2:07 p.m. EDT
MR PRICE: Good afternoon.
QUESTION: Good afternoon.
MR PRICE: Few things at the top and then we’ll get right to your questions. First, as you know, President Biden pledged to host a summit for democracy to reinforce United States commitment to placing democracy and human rights at the center of our foreign policy. And earlier today, the White House announced that President Biden will host two summits. The first will be a virtual event on December 9th and 10th, 2021. The second, which we intend to be in person, will be held approximately a year later. Both summits will bring together established and emerging democracies, civil society, and the private sector to solicit innovative and bold commitments to defend against authoritarianism, address and fight corruption, and promote respect for human rights both at home and abroad.
The summit for democracy reflects President Biden’s deeply held belief that in order to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges, democracies must come together, learn together, stand together, and act together. We will have more details to share in the coming weeks.
Next, we enthusiastically congratulate two close partners, Morocco and Israel, as Morocco today welcomes Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on his first visit to the kingdom, another important step in the strengthening of their relationship. We believe the normalized relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors create new opportunities for peace and prosperity to flourish in the region. The Morocco-Israel relationship has already led to real benefits for both countries, including direct commercial flights, economic cooperation, and the opening of liaison offices.
Today marks one month since the Cuban people took to the streets, making a call for freedom heard around the world. The Cuban Government responded with a brutal wave of repression unseen in decades. As of today, over 800 Cubans have been reported detained for peacefully demonstrating on July 11th. By some accounts, there may be hundreds more. Many are held incommunicado, without access to family or legal representation; secret, summary judicial proceedings lack fair trial guarantees and seek to repress, to silence, and make examples of anyone who added their voice to peaceful protests on July 11th.
The Government of Cuba denies this systematic abuse of human rights and refuses access to international observers. Cuba’s leaders are counting on the world to turn a blind eye to their repression. The world must not look away. The United States will not look away. We join the families who are suffering and scared, Cuba’s human rights defenders, and those who share our concern around the world in calling for the immediate release of all those detained or missing for merely exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
Addressing the ongoing crisis in Cuba is a top priority. At President Biden’s direction, the U.S. Government is actively focused on providing support to the Cuban people, whether it is facilitating humanitarian assistance or information access. We’ve brought to bear the strength of international diplomacy, rallying nations around the world to speak out in support of the Cuban people and in condemnation of the regime’s violent response to the protests. And we are holding the repressors accountable for human rights abuses through the Global Magnitsky sanctions program.
And finally, today is August 11th. It’s the 40th birthday of journalist Austin Tice. This week also marks his ninth year in captivity in Syria. Austin’s release and return home are long overdue. We call on Syria to help release Austin Tice and every U.S. citizen held hostage in Syria. Secretary Blinken is personally dedicated to seeking the safe release of U.S. hostages and wrongful detainees. We will continue to pursue all paths that may lead to Austin’s safe return home.
With that, Matt.
QUESTION: Thanks. Just before we get to what I’m sure will be Afghanistan, I just want to – on the administration’s commitment to democracy, human rights, which I think includes freedom of the press and your support for that, I just wanted to ask you really quickly about the situation with Julian Assange in London, the court hearing that was held today. And if you’re only going to refer to the Justice Department, then I don’t need to hear a long explanation of that, but I just – what I want to know is from the State Department’s point of view, because it was State Department equities that were among the first that were compromised, quote/unquote – I mean, you have an interest in – the State Department has an interest in this case. So I’m just wondering if it is still the position of the State Department that Assange is not a journalist and that he is – he should be tried for theft of what are – what you would essentially say are state secrets.
MR PRICE: Matt, by referring to the Department of Justice, as we always do in cases like this, it doesn’t indicate —
QUESTION: Yeah, no, no, I’m just asking —
MR PRICE: It doesn’t indicate we don’t have an interest. It indicates that we have a respect for the separation of institutions and the independence of Department of Justice.
QUESTION: Your – the position of this administration since it came in talking about how important the freedom of press is, has – that hasn’t impacted the department’s position on this case. Is that correct?
MR PRICE: This is a matter before the Department of Justice. It’s a matter the Department of Justice is pursuing.
QUESTION: It’s not a matter before the Department of Justice. It’s a matter before the British court. But I just want to know if your position, the State Department’s position, that you represent to the Department of Justice who then represents you has changed at all.
MR. PRICE: Matt, the Department of Justice is pursuing this. I will leave it to them to pursue and to characterize the United States Government’s position on this.
QUESTION: Okay, so the State Department’s position hasn’t changed, correct?
MR. PRICE: Matt, the Department of Justice is speaking for the United States —
QUESTION: Oh, my god.
MR. PRICE: — in a law enforcement matter.
QUESTION: Why can’t you give straight answers? Yes or no, has it changed or not over the course of the last eight years?
MR. PRICE: The Department of Justice in this matter —
QUESTION: I am fully aware, Ned.
MR. PRICE: Matt, you don’t need to be combative, okay? You don’t need to be combative.
QUESTION: I – I —
MR. PRICE: I know you like to get worked up, but please, this is —
QUESTION: I’m not trying to get worked up. I just want a straight answer. Did —
MR. PRICE: It’s a simple matter that’s before the Department of Justice.
QUESTION: Fine. All right. So in terms of your grand promotion of democracy, human rights, which are going to be at the center of U.S. foreign policy, as we will see no doubt in December when the President hosts his summit of – for democracy, how does that relate exactly to Afghanistan and your promotion of human rights and democracy when you have a situation where the country is rapidly coming under control of a group that has shown no respect for democracy and human rights ever?
