MS ORTAGUS: Thank you very much. Good morning, everybody. Thanks for joining us. This is an on-the-record briefing which is embargoed until the end of the call, please, with none other than our Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.
From early on, Secretary Pompeo has been clear about our goals in Afghanistan. After 19 years of war, we are committed to reducing the burden of conflict in Afghanistan on the American people while ensuring that Afghan soil is never again used to launch an attack on America or any other country.
For almost two years now, Ambassador Khalilzad and his team have been diligently working to execute this mission and to bring Afghans to the table together to negotiate the end of the war and the future of their country. The road to peace is never a straight line, and Ambassador Khalilzad has made some tremendous successes and also faced some serious policy challenges along the way. The horrific attacks in Afghanistan this week are certainly an example of those challenges.
We’re grateful that Ambassador Khalilzad is here with us today to discuss these challenges and all the latest developments on the path towards reconciliation and peace. Per usual, Ambassador Khalilzad will offer some introductory remarks, then we’ll go straight into Q&A. As a reminder, press 1 and then 0 to get into the queue and we’ll get to as many questions as we can as time allows.
Just a reminder again that while this call is on the record, the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call. Zal, go ahead.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Well, thank you very much, Morgan. Good morning, everyone. As Morgan mentioned the recent violence, I want to condemn the barbaric attacks that took place, particularly the attack on the maternity hospital. We sympathize and empathize with the people of Afghanistan. I know that they are tired of war, they want the war to end, and we stand with them.
Although the recent violence has raised questions about the peace process, and the path to peace, as Morgan mentioned, is not straight and there are challenges and difficulties – we have known this from the beginning – but there is no alternative to pushing forward with peace. There is consensus, both in Afghanistan and internationally, that there is no military solution to the war in Afghanistan; that a political solution, a peace agreement among Afghans, is the only realistic option at the present time.
We also, as Morgan mentioned, want a political settlement in order to reduce the burden on the United States – and that is happening – and also to make sure that Afghanistan never again becomes a platform to attack the United States or our allies. The United States-Taliban agreement opens a historic opportunity for moving forward on peace.
Despite the challenges, we have been working hard to deal with them. We have urged all sides to reduce violence. We have urged Afghans to come together to take advantage of the historic opportunity and have pushed President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah to reach a political agreement to form an inclusive government. We have pushed to get both sides, the Afghan Government and the Taliban, to release prisoners. Already some 1,011 prisoners have been released by the government, Talib prisoners, and 253 Afghan Government prisoners have been released by the Taliban. We want to get to the intra-Afghan negotiations as soon as possible, and there has been a discussion of dates both in the agreement – that date was missed – and now a new date is under discussion. Intra-Afghan negotiations are the only path to an enduring peace among Afghans.
We have also gone, continued to go after terrorists in Afghanistan ourselves, and also have urged the Taliban and the Afghan Government to do so. Indeed, that’s the requirement of the agreement between us and the Taliban and the joint declaration between the United States and the Afghan Government. We have sought to build international consensus and support for peace, and we have pushed for the release of American hostage in Afghanistan.
I want to conclude my opening statement by saying I recognize that there are challenges, but we believe there is no better alternative than peace and the peace process that has started with the agreement between the United States and the Taliban and the joint declaration, and we’re determined to push forward.
Thank you, and I look forward to your questions and comments.
MS ORTAGUS: Great. Thanks so much. Again, 1 and 0 to get in the queue, and I know we have a pretty long list already. So first up in the queue is Matt Lee, AP.
QUESTION: Hi there, thanks a lot. Ambassador, it’s now been more than two months since the intra-Afghan talks were supposed to start, and they haven’t. And you guys are continuing to say that this is the only way forward and also putting an emphasis on the reduction of the U.S. burden there.
So I know that the withdrawal of U.S. troops is not contingent under the U.S. – or the U.S.-Taliban deal on a peace deal actually being signed, but is it contingent on anything else? Does it – does there have to be a reduction in violence short of a – short of an actual peace deal for the troops to be withdrawn? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Well, the key requirement for the United States is the delivery on the commitment by the Taliban on counterterrorism, number one.
Number two, we believe the sooner the intra-Afghan negotiations begin, the sooner peace will come, and it will be best that this intra-Afghan negotiation happen when we have substantial forces in southern Afghanistan. Both the Talibs say they don’t want an endless war and a Syria scenario, and the Afghan Government says that they want a political settlement and negotiations. And there are obstacles particularly on – both violence and prisoners are the two obstacles at this point. And those are the ones that we’re working on to overcome. And of course, there are forces such as ISIS that doesn’t see peace in Afghanistan in its interests and are trying to increase violence, to undermine the prospect for peace. We’re urging both sides not to fall into that trap, but indeed to cooperate against the terrorists, including ISIS.
