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26 March 2004

State Department Official Previews Afghanistan Donors Conference

Amb. Taylor also discusses elections, security, reconstruction

Representatives of about 65 governments and international organizations will gather in Berlin March 31-April 1 for a donors conference on Afghanistan that will review foreign aid efforts to date and evaluate the country's future needs.

Briefing reporters March 26 in Washington, Ambassador William Taylor, U.S. State Department coordinator for Afghanistan, said he hoped the conference would reassure Afghans of the world's long-term commitment to their future.

"This is a real opportunity for the international community to get together and reaffirm its commitment to the future of Afghanistan, the successful development of Afghanistan's economy, its political future and improvements in security," he said at the State Department Foreign Press Center.

"We're not just talking about the next year or so. It's going to take a long time for Afghanistan to succeed and get on its feet," Taylor said.

This year's goal for aid pledges to Afghanistan is between $3 billion and $4 billion, Taylor said. The United States has pledged to provide $2.2 billion in 2004, or about half the total.

"If the pledges are such that they can meet this $3-4 billion target, that will be a good demonstration of the fact that the international community remains -- has maintained its commitment," the ambassador said.

In addition to previewing the donors forum, Taylor answered reporters' questions on counter drug efforts in Afghanistan, road construction, plans for elections, Iran's activities and influence in Afghanistan, and the overall security situation.

Asked to evaluate the strength and influence of former Taliban regime members, Taylor said these groups are now too weak to mount a significant threat to the new government of Afghanistan, and are therefore concentrating on "soft," or undefended, targets.

"I mean, they are attacking aid workers; they're attacking NGO [non-governmental organization] workers," Taylor said. "That is not a sign of strength."

Following is a transcript of the briefing as provided by the Foreign Press Center:

(begin transcript)

FOREIGN PRESS CENTER BRIEFING WITH AMBASSADOR WILLIAM TAYLOR, COORDINATOR FOR AFGHANISTAN, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE

TOPIC: SCENE SETTER ON THE INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON AFGHANISTAN, MARCH 31 - APRIL 1, 2004, IN BERLIN

THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
10:30 A.M. EST, FRIDAY, MARCH 26, 2004

MR. DENIG: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. We're very pleased to be able to welcome back to our podium again Ambassador William Taylor, the Coordinator for Afghanistan in the Department of State. He's here today to give us a briefing in the form of a scene setter for the International Conference on Afghanistan, which will be taking place in Berlin next week, March 31st through April 1st.

Ambassador Taylor will have an opening statement to make, and after that will be very glad to take your questions.

Ambassador Taylor.

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: Thank you, Paul. Good morning, glad to be here.

We are very pleased that the German Government is hosting this conference on Afghanistan next week on March 31st and April 1st, as Paul said.

This is a real opportunity for the international community to get together and reaffirm commitment to the future of Afghanistan, the successful development of Afghanistan's economy, its political future and improvements in security. So there are probably 65 delegations that are coming to Berlin next week.

Secretary Powell will lead our delegation. He's just back, of course, from Kabul, where he had very good conversations with President [Hamid] Karzai and others, so he's eager to make the commitment to Afghanistan's future, long-term future -- that's the other point that the assembled international community will make in Berlin is we're not just talking about the next year or so. It's going to take time for Afghanistan to succeed and get on its feet. It's well on its way, but it's got a long way to go.

We are there in Berlin to reaffirm that commitment and to assure the people of Afghanistan that we are going to be there for the long term. That's the basic story, and I'd be glad to take your questions.

MR. DENIG: Let me remind you to please use the microphone and identify yourself and your news organization. Let's start with Andrei.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you, Margaret. Thank you Paul. My name's Andrei Sitov. I'm with the Russian News Agency ITAR-TASS here in Washington.

I have two questions on issues that particularly concern Russia. The first one is the debt issue. Russia has got about 80 percent of Afghanistan debt, as the Russian Finance Minister told us. About $2 billion remain, and Secretary Snow in Boca Raton promised [Finance Minister Alexey] Kudrin to assist Russia with collecting the debt.