MR. PRICE: I’m sorry, the question was —
QUESTION: How do you reconcile this? How do you – how does the administration expect to be taken seriously in terms of promoting human rights and democracy as being at the center of U.S. foreign policy if it is prepared to allow Afghanistan to deteriorate into a situation where a group that has shown – that you yourself just days ago have accused of committing atrocities – if you’re prepared to allow that to happen.
MR. PRICE: I would reject every single premise of that question. The United States —
QUESTION: Really? Because most of what I just said is actual – is factual.
MR. PRICE: The United States – I think it is undeniable – has over the course of 20 years done more to support the cause of the Afghan people to provide humanitarian support. Just numerically speaking, of course, we are the largest donor, and that includes humanitarian assistance, it includes assistance for the women and girls of Afghanistan, for Afghanistan’s minorities. That won’t change.
I would also reject the premise that we are just prepared to watch and do nothing as the violence escalates. That could not be farther from the truth. The truth, Matt, is that on every count, on every score, the United States over the course of the past 20 years and now going forward is, I would dare say, doing more than any country to try to bring stability, security, and ultimately prosperity to the people of Afghanistan.
Now, it is true that our tactics are changing, that the President has made the decision to withdraw our military forces. That says nothing about our support for the rights of the people of Afghanistan and what we will continue – what we have done and will continue to strive to do to bring stability and security to the people of Afghanistan right now as we speak through a diplomatic process. And I know you tend to discount diplomacy, at least in this case.
QUESTION: Tend to? No, no, not tend to. (Laughter.) I just don’t think and I don’t see how you can realistically think that it’s going to accomplish anything because it hasn’t in the past. And you say you reject the premise that you’re prepared to sit by and watch and do nothing. Well, what have you done over the course of the last couple weeks as these atrocities that you’ve talked about have mounted, as the Taliban has taken over more and more territory? What exactly has it been that you have done?
You said that you weren’t going to sit – stand – sit back and do nothing.
MR. PRICE: Yep, happy to —
QUESTION: What have you done?
MR. PRICE: Happy to reiterate much of what we’ve done, of course. We’ve spoken of our humanitarian assistance, which is directly relevant to the current and future conditions of the Afghan people, including its women and girls and Afghanistan’s minorities as well, just right now, just this week. And again, this is diplomacy, what we think has the potential to lead to a political settlement and a ceasefire. It is ongoing actively right now. There are several rounds of planned meetings this week. The first took place yesterday. There was another one today. There will be another one tomorrow, bringing together representatives from countries in the region and well beyond as well as from multilateral institutions —
QUESTION: These are all in Doha?
MR PRICE: — I’m sorry, in Doha – to press for a reduction of violence and a ceasefire and a commitment on the part of all those in attendance – this constellation of representatives from various countries and international organizations – not to work with any entity that takes the country by force. And so just today, Ambassador Khalilzad and his team participated in a meeting of the extended troika, that is to say the United States, Russia, China, and Pakistan. There, the countries aligned efforts to press the Taliban to reduce violence, to engage seriously and urgently in Afghan peace negotiations, including the fundamental issues needed to resolve that conflict.
I said this started yesterday. Yesterday, Ambassador Khalilzad and his team participated in a meeting on the current situation, including the current levels of violence, with the UN Envoy Jean Arnault and representatives from the region and other international stakeholders. Tomorrow, there will be a broader set of countries we expect that will be – that will come together. And in all of this, it’s our intention to forge consensus and to have the international community, including countries in the region and beyond, to speak with one voice. Both sets of these meetings this week included briefings from both the Islamic Republic – that’s the Afghan Government – and from the Taliban negotiating teams. Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman, is there representing the Afghan Government; Mullah Baradar is there representing the Taliban. This is high-level representation.
QUESTION: The other countries – are you prepared to say or do you know yet who those —
MR PRICE: We’ll – we’ll have more detail on that tomorrow.
QUESTION: Okay. But the Taliban will be represented in those meetings as well?
MR PRICE: Yes. There will be a – correct.
QUESTION: Is it correct that the Secretary has not spoken to Mullah Baradar or any Taliban member?
MR PRICE: That – that is correct.
QUESTION: So – so he has – his representations about this have been confined to the Afghan Government, what – in terms of the Afghan people, they’ve been confined to —
MR PRICE: It’s been – it has included the Afghan Government. Of course, when he visited Kabul we met with President Ghani, we met with Abdullah Abdullah. It’s multiple conversations with President Ghani.
QUESTION: I just want to make sure because the last secretary of state or the only secretary of state to have spoken with the Taliban directly is – was his predecessor?
MR PRICE: In the context of the conclusion of the U.S.-Taliban agreement. But let me make one other point. Of course, the Secretary has also been actively engaged in speaking with countries – representatives, countries from the region on this.
QUESTION: I – you’re trying to impute some kind of – I just want to know if it’s correct. I’m not saying that that’s good or bad whether he is or not.
MR PRICE: So one —
QUESTION: Do you happen to know —
MR PRICE: One more point just on this to give you the full context.
QUESTION: And I just have one more and it’s extremely brief because I think the answer is going to be no.
MR PRICE: Okay. Well, Ambassador Khalilzad, in the context of all of this, will meet with each negotiating team separately, as we frequently do, to encourage them to engage productively in this process and, importantly, not to squander this opportunity, which may be an historic opportunity to end what is not —
QUESTION: Wait. Squander this – what opportunity? What are you talking here about?
MR PRICE: The opportunity —
QUESTION: The opportunity that was brought about by you guys withdrawing —
MR PRICE: The opportunity —
QUESTION: — which has plunged the country – 65 percent of the country into chaos?
MR PRICE: The opportunity of – the opportunity of the Afghan Government and the Taliban and the rest of the world, at least a large swath of the world, coming together. And let me remind you, it’s been less than a year since both the Afghan Government and the Taliban have been willing to talk, have been engaged in intra-Afghan dialogue. So we have an opportunity – we’ve had an – have had an opportunity in recent weeks and months that in many ways Afghanistan has not had over the course of 40 years.
