3:05 p.m. EDT
The Department of State is working around the clock to facilitate the swift, safe evacuation of American citizens, Special Immigrant Visa holders, and other vulnerable Afghans. We remain committed to accelerating flights for SIVs and other vulnerable Afghans as quickly as possible. The safety and security of U.S. government employees and U.S. citizens overseas is our top priority as well.
The Department of Defense has secured Hamid Karzai International Airport so that military and commercial flights can resume. Our staff on the ground is communicating with American citizens in Kabul who are not at the airport with instructions on when and how to get there. We have communicated to the first tranche of American citizens who have requested evacuation assistance. Our team is working hand-in-glove with military colleagues to help load planes safely and securely, and as fast as possible.
We’ve now completed our drawdown to the core diplomatic presence we need, and at this time we will no longer – at this time no longer need to facilitate departures for our embassy personnel. All remaining embassy staff will be assisting departures from Afghanistan, and the department is surging resources and Consular Affairs personnel to augment the relocation of American citizens and Afghan special immigrants – special immigrants, and elsewhere adding personnel to assist with P-1/P-2 adjudication processing.
We’ve successfully relocated many of our locally employed staff and are in direct contact with the remainder to determine who is interested in relocation and the process for doing so.
Ambassador John Bass – a seasoned career diplomat and former ambassador to Afghanistan, Turkey, and Georgia – is heading to Kabul today to lead logistics coordination and consular efforts. A career member of the Senior Foreign Service, Ambassador Bass brings decades of experience from service at seven U.S. missions overseas and in leadership positions, including executive secretary, here in Washington. Ambassador Wilson, who has remained in Kabul, will continue to lead our diplomatic engagement.
At the same time, there is intensive work by our Afghanistan Task Force – with colleagues working 24/7 here in Washington and at posts around the world. This is a whole-of-government effort, and we will continue to respond quickly to evolving conditions.
Secretary Blinken has been in constant contact with his foreign counterparts. Just today he spoke with Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed Abdulrahman Al-Thani and Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Sabah, thanking them for assistance in facilitating the transit of U.S. citizens and Embassy Kabul personnel through Doha and Kuwait City. He has also continued to be in close and regular contact with the President and the broader national security and foreign policy team.
So with that, happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: Ned, just extremely briefly on Ambassador Bass. So what exactly – he’s going to oversee the evacuation?
MR PRICE: So this is in addition to —
QUESTION: And if that’s what it is, then why didn’t he go several days ago or last week?
MR PRICE: So this is a massive logistical undertaking. The – our presence, our diplomatic presence in Kabul, this is a focus of theirs. Obviously, there is a lot of other important business that needs to get done from management to engagements with the – with Afghans. And so what Ambassador Bass will be doing is overseeing the logistics of this rather large, rather ambitious, expansive operation. He’ll be using and leveraging his managerial expertise and logistics experience to help Ambassador Wilson and the broader Embassy Kabul management team with this challenge.
QUESTION: All right. I guess – but he’s not going there, like, to negotiate with the Taliban or anything like that?
MR PRICE: He is not. He is going there to work on the nuts and bolts of this, just given how logistically challenging this is.
QUESTION: Okay. And then I’m sure you saw Jake’s briefing at the White House, but he said that you do have an agreement with the Taliban to allow safe passage for people to get to the airport. My question is, though: If you have such an agreement for that, one, how long does it go for? And then two, if you have an agreement for the airport, why couldn’t you have gotten an agreement for the embassy? Why just leave this very expensive, large compound empty and open for whoever wants to go into it?
MR PRICE: Well, to your first question, we have received assurances from the Taliban that they will allow safe passage to civilians transiting to the airport. Let me just be very clear about this. We take it for what it is. These are the words of the Taliban. We will, of course, be looking for one thing and one thing only, and that is follow-through. It is our expectation that they allow safe passage, that they allow us to conduct our operations on the Hamid Karzai International Airport compound, and that, of course, they not target civilians who are making that transit to the airport.
I would reiterate another point here, and that is that it is not just the United States that is calling for this. It is not something that is merely enshrined in international law. Yesterday, I spoke about a joint statement that the United States put together with 98 signatories. Over the course of the past day, that has the signatories have grown. There are now over 100 countries, countries from Albania to Zambia, who have signed on to this statement calling on all parties to respect and facilitate the safe and orderly departure of foreign nationals and Afghans who wish to leave the country. Part and parcel of that is safe passage to the HKIA compound.
