Many of you may have already read Vali Nasr's scathing inside account of the State Department's struggle to put diplomacy at the center of U.S. efforts to end the war in Afghanistan. If not, go read it right now. Are you back? Good. Now check out this fracas at Monday's State Department press briefing, conducted by spokesman Patrick Ventrell:
QUESTION: On Afghanistan. Vali Nasr, who used to be at the State Department, just came out with a new book detailing a little bit about the work with Richard Holbrooke and how President Obama's White House team kind of shut him out. Specifically, he writes that "the White House encouraged the U.S. Ambassadors in Afghanistan and Pakistan to go around the State Department and work with the White House directly, undermining their own agency."
I'd like your response to that, whether that's an accurate assessment, and whether the State Department felt that the White House was taking too much control over the Afghan - Af-Pak file.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, you know, Elise, it wouldn't be appropriate for me to comment on the specifics in this book or our interagency discussions.
QUESTION: Why not?
MR. VENTRELL: That's not something that we do from this podium.
QUESTION: Well, there's a specific charge laid out in this book from someone who used to be in this building.
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I'm not going to comment on a former official's characterization one way or another, or our interagency processes one way or another. But let me talk a little bit about Afghanistan, where we are, some of the progress we --
QUESTION: No, I don't - I mean, I'm specifically --
MR. VENTRELL: I'm not --
QUESTION: You can talk about Af - I'm happy to hear what you have to say --
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: -- about Afghanistan, but specifically, do you feel that the State Department has equal equity in the policy deliberations on Afghanistan and Pakistan?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I'm just not going to --
QUESTION: You don't know whether you do?
MR. VENTRELL: I'm not going to comment on a former official's characterization.
QUESTION: Well, I'm not asking you to - so don't comment on his book, but specifically, do you feel as if the State Department has equal equity on policy deliberations on Afghanistan and Pakistan?
MR. VENTRELL: We have an excellent working relationship with our White House and interagency colleagues. And let me just tell you a little bit about where we are in Afghanistan, because that's - some of the thrust of the book is talking about policy development on Afghanistan. We've increased the capacity of Afghan security forces to fight insurgents, transitioning Afghan security lead - transitioning to an Afghan security lead, building an enduring partnership with Afghanistan. We now have Afghan forces leading nearly 90 percent of operations across the country. We've signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement. We're working on a new - negotiating a new bilateral security agreement. We're working on preparations for a free, inclusive, and transparent election in 2014. So we really stand behind the record of the progress we've made in Afghanistan, but beyond that I'm not going to get into interagency discussions.
QUESTION: But it's not a new charge. I mean, it's a charge that analysts are making around Washington, that the foreign policy is being decided in the White House with not enough input, or very little input, from the State Department.
MR. VENTRELL: We make our input, but I'm just not going to characterize it beyond that.
QUESTION: Are you listened to? Do you feel that you're listened to properly in the White House?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, the State Department has - we have an excellent working relationship, as I said, with the White House, with the interagency, and --
QUESTION: You can't say whether you feel as if you're getting equal input?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I'm not going to characterize some sort of historical discussion about what happened in years past. All I'm going to say is --
QUESTION: I don't think it's historical, because it also goes to what's happening today in the White House.
MR. VENTRELL: Look, guys, I've said what I can on this. I think we've done what we can here. Thanks.
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