On the other hand, we have heard that Secretary Powell was actually planning to ask for the full forgiveness of the debt in Berlin. So which will it be? And this is the first question.

The second question is about drugs. When we will see meaningful efforts to stop the flow of drugs from Afghanistan, which basically inundates Russia, at this point?

Thank you.

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: Thank you, Andrei. On your first question, on debt, I'm very glad you raised this. This is an opportunity I was hoping to get on debt, and you're exactly right. The largest claim on Afghanistan from any nation in the world is from Russia. This is -- there is military debt and there is civilian debt, as I understand it. And you're exactly right that Secretary Snow raised this issue in Boca Raton about a month ago at a meeting of G-8 [Group of Eight countries France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada, United States, United Kingdom and Russia] finance ministers.

I don't think he promised to help collect the debt. But in answer to your question, what is our view? Our view is that because there are actually claims on both sides, there are claims that the Afghan Government has on the Russian Government and there are claims that the Russian Government has on the Afghan Government; these are controversial, complicated, long-time claims. The documentation on these claims is old, hard to come by. Our recommendation is both sides wipe out the debt -- wipe out the claims on either side. So that would be our suggestion.

This, of course, is a discussion between Russians and Afghans. We, as Secretary Snow offered, are going to help facilitate those discussions. They are planned in Berlin. We hope they are fruitful, but this is really a decision and a discussion, and a negotiation probably, between Russians and Afghans.

The second question is on drugs. We are very concerned, as the rest of the international community is, as the Afghan Government is, about the flow of drugs from Afghanistan into Russia, into Western Europe, into Great Britain. Not a whole lot comes here, but nonetheless, it destabilizes the government in Afghanistan that we are very supportive of, so we care a lot about it as well.

The Afghan Government recognizes that if they don't get a handle on this problem then everything they do in trying to establish a stable government, a representative government, a non-corrupt government, will fail. We recognize that too, and we're going to help them.

Now, our British colleagues are doing a good job in the lead, in the international lead, on supporting the Government of Afghanistan in the fight against drugs. The international community has kind of divided up the responsibilities, and the British are working on counter narcotics, the Italians are working on judicial reform, the Americans are working on the army, Germans on police, and the Japanese are working on demobilization, demilitarization.

But the British are focused on this counter narcotic problem for obvious reasons -- the same reason that Russia cares about it, the UK cares about it. They are -- the British are about to support the Government of Afghanistan as it starts an eradication program within the next week or two. The Americans -- we are going to support a parallel eradication program so that fields of poppy that are coming to maturity right now, that are about to be harvest, will be destroyed. That's a start.

But it's only a piece. The other part needs to be alternative livelihoods for those farmers who are -- whose fields will be destroyed. They need to be able to plant other crops. They need to be able to go to other jobs if they are out of the poppy business. That's the second piece.

So there's enforcement and there's alternate livelihoods, and finally, the social pressure on farmers, on drug traffickers, needs to be clear. As President Karzai has said many times, this is against the law. It threatens his government. He recognizes that threat. Governors need to reinforce that message. Local commanders need to recognize that and reinforce that message. Those three pieces need to happen and -- over the long term, this is not a short-term solution -- but it is certainly a good start this year to try to reduce instead of increase the number of hectares under cultivation.

MR. DENIG: Okay. Let's go to the gentleman on the right here.

QUESTION: I'm Quil Lawrence from the BBC.

I have two questions, one about roads and one about warlords. First of all, when -- what's the projection for the ring road's completion? And also, what's going to find security? I mean, the progress on the road is quite notable between Kabul and Kandahar, but the security situation sort of negates a lot of that progress.

And the other question is what is going to be done to expand control by the government into regions where warlords are still running things? We've seen a small war breaking out in Herat recently.

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: Very good.

On the roads, the projection for the completion of the ring road is probably in 2006. All the pieces of that ring road are either underway, under contract, under design, under construction in one form or another.

As you mentioned, the Kabul to Kandahar stretch, that quarter was completed -- or at least the first layer -- so it's not asphalted and trucks are racing along that road, able to get from Kabul to Kandahar if they break the nonexistent speed limit, (laughter) whereas it used to take them 17 hours to make that same journey, so that part is well on the way. Additional layers are now going onto that to be sure that that piece lasts for 30 or 40 years.