We talk about the past three weeks of violence, the past three months of violence. This has been 40 years of conflict. And so with the Taliban and the Afghan Government now willing to talk to one another, of course, that is a necessary but insufficient step. But what we are doing is galvanizing the international community, supporting these intra-Afghan discussions to attempt to make progress to do a couple of things: to stop this military offensive, diminish the level of violence, and, more broadly, to negotiate a political settlement to form an inclusive Afghan government that ends this conflict.
We remain confident in the fact that this is the only path to stability. We remain cognizant of the fact that this is the only path to stability and development in Afghanistan. So progress has been slow. It has been painfully slow. The violence has been a cause for grave concern. We’ve been very clear about that.
QUESTION: I think a lot of people would argue that there’s not been any progress. It’s not been slow; it’s been nonexistent. But anyway, did you ever get an – did you get an answer to the question I had yesterday about whether the Taliban was violating the terms of the February 2020 Doha agreement?
MR PRICE: Sure. Let me add a bit of context there. There are several key parts of this February 2020 agreement for – to highlight. Number one, the Taliban will take specific actions to prevent any group or individual, including al-Qaida, from using Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies. This, of course, incredibly important to us. We have a commitment from the Taliban. We also have capabilities in the region to see to it that this remains the case.
Number two, the United States and coalition partners will withdraw foreign military forces from Afghanistan. This is especially noteworthy in the context of our decision-making process, and it’s something that we obviously talked about at length yesterday.
Number three, the Taliban and the Islamic Republic will launch intra-Afghan negotiations. It’s a point I’ve just made that this – the two sides had not come together until this agreement went into force, and they’ve been meeting now for less than a year, but the very fact that Abdullah Abdullah and Mullah Baradar are in Qatar is a sign of that.
And number four, a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire and agreement over the future political roadmap of Afghanistan will be part of the agenda of the intra-Afghan negotiations. And so this one, that’s particularly relevant to your question on this.
But the way we look at these four elements is that they are linked, they are interrelated. Intra-Afghan negotiations leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire were an integral element of the agreement, and all recent indications, at least, suggest the Taliban are instead pursuing a battlefield victory.
QUESTION: Yeah, but they didn’t agree in February 2020 not to seek a battlefield victory against the Afghan Government.
MR PRICE: What they agreed to do —
QUESTION: Did they or did they not?
MR PRICE: What they agreed to do was to seek a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire agreement.
QUESTION: Yeah, through these peace talks, which have gone nowhere.
MR PRICE: Correct, correct. And —
QUESTION: Did they agree in 2020 – in February 2020 did they agree not to attack Afghan provincial —
MR PRICE: What we can say —
QUESTION: — major population centers of the Afghan Government and the Afghan forces?
MR PRICE: What we can say —
QUESTION: Did they or did they not?
MR PRICE: What we can say is that the levels of violence are unacceptably high and what we have seen is inconsistent with the letter and the spirit of the agreement.
QUESTION: But they didn’t actually agree not to attack cities, provincial capitals, big, major population centers, or the Afghan —
MR PRICE: Matt, attacking —
QUESTION: — or the Afghan military. Did they?
MR PRICE: Attacking – attacking provincial capitals and targeting civilians is inconsistent with the spirit of the agreement. It’s this last clause of the agreement, the key point that I mentioned: a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire agreement over the future political roadmap of Afghanistan —
QUESTION: I’ll just put that down as a no.
MR PRICE: — will be part of the agenda of the intra-Afghan negotiations.
QUESTION: On Afghanistan?
MR PRICE: Sure.
MR PRICE: I’ll come right back to you.
QUESTION: In terms of, quote, “progress,” I mean, what is the point of even being in Doha on these talks? Let me cite a few things. Not only have they advanced and are in 24 out of 34 provinces and six capitals – however you want to argue it, whatever percentage they’ve taken over – but they are advancing step by step, day by day toward the core of what remains of the Afghan Government’s autonomy, if there is any, in Kabul, as you know better than any of us from just reading the intel. So first of all, there is no progress in these talks. If the fourth part of this is so critical, whether or not it’s ironclad in terms of their attacks against Afghans, what they are doing has been described in some instances as it could be a war crime by the Embassy in Kabul just two weeks ago. That’s number one.
Number two, you talk about our partners and these other countries. Is it consistent with this alleged partnership and agreement that Beijing welcomes the Taliban and confers legitimacy on it, and in their capital?
MR PRICE: That’s —
QUESTION: And have we talked with Iran about keeping its border open as hundreds and hundreds of Afghans have been fleeing across that border, and what kind of sustenance can be granted to those refugees as they wait, which you acknowledge is up to 14 months for permission to move on and get any kind of clearance for some of them?
So what is the – what is the future? What I think all of us are trying to get to is, outside the parameters of February 2020, the talks are feckless. If the Taliban participants there have no control over the combatants in the field, then why bother? And if they do, the whole thing is hypocritical and it’s just a delaying tactic until they can take over the country.
MR PRICE: All right, let me try and take much of that on. First, I would make the point that our diplomacy is taking place on two levels. On one level, we are and we always have been supporting the intra-Afghan negotiations. We’re not a direct participant to the talks. These are – these are talks between the Afghan parties.
