Press briefing with NATO Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan - Full transcript

  • 19 Sep. 2012
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  • Last updated: 19 Sep. 2012 20:12

Oana Lungescu (NATO Spokesperson) : Good afternoon. Thank you very much for coming.

I am very pleased today to welcome Ambassador Simon Gass, NATO’s Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan. Ambassador Gass has been in Kabul since April 2011 so he has seen a lot of very significant developments in Afghanistan over the last 18 months, including the launch of the transition process, the growing capabilities of the Afghan national security forces and of course the pledges of the international community to continue to support Afghanistan to 2014 and beyond.

Unfortunately, today will be Ambassador Gass’s final briefing as NATO’s Senior Civilian Representative, before he hands over to Ambassador Maurits Jochems, who will be the new NATO Senior Civilian Representative. And of course, Ambassador Gass will be happy to take some of your questions after his initial remarks.

Let me just stress though, before I give the floor to Ambassador Gass that this briefing is, of course, on the record. However, I would like to make sure that we keep it under embargo until 15h00 today, Brussels’ time, because at 15h00 the North Atlantic Council will meet, and Ambassador Gass will be briefing the NAC in ISAF format.

And at that time, of course, we will also publish a video recording of today’s briefing.

So, please don’t file anything until 15h00, or if you do so, please do so making clear that there is an embargo until that time.

Many thanks, and with that, the floor is yours, Ambassador Gass.

AMBASSADOR SIMON GASS (NATO's Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan): Thank you, Oana, and very good to see some familiar faces in the auditorium today from previous briefings, which we've done either in Brussels or in Kabul.

As Oana said, this is my last briefing as NATO Senior Civilian Representative, and in the last 18 months in Kabul I've had the great privilege of representing the civilian effort of NATO. And it's allowed me to travel widely in the country. I think I've visited more than two-thirds of Afghanistan's provinces at one time or another. I've had the opportunity to talk to many Afghans from the government, from local governors, from civil society, from the military, from all different areas of Afghanistan.

And as I leave the job after 18 months I was reflecting a little bit on what are the big changes that have taken place since I was there.

I think that I see three main achievements in the last year and a half, which are taking us, of course, towards the completion of the Lisbon goal of handing over full security to the Afghan Security Forces by the end of 2014. And the three areas that I'd particularly like to draw attention to are, first, the very substantial improvement in the capability of the Afghan Security Forces, both the Army and the Police.

And this is something which is very tangible. Many of you go to Afghanistan, many of you have gone to Afghanistan over a number of years, and I'm quite sure that you will have seen the improvement in the Afghan Security Forces. Certainly, as I talk to Afghan commanders on the ground I've found that growing sense, not only of capability, but also of confidence.

We now see in some parts of Afghanistan operations being planned and conducted by the Afghan Army at the core level, a very high level, with a lot of coordination with other bodies. We're seeing more complex operations like airborne assaults being conducted by Afghan units and that's a major change.

It doesn't mean, of course, that the process is complete. It isn't. Nor does it mean that we will end up with an Afghan Army which fights like an American army would do. It's not going to be like that. But the progress has been very substantial and over the remaining two years and four months we will continue with that process of equipping and training the Afghan Forces.

And I'm pretty confident that by the time that we get to the end of 2014 we will be handing over a situation in which the Afghan Security Forces are capable of maintaining security in their own country, as it is their responsibility and their right to do. And I think that that is quite a substantial achievement.

The second part of that is the transition process. As Oana said, when I arrived in Kabul we had not yet quite started the first tranche of transition. We are now in the third tranche. As you know, about 75 percent of Afghans now live in areas where the Afghan Security Forces are taking the lead for responsibility for security.

And I expect that later this autumn we will have another tranche, which will result in another slice of Afghanistan being progressively handed over to the Afghan Security Forces.

Indeed, I hope that we will also see some provinces emerging from transition, because, of course, transition is a process. It has a beginning, it has an end and then the Afghan Security Forces are in full control for their security. And I think we may see some provinces reaching a point where they are able to complete the transition process.

That doesn't mean, of course, that ISAF wouldn't continue to support the Afghan Security Forces in those areas, if asked to do so, but it would be a very substantial step towards the completion of our transition mission at the end of 2014.