The next stretch, from Kandahar up to Herat is under design -- is well under contract. It's under design. The demining has already begun on that stretch. I would imagine that stretch, which will make it half completed then, the total ring will be half completed by next year, by the end of next year, by 2005. And I know that the World Bank is working on a stretch going north from Kabul up towards Mazar, and the Asian Development Bank, I believe it is, it is working on a stretch from Mazar down to Herat again to complete it. So they're all underway. All these segments are underway.

Your next question was on security.

QUESTION: Right.

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: And you raised exactly the right point. We did complete -- the pavement from Kabul to Kandahar is there, but that is through the least secure part of the country. That is through the third of the country that is not as secure as we would like it to be.

Two-thirds of the country is in decent shape. One-third of the country along the Pakistan border is not, and that's the area. That's the Kabul-Kandahar road goes through.

It turns out, a couple of things: One is, we are putting more of these provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) into that area, into that particular stretch, so there will soon -- actually there are now provincial reconstruction teams, of course, in Gardez and in Ghazni and in Qalat, down in Khowst, and of course, in Kandahar. So that is improving security in the region. We haven't fixed it yet, but that is improving the security, and it's right along the road that the patrols will operate and are operating, both on the ground and overhead. So that is a recognition of the security problems along that road.

The other thing by the way, is that when you're able to go fast, when you're able to drive fast along that road, you are less vulnerable to bandits, which has been one of the main problems on that stretch. If you can go very quickly and if the Minister of Interior's police is able to ensure that there are no illegal checkpoints on this, which they are now doing, then the traffic is able to move, move through there quickly, and security is better.

Your second question was on the warlords, as you call them, and extending the government's control out to the regions. The incident in Herat last weekend demonstrated on the one hand, the tensions between factions out there and the problems presented when you have competing militias out there. Of course, you have Governor Ismail Khan's forces that he has control over; and then you have the 17th Division out there under the 4th Corps under a competing command. And that latter is loyal to the central government.

So this problem that you point to illustrates the importance of demilitarization, demobilization, reintegration -- DDR, as we call it. And again, our Japanese colleagues on are in the lead on that with the UN and the Government of Afghanistan.

But the importance of demilitarizing, of taking weapons from illegal or unauthorized, or even authorized, militias to reduce the weaponry out in that particular region -- this applies to other regions as well -- is the first message coming out of that incident.

But the second message that I would emphasize is the response of the central government, which gets to your question. President Karzai immediately sent out his Vice President and Minister of Defense and the Minister of Interior, Minister Jalali, and a team, a couple of deputies, those two deputies, who are still out there, he sent them out there to see what was going on, to calm the place down and to oversee the deployment of the Afghan National Army.

So there are about a thousand soldiers from the Afghan National Army out there deployed in Herat, and the situation, the last report I had, was calm. Things are now settled down. This, of course, was sparked by a traffic incident of some kind, which then escalated into the real problem. That has calmed down, probably with the arrival of this delegation from Kabul, and certainly helped by the reinforcing element of the Afghan National Army.

That's an example of President Karzai's ability to extend his influence out to the far reaches, the farthest reach, all the way across the country, of the country. He's replaced -- President Karzai has replaced, I believe the last count was about 16 governors -- either moved them around, pulled them into Kabul in a couple cases, or actually fired them over the past year. And this again demonstrates that he is able to have an influence, able to have a positive effect on the stability in these provinces.

Yeah.

MR. DENIG: Okay, let's go over to the left there, Radio Sawa.

QUESTION: Samir Nadir with Radio Sawa.

Can you give us some examples on what do you expect to come out from the Berlin conference, like these commitments for short term, long term -- give us, if you can give us some examples?

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: I'd be glad to. There'll be -- let me give you examples in each of the three areas that will be discussed in Berlin: And so the political, the economic and security.