On another level, we are bringing together much of the rest of the world, the region, and well beyond to define our common concerns with what we’re seeing right now on – that – with the levels of violence, but also to endorse a political roadmap and to encourage a political path forward for the Afghan parties. Of course, any path forward is going to have to be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led. But the international community has a vested interest in seeing an Afghanistan that is secure, that is safe, that is stable, and where the human rights of its people are respected. That is why that’s precisely what Ambassador Khalilzad is doing in Qatar this week. A major item on the agenda is making very clear to the Afghan parties and to the rest of the world that the international community will not accept any government that seeks to take control of Afghanistan by force.
And this is not a point that would be new in the context of this week. It’s really a reaffirmation of this point. You raised the Taliban’s visit to the PRC. The PRC has signed on to any number of affirmations of the fact that any future government in Afghanistan that takes – seeks to take control through the barrel of gun won’t have legitimacy and won’t have their backing. UN Security Council issued a statement last week; of course, China is a permanent member of the council. The last sentence: “The members of the Secretary Council recalled Resolution 2513 [from] 2020 and reaffirmed…there is no military solution to the conflict, and declared that they do not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate.”
Earlier this year, there was another extended troika, and that again includes the PRC, Russia, and Pakistan, and us, issued a statement: “We reiterate…there is no military solution in Afghanistan and a negotiated political settlement through an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process is the only way forward for lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan.”
There are any other – any number of other examples we can point to where the PRC has offered very clear statements about where Beijing stands. We have made this point before. Of course, our relationship with the PRC, it’s a complex one; perhaps the most complex bilateral relationship we have. But in many ways our interests are aligned with Beijing when it comes to Afghanistan, the same way – or a similar way, I should say – in which our interests are aligned with any number of other countries in the region. It is in no one’s interest to see an Afghanistan that is stricken with conflict and civil war for another 40 years. It’s certainly not in the interests of the people of Afghanistan, it’s not in the interests of Afghanistan’s neighbors, and it is not ultimately in the interests of the Taliban, which clearly seeks to have a role in Afghan leadership. But it is not – it is neither in their interest to see conflict dominate another four decades, or another single decade, or another single year.
I told you I’d come back over. Yes.
QUESTION: Yeah, on Afghanistan itself, several countries, including India, are closing down their consulates – several countries, including India, are closing down their consulates or temporarily shutting it down, taking back their citizens from there. Is Afghanistan now landing to the hands of Taliban now? It looks like.
MR PRICE: Sorry, could you repeat that?
QUESTION: Is Afghanistan landing into the hands of Taliban now, the way they are spreading?
MR PRICE: Well, we’ve made the point that the levels of violence, what we are seeing now across the country, are of grave concern. It’s of grave concern to us. I think we will hear and have heard in Doha that it is of grave concern to the international community. But at the same time, this is not a foregone conclusion, as many people seem to think, that this will be an inexorable march forward for the Taliban or any other force. And we’ve made this point in several different ways.
It is not – it is quite relevant to what we are seeing now that the Afghan National Security Forces are numerically far superior to the Taliban, what the Taliban can muster. As I said yesterday, they have over 300,000 troops, an air force, special forces, heavy equipment, including heavy equipment that the United States only recently provided. This partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces is – support for the Afghan National Security Forces will continue. It will continue, and a concrete sign of that is President Biden’s budget request in which he requested 3.3 billion for the ANDSF going forward.
So again, the Government in Afghanistan has tools at its disposal, has political support, continues to receive support from the United States to its security sector, and has the wherewithal, certainly on paper, to defend its country. Right now what we see is an issue of leadership. It’s both political and military leadership. We need to see Afghans’ leaders united. We need to see a united front, knowing that they and their forces are fighting for a just cause. They have a credible strategic plan. They have the right tactics, the right execution. The advances we have seen need not continue.
First, the levels of violence – again, unacceptably high. The atrocities that have been reported are repugnant. This is evidence of a force that appears to have no respect for their fellow countrymen and women. It is – these are the tactics of a force that, if that continues, obviously will not have legitimacy on the part of the international community and, importantly, won’t accrue the sort of international assistance that any future government in Afghanistan will need to achieve any semblance of durability. And as I was saying before, it is in no one’s interests – not the Taliban’s interest – to attempt to seize power only to control parts of a country that are riven by conflict, where their hold on power is always in jeopardy.
What we are seeking, what we are supporting is a political settlement, is a diplomatic solution to this that in the first instance is Afghan-owned and Afghan-led but ultimately can lead to a diminution of the violence, a ceasefire, and a durable political outcome going forward.
QUESTION: One more: What role do you see for India after U.S. withdraws all its troops from Afghanistan? India has been a major donor for Afghanistan’s developmental activities; now it’s – closing down most of those development activities now.
MR PRICE: Well, this goes to what I was saying before, and we have seen a role for India and other countries in the region, knowing that it is a shared and collective interest on the part of Afghanistan’s neighbors and countries further afield for there to be a stable and secure Afghanistan. All countries in the region have a significant stake in that, including India, and we do appreciate India’s strong record of offering development assistance to Afghanistan.
But this has been a primary chore of ours to encourage Afghanistan’s neighbors to continue to do all they can to support the people of Afghanistan and, on a political level, to lend their support and to lend their collective national voices to the ongoing political process and the diplomacy that is taking place in Qatar, that is taking place between the Afghan parties, knowing that in our estimation, in the estimation of much of the international community, that is the only viable and realistic path forward to achieve what we all collectively seek to see fulfilled.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Voice of America Russian service. I have two questions; I will ask them one by one. Today, Russian investigative committee pressed new charges against Russian opposition politician Aleksey Navalny, and he is already in jail. And earlier this year, concern about Navalny’s destiny was expressed at the highest level of the United States by the President. So are you aware of this development? And should we expect some reaction from State Department?
