in -- in Ambassador Cunningham, in all our people.  And I look forward to working with our leaders and all our people, Americans and Afghans, and our partners who I know many of our coalition partners and leaders, and I look forward to working with them. 

            I made sure that that was an important part of the conversation that the president and I had.  I know -- Secretary Kerry knows President Karzai well, has known him a long time.  And I think that's beneficial to the relationship and to some of these big challenges that we have ahead. 

            So with that, glad to respond to questions.

            GEORGE LITTLE:  Start with Lita.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, obviously, there's been a lot of attention with some of the comments that President Karzai made today about the U.S. and the Taliban being -- working in concert on violence to show the Afghan people – there will be trouble  -- when -- (inaudible) -- U.S. forces leaving.  What did he say to you about those comments?  Did you ask him about them?  And do you think this signals a fracture in U.S.-Afghan relations?

           SEC. HAGEL:  We did discuss those comments.  I told the president it was not true that the United States was unilaterally working with the Taliban and trying to negotiate anything.  The fact is, any prospect for peace or political settlements -- that has to be led by the Afghans.  That has to come from the Afghan side.

            Obviously, the United States will support efforts, if they are led by the Afghans, to come to some possible resolution, if that eventually evolves.  I don't know.  I've always believed that it is wise for nations to engage, to reach out.  That doesn't mean you are prepared to negotiate.  It may never get to that point.  But I think it's far preferable than war.  And these are complicated issues.  These are not easy issues to deal with. 

            So, yes, we talked about it, and that essentially summarizes what I said to the president.

            MR. LITTLE:  Mathieu?

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, you said that you told Mr. Karzai that he should call you in case of problem.  What do you think of the fact that he made these comments public before even meeting you?

            SEC. HAGEL:  Well, you'd have to ask him that question.  I don't answer for the president. 

            But I know these are difficult issues for President Karzai and the Afghan people.  And I was once a politician, so I can understand the kind of pressures that especially leaders of countries are always under.  So I would hope that again we -- we can move forward, and I have confidence we will, and deal with these issues.

            MR. LITTLE:  Chris?

            Q:  When you told him that this was not true, what he had said, what was his response?  Did he take it back?  Did he waffle?  Did he restate what he said?  And, secondly, you mentioned these are difficult issues.  What were the issues specifically that you’re referring to?

            SEC. HAGEL:  Well, I don't share confidential discussions with heads of state.  The difficult issues, I think, are quite obvious.  When a nation would be at any time looking at the possibility of engaging an enemy that they’re still at war with, that's difficult.  And it's complicated.  On what basis would you initiate?  How would that initiation come about?  So I think it's pretty obvious what the difficulties and the complications are, any of these kinds of big -- big issues.

            Yes?

            MR. LITTLE:  Phil?

            Q:  You mentioned your comments about his comments on the reconciliation issue, but what about the question that was raised before about his comments on the U.S. acting in concert or the Taliban violence serves the United States?  Was that issue discussed, as well?  Or was it only the comments about reconciliation?

            SEC. HAGEL:  No, we talked about the entire universe of that statement.

            Q:  Because Gen. Dunford kind of suggested that, you know, after all the years of fighting and dying, to suggest this would be, you know, kind of -- I'm just wondering --

            SEC. HAGEL:  Yeah, Gen. Dunford's right.  And it wouldn't make a lot of sense, it seems to me, but, again, I spoke clearly and directly, as the president did, on this issue.  And I think he understands where we are and where we've been and hopefully where we're going together.

            MR. LITTLE:  Chris?

            Q:  I just had a quick question.  Gen. Dunford, when asked if in good conscience the U.S. could transfer prisoners from U.S. control to Afghan control with the comments that President Karzai has made, saying that he believes some of them are innocent and he has promised to release them, that if any potential prisoners were considered dangerous, then the U.S. would not conduct that transfer.  Do you agree with those comments from Gen. Dunford?  And do you believe the same way?

            SEC. HAGEL:  Absolutely.  You know, force protection is essentially the bottom line.  And I think we -- our country's always been quite clear on that issue.  So Gen. Dunford's comments, I think, were exactly right, and I agree.

            MR. LITTLE:  David?

            Q:  Isn't it kind of amazing at this point in the war, 12 years on, that the president can make the kind of comments he made today, you know, essentially, questioning the motives of the U.S., which has spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives to defend this country, among other reasons we're here?  I mean, do you find that astonishing?

            SEC. HAGEL:  Well, like I said, I addressed that issue rather directly with the president.

            MR. LITTLE:  And we have time for one more.  Dion?

            Q:  Did you make any headway on any of the substantive issues on Parwan, on Wardak, on this new issue he raised with this executive order barring ISAF personnel from going on campuses?  Any substantive progress?

            SEC. HAGEL:  Well, the objective of our meeting tonight and dinner was not that.  We discussed every one of those issues in some detail.  And as you all know, those issues are continuing to be worked through the ambassador and Gen. Dunford.  And I reinforced with the president U.S. policy on this, and I thought we had a very -- on each of these issues.  And I thought it was a pretty clear, direct conversation.  I have great confidence in our leaders who are engaged directly on this with the president and his representatives from the cabinet.

            MR. LITTLE:  All right.  Thank you, everyone.

            SEC. HAGEL:  Thank you.

            MR. LITTLE:  Have a good evening.

            SEC. HAGEL:  So go to bed early tonight.  We're going to Germany.  (Laughter.)  Thank you.

            Q:  Thank you.