The third area which I think has been a very substantial achievement, has been the creation of the international framework for supporting Afghanistan beyond 2014. You know, when I arrived in Afghanistan 18 months ago and I would talk to Afghan politicians about the determination of NATO and the international community not to abandon Afghanistan at the end of 2014, I used to get the response that yes, they understood that, but how could they have confidence. After all, the Soviet Union had talked about this when the Soviets were in Afghanistan. How did they know that the international community was not, this time, going to walk away from Afghanistan.

And I said to them, that you need to be a little bit patient. You need to wait as we work out in more detail what commitments will be made to Afghanistan. And at the Chicago conference in May, not only NATO, but the international community as a whole, agreed to funding the Afghan Security Forces into the next decade. And at the Tokyo conference the international community also agreed on a very substantial development assistance package for Afghanistan.

Now, that is a very major anchor for Afghanistan as it looks beyond transition to the period beyond 2014 to the decade of transformation. It gives a high degree of assurance that when our countries say that we will support Afghanistan we mean it, because we have put figures to our promises. And that is a very important achievement.

Of course, it places a responsibility on Afghanistan too, as we made very clear at both Chicago and at Tokyo. Our countries are prepared to make a major contribution to Afghanistan's future. But in return Afghanistan has to convince us that it is moving in the right direction in areas like improved governance, counter- corruption, sound elections and so forth.

So this is an area where mutual commitments apply.

So where does this leave us? Well, I think, as I depart from Afghanistan I feel that we are now within sight of handing over a security platform which will be sufficient for Afghanistan to be stable beyond 2014. It doesn't necessarily mean that it will be peaceful, because the insurgency is still there. The insurgency is still resilient. And to achieve peace in Afghanistan we'll need a political process, and as you all know in different ways hands have been extended to try to get that political process going.

But that is what will achieve peace in the end. But what I am clear about is that neither we, nor, in fact, the insurgents themselves, actually believe that there is any more military option by which the insurgency could return to power and topple the government of Afghanistan by force. That time has now gone and that is why I believe that there will eventually be a political settlement.

Of course, in achieving that improved security environment we have also done what we said we would do at the beginning of this enterprise, which was to neutralize the risk of Afghanistan becoming a base for international terrorism, which could threaten our countries, and that is an extremely important fundamental goal, which explains what we have been trying to do Afghanistan in recent years. So I think that we have a good deal of success there.

So when transition is complete at the end of 2014, we'll leave behind a country which will still face multiple challenges. It will face the challenges of 30 years of conflict which have done so much damage to Afghanistan's institutions and its infrastructure. We'll leave behind a country which still grapples with extraordinarily deep and problematic poverty and an economy which is, frankly, weak. And also a country which still has a substantial narcotics problem, substantial corruption.

So Afghanistan will still face many challenges beyond 2014. But with the support of the international community I think that we have equipped Afghanistan, we are equipping Afghanistan to be able to build its own future, and that is as it should be. That Afghans themselves need to take responsibility for where their country goes to over the next ten years. And I think that NATO's strategy, along with the support of the international community, means that Afghanistan will be well placed to do that.

Thank you.

OANA LUNGESCU (NATO Spokesperson): Thank you very much, Ambassador Gass. We're now opening the floor to your questions. If there are any.

Norwegian News Agency.

Q: I'm (inaudible...) from the Norwegian News Agency. First of all, the recent unrest we've seen in Afghanistan and other places, is that a major setback for the effort in Afghanistan? And also the PRTs are also winding down now. How successful a tool have they been to create peace and prosperity in Afghanistan regarding they've been under national control? The cooperations between NATO nations, has that been sufficient for the PRTs?

AMBASSADOR SIMON GASS: Okay, thank you. Well, firstly, I assume your first question is referring to the pictures we've seen of protests in Kabul following this very rather disgraceful film. And we need to put it into perspective. There have actually been times in Afghanistan where we've seen a lot more unrest. Quite recently, of course, sadly over the Koran burning, but also, if you go back to 2005, 2006, there were times in Kabul where you actually saw a good deal more civil disorder than we've seen now.

We know from looking at the reactions across the world how very strongly many Muslims feel about the film that has been made. It doesn't excuse violence or destruction, but it isn't a strategic setback for our campaign in any sense.