MR PRICE: We are aware of this development. Of course, this follows on the heels of the Russian Government’s – not only its arrest and detention of Mr. Navalny but the violent crackdown on the many Russians who peacefully took to the streets to demonstrate against his detention. It follows on the heels of efforts to intimidate and to suppress those organizations, NGOs, independent organizations that are allied with Mr. Navalny. So in many ways, this is just a continuation of a very disturbing pattern. The United States continues to stand on the side and stand with the many Russians who we saw not all that long ago, again, peacefully take to the streets to hold their government to account, to express their aspirations for greater freedoms, to protest the repression and the level of repression that – to which they have been subject. So yes, we’re watching very closely.
QUESTION: And another question: There are some media reports that 27 members of U.S. Congress recently written letter to Secretary Blinken demanding, I quote, “suspension of any export permits for U.S. drone technology to Turkey.” Did you receive this letter, and could you say if department is going to take actions regarding this letter? Thank you.
MR. PRICE: I’ll see if we can get you more information on that.
QUESTION: And can we get back to Afghanistan really quick, Ned?
MR. PRICE: Sure. Back in Afghanistan.
QUESTION: Thanks. Just really quickly, the behavior by the Taliban that you have described today and have been describing, does the United States see any of that as sanctionable?
MR. PRICE: We – as I said yesterday, just as we are investing in a diplomatic process because we are cognizant that only through diplomacy can we achieve the sort of just and durable outcome that we seek to achieve, we will not hesitate to use the carrots and the sticks that are available to us. If we see behavior that would warrant and that would be appropriate for that kind of tool, it is certainly not off the table.
QUESTION: And also a Taliban spokesperson told Axios regarding a question about whether they were concerned about becoming an international pariah that “[w]e have never yielded to any foreign pressure tactics before and we don’t plan to capitulate any time soon either.” The Taliban is blatantly saying that is has no interest nor does it have any interest in being pressured by the international community, so what makes the administration so confident that it can pressure using the international community?
MR. PRICE: Well, look, I’m not going to engage in a tit for tat with a Taliban spokesperson. I will tell you – and Ambassador Khalilzad has made this point as well – that in discussions with the Taliban, they have been candid and they have said publicly that they did not in the 1990s recognize the importance of international legitimacy, that they did not recognize the advantages it would – that would come with it.
More practically, this is – international legitimacy, of course, it’s a virtue, it’s a good thing, but there are some practical realities that come along with it. And so beyond international approval or condemnation, legitimacy bestows and essentially is the ticket to the levels of international assistance, humanitarian assistance for the Afghan people, international funding and assistance for any future government in Afghanistan. That would be required for any future government, again, to have any semblance of durability. There are other practical implications. They want sanctions lifted, they want the ability to travel, to engage in international diplomacy. None of that would be possible were they to continue down this path, were they to attempt to take the country by force, were they not to respect the fundamental rights and freedoms of the Afghan people – not only the fundamental rights and freedoms, but going back to Matt’s first question, the hard-won gains of the past 20 years, those gains that the United States was integral to helping the Afghan people secure.
So it is a – it is about much more than legitimacy. It’s about what legitimacy can lead to both for – in terms of support and on the other side of the ledger.
QUESTION: So a follow-up on that: Given that any U.S. assistance to the Afghan Government, whether it includes the Taliban in the future or not, would be funneled through the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, have there been any discussions by Ambassador Khalilzad or others in the State Department with the Taliban to assure the security of the U.S. embassy in the future?
And also to follow up on my colleague’s very good question about other diplomatic missions from other countries pulling out of Afghanistan right now, is the United States engaged with discussions with any of those missions to try to persuade them to stay?
MR. PRICE: So this is a challenge that we have treated as a collective challenge since not only this administration, but it really goes back to the earliest days of America’s engagement in Afghanistan in 2001. More recently, with the diplomacy, again, we have brought together a broad swath of countries in various formats and forms. The – I can just give you a sampling of some of the countries that have been a part of various elements of this process. I’ve mentioned Russia, China, Pakistan, the EU, France, Germany, Italy, NATO, Norway, the UK, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, NATO, of course, Spain, Sweden, India, Qatar, of course, Turkey, Indonesia – the list goes on. These are countries who have lent their voices, who have lent their – engaged diplomatically in this process. We have, the United States has, on a bilateral and a multilateral basis, discussed our objectives with many of these countries. We have with many, if not most of them, interests that are quite well aligned.
Look, the presence and staffing of any given country in Afghanistan is going to be a sovereign decision. The United States, we have and will continue to make our own decisions based on, first and foremost, the threat assessment, the safety and security of our people. Other countries will be doing the same. We’ve talked about this in the context of Hamid Karzai International Airport, in the imperative of a functioning and operable international airport, to sustaining the operations at our embassy. It’s also important to other embassies on the ground. But ultimately, it’s going to be a question for individual countries as to what they’re comfortable with, consistent with their interests and their goals. Fortunately, we do share not only goals and interests, but also values with many of these countries as they apply to Afghanistan.
Remind me of your first question. Your —
QUESTION: Has Ambassador Khalilzad or anybody else in the State Department discussed the security and the future of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul with the Taliban?
MR PRICE: So, of course, the U.S.-Taliban agreement – the Taliban did make commitments when it comes to U.S. forces and coalition forces on the ground. We are taking a number of steps – those include with physical security, that includes with diplomacy – to do everything we can to ensure the safety, security, welfare, and well-being of our diplomats and U.S. Government presence on the ground. But I’m not in position to detail that further.
QUESTION: Okay. Just to clarify one thing: That long list of countries that you read off, you’re not saying that they have all committed to keeping their diplomatic missions.
MR PRICE: No. No, no, no. These are countries that in one form or fashion have made the point that any government that seeks to take Afghanistan by force will lack international legitimacy.