So we want this to happen as soon as possible when we’re still there in a significant way.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Thanks, Matt. Next up in the queue is Shaun Tandon.
QUESTION: Thanks, Ambassador, for doing this. As I’m sure you know, Afghanistan’s intelligence agency has said that there are links between ISIS-K and the Haqqani Network, notably regarding the attack on the Sikh gurdwara the other week. I wanted to see what your assessment of – was of that. You mentioned yesterday that ISIS was found responsible for the attack on the maternity hospital. Do you believe that there’s credibility to the claims that there are links between the Haqqani Network and ISIS, and therefore perhaps some link with the Taliban? Thanks.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: We believe that ISIS and the Taliban are mortal enemies, and in the war against ISIS, Taliban have played an important role. Of course, the government has as well, and we have played a vital role in that fight. And that fight is not finished, and we believe that our assessment currently is that the attacks that took place against the hospital and the attack in Nangarhar on a funeral procession was the work of ISIS, which, as I said before, is the enemy of the peace process. And that’s why we urge Taliban and government not to play the ISIS game, but to cooperate against it. And the appropriate response is to accelerate the peace process, not to delay it because of what ISIS has done.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, thank you. Next up in the queue is Courtney McBride, Wall Street Journal.
QUESTION: Thank you. Mr. Ambassador, given the recent violence, the car bomb yesterday that the Taliban has claimed and the Afghan Government’s announcement that it plans to resume operations against the Taliban, what is the likelihood that these talks really are going to commence soon?
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: As I said – and there are challenges, and the – particularly two: prisoners and violence. On prisoners, there has been some progress. More needs to be done. The target is 5,000 Talibs should be released, and 1,000 government prisoners that the Talib hold – that is the entirety of what the Talibs are holding. And although some progress – 250, three have been released – they need to – that process needs to be accelerated. And indeed, the threat of the coronavirus makes it even more urgent that prisoners are released.
We’re working on that with the government and with the Taliban. Indeed, I have traveled twice in the last two and a half weeks to meet with the Talibs and to push on – both on the prisoners and on the reduction of violence.
And the second is violence. And yesterday’s car bomb attack is very negative. We urge the Talibs who say that attack took place because of the government’s declaration of going on offensive, and that there be de-escalation by all sides, and that there should be reduction of violence, not further escalation that would undermine, complicate the moves to intra-Afghan negotiations and the prisoners’ release.
MS ORTAGUS: Great, thank you. Next up is Lara Jakes, New York Times.
QUESTION: Hi. Good morning. Nice to talk to you. Ambassador, as you know, the United States pushed for General Dostum to be tried when he raped his political rival as vice president, and now he is looking to be promoted to the highest military rank of marshal. And I’m wondering what prospects that raises of any idea of justice for victims in a deal with the Taliban if someone who was raped two years ago is getting promoted now. Thanks. Someone who raped, not who was raped, sorry.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: First, we support of course the Afghans coming together and forming an inclusive government, and the Secretary traveled to Kabul to urge that, and I have been doing the same. And we hear some positive reports that progress has been made, and we hope that an agreement is concluded as soon as possible. The decisions made to form an inclusive government are decisions that the Afghans are making and will make. I would not want to comment on it at this point, not knowing the details. But I generally am of the view that any process for peace requires a balance between requirements of justice and requirements of ending a war, and there are challenges and there are differences in different places on the right balance. So we will see what happens when intra-Afghan negotiations begin on this issue; we will be attentive to it. Thank you. That’s an important question.
MS ORTAGUS: Great. Thank you. Next up, Christina Ruffini, CBS News.
QUESTION: Hi. Good morning. I was wondering, going back to the attacks this week, have you seen any kind of uptick in ISIS-K membership from disaffected members of the Taliban who might be skewing their moves towards less extreme views? And do you know if any – do you have any idea if any former Taliban members might have been involved in any of the – two of the attacks this week? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: I don’t have anything for you on the numbers of disaffected Talibs that might have joined ISIS. There have been speculations that the peace process might produce some Talibs who do not support peace that could join terrorist groups such as ISIS. We have been aware of that possibility, but I don’t have any numbers at this point to share with you.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, thanks. Let’s see. Next, we have Laurie Mylroie, Kurdistan 24.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for doing this. A question: Could you help us please understand ISIS-K? What is its relationship to ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and how’s it similar to or different from the Taliban? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Well, ISIS-K is similar to the ISIS in the Levant, as Iraq and Syria, in that it seeks to perpetuate violence, doesn’t believe in any peace, has global ambitions, and promotes sectarian conflict, and indeed in Afghanistan some of the targets that they have attacked most barbarically have been the Shiite Hazara targets. And in Afghanistan in recent days, some of the leaders of the movement have been detained, mostly in the leadership for one of the – the key leader was detained. And also, according to the Afghans, they detained the leader of ISIS for South and Southeast Asia who was based in Afghanistan. So there are similarities and relationships, strong relationships between ISIS-K and ISIL, the ISIS for Levant. So that’s my – that’s our assessment.