In terms of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, I think actually they are one of the success stories of Afghanistan. I visited very many of them, including the Norwegian PRT in Faryab province. And what I've seen is that they have provided a degree of capability and support for provincial governors who, over the last years, have been trying to get their provincial administrations onto their feet. They've done a great deal in terms of capacity-building in different provinces of Afghanistan. I think that the Norwegian PRT in Faryab has been a good example of what can be achieved by a Provincial Reconstruction Team.

And I think, therefore, that they have been a successful way of dealing with a specific problem. And we've certainly tried to assist with the coordination of efforts among them, and, indeed, my office will be hosting a conference in Kabul on the evolution of Provincial Reconstruction Teams in only a few days' time as part of that coordination effort, including with, of course, the Afghan government. So I think that they have been pretty successful.

Of course, as 2014 approaches, they are beginning, gradually, in different ways to contract. In some cases numbers are going down in the PRTs. In some cases PRTs are closing and responsibility is being handed off to the Afghan authorities. But that's a perfectly natural evolution. It's what we've always expected to happen.


Q: I'm Adrian Croft from Reuters. How big a setback to NATO's strategy is yesterday's announcement that in some cases NATO-led forces training, working alongside Afghan Forces is going to be suspended? Is that a setback to the strategy?

AMBASSADOR SIMON GASS: I don't think that it's a strategic setback. We've had periods in the past where, because of particular levels of threat we've had to adjust the way in which we do partnering arrangements with our Afghan colleagues in the Army and the Police.

It's certainly not ideal. It's not what we would have wanted to happen, but the security situation did justify us taking every measure we could to make sure that our forces were properly protected. As you know, we'd already taken quite a lot of measures to reduce the risk of the... what's called the ‘insider’ threat. And those measures included improved vetting procedures, better counter-intelligence, better measures for the protection of our forces. But the commanders on the ground decided that it was also prudent to increase the level of safety by making sure that our partnered operations could be conducted in a safe environment.

And the way in which they're doing that is that, of course, partnering operations will continue as before, at battalion level and above, and that's really important because, of course, leadership, the value we add to leadership through our partnering is very strong. But at levels below that, if a commander feels that he needs to maintain his partnering operations as I'm sure that a lot of them will, then there needs to be a proper risk assessment, there needs to be adequate force protection arrangements, and they need to be signed off by a senior officer to take responsibility for that.

So as I say, it's not ideal. We wouldn't have wanted to do this, but it is a sensible arrangement and it is temporary. I can't say how long these arrangements will remain in place, but as I said, it isn't the first time we've done something similar, and there may be future occasions where we have to do it again.

OANA LUNGESCU: Danish News Agency.

Q: Minna Skau of the Danish News Agency. The British Defence Secretary General said to the Guardian last week that things seem to be going so well in Helmand province that he feels maybe the British forces can come home earlier than previously planned. Of course, there are Danish soldiers in Helmand as well, so I would like to hear your assessment of the situation in Helmand where earlier we've heard this is one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan, and certainly that's also an area where you've seen many ISAF casualties.

AMBASSADOR SIMON GASS: Well, I'm certainly not going to get into... you're not asking me to, but I'm not going to get into the question of British force deployments because that's not my job. But what I will say about Helmand is that if you look at the province now, compared with 18 months or two years ago, the security situation is a lot better.

Now it is still very violent in a few areas of Helmand, particularly in the north, particularly in districts like Nahri Saraj, which is getting quite a lot of attention at the moment.

But if you look around Lashkargah and the Central Helmand River Valley, the level of violence has fallen very sharply over the last couple of years. So it certainly is a success. It's not complete yet, but progress is undoubtedly being made, so I can see why there is an increased level of confidence there. But as I say, there are still parts of Helmand which are dangerous, where there is a very substantial insurgent presence, and we and our Afghan partners will be trying to deal with those.

OANA LUNGESCU: National Public Radio.

Q: Teri Schultz with NPR and CBS. Ambassador, even though it may not be a strategic setback, it's got to be a setback in morale, and as one of the liaisons with the Afghan people you may be able to speak to that. I mean, clearly when these operations are curtailed it means that the ISAF side doesn't trust the Afghans, for obvious reasons. How do you think that's going to play out in the future? The Secretary General always says it has not shaken our confidence, but clearly now it has. How will that play out in the future in terms of resuming such operations if this is temporary?

AMBASSADOR SIMON GASS: The problem of insider threat is a serious one, and as you know, we've taken it very seriously over the last few weeks. But the number of attacks on ISAF solders are still pretty small compared with the number of ISAF troops in the field and, of course, the ANSF troops and policemen which they're partnered with in their training.