On the political side, President Karzai has a great opportunity to announce to the world his intentions for elections. I know he's given this a lot of thought. There are great expectations among Afghans about the elections coming up -- both the presidential election and the parliamentary elections. And President Karzai has said that he's very eager to have these elections this summer. He hasn't -- he has a great opportunity to set the dates for those elections in answer not only to his own people's expectations, but also the rest of the world is eager to see that movement on political development in Afghanistan.

In the economic sphere, of course this is a donors conference -- in addition to being political and security, there is an economic element, a donors conference element in Berlin, and there are, as you indicated, two timeframes. There is a short-term timeframe and there is a longer term.

In the short-term, over the next year, President Karzai and his finance minister, Dr. Ghani, are very interested in being sure that the international community will come forward with enough resources to both undertake the development projects to reconstruct the country, but also to cover the operating costs of the government: Paying the teachers, paying the police, paying the civil service.

So the operating costs as well as the long-term development costs need to be funded in this next fiscal year. Their fiscal year just began. It's fiscal year 1383. And so for their fiscal year that just began, 1383, they say they need somewhere between three and four billion dollars. The international community's challenge is try to come up with three our four billion dollars to both get the reconstruction accelerated and to pay the operating costs.

Now this will be a challenge, but this is what we are focused on. Now in the longer term, the World Bank and the Government of Afghanistan, the Asian Development Bank have recently done a look, a re-look at what resources are going to be needed over the longer term to get Afghanistan where it can stand on its feet, where the economic infrastructure and other development projects will be ongoing to the degree that Afghanistan will be able to move forward on its own.

And they concluded that somewhere around $27 to $28 billion over 7 to 10 years, I think their number was seven, but it's over a longer period of time -- over a decade -- would be necessary. That's not a pledging target. The pledging target, as I mentioned, is the immediate term, is that this fiscal year, in the three or four billion range, of -- but this World Bank study, Asian Development Bank and Ministry of Finance study gives a good guideline, is a good plan. It gives a good indication of the kind of resources that are going to be necessary over the coming years.

I'm sorry, and then one last thing?

Yeah, on security, thank you, thank you. On security, again, the security sector is usefully broken down into army, police, counter narcotics, judicial reform and demobilization, demilitarization. In each of those areas, there will be items to be discussed. One of them in the demilitarization area could be, and I don't, again, know if this is going to happen or not, but the international community will be very interested to see if the Government of Afghanistan is able to take the next step on demilitarization.

There have been three fairly successful pilot programs in demilitarization that, again, our Japanese colleagues have sponsored with the Government of Afghanistan. The question for us now is how to move forward on a broad scale on demobilization of these militias that we talked about earlier that were part of the problem out in Herat, and that are part of the problem in other parts of the country, as well, so there's an opportunity there for, certainly, a discussion and maybe decisions to be made.

MR. DENIG: Okay. Let's go to Germany, in the white shirt, please.

QUESTION: Martin Wagner, German Public Radio.

The financial reconstruction assistance from the United States in the fiscal year 2004 is $2.2 billion. And you requested for the year after that, 2005, just $1.2 billion. Why this almost cutting in half? And but what do you expect from the other donors if you cut your own assistance basically in half?

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: Right. $2.2 billion in 2004, which is what our Congress has provided, is, as I indicated, more than half of what the entire requirement for Afghanistan is in this -- in their fiscal year. So that is a major contribution. Again, for one country to provide more than half of the needs is a major step.

Now, we were able to do that by asking the Congress a couple of times for funds. And each time we asked them, they came forward with these funds. When we -- our initial request last year was about $1 billion. Our initial request for 2005 is about $1 billion. We will see what the needs are as we go through the year.

We expect our allies, like what the Americans are doing, to maintain -- at least to maintain -- now, we have increased dramatically, and again, we started out this fiscal year with a billion dollars and we essentially doubled that. You can't double that every year, but you can certainly at least maintain the existing levels. And the early indications from the donors that we've talked to going to Berlin are that the pledges are looking pretty good -- that most countries are able to maintain, in some cases even increase, as we have done.

We will be there for as long as it takes. Secretary Powell made this very clear in Kabul, and I suspect he will make it very clear in Berlin, that the Americans are there for the long haul. We are there to insure that the Government of Afghanistan makes it -- makes it economically, makes it security and makes it politically.