QUESTION: Yes, staying on Afghanistan, the Taliban issued a statement denying the killing of innocent civilians and driving people from their homes. That’s something that you’ve cited evidence saying that that’s happening. I wonder if that – is it – does the U.S. have its own evidence for that? And Taliban are saying they would be willing to be part of a – to form a team with the UN and the ICRC to conduct some kind of independent investigation. Is that something that you would support? Is that something that’s been discussed in Doha or – and if it did happen, could it be impartial if it includes members of the Taliban?
MR PRICE: I am not aware of any ongoing discussions for a joint investigation the likes of which you described, and that’s for a very simple reason: There is, everywhere you look, compelling data points, evidence, imagery, of the violence, the bloodshed, the potential atrocities that the Taliban are committing. The embassy has been very clear about this. We have – can see it with our own eyes from some of the footage that’s emerging. It’s one of the reasons why we are doing everything we can to accelerate the efforts of the international community to speak with one voice, to condemn what’s going, and beyond that, to seek a diminution of the violence, a ceasefire, and a political settlement among the parties.
QUESTION: And just to follow up, the – Al Jazeera is reporting that the head of the Afghan Reconciliation Committee is saying the Taliban was not showing seriousness in the peace talks and it’s clear that they don’t believe in a political solution. Obviously, you’ve talked about this, but I wonder if you – people who are involved in these talks don’t have any faith in the Taliban’s seriousness, so.
MR PRICE: I’m not sure it’s accurate to say the Afghan Government doesn’t have any faith. The fact that Abdullah Abdullah is there in Qatar, that they are taking – that they have sent a high-level representative this week, I think speaks to the recognition that yes, this process has been too slow, yes, we would like to see these talks achieve meaningful progress. We would have liked to have seen that weeks ago. But despite all the challenges, despite what we’re seeing, that, again, diplomacy is the only means through which we can achieve a diminution of the violence, a ceasefire, and ultimately a just and durable political solution.
The other point that is relevant is that throughout history – and I made this point yesterday – it is not the case that peace talks require peace on the ground. Very rarely have you looked at instances of peace negotiations only to find peace on the ground. So with the levels of violence, we are doing everything we can to encourage the international community to step up, and doing everything we can to support meaningful progress towards diminishing the violence and setting this process back on the path towards a ceasefire and a durable solution. Yes.
QUESTION: Marcin Wrona, TVN Discovery from Poland. Today the ruling party in Poland is pushing hard in the parliament to pass a law forcing Discovery, an American company and the owner of our network, which is the largest American investment in Poland, out of the country. So in fact the goal is to silence the largest independent TV network in Poland. Do you have a comment on this?
MR PRICE: I do. Well, first, let me just say thank you for being here. Certainly this law – if this law were to go into force, it would have a very personal impact on you and your colleagues, and we appreciate that and we understand that. And it is part and parcel of the reason why we’ve been so vocal on this.
There are actually two pieces of legislation that are before the Polish parliament. One is the media law you referenced. The other is the Holocaust restitution legislation. We are watching these legislative efforts in Poland on media and Holocaust restitution very closely. Poland is an important NATO Ally that understands, importantly, that the transatlantic alliance is based not only on mutual interests when it comes to our shared security, but also mutual commitments to shared democratic values and prosperity.
When it comes to the media law, we know that a free and independent media – they make our democracies stronger. It makes the transatlantic alliance more resilient, including to those who would seek to divide the alliance and divide us, and it is a fundamental component of our bilateral relationship with Poland. And so that is why we have urged Poland to – the Government of Poland to demonstrate its commitments to these principles, which are indeed shared, not only in words but in deed. And the government now has that opportunity.
QUESTION: Let me follow up quickly. Counselor Derek Chollet was in Poland and he talked with the Polish authorities. A bipartisan group from the Senate and also a bipartisan group from the House of Representatives sent letters to the authorities in Poland, and all of that to no effect. So how do you intend to talk with Warsaw? How do you intend to engage with the authorities in Poland?
MR PRICE: Well, we have engaged with authorities in Warsaw at very high levels. You did mention Counselor Chollet was there in person. I can tell you that some of the most senior people in this building, including in recent hours, have had discussions with senior Polish officials on these very subjects.
Look, both of these bills are before the Polish parliament. The Government of Poland now has an opportunity to show that both in – to show in deed and not only in word that it stands by the values that unite our transatlantic alliance and the values that bind the United States and Poland. So we’ll be watching very closely.
QUESTION: Did you want to say something about the restitution law —
MR PRICE: So on the restitution law – this is the other piece of legislation that we are watching very closely and quite concerned with, and we’re concerned by any steps that would impede the ability of Holocaust survivors and their families, as well as other Jewish and non-Jewish property owners, to attain restitution or compensation for property wrongfully confiscated during Poland’s communist era. So we’re also watching that very closely.
QUESTION: Okay. And then you also said that there have been – today, within the last couple hours? Can you be a little bit more specific about who was in touch with the Poles about this?
MR PRICE: I wouldn’t want to offer any additional detail, but very high levels.
QUESTION: All right. Okay. Well, as – oh, very high levels? Okay.
QUESTION: Do you mean the offer that was delayed in Pakistan?
QUESTION: It was delayed, so do you have any response to the fact that it’s not – that the opposition managed to delay consideration of this until next month?
MR PRICE: I don’t have a specific comment on that, but we’ll be watching very, very carefully.
QUESTION: Just a follow-up.
MR PRICE: Let me move over just to anyone who hasn’t gotten a question. Shaun.
QUESTION: Can I just do – stay in the region, on Belarus.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: The Belarusian – the Lukashenka regime, ordering the United States to reduce its diplomatic presence. Do you have any reaction to that? And in light of the U.S. – Ambassador Fisher’s status, how would the U.S. actually be affected by this order?