In fact, of course, ISAF casualties have fallen this year by about 30 percent overall. So the green on blue is one particular aspect of it. I think as far as confidence is concerned, of course it makes our troops more careful and more wary when they're dealing with their Afghan partners. But I don't think that we should speak of trust as if it was a binary element. Either there is trust or there is not trust. These are soldiers who are used to training their Afghan partners. Only a few days ago I was with a British unit which was deeply embedded with their Afghan partners, and I saw an extraordinarily close relationship between the two, and I was present whilst they were doing some of their training.

The truth is that Afghanistan is the sort of campaign in which you gets ups and downs in almost every area. This is a setback, but it's one which we will recover from. As time passes I hope that we will be able to roll back these additional precautionary measures that we have taken and get back to business as usual. That's where we want to be and that's actually where the soldiers who are doing these partnering, the training, that's where they want to be too. They've all invested a lot of their time in building these partnerships and we're going to make sure that those partnerships are not just thrown away because of this type of difficulty.


Q: Khalid Hameed Farooqi, from Geo Television Pakistan. Can you tell us what's your opinion about the neighbours of Afghanistan, reference to Iran and Pakistan in particular? Are they contributing to peace in Afghanistan or they are obstructing the peace efforts in Afghanistan?

AMBASSADOR SIMON GASS: Well, of course, Afghanistan's neighbours all have slightly different interests, and if you talk about Iran and you talk about Pakistan I think you're talking about two very different cases.

In the case of Iran, Iran always wants to extend influence into Afghanistan and it does so by a variety of means. Some of them are perfectly legitimate, such as cultural ties, or economic links. Some of them, unfortunately, are not legitimate, such as providing weapons and support to some insurgent groups and that is something which is damaging, not in strategic terms, but it undermines confidence, I think, in Iran's good intentions as far as Afghanistan.

As far as Pakistan is concerned, you know, we all understand that Pakistan faces an extraordinarily complex challenge, including a very difficult insurgency on its side of the border, which has cost the lives of many civilians and many military as well.

And we all know that it is not as simple as suggesting that the government of Pakistan could simply close down every group that might be conducting insurgent operations into Afghanistan. The position is a lot more complex than that.

So what we have to do is we have to work at two levels with Pakistan. Firstly, on the military side there has been a lot of effort in recent weeks to rebuild the military-to-military relations in a positive way following the setbacks of last year. And I think there is some better cooperation in that area, partly designed to reduce the risk of cross-border incidents which can be so damaging. So I think that that is going pretty well.

On the political front what, of course, we are trying to do with our dialogue with Pakistan is to reinforce the belief in Pakistan that stability in Afghanistan is good for Pakistan too. I think we all believe that. That's what the government of Pakistan says. And the key then is to work out what can Pakistan do to contribute to that stability? For example, by contributing positively to a possible political process in Afghanistan, and that's the nature of the dialogue which we have with Pakistan to encourage that view.

OANA LUNGESCU: Over there.

Q: Hoga Blumen(ph) of the Dutch Press Agency. Of course, I've got a question about your successor. Can he expect, Maurits Jochems, an easier or more difficult job – than you?

AMBASSADOR SIMON GASS: One of the joys of being in Afghanistan is that every day brings a new challenge. Things change very quickly on the ground. As I discovered yesterday. You wake up and all of a sudden you're hit with a story of a particular type which you might not have expected. And so I'm sure that Ambassador Jochems will have a lively and stimulating time in Kabul.

But what I will say is that I think that he's extremely well-equipped to do the job. This is an extremely experienced diplomat with very strong credentials, both in NATO and in dealing with Afghanistan. I can't think of anybody who would be better placed to do the job with great success than Maurits Jochems.


Q: Good afternoon, Ambassador. Martinez de Rituerto, El País. A question… two questions, one dealing operational and the other political. The operational one: How do you, from your point of view, the authorities there, we, the ISAF there, how do we see the evolution of the Taliban in operational terms? They are attacked on Friday on Camp Bastion, which is (inaudible...), they destroyed six Harrier. That's not nothing. So you have to have some ideas about what that means and what kind of enemy of people are we leaving behind when we leave Afghanistan in 2014.