MR. DENIG: Okay, let's go to Italy on the left, please.

QUESTION: Giampiero Gramaglia, Italian News Agency ANSA.

Do you expect some conditionality between the engagement in the long and short term from the donors and the progresses in the political and security fields?

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: Thank you. I would expect the Government of Afghanistan to come to Berlin prepared to make commitments on what it is they're going to do to over the next several years -- in the next year is the short term, but over the next several years as well. And I would imagine these commitments on the part of the Government of Afghanistan will be well received by donors. I don't think there are formal conditions that donors -- that donor nations are putting on their pledges.

By and large, donor nations, when they observe the progress that Afghanistan has made, by and large, donors are satisfied that they -- that the Government of Afghanistan is taking the reform steps, is making progress in economic reform and progress under the Bonn Agreement with the constitution being adopted, a good constitution, just this last January; that the elections are -- again, if he announces -- if President Karzai announces the dates for the elections, the donors will be very appreciative.

The donors in general have been satisfied that the normal conditions that apply to recipient nations are being met. They will also be -- the donor nations will also be pleased to see, I believe, these statements of commitment that the Government of Afghanistan is going to bring to Berlin. There is a document that the government is working on, the Government of Afghanistan is working on that will be called kind of a work plan. And this work plan, again, while not conditions, will be a set of milestones that the government will hold itself to and the international community will hold the Afghan Government to as well.

So it's in that sense that there are expectations, but my understanding is these will not actually be formal conditions on the assistance.

MR. DENIG: Okay. Let's go to Japan in the back, please.

QUESTION: I'm with NHK Japanese Public Television.

You talked about President Karzai's commitment on that election this summer. To what extent do you -- are you concerned the possible delay of the election may have on that donors effort in short term or long term?

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: The elections will be a challenge to pull off -- there is no doubt. There are logistical challenges and there are political challenges.

On the logistical side, just getting nine or ten million Afghan voters registered is a major undertaking. Right now, there are about 1.5 or 1.6 million voters registered in Afghanistan. But, as I say, they need to register nine or ten million. So there's a lot to be done on that.

There are ballot boxes to be purchased. There are vehicles to be procured and placed into areas where -- where the -- the voter registration teams are going from one place to another. The logistical challenges of pulling off both the registration and the election are significant, are daunting, but the United Nations, supported by the donors, are -- the UN says it's up this challenge, and we are going to help them meet that on the logistics side.

Politically, there are some questions as well. In order, of course, to have parliamentary elections, you have to be sure you know how many people are in each of the provinces, and indeed, in each of the districts of the provinces. And the census has not been completed yet. So, there will have to be probably some estimates of -- of population in these various districts.

Also, the -- some of the district boundaries are not clear. Some of the district boundaries have been in dispute. And I imagine in other countries you have the same problem as you have in the United States, where re-districting is a very political undertaking. And so, if this village is in this district and not that, it has political implications. So there are those kinds of challenges, as well.

A third type of challenge is security. And there are elements in Afghanistan, and in surrounding countries who don't want to see these elections succeed. There are elements in Afghanistan and surrounding countries who didn't want to see the Constitutional Loya Jirga succeed. Indeed, they made threats that they would try to disrupt the Constitutional Loya Jirga. And you know, we're obviously -- we're talking about the Taliban, al-Qaida and HIG, Hikmatyar's group.

They do not want to see the establishment of a moderate, liberal democracy -- Islamic democracy in an Islamic republic, but they don't want to see that succeed -- that endeavor succeed, so they've made threats against the Constitutional Loya Jirga, and they were unable to stop it. They have made threats against these elections, but so far they've not been able to stop the registration.

But the security of the, both the registration teams and the election teams itself, the election process itself, is going to be a major challenge and again, the Government of Afghanistan is in the central position to work on that. But the international community, both the coalition and the NATO forces, which may actually be reinforced in preparation for these elections, are there to ensure, or try to ensure, security for those elections.

MR. DENIG: Okay. Let's go to Germany in the blue shirt, in the middle.

