Excerpts from Testimony: The Transition in Afghanistan

Remarks Submitted for the Record to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - Washington, D.C.

Read full transcript on state.gov


The Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA), signed by President Obama and President Karzai in May 2012, codified the terms of our partnership after 2014. It looked ahead to a Transformation Decade of cooperation, as the Afghans continued to strengthen their institutions, improve governance, and stabilize their economy. While making clear that the United States does not seek permanent bases in Afghanistan or a presence that is a threat to Afghanistan’s neighbors, the SPA included a provision to negotiate a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between the two countries which would govern future security cooperation.

A signed BSA will tell the Taliban, who may think that the end of 2014 means the end of international support for Afghanistan, that their only path to peace is by ending violence, breaking ties with al Qaida and accepting the Afghan constitution, including its protections for women and minorities.

A few numbers stand out. Today, 57% of all Afghans believe their country is moving in the right direction. This number has increased steadily since 2008, when it stood at 38%. Not surprisingly, the majority – 76% – said they were better off economically than they were under the Taliban. Three quarters gave their national government a positive assessment although they remained critical of subnational government and Parliament and concerned about corruption at all levels. Five in six Afghans – men and women – believe that women should have an education. 75% believe it is acceptable to criticize the government in public—a sign of an active democracy with an independent media, which is the civilian institution in which Afghans have the most confidence.

This growing optimism among Afghans is due in part to the increasing capability of some of their institutions, none of which existed in 2001. According to the poll, the Afghan media is one of the country’s most trusted institutions. The growth of a free media is one of the great achievements of reconstruction in Afghanistan. When the Taliban ruled, people had few modern means to communicate with one another (there were fewer than 40,000 phones in the country) or to get information (there was one state-run TV station). Now, more than 18 million Afghans have phones and the telecommunications network covers 90% of the population. Afghans are also eager for news, which they see on one of the 75 TV stations or hear on the 175 radio stations available. This is not, I should add, a triumph of quantity over quality. In the most recent worldwide assessment of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders, Afghanistan outranked Pakistan and India and every other country but one in its region. The Loya Jirga that considered the BSA was televised nationally and Afghans watched as their representatives debated their future. This would have been technically impossible and politically unimaginable 15 years ago.

Building strong state, civil society, and private sector institutions by economically integrating Afghanistan within its neighborhood remains at the heart of our New Silk Road vision.


Despite all of the focus on the BSA in recent days, the political transition is next year’s critical event. A timely presidential election in April can be a unifying moment for the country, consolidating the gains of the past decade and demonstrating that the Afghan people would rather use politics than violence to solve their differences. If successful, this will be the first peaceful transfer of power from one elected leader to another in Afghanistan’s history.

The Afghans have committed to holding credible, inclusive, and transparent elections, and they are on track to meet this commitment. Larry Sampler will talk about what we are doing to support this effort, so let me talk about what the Afghans have done and are doing. As with elections anywhere, many things can go wrong between now and election day in April, but Afghanistan is far ahead, in terms of technical preparations, of where it was in previous electoral cycles. Afghanistan’s last elections were conducted under rules established by presidential decree because the political system had been unable to reach consensus on necessary legislation. Compare that to today. This past summer, Afghan legislators passed the laws establishing the structures that will shape the vote and procedures to evaluate complaints. In July, President Karzai signed that legislation into law. Now, the Independent Elections Commission (IEC) is implementing those laws, working with the Ministry of Interior on the security plans that will be critical to the success of the election. The IEC is also engaged in a nationwide voter registration “top up” program, which, thus far, has enrolled 3.1 million new voters of which 1 million are women. Although women’s participation in the process still needs to improve, 3 of the prospective Vice Presidents are women, as are over 300 (11%) of the provincial council candidates. Presidential candidates have registered and last month the IEC approved a final official list of 11 candidates. Official campaigning gets underway in February, when rallies, ads, and televised debates will take place.

We have made clear that, in the upcoming election, the United States will support the process, not any individual party or candidate. We will continue to assist Afghan electoral authorities, the Afghan government, parliament and civil society in their efforts to strengthen the electoral system and to minimize electoral fraud. While the Afghan government has taken encouraging steps to ensure security for poll workers, the Independent Election Commission and other elections-related workers, we will continue to monitor security trends as the elections near. Our military experts are also helping the Afghans with security planning. That said, ISAF planners have been surprised by the extremely limited number of requests from the Afghan security forces as they support IEC voter registration efforts in insecure areas of the country – what is, in effect, a dry run for the challenges they will need to handle during next April’s vote.

Enduring stability will require reconciliation and we remain committed to supporting an Afghan peace process. Our objective has been, and continues to be, to promote and support a political process by which Afghans sit down with other Afghans to determine the future of their country. The outcomes of peace and reconciliation must be the Taliban and other insurgent groups breaking ties with al Qaeda, ending violence, and accepting Afghanistan’s constitution, including its protections for women and minorities. Even as we remain committed to supporting a peace process, we do not plan to let up our fight against international terrorism in Afghanistan or our support to Afghan forces. Our military and diplomatic efforts continue to be mutually reinforcing.

I do not mean to present an overly rosy picture of Afghanistan’s present or future. Many challenges remain. The Taliban continue to fight. Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world and the drawdown of international military forces will reduce economic growth. Afghans still need to put in place the physical infrastructure and legal framework to encourage long-term sustainable development and attract private investment. Corruption is a major problem—one the Afghan public is aware of and one the Afghan government promised to reduce as part of the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework. The narcotics trade is far from under control, as the recent announcement of a record poppy harvest showed. All of these require sustained commitment from the Afghans and the further development of their institutions to remedy. But most Afghans want to fix them, as the survey shows, and international support is vital to helping them do so.

As we focus on the pivotal year 2014, which will mark the end of the U.S. combat mission and what we hope and expect will be the successful transfer of power to a new, democratically elected Afghan president, we should also keep an eye on the future of this region. Afghanistan has a young population; more than 65% of Afghans are under 25 and the average age is 18. Over the last decade many of these young Afghans have gone to school, learned to use e-mail, set up Facebook pages, become connected to other Afghans outside their provinces and ethnic groups, reclaimed their artistic heritage, become familiar with other countries and ways of life, even learned English. (There are 1.5 – 2 million Internet users.) They participate in civil society and establish think tanks. They are moving from the rural areas to the cities for jobs and education. Sustaining our relationship with Afghanistan means maintaining our connection with those young Afghans. Their future is crucial to the stability of the region and ultimately the security of the United States. Right now these young men and women want democracy, access to free media, economic opportunities, transparency and education. A partnership with the United States will help them consolidate the institutions that did not exist 12 years ago, but which have grown in their lifetimes and which will help ensure that these youth rebuff the recruitment of extremists and help to build a peaceful democratic partner for the United States and our allies.

In conclusion, let me emphasize that despite the many challenges, we have much to build on as we look to the future of America’s partnership with Afghanistan. Thanks in large part to the generosity of the American people, the courage of its men and women in uniform and the bipartisan support of Congress, Afghanistan is a fundamentally different country than it was 12 years ago. It remains a hopeful country, although uncertainty over conclusion of the BSA is unnecessarily increasing anxiety at just the point in Afghanistan’s growing self-reliance where reassurance is most necessary. This administration looks forward to continuing its work with Congress to help ensure that as these hopes are realized our own vital national security interests are secured.

- Cross posted from state.gov

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