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Trust issues, troop level commitment among roadblocks in Afghan security talks

October 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Secretary of State John Kerry made progress with his trip to Afghanistan to work on a security deal, but both nations come to the table with concerns about trust and commitment. Gwen Ifill gets analysis from David Sedney, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, and former Afghan Foreign Ministry official Omar Samad.

GWEN IFILL: So is there common ground to be found as the search continues for an end to America’s longest war?

For that, I’m joined by David Sedney, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia, and former Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman and diplomat Omar Samad.

Thank you, gentlemen, for joining us.

So, listening to what you just heard John Kerry said, David Sedney, and what you heard Hamid Karzai say, what did you hear?

DAVID SEDNEY, former Defense Department official: What I heard is that we made an important step forward, but fundamentally there’s still a big and important gap.

The issues related to jurisdiction over U.S. and international troops after 2014 essentially are a matter of trust, trust between the United States and international forces and Afghanistan and particularly President Karzai. And that trust is still lacking.

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GWEN IFILL: Omar Samad, did you hear trust?

OMAR SAMAD, former Afghan Foreign Ministry official: Undoubtedly, there is a trust issue, as there has been a trust issue for a while.

But I think that we are not only one step, but a couple of steps ahead and forward. And we have made progress. I think the two sides understand what is at stake. Before this announcement and what President Karzai said about the jurisdiction issue being discussed by a jirga and the Parliament, the two sticking issues, contentious issues had to do with sovereignty and the definition of aggression, and how the U.S. might help the Afghans post-2014.

That seems to have been resolved. Those were the hardest items to resolve. Those items need to — seem to have been resolved during Secretary Kerry’s trip to Kabul. I believe that the Afghans understand the difference between immunity and jurisdiction, and that they will go ahead and endorse and give a stamp of approval to this.

GWEN IFILL: So maybe that will happen with the loya jirga.

But is that Karzai’s way of pushing this aside to leaving it for someone else to figure it out?

DAVID SEDNEY: Well, it is his way of pushing it aside, but also deferring it in a very contentious political season that just kicked off with the registration of a very large number of candidates for president, and leading up to elections in the spring, a time during which President Karzai has to decide and his country has to decide what his future is as well.

GWEN IFILL: How critical is he to this, he, as opposed to Mullah Omar or someone else on the sidelines?

DAVID SEDNEY: Well, I think, right now, he’s very critical to it.

I think, in fact, if it wasn’t for President Karzai, if you left it up to the rest of the Afghan people, I think we would have agreement before now. I think he has been the major obstacle up until now. I think Secretary Kerry did a tremendous job of bringing him along.

GWEN IFILL: What about Pakistan? And there are other countries involved in this, and also NATO forces, which someone has got to figure out what happens to them. But is the threat from Pakistan considered to be so real that there has to be a guarantee on that front as well?

OMAR SAMAD: From the Afghan perspective, across the country, the threat coming from the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan is real. The Afghans have felt it for over two decades almost, even way before 9/11.

And so with Mullah Omar and his Taliban troops across the border in safe havens, and nothing really having been done to address that problem over the last 12 years, the Afghans are concerned. And so this is why they were looking for some type of international, U.S. plus NATO, because NATO is going to be part of the post-2014 if there is an agreement of the U.S. that is signed off and approved and finalized.

GWEN IFILL: It sounds like there are two conflicting issues here. One is pulling out, getting the U.S. out of this war. And the other is providing that kind of security, that kind of concern for the troops who remain. And then the question becomes how many and from where. Am I right about that?

DAVID SEDNEY: I think that is the symbol, but the real core issue is confidence after 2014 on the part of the Afghan people and a serious commitment from the United States and its NATO partners. That commitment is often symbolized by the number of troops that are committed.

But, of course, it goes beyond that. But that commitment has still not been made clear by the United States. And, on the Afghan side, I think they still fear that lack of commitment.

GWEN IFILL: How much can the U.S. be expected to be committed? Everything is so uncertain.

DAVID SEDNEY: Well, we have achieved a lot in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has had the greatest progress on social indicators, according to the U.N., over the last 10 years of any country in the world. We have built an army that successfully held off the Taliban over the last year and is prepared to defeat the Taliban in the years ahead.

However, that lack of commitment from the United States has led to some Afghans leaving Afghanistan, some leaving their children out. It suffuses the entire society because they don’t see what happens after 2014 as something they can count on.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Sedney mentioned the imminent election and the political environment that this whole thing is happening.

What — what timing do you see as important in trying to work this out? Can any of this happen before that is out of the way?

OMAR SAMAD: I don’t think that anyone wants to see the bilateral security agreement become an election issue between now and April of 2014, when elections are due to take place.

Campaigning starts in February. So I think that the Afghan political class, including President Karzai, at this stage would like to see this wrapped up as soon as possible.

GWEN IFILL: So let’s talk about what has to happen between now and next spring, say. Is that a realistic timetable? What — do there have to be more meeting? Do there have to be more things put on the table? Is it the U.S.’ responsibility? Is it Afghanistan’s responsibility? What happens next, Mr. Sedney?

DAVID SEDNEY: What happens next is the loya jirga that President Karzai has called for next month.

And that is when the people of Afghanistan will — represented by those members of the loya jirga — will debate and discuss what has been agreed to so far, including the areas that President Karzai has refused to endorse, specifically the issue of jurisdiction.

And they will come out with a list of either agreements or conditions to the agreement. I think there’s a lot of things that could happen in that loya jirga. I don’t think it is — what will happen out of that is set. And then the political season that is going on right now will play into that as well. It’s really a pretty complicated game that is being played here.

GWEN IFILL: It sounds look a Rubik’s Cube.


OMAR SAMAD: Yes, but let’s not forget that about a year-and-a-half ago, President Karzai convened a jirga to discuss partnership with the United States.

GWEN IFILL: Yes. What happened with that?

OMAR SAMAD: And, overwhelmingly, they endorsed it…


OMAR SAMAD: … and said they gave the green light to go ahead.

So, for a lot of people, this is redundant. They are saying, why are you having another jirga? We already told you it’s OK.

GWEN IFILL: So what is the answer to that question?

OMAR SAMAD: So, the answer is that it might be political. It might be tied to domestic politics, and with elections coming up, and for President Karzai trying to maybe look like he is the savior and the independent leader who not only came with the Americans, but also will see the American go home under his terms.

So he doesn’t want to be seen and considered and remembered as somebody else’s puppet or somebody else’s leader.

GWEN IFILL: A lot of pieces left to fall into place.

Omar Samad and David Sedney, thank you both very much.

DAVID SEDNEY: Thank you.

OMAR SAMAD: Thank you.