QUESTION: There are embassies that are not evacuating. They’re not – the Chinese and the Russians are still there. They’re, like, going about day-to-day business, so —
MR PRICE: This is a sovereign decision that every country will have to come to.
MR PRICE: When it comes to the United States, you have heard us say before that this President has no higher priority, Secretary Blinken has no higher priority, than the safety and security of Americans who are serving overseas. That is why as the situation began to change rapidly late last week, we made the decision to begin relocating our embassy presence to the airport compound. Of course, that was accelerated as the conditions continued to evolve in the ensuing days.
QUESTION: Ned, can I get some meatier reaction from you on the Taliban press conference? I’m sure you’ve seen they’ve made a number of assurances, and the world obviously takes it with a pinch of salt. Jake Sullivan spoke to it a little bit. He also said that he wanted the team to be able to talk to Taliban. What does that exactly mean? What is the U.S. plan in terms of engagement? What is the bigger strategy going forward in terms of recognizing them?
And I want to squeeze in the second one while I can. Kosovo, Albania has said they’ll take in SIV applicants. North Macedonia also did. Uganda did. Could you give us a few details about the plan here for these countries in terms of numbers? And what is the latest in the negotiations with Kuwait in terms of SIV applicants?
MR PRICE: Great. There’s a lot there. Let me try and remember all of that and take it in turn.
QUESTION: I will remind you if you need me to.
MR PRICE: Okay, I’m sure you will.
So when it comes to our engagement with the Taliban, we made clear yesterday that even as the situation on the ground began to change markedly over the course of the last week, we remain engaged – remained engaged with Taliban interlocutors in Doha. This is the channel that had been operative for some time that we used together with the international community to support the intra-Afghan dialogue. Of course, through our support for the intra-Afghan dialogue, we took part in separate discussions on a regular basis. Every time the special representative for Afghan reconciliation was in Doha, he would meet separately with representatives of the Islamic Republic; that is to say, the Government of Afghanistan and Taliban representatives. That has continued. That continued over the course of the weekend.
Now, as the situation began to change, of course, so did – so too did the focus of those talks. It became less narrowly focused on achieving a political outcome and supporting that, and it became much, much more focused on the safety, security of our people on the ground, of civilians on the ground, everything that we could be in a position to do to limit any violence, to limit any bloodshed in Kabul. So that is the channel in Doha.
We have also said that there has been engagement with the Taliban on the ground in Kabul. This is a military-led channel. It is a channel that is tactical that, again, is focused rather squarely on issues like safe passage for civilians. That is what we are working on concertedly right now. It is manifestly in our interest to have these open channels of dialogue with the Taliban.
Again, as you heard from the national security advisor, we have received assurances. But what matters – the only thing that matters to us – are actions and not necessarily just words. We’re going to be looking through the – we’re going to be looking for the follow-through. We’ll be looking for the deeds.
I mentioned in the context of the safe passage a statement that the United States galvanized and released about 48 hours ago, a little less than that, regarding safe passage for civilians in Kabul. There’s another notable document that I called your attention to yesterday but is still rather noteworthy in this regard, and that’s the statement that emanated from the UN Security Council – the unanimous statement of the UN Security Council – calling for the immediate cessation of all hostilities and the establishment, through inclusive negotiations, of a new government, and a new government that enshrines, that protects, that upholds the basic rights of all Afghans. So this is something we continue to support, a political resolution to what we are seeing unfold.
Perhaps even more importantly, this is something the international community continues to support in very tangible ways, including by speaking unanimously as the Security Council, which as you know, is often not an easy feat. These are some of our —
QUESTION: Ned, this was – this was all yesterday.
MR PRICE: That’s right.
QUESTION: What about the press conference today?
MR PRICE: Which element of it?
QUESTION: Well, I mean, what is your reaction to it? You’ve heard them give a number of assurances. How are you going to form your strategy?
MR PRICE: Well —
QUESTION: Are you thinking about recognizing them? All of this is like, I get it, but you’ve said very similar things, almost identical, yesterday.
MR PRICE: Again, any future relationship between the Taliban and the United States, or the Taliban and much of the international community for that matter, which is what we saw reflected by the UN Security Council, is going to matter – is going to be predicated on deeds. Words matter, words are important, words can be reassuring, words can signal, but what we are going to be looking for are deeds. We want to see the follow-through. If the Taliban says that they are going to respect the rights of their citizens, we will be looking for them to uphold that statement, to make good on that statement. Just as importantly, the world is going to be looking for them to make good on that statement. The United States will be watching closely and the broader international community will be watching closely with us.