And the second one, when you say that there is no military solution to the conflict that has to be a political one, how are the negotiations? How do you see the political situation evolving in that field, in that area? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR SIMON GASS: I've never disguised the fact that the insurgency is resilient, as many insurgencies in South Asia are resilient. That said, the capability of the Taliban has certainly been hit very hard by both Afghan and ISAF operations over the last few years, and, as you know, we have taken a great many of them off the battle field.

I think they will still be capable for a long time to come, of conducting occasional spectacular operations of that sort. But in some ways, you know, of course, we focus on what happens when one of those operations happens. But given the determination of the insurgents to attack the government of Afghanistan, to take the lives of Afghan citizens, which they do indiscriminately, to attack ISAF, what I find quite remarkable is that actually they're not as successful as you might think that they would be given the resources that they have.

Every time there is an attack in Kabul, of course, it's big news in all of our media outlets, and that's understandable, but it's quite striking how rarely that happens against the level of Taliban intent when you read the goals which they set themselves for the Al Bara campaign and then the Al Farooq campaign. They haven't really been very successful in achieving it.

The Taliban are also facing a substantial difficulty, and you see this in the messages which Mullah Omar puts out, at the Eid, for example. They're facing a real difficulty that their leaders keep saying, please don't harm Afghan citizens, but what happens on the ground?

Indiscriminate use of roadside bombs and suicide bombers takes the lives of their own countrymen. Such that about 85 percent of civilian casualties are now caused by insurgency action. And there is Mullah Omar saying no, no, you mustn't harm your Afghan brothers and sisters. But it seems there is no ability to prevent that from happening.

So I think that the Taliban face some pretty substantial difficulties. But that does not mean that they are not still are a resilient opponent and one which will be capable, regrettably, of executing periodic spectacular attacks.

As regards the political process, I think that something, which I didn't mention in my introduction, but something important has changed there in the last 18 months too. When I arrived 18 months ago I saw very little evidence of any form of debate within the insurgency about a political process. That has changed quite sharply in the last few months. And I now do see signs of that debate. It's not necessarily a structured debate. It's not necessarily an urgent debate. But it is the sort of debate which was absent before, but now is present. And I think that that is significant.

As you know, there are a variety of channels and efforts to try to encourage closer contact and the possibility of a political process. They haven't reached the stage of a formal negotiation, but I think that the groundwork is being laid which may bear fruit at a later stage. I'm not sure it will happen before 2014. I hope it will, but if it doesn't happen before 2014, I think that there is a quite reasonable chance of a political process developing thereafter. Not least because the Taliban are going to have to explain to their own people why is it that now ISAF is no longer there we're still not able to fight our way back to Kabul. Because I'm sure that will be the case. So I think things are changing.

My last point is that if you look across South Asia, many countries in the region have an insurgency of one sort or another. And I think that very often countries live with insurgencies, rather than die from them. And I think that that will prove to be the case in Afghanistan. Obviously it would be better not to have an insurgency, but I don't think that it's going to represent an existential threat to the authority of the government of Afghanistan after 2014.


Q: Thank you very much. I'm (inaudible...) from the Spanish ABC. Is President Karzai our man there? I mean, he's going to be our man there. We are going to support him or we're going to fight politically to maintain him in power as we did with other divisions in other countries? And do you think he's a good bet because we know he's not perfect in terms of corruption and democracy and so on, so he's going to be our best man there, or...?

AMBASSADOR SIMON GASS: Let me be very clear. President Karzai is not our man in Afghanistan. He is the president, who is elected by the people of Afghanistan. And that is the role he fulfils. And I say that because, of course, it's an obvious point, but it's important to understand this, in the sense that when you have a very large foreign force in a country like Afghanistan and when you have development agencies which are involved in everything from education to the economy, to agriculture, it's perfectly natural that you are going to get from time to time a bit of friction between the government and the foreign elements, because foreign elements will have one idea about how to do things, but the government has been elected by the people of Afghanistan to conduct its own policies.

So we have a relationship with President Karzai, which is a positive relationship, but it has its ups and downs. We do fall out from time to time. We have disagreements about policy. We do have disputes. But on the whole, as far as the strategy is concerned, we are still very much in line, and I think that that will remain the case.

But President Karzai will answer to his people. And of course in 2014 there will be a presidential election. President Karzai has said that he will not stand and at that point we will have a new president of Afghanistan, who will similarly continue to run the country on behalf of his people.