MR PRICE: Sure. Well, as you alluded to, authorities in Minsk today – and this was relayed via the Belarusian ministry of foreign affairs – informed the United States that it is imposing new limits on American diplomatic and technical personnel at our embassy in Minsk effective next month, September 1. The regime has also recalled its agreement to receive Julie Fisher as U.S. ambassador to Belarus. It is important to remember in all of this and to acknowledge that Belarusian authorities are responsible for the deterioration in U.S.-Belarus relations through relentless repression against their citizens. And that includes through the intensifying crackdowns that we have seen targeting members of civil society, targeting media, targeting athletes, students, legal professionals, and other citizens.
And that’s why in response to these events, the White House and the broader administration announced just this week on August 9th the strongest set of sanctions on the Lukashenko regime to date. What we know is that a sovereign, independent Belarus that respects the democratic will of its citizens, their human rights, and the country’s international obligations, that is in not only the interests of the Belarusian people, but also the United States. We are disappointed to be where we are now in terms of our relationship with Belarus, but we’ll continue to work with our allies and partners to promote shared interests.
When it comes to Ambassador Fisher and your question, the United States Government, Ambassador Fisher, personnel at our embassy in Minsk, they will continue to support the democratic aspirations of the people of Belarus. U.S. diplomats will continue to engage with Belarusians, including leaders of the pro-democracy movement, media professionals, students, and other elements of civil society, wherever they are.
QUESTION: In the interest of time, let me just go to something else, to Sudan. The transitional government say that they’re willing to hand over Omar al-Bashir to the ICC. That, of course, has long been a goal the of United States. Do you have any reaction to this?
MR PRICE: Well —
QUESTION: Has there been any U.S. discussions with them on this?
MR PRICE: Well, we do welcome the reconfirmation by the council of ministers, or the cabinet, of its intention to hand over former President Bashir and other former officials wanted by the ICC for crimes in Darfur. We look forward to joint action by the cabinet and the sovereign council to finalize and execute this decision. We urge Sudan to continue to cooperate with the ICC by handing over those subject to arrest warrants and by cooperating on the provision of the requested evidence. Doing so would be a major step for Sudan in the fight against decades of impunity.
QUESTION: I have just a quick follow-up on Shaun’s Belarus question. I believe the Minsk authorities wanted to reduce the U.S. embassy presence to five. Do you know what it is currently? How much of a decrease of that and how much of a problem would that be for the embassy there?
MR PRICE: I don’t have our current staffing figures for the embassy in Minsk, but Belarusian authorities have indicated that they will be reducing the size of their mission to the United States to five diplomats, and have requested that we limit the size of our embassy in Minsk to five American diplomats by the deadline of September 1st.
QUESTION: Just going back to Rich’s question about sanctions on the Taliban, sort of related to it, yesterday you mentioned that the U.S. was not taking any tools off the table with regard to what it could impose on the Taliban and would use those tools if the State Department deemed them appropriate. It seems like now would be an appropriate time to use any tools the U.S. has at its disposal. So could you maybe go into more detail about what tools you’re referring to and when would be appropriate to use those tools?
MR PRICE: Well, there are any number of forms of leverage that the – our partners in this effort have. I’ve mentioned, both today and yesterday, the leverage that the Government of Afghanistan has in the form – in many ways, but of course, importantly, in the form of its armed forces – 300,000 trained soldiers, an air force, heavy equipment, continuing support from the United States. There are other countries in the region that can exert influence and leverage over the Taliban.
We are – this is part of why we are continuing to galvanize international attention, international support to the diplomacy. We have, the United States has important sources of leverage too. That includes both carrots and sticks. I don’t think it’s prudent for us to preview what we might do, but the fact is that we will not hesitate – if we think it will be in the interests of the people of Afghanistan, if we think it is an appropriate recourse – to use any and all tools at our disposal. The one tool we have taken off the table, of course, is the reintroduction of U.S. service members, because this President, in the priority he attaches that he attaches to the safety, security of American citizens, including of course our service members. We have concluded that the United States will no longer use our service members as sources of leverage in a negotiation, something that had not borne fruit previously. Beyond that, though, we have any number of sources of leverage and we’ll be prepared to use them if it’s appropriate.
Yes. Let me go right over here.
QUESTION: Hi. I’d like to go to the topic of summit of the democracies in December. Has the administration finalized the invitees? How would you draw a line between who is democracy that is qualified to be invited and who isn’t? Because we know that some countries claim they are democracies when they are not in other standards. For example, China claims that it has its own brand of democracy with, quote, “Chinese characteristics,” unquote.
MR PRICE: What I can say is that we have reached out to a regionally diverse set of both well-established as well as emerging democracies whose progress and commitments will advance a more just and peaceful world.
Our goal in all of this in putting together the virtual summit for later this year is to be as inclusive as possible, and of course we have to do so within logistical constraints. But we are, therefore, considering additional opportunities to ensure that even beyond this virtual gathering, all relevant voices and viewpoints can feed into the summit process. And we’ll continue working with summit participants and other governments around the world to – and let me just say, those other participants include nongovernmental participants, nongovernmental stakeholders, civil society, and other actors to address democratic backsliding, promote respect for human rights, defend against corruption both at home and abroad, whether that work occurs within or outside of the summit framework.
QUESTION: So having the private sector involved, would you be strengthening, like, technology security and supply chain issues and all of those topics? Could you give us some more color to what the summit would look like?
MR PRICE: Well, we’ll have much more on this in the coming weeks. But let me just say that this summit, as we see it, is an opportunity to engage, listen, and speak honestly about the challenges that democracies face. It’s an opportunity to work together with likeminded governments, civil society, and the private sector on meaningful new commitments and new initiatives and to cooperatively build a foundation for democratic renewal globally.