Oh, and the – and the difference between the Taliban and ISIS is that it’s ideological, and the Taliban have issued a statement on that after the agreement we signed. And the two, as I said, have been at war – one supports a peace process; the other opposes it, specifically with regard to the issue that we’re talking about.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks, Laurie. Okay. Nick Schifrin, PBS. Nick? Do we have Nick Schifrin? Schifrin, going once, twice. Okay, let’s go over to another Nick, Nick Wadhams, Bloomberg.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks very much. Ambassador Khalilzad, can you tell us how many U.S. troops are currently in Afghanistan, and whether the recent violence along with President Ghani’s statement that he’s ordering government forces to resume operations against the Taliban and also the Taliban statement that the peace deal is on the verge of collapse, will that affect the pace of U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan?
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: You should ask the Defense Department with regard to the specific numbers, but I know that we are implementing – we are in the phase of implementing the first phase of the agreement with regard to our condition-based withdrawal, which if you remember, gets us within 135 days of the signing of the agreement to 8,600. So we are well into that phase.
As far as the statements by the Taliban and by the government, of course we have seen those, but we believe we need de-escalation and we need a reduction of violence, not escalation and increase in violence, and we are pressing on that. I will be traveling again soon to push for de-escalation, to push for reduction of violence, and to push for accelerating the release of prisoners.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Thanks, Nick. Let’s see. Now we’re going over to Kylie Atwood, CNN.
QUESTION: Hello. Thank you for doing this, Ambassador. I just wanted to put a finer point on what you’ve said about the intra-Afghan talks. Have the Taliban officials told you in recent days that they are still committed to intra-Afghan dialogue negotiations now that the Afghan Government has made this announcement about resuming their offensive operations against the Taliban?
And then my second question is if you can provide us with any proof that ISIS-K was behind the hospital attack this week. Thanks.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Thank you. On the first question, I have not talked to the Taliban since the announcement of the offensive, but I was in Doha just before, and yes they were stating that they want to get to intra-Afghan negotiations as soon as possible and that they would be immediately after the prisoners’ release that I have talked about in my answer to previous questions. But I’ll be talking to them again in the coming days.
On the – your second question was on proof of – I didn’t understand. Proof for what? If you could repeat that.
MS ORTAGUS: I don’t know if they’ll open up her line again, but she was asking about proof that ISIS was behind the attacks this week, I think. (Inaudible.)
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Oh, yes. Well, one is that the – ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack in Nangarhar already, and based on the information we have and based on the patterns of ISIS attacks in the past, we believe – this is our assessment – that ISIS is responsible for the attack on the hospital as well.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, thanks. Now we’re going to go over to Kim Dozier, TIME magazine.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thanks, ambassador, for doing this. I wanted to ask: When you bring up the subject of U.S. Navy veteran Mark Frerichs and Paul Overby, both presumed hostages – Frerichs to – with the Haqqani Network with the Taliban, what’s the Taliban tell you about their whereabouts?
And also, I – the Afghan Government has pretty strongly come out against the U.S. assessment of the attack that you blame on ISIS. What do you attribute that to?
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Well, we look forward to receiving – if the government has information to the contrary in terms of the attack – to receiving that. We, as I said before, understand the strong feeling among the Afghan people about this dastardly attack, but our assessment is that the – it was ISIS that did it.
On the hostage Mark, the Talibs are saying that they do not have him. And I have pressed in every stop for the last couple of months when I’ve been traveling his case, and I’ve made, that you have seen, some public statements also after those meetings. And we’re waiting to – for the response by the Talibs. I have asked them to look again and that – to talk to their subcommanders and to – that this is of the highest importance and it would be, if they did hold him, a violation of the commitments they have made to us. So we’re pressing very hard on that and I will be pressing the issue further on my next trip.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, thanks. I know Nick Schifrin was trying to get back in the queue. Nick, do we have you?
OPERATOR: He needs to re-press the 1 0.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. In the meantime, while you’re doing that, Nick, we’re going to go over to Cindy of VOA.
QUESTION: Ambassador, could you please clarify if the Taliban have publicly condemned the attack on the maternity ward? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Yes, they have. They have done it several times, including a statement they issued last night.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, thanks. Sorry, we’re just going to try for poor Nick one more time. Nick Schifrin.
QUESTION: Hey guys. (Inaudible) technical stuff today. Can you hear me?
MS ORTAGUS: We’ve got you.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Yes, Nick. Hi.