QUESTION: On that point, you say you have an agreement with them to let civilians pass checkpoints into the airport. We’ve heard from multiple Afghans – my colleagues are interviewing a family right now who were stopped at checkpoints by the Taliban and prevented from getting to the airport. This is not a singular case. Furthermore, President Biden yesterday said some of the Afghans who qualified for SIV status chose not to leave. When Jen Psaki just spoke, she said there was a contingent that did not take advantage and depart. That’s a different thing. And what we’ve heard from Afghans on the ground is they didn’t depart because they couldn’t get to the airport. Is it my understanding that the U.S. is still not providing any transportation, either to Americans or to SIVs trying to get to the airport to depart for – on these planes?
MR PRICE: I’ll tell you what we are doing. We are doing everything we possibly can in a very fluid and dynamic and challenging security environment —
QUESTION: I understand that, but is transportation one of those things?
MR PRICE: — to bring to safety as many people who wish to do so. There are broad categories of individuals that we’re prioritizing. In the first instance, we repatriated many of our embassy staff.
QUESTION: Ned, that’s not my question. My question is: Are you providing any kind of transportation for people who need to get to the airport? Are you considering a safe zone around the airport to make it easier for people to access these flights if they qualify?
MR PRICE: We are doing everything we can in a challenging and dynamic security environment. We are —
QUESTION: It’s a yes-or-no question.
MR PRICE: We are engaging with the Taliban. We’ve heard these assurances of safe passage. Again, their words are only worth their words. We are going to be looking for follow-through. We are going to be —
QUESTION: But they’re not following through, is what I’m telling you.
MR PRICE: We are we are watching very closely, Christina. This is a fluid situation. As I – my colleague mentioned, we notified the first tranche of American citizens in Afghanistan yesterday who had – well, overnight, I should say – who had expressed an interest in being repatriated to the United States. Those – many of those individuals arrived at the airport. Many of them have been repatriated. U.S. military flights today —
QUESTION: But two of them are telling us right now they can’t get to the airport and they’ve gone back home. So my question is —
MR PRICE: I can’t speak to individual cases. What I can speak to is what we are seeking to do. We are doing everything within our power to effect a passage, effect a corridor of safe passage for civilians. Of course, that includes American citizens who are seeking to make their way to HKIA for repatriation, safe passage for other civilians, whether those are Afghans who have been referred for P-1, for P-2, for the SIV program, for our locally engaged staff at the embassy. We are going to continue to do all we can. This is a dynamic – it’s a fluid security environment. If we’re in a position to do more, I can guarantee you we will do as much as we can. The limiting —
QUESTION: That’s not something you can do at the moment?
MR PRICE: At the moment we are doing everything we can to allow civilians to be able to transit to the airport. The – our message remains for American citizens and for others who have expressed interest in relocation out of Afghanistan: shelter in place until and unless you receive a communication from the U.S. Embassy. As I said, we notified the first tranche of American citizens overnight who had expressed interest in being repatriated. In those messages, we provide specific information about precisely where they should go on the airport compound, and it tells them precisely when to go. This is, again, a challenging security environment, so unless and until individuals are instructed by the U.S. Embassy to make their way to the HKIA compound, we are asking them to remain in place.
QUESTION: Right. But these are people who have been instructed and they can’t get there. So what is your advice to the Americans who have been notified, they have the email from you, they have the instructions, they can’t get there, they went back home, and they’re hiding in their apartments?
MR PRICE: We tell them in our communications that their safety needs to be their top priority. If they feel that it is unsafe for them to make their way to the airport, they should not seek to do so. We will continue to do all we can to – and we will continue to be in touch with them, I should say, to provide clear guidance about when and how they should make their way to the airport compound.
QUESTION: Ned, can you answer the SIV question before you move on? You didn’t address it.
MR PRICE: Sorry, what was the – what was the SIV question?
QUESTION: You guys are having all of these talks with Kosovo, Albania, and what is the latest with Kuwait? The Secretary had a phone call with the Kuwaiti foreign minister.
MR PRICE: So the Secretary did have phone calls today – plural – with Kuwaiti – with his Kuwaiti and Qatari counterparts. He took advantage of those calls to thank them for their willingness to allow safe transit of individuals who we are relocating from Afghanistan. We have had – we’ve received in recent days, even recent hours, we’ve heard very generous offers from a number of different countries. Some of those offers have been very public – as in the case you referenced, of course, our neighbors to the north – Canada has demonstrated extraordinary generosity in opening their doors for individuals who wish to relocate from Afghanistan.