This is not just a forum for sharing thoughts. This is a forum for putting forward concrete ideas, concrete commitments. That is part of what we have solicited in our initial outreach to countries around the world, asking them to be bold, to be ambitious in terms of what they might be able to bring forward, and we look forward to having that discussion with participants in the coming weeks and several months.
QUESTION: Can I just have one more question on North Korea?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: I’m sorry.
MR PRICE: Okay.
QUESTION: Yeah. North Korea has issued a warning to U.S. and South Korea again. It said the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercise risks provoking, quote, “a serious security crisis.” With consecutive statements coming from the DPRK’s senior officials, does the U.S. see this North Korea action as escalating tension?
MR PRICE: Look, I don’t want to – I wouldn’t want to offer an assessment as to what may or may not be the message from the DPRK. What I will do is reiterate our message, and it’s a very simple one. The joint military exercises, they are purely defensive in nature. We have long maintained the United States harbors no hostile intent towards the DPRK. We remain – it is true we remain committed to the security of the Republic of Korea and our defined – combined defense posture in accordance with the ironclad alliance we have with the ROK.
We support intra-Korean dialogue, we support intra-Korean engagement, and will continue to work with our ROK partners to that end.
A couple final questions, Andrea and Simon.
QUESTION: You talked about using all leverage with the Taliban. Are you prepared to use leverage against American banks who, according to a lawsuit filed by Gold Star families, including the family of Anne Smedinghoff, a revered and decorated Foreign Service officer who lost her life in 2013 in Afghanistan, to go after banks that are headquartered here that are allegedly money-laundering and getting money to the Taliban?
MR PRICE: Our efforts when it comes to illicit finance, we have many tools at our disposal. Again, I think it is far too tactical for me to entertain a question like that from here at this point. But the point remains we are and will be prepared to use any tool that in our estimation can provide – would provide an advantage to what we seek to do. And ultimately, that is to bring about stability, security to the people of Afghanistan.
QUESTION: Could you take a question on that?
MR PRICE: We’ll see if we can provide anything, but I just don’t think we’re going to be in a position to offer anything specific.
QUESTION: You had at the top some comments about Austin Tice. There’s another American who’s detained overseas, Danny Fenster in Myanmar. I saw – I wanted to bring to your attention his brother, Bryan Fenster, on Twitter he acted – he tagged you in his tweet but I don’t think you responded, but he’s asking for – there’s a – the fact that there’s an American journalist still wrongly imprisoned 80 days later in Myanmar. What is the Biden administration doing to bring Danny Fenster home?
MR PRICE: Well, this is a priority for us. It’s a priority for us for a couple of reasons. As we’ve said about Austin Tice, the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens is – it’s a highest priority of the U.S. Government, and we remain deeply concerned over the continued detention of Danny Fenster, who was working as a journalist in Burma. We are closely monitoring his situation. We continue to press Burma’s military regime to release Danny immediately. We will do so until he is able to return home safely to his family. Danny is a journalist, as I said. We’ll also continue to make the point that journalism is not a crime. A free and independent media, it’s indispensable to building prosperous, resilient, free societies. The continued detention of Danny, the arrests of other journalists, the use, the employment of the Burmese military against members of the media – that constitutes an unacceptable attack on freedom of expression in Burma. Consular officers have spoken with Danny several times by phone. Members of his family have also been on those calls. And we’ll continue to urge Burmese authorities to effect his immediate release. That continues to be our goal.
QUESTION: Is that contact with consular officials ongoing? Because there was a protest in the Insein Prison and I think they lost contact for a while. At the moment, they’re in regular contact?
MR PRICE: It has been – it has been several weeks, I understand, since we’ve been able to be in contact. But consular officers, the embassy in Burma is following this case very closely.
QUESTION: Ned, if it’s the case that journalism is not a crime, then why do you have a problem saying that what you believe – that you do not believe that Julian Assange is a journalist? Or – or you do believe that he’s a journalist and you just don’t care?
MR PRICE: No, it’s actually a procedural issue. The fact that he —
QUESTION: So journalism is not a crime, right?
MR PRICE: Journalism is not a crime, Matt.
QUESTION: Okay, but not in the case of Julian Assange? Or you don’t believe he’s a journalist? If you – it’s a really – it’s a binary choice.
MR PRICE: Matt —
QUESTION: It’s really easy, Ned.
MR PRICE: The Department of Justice is handling this matter, okay?
QUESTION: Yeah. Okay.
MR PRICE: Journalism is not a crime.
MR PRICE: We have made that very clear.
QUESTION: But unless it’s Julian Assange. Or you don’t believe that he’s a journalist.
MR PRICE: Matt, you can talk to the Department of Justice. They have put forward —
QUESTION: I sit here every day.
MR PRICE: — public charging documents and other documents. I would refer you to those. When you ask about pending cases, whether the case is an extradition of Julian Assange or anyone else —
QUESTION: He just asked about a pending case in Burma, and you were —
MR PRICE: Not an extradition case, Matt.
QUESTION: Well, no, but I mean you – but —
MR PRICE: No, but it is – it’s very simple. Matt, it’s —
QUESTION: Danny Fenster has been —
MR PRICE: It’s very simple, and I’m surprised you’re having trouble understanding. We don’t speak to extradition cases.
QUESTION: I’m asking you not about an extradition case.
MR PRICE: You are asking —
QUESTION: I’m asking you whether you believe Julian Assange is a journalist or not.
MR PRICE: You are asking me about —
QUESTION: How is that —
MR PRICE: You are —
QUESTION: How does that have anything to do with extradition? Do you believe that what he was doing is journalism or not?
MR PRICE: Thank you all very much.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:14 p.m.)