OANA LUNGESCU: We may have time for one last question. If there is one. Associated Press.

Q: Just a quick question on this decision to suspend training, mentoring operations.


Q: Some, sorry. When did you personally find out about it?

AMBASSADOR SIMON GASS: Well, I'm perfectly able to answer that question in the sense that I was actually in London with my family until yesterday morning, and therefore wasn't in Kabul when these decisions were being taken. So it isn't a very... for me it's not... I can see where you're going. But the way I would answer your question is this - the four-star general, General Allen, who you know well, commanding ISAF, takes decisions every day in relation to all sorts of issues around the ISAF troops.

And the sort of decision which was taken in respect of drawing back from lower-level partnering operations to some extent on a temporary basis, is entirely the sort of decision which I would expect the commander in the theatre to take as a matter of course.

So I don't think that there is a particular problem in terms of who knew what when. It is natural for the commander to take that sort of decision, in my view.

OANA LUNGESCU: I have a plea from NPR for a last follow-up.

Q: It doesn't have a sharp news point, but I mean, in general, you mentioned corruption, but we didn't ask much about it. Could you give us a candid view of the corruption problem, because as we see it, I mean, it's not getting better, even though there have been mechanisms put in place. And now, as I understand it, ISAF has put its own office in hot pursuit of corruption cases. But still, when you hand them over to the Afghan government then they often disappear.

Could you, on your way out, you said this was a big issue. It's certainly going to be a big issue for your successor. Can you talk about where the corruption situation is right now and is there any hope to get on top of it?

AMBASSADOR SIMON GASS: When you said it wasn't a particular news point, I hoped you were going to ask...

Q: (Inaudible...) a day of news point, unfortunately. But you could give me one.

AMBASSADOR SIMON GASS: I hoped you were going to ask me which of my many triumphs have given me the greatest pleasure, but...


OANA LUNGESCU: Maybe we can have that (inaudible...).

Q: On corruption, yes. Definitely.

AMBASSADOR SIMON GASS: Look, no, corruption is a serious problem and what ISAF has done recently is that it's not that ISAF has suddenly awoken to corruption. It's been working on corruption for a long time, both in respect of ISAF contracting procedures, for example, but also in a wider sense too.

But what it has done is it's drawn together the various strands of its corruption... anti-corruption efforts into one particular area. So it's more a reorganization, I would say.

Corruption is still a concern, and that was why it was one of the points which was raised both in the Chicago declaration and the Tokyo declaration. I'm cautiously encouraged that the government of Afghanistan is working hard on the execution of the elements of the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework. We're seeing a lot of activity led by the Ministry of Finance. They're actually moving rather fast on it.

We also have, of course, the president's decree on counter-corruption, which was issued a few weeks ago, which is a positive sign that President Karzai recognizes that there is a serious problem and that he needs to deal with it.

Now, of course, what matters, though, is not what people say, it's what they do. And of course it has been very disappointing that we have not seen more progress. I'm disappointed that cases sometimes seem to go to the Attorney General's Office in Kabul, but they don't seem to come out again in terms of legal action. And there is no doubt we have made no secret of the fact that the Afghan administration needs to raise its game on this.

Having said all of that, if you look at Afghanistan and the neighbourhood in which it is, almost all of Afghanistan's neighbours suffer from corruption to a pretty high degree. If you look at the Transparency International Perceptions of Corruption Index most of Afghanistan's neighbours fall, unfortunately, into the bottom 15, 20 percent of that.

And the reason I say that is not because that makes it any better, but because firstly, it's harder to uproot when it is, in some respects, a problem which affects the region as a whole, and secondly, because there is a degree of resiliency in it.

But let me repeat, we need to keep driving this home to the government in Afghanistan, the need to take action in this area. And as I said at the beginning, the reason why there is mutual accountability, both in terms of Chicago and Tokyo, is because our countries can't afford to make a major investment in Afghanistan if that investment is going to be wasted because of corruption or poor governance.

So we expect to see the government of Afghanistan continuing to make progress in this area. We don't expect miracles. We know that there are some things which are possible and some things which are just not possible at the moment in Afghanistan. But there does need to be serious action to address this problem.

OANA LUNGESCU: I have one final special plea from Associated Press if you're willing to take it.