QUESTION: Daniel Scheschkewitz of Deutsche Welle, Germany's external broadcaster.

My question is: How would you rate the strength of the Taliban right now? There has been a lot of talk about the resurging of the Taliban. Is it the most important threat to the internal security still?

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: I would say that the Taliban are not as -- nowhere near as strong as they were. They're much weaker than they used to be. They are unable to mount a significant threat to the Government of Afghanistan or the forces who are providing security to the Government of Afghanistan. And what you see the Taliban doing -- and I would argue out of a position of weakness -- is they are attacking soft targets.

I mean, they are attacking AID workers. They're attacking NGO workers. They're attacking -- the woman that they killed in Ghazni, the French woman, a couple of months ago, on the streets of Ghazni -- this was Taliban that came up and assassinated an unarmed UN worker, UNHCR worker. That is not a sign of strength. That's a sign of -- that they can't mount a serious military threat, but they can certainly terrorize Afghans and terrorize AID workers. That, I think, is an indication of their weakness, not of their strength.

MR. DENIG: All right. Let's go to Austria, on the left here.

QUESTION: Edith Grunwald, Austria Press Agency.

I have two questions. The first one is: Who will take part from the Afghani side at the conference in Berlin? And are there also, as you just mentioned, NGOs, or nongovernmental participants or women's groups maybe?

And the second one is: In the recent days, there were quite strong allegations that the war in Iraq put the emphasis away from the reconstruction and securing process in Afghanistan. What's your position to this?

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: On the first question, President Karzai will lead the Afghan delegation. Indeed, each of the sessions in Berlin will be chaired by an Afghan minister, or in the opening session, the President. So President Karzai will lead the delegation, will open the session with Chancellor Schroeder of Germany.

The political session will be led by Foreign Minister Abdullah; the economic session, the pledging session on reconstruction will be led by the Finance Minister, Minister Ghani; and finally, the security session on the 1st of April, will be led by the National Security Advisor Dr. Rassoul.

On NGOs and civil society, there is a parallel meeting -- actually, it's a prelim -- it's a meeting the day before in Berlin, of civil society representatives -- women's groups, other elements of civil society in Afghanistan who are getting together in Berlin. And they, I believe, will be able to make a report to the main body, the main conference the day later. So they are assembling in Berlin.

Your question on Iraq. I think the fact that the international community is focused on Afghanistan and this conference in Berlin as we are, is an indication that we have not forgotten our commitment to Afghanistan. And indeed, as I'd mentioned at the outset, the purpose this Berlin conference is to reaffirm the international community's commitment to Afghanistan. If there is any doubt that the international community has shifted its focus away, then this will allay that doubt because this will reaffirm our interest and commitment to and expectations of success in Afghanistan.

This -- again, if the pledges are such that they can meet this $3-4 billion target, that will be a good demonstration of the fact that the international community remains -- has maintained its commitment.

MR. DENIG: All right, let's go first to BBC again here, and then we'll go to Russia in the front.

QUESTION: Yeah, Quil Lawrence from BBC. I wanted to follow up on that.

Have you seen any effect on Afghan assistance internationally from Iraq? Are there countries that would not support Iraq or Iraqi reconstruction to the level that the United States was hoping who also not supporting Afghanistan? Is there a political -- diplomatic fallout from that? Or do you see a converse reaction where some countries are sort of showing that they don't approve of Iraq but they're willing to help out in Afghanistan?

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: It's a good question. Each country, of course, makes its own decision and some countries have been very eager to support Afghanistan. Germany is a good example, where they have really taken the lead on several areas, not just the hosting of this conference, but they've also been the leader of the police training. The Americans and others have been helping out in police training, but it's the German lead and the German commitment is greatly appreciated.

So countries will make their own decisions. We are very eager, and I can only speak on the Afghan side -- we are very eager to accept support on the military side, on the reconstruction side, on the financial side, to efforts that we are sponsoring; for example, the Afghan National Army we're taking the lead on, but the British help us out by training the noncommissioned officers, the NCOs. The French help us out by training the officers. So there's a team effort in that sector, in the Afghan National Army training.