QUESTION: Okay, great. Hey, Zal. Thanks very much for doing this. Thanks, Morgan. Sorry about earlier. I think a lot of my colleagues have asked a version of this question at this point, but I wanted to ask pretty specifically: Given that the Afghan Government has said no, we do blame the Taliban for the maternity ward attack – you suggested last night in your tweet for the Afghan Government not to fall into the – “trap” is the word you used. Do you believe the government’s fallen into the trap and do you believe the government at this point is the problem, is the problem impeding progress on the peace talks? Thanks.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Well, what I would like to say is that our assessment is, as I have said, that it was ISIS – ISIS-K – that did the attack; that ISIS-K is an enemy of the peace process, wants the peace process to fail; that the Talibs and the – and ISIS-K are enemies. They have fought each other viciously, both sides, and it is very important to be taking all of this into account. And based on the information that’s available, that’s our judgment, and that they need to go towards not escalating – all sides, government and the Talibs – and to accelerate the peace process or at least, given the state of emotions for now, not to escalate but to de-escalate and to reduce violence. And that’s what the circumstances call for in our view, and we have – we of course are in touch with the government, but if they have information to the contrary, we would like to see it.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, we’re out of time, but I want to try to get – there’s two more people in the queue and so we’re just going to cut it off. Guys, I have to jump on a separate call, so I’m going to have Cale take over, so no more in the queue, we’re just going to give it to the final two people that are in. First is Jennifer Hansler from CNN, and then the last question will be Jonathan Landay from Reuters. So Jennifer, you can go first.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much for doing this, Ambassador. I was wondering, it sounds like you’ve spoken to Ghani since his announcement of resuming offensive operations, but can you confirm that you have spoken to him since that announcement? And then there’s been some reporting that some in Afghanistan no longer have confidence in you and they are calling for you to no longer be part of this process. Do you feel you still have the confidence of the stakeholders in this process? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: No, I have not talked to President Ghani in the last few days, but I have talked to others in his government. Two, I work – on second question, I work for the U.S. Government. I represent the U.S. in pursuit of peace. I will do that as long as the President and the Secretary would like me to do that. Thank you.
MR BROWN: Okay.
QUESTION: Hi, Zal.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Hi.
QUESTION: It’s Jonathan Landay.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Hi, Jon. Hi.
QUESTION: Hi. So you and other American officials have been saying that the Taliban, their escalation in violence has – a violator – is a violation of their undertaking in the agreement, and yet that agreement that you signed with them, at least the public version, does – has absolutely no commitment in that to them not to attack Afghan targets, including civilians. So I’m wondering if you can talk about where it is in this agreement that binds the Taliban to de-escalate violence, seeing as that the reduction in violence was (inaudible) for seven days and they have been, by everybody’s account, escalating their attacks, irrespective of the maternity hospital, against Afghan targets and killing civilians.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Right. First, that the Taliban have implemented their agreement not to attack the coalition forces. Second, we’re evaluating yesterday’s attack, but that they had committed not to carry out attacks in 34 major cities, and they haven’t done that to the – based on our assessment. And you’re right that the agreement does not specifically mention for them not to attack Afghan forces. That would constitute a ceasefire, and the Taliban have agreed that the ceasefire – comprehensive, permanent ceasefire – would be one of the first subjects when intra-Afghan negotiations begin. But they have committed themselves to us that there would be a reduction in the level of violence by all sides, including the Talibs after the agreement’s signed. And we are saying that they are violating the spirit if not the letter given that commitment that all sides will try to reduce violence.
As you may know, during the first quarter of the year, there was a significant reduction in the number of civilians killed and in the number of Afghan security forces that have been killed. And to the Talibs, the fact that the attacks on the cities are not taking place is a reduction of violence to – in their argument, and the fact that they are not attacking big Afghan military formations – corps-level, division-level centers – is a reduction of violence. But we believe that they are in violation of the spirit given the numbers of attack and Afghans’ casualties in those attacks, so therefore we are working to reach – to de-escalate and to reduce the level of violence by all sides, and I’ll be continuing to do that on the next trip.
MR BROWN: Ambassador, do you have any closing remarks before we end the call?
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Well, I want to thank everyone for this, participating in this, and I want to repeat that yes, there are challenges, very important challenges that the peace process is facing, and the war however has been going on for a long time, especially for Afghans – 40 years. And in the current circumstances, I don’t see a better alternative that serves our interests – counterterrorism, reduction of the burden of Afghanistan – but at the same time ends the Afghan tragedy and makes sure that Afghanistan doesn’t become a platform against us. For all those reasons, I still believe the peace process is the best option, with all its difficulties, and therefore we will persist. Well, thank you. I wish you all a good day.
MR BROWN: Thank you, Ambassador, and thanks to everyone who joined the call. Since the call has ended, the contents of the call and the embargo on it is lifted. Everybody have a great day. Thanks again.