AMBASSADOR SIMON GASS: These are always the most dangerous questions.


AMBASSADOR SIMON GASS: It's always the one you left till last. It's like the last run of the day when you're skiing.

Q: Actually, just received it. (Laughs).

OANA LUNGESCU: Maybe we haven't received it, though, so, ask away, but there may not be an answer.

Q: Okay. Relations with President Karzai seem to be tensing up again. What do you think is the biggest issue in the relationship with Karzai right now?

AMBASSADOR SIMON GASS: Yeah, I'm... the issue with President Karzai, and I put this in the context of the answer I gave earlier, in the sense that there will be ups and downs in a relationship of this sort, and that is not surprising or unnatural. The big fundamental issue is that Afghanistan is a country in which when I arrived there were about a 140,000 foreign troops involved in all different facets of life. And the context in which Afghanistan is now heading, as transition comes to a close, to a position in which it will be increasingly taking responsibility for all aspects of its life, including security.

So the question is inevitably how fast do you go down that track? And in a number of areas there are likely to be disagreements about Afghan readiness to take on particular responsibilities.

But on the whole, you know, I don't want to make it sound as though I'm sort of sugar-coating the whole thing, but there would be worse things to argue about than how fast Afghanistan should be taking responsibility. I mean, that is something which we want to happen. It's got to happen by the end of 2014.

So we will have ups and downs, but I've seen substantially worse periods, frankly, in relations between ISAF and the government of Afghanistan than we're going through at the moment.

OANA LUNGESCU: May I ask you finally, Ambassador, you're saying you've travelled through about two-thirds of the country. What is the memory that you're taking away with you?

AMBASSADOR SIMON GASS: Well, it is... I always felt that when I was sitting in my office in Kabul and you guys keep printing another story that I'd rather not read, or there's another bit of difficulty which we're facing in one direction or another, or there's another story about a disagreement with the government of Afghanistan, and it was easy to get slightly submerged by these day-to-day challenges. Because, as I've said on other occasions, Afghanistan, like many campaigns which are complex, works at two levels.

There is the day-to-day level in which you're constantly hitting bumps in the road. There's always another bump just ahead of you. But the strategy of where you're trying to go is still actually on course.

But when I travelled outside Kabul, and I would talk to Afghans in all sorts of different circumstances, not always in provincial centres either, quite often out in the countryside. Just a few weeks ago I was having a shura with the governor of Ghōr, which is one of the most remote and poorest provinces of Afghanistan, which the governor was sitting down with the elders of the district, talking about how things had changed and what the future held for them.

And it's when you get involved in these situations that the reality of the position becomes a lot clearer. You meet an awful lot of Afghan people who are filling positions as provincial officials, or as police chiefs, or whatever it may be, often at considerable risk to their lives and the lives of their family. And they are trying to work for a better future for their country.

And it's not always a better future as we would see it for our countries, but it's how they see the better future for their country. And I think these people do deserve our backing. And I think we've given it to them without reserve in recent years. And we will still have a responsibility to Afghanistan, even after our campaign is finished. You can't just walk away from a place like Afghanistan, and that's why we've put this framework into place.

So it is in meeting the ordinary people in Afghanistan that you get the sense of fulfilment.

And the last point I'd make on that is that of course, we tend to think about the insurgency as being the biggest problem, I mean, after all, we're NATO, that's what we're there to do.

But when you... it’s not only the survey data that tells you this, the survey data is very, very clear on this point, but it's also clear when you actually talk to people as you go around Afghanistan. Is that when you ask them what are your local problems, security is not usually the top of their list. They want to know about jobs, they want to know about roads, they want to know about electricity, they want to know about water. They want a good future for their children.

So that's not to deny that security is still a big challenge in Afghanistan, but you know, for me, the biggest uncertainties about the future of Afghanistan are much more about politics and economics than they are about the security situation. We still have a difficult security situation - still has challenges within it - but the biggest uncertainty for me are the uncertainties which you get in a country which is poor and has a troubled past like Afghanistan. And that's much more about politics and economics.

Thank you.

OANA LUNGESCU: Thank you very much for that thoughtful and thorough briefing, as usual, and for your hard work in Afghanistan. And please, don't forget, this briefing was, indeed, on the record, but it remains embargoed until 15h00, until Ambassador Simon Gass will brief the NAC in ISAF format for the last time in this position. Thank you very much.