We think that the UN is playing a very important role in Afghanistan and it plays other roles in other countries. But in Afghanistan, it has a very important moral leadership and Ambassador Brahimi, who was there in Afghanistan for a long time was responsible for a lot of the progress that the Afghan Government made.

So it's an international effort. The countries make their own decisions, which they support, and we're very glad that there is so much support in Afghanistan.

MR. DENIG: Okay, let's go to Russia again.

QUESTION: Thank you, Margaret.

First on the elections. I kind of, I rephrase another question.

My understanding is President Karzai today suggested again that they will probably not be able to hold the elections until, at the earliest, September. From the American perspective, would that be acceptable to the U.S.?

And also, you described this international division of labor in Afghanistan and, of course, I haven't heard about Russia's contribution to that. How would you describe the Russian contribution to the effort?

Thank you.

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: Very good.

On the election date, we've also heard that President Karzai is about to announce, is making his -- getting very close to, if he hasn't already made, the decision on the election date. And if he were to decide to have the elections in September, we would support him. This is his decision. The constitution requires him to establish a date for the elections within six months and he will meet that requirement. That is, he will set the dates within that six-month period, so he's well ahead of schedule on that.

The constitution gives him flexibility as to setting the date. Actually, the exact date will be set by a commission, an Afghan commission supported by the international community. But if it is generally in the summertime into -- and summer goes through the middle of September -- that would -- that's certainly fine with us.

Your second question on the Russian contributions, Russians have a long history in Afghanistan. The Brits have a long history in Afghanistan. We have a short history in Afghanistan. Not altogether happy, this is true. But I mentioned -- your earlier question was a good one.

A major contribution that the government of Russia could -- could make to stability and economic development in Afghanistan would be to waive these claims, waive these financial claims. It's probably difficult for both Russians and Afghans to contemplate military assistance from Russia to Afghanistan.

I am sure that the Government of Afghanistan, and -- as well as other nations doing police, the Germans, say; the Americans are doing the army -- would be happy to take contributions of military equipment, communications equipment, even small arms would be welcome. The Afghan Army -- the Afghan National Army doesn't use Western -- doesn't use American weapons. It uses AK-47s. And so, that kind of equipment would be very, very welcome. So that's a contribution that the Russians could make.

MR. DENIG: Okay. Let's go to Lebanon in the front, here, please.

QUESTION: Haytham Mouzahem, Al Mustaqbal newspaper in Beirut.

As you know, Iran has interest in -- in Afghanistan, and you have had talks with Iranian before the war on Taliban regime. So do you still have these talks? And is there any cooperation with Iran about the future of Afghanistan?

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: Not directly. The Iranians are playing a constructive role, but also a destructive role in Afghanistan. And we are appreciative of the constructive role, and we are disappointed in the destructive role.

The constructive role is on the reconstruction efforts that they're making, for example, on building a road from the Iranian border into Iraq. They have also shown a willingness to help out on blocking the flow of drugs -- of heroin -- out of Afghanistan, through Iran, up through Turkey, up into Europe. So there is a constructive role that -- while we don't directly deal with them on, we are glad to see that.

They play a less productive -- a destructive role in that they have been accused of providing arms to some of the militias in Afghanistan. And also, they've been accused of encouraging some of the factions in Afghanistan to oppose the authority of President Karzai in Kabul. And those are areas, of course, that go counter to our interests, so it's a complex relationship that we have there. But the short answer to your question is nothing direct.

MR. DENIG: Okay. Last question. Let's go to Radio Sawa.

QUESTION: Is Iran going to participate in the Berlin conference?

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: I think they are. I think they are.

QUESTION: How many -- you said 65 delegations?

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: 65 delegations. That includes international financial institutions. It includes international organizations, like NATO and the U.N. It includes -- I mentioned the international financial institutions, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Islamic Development Bank, so the number of bilateral nations, if you will -- delegations -- probably in the upper 50s.

MR. DENIG: Okay. Well, thank you very much, Ambassador Taylor.

AMBASSADOR TAYLOR: Well, thank you.

MR. DENIG: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.

(end transcript)

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)



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