We are in touch with a number of countries who may be interested in hosting or in some way facilitating the safe passage of individuals seeking to depart Afghanistan. We are also asking countries around the world to step up, to demonstrate their goodwill, their generosity of spirit to these vulnerable Afghans that the United States – and I should say the Department of State, working hand in hand with the Department of Defense – is doing everything we can to relocate.
QUESTION: Do you have a number for Albania, Kosovo, Kuwait, or in total?
MR PRICE: I don’t have a number to give you right now.
QUESTION: Can I ask a couple of questions, Ned? First of all, what confidence do you have in the Taliban’s statement that women would be invited into the government and can have certain freedoms but under Sharia law? What does that mean to you?
MR PRICE: Well, it – I think what will matter is what that looks like, is what that looks like when and if we see it put into practice. Throughout this process, whether it was in Doha, whether it is now on the ground in Kabul, whether it is us parsing the Taliban’s public statements, we have never taken them squarely at their word. We have listened to what they have had to say. We have assessed what they are saying publicly and privately, arraying that against everything else we know and have heard and have learned. But throughout this process, we have never taken them squarely at their word. So —
QUESTION: But doesn’t that, by definition, just by their words, consign women to a different category than other workers in the government or others that they are talking about?
MR PRICE: Andrea, it is a – we have heard quite a bit from Taliban officials over the past hours and even several days. This is – we are taking stock of everything that they have said. Most importantly, we are going to be looking for how – at how they comport themselves, at the way they treat their people, at how they fulfill the obligation, the solemn obligation they have to respect the basic and fundamental rights of all of their people, including half of their citizens – the women and girls of Afghanistan. But I will say it is not just the United States that is watching closely. What is even more important here is that the international community is doing that. You saw that expressed in no uncertain terms by the UN Security Council and you have seen any number of countries come forward to say that they may be able to work with the Taliban if they guarantee these fundamental and basic rights of their citizens.
QUESTION: Let me follow up on that.
MR PRICE: Conversely – but conversely – and this is important – any government that denies those rights; that ignores the freedoms, the liberties, and the basic rights that every person on Earth should enjoy; a government that harbors terrorists, a government that takes hostages – those are – that is not, certainly, an entity that the United States could work with, and we’ve heard countries around the world say something very similar.
QUESTION: Well, let me ask you – well, let me press that, because you’re talking about the Security Council. A member of the Security Council, China, is moving towards recognition of the Taliban already.
MR PRICE: Well, look —
QUESTION: Without any guarantees of human rights or any other guarantees.
MR PRICE: It just so happens that China, the People’s Republic of China, is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. So I can tell you precisely what they said when they signed on to this statement on August 16th.
QUESTION: But what they’re doing today is moving towards recognizing the Taliban.
MR PRICE: I am going to have to defer to officials in Beijing to speak to what they’re doing. I can tell you precisely what they signed on to, precisely what —
QUESTION: But what does that tell you about their intent?
MR PRICE: I’m not here to divine the intent of the PRC Government. I am here to point out precisely what they have signed their name onto. The PRC Government signed off on —
QUESTION: We’ve seen the resolution.
MR PRICE: Well, and it’s an important – it is an important piece of paper because —
MR PRICE: — not only the PRC Government but other permanent and other members of the Security Council also signed onto it. But let me just make the point on the PRC and other governments: It is not only this UN Security Council statement. We have spoken, including in recent days, of a number of groupings of countries that have over the course of months or even longer lent their voices and their efforts to supporting an intra-Afghan dialogue, supporting a political settlement between the parties.
When it comes to the PRC, they are a member of the extended Troika. The extended Troika as recently as recent days has spoken with one voice about the need for a negotiated political settlement through a process that is owned and led by the Afghan people. A forceful takeover that ignores the basic and fundamental rights of those very Afghan people would not be consistent with what we have heard from any number of countries, including the PRC.
QUESTION: But that’s the situation on the ground. Well, let me ask you another question: The statement – highly unusual statement – from President Bush and Laura Bush, a joint statement about the urgent need to take care of refugees, including a much larger population. They’re calling for a much more expansive refugee program. They say that we have a responsibility, a moral responsibility, a legal responsibility; we have the resources. Members of Congress say they passed the legislation on the defense supplemental. It’s all there, and they’re talking about the kind of broader refugee program that goes well beyond the categories you have identified, that is closer to what we saw after Vietnam and the Cuban migrations. And in talking to Leon Panetta today and other former officials from many administrations, those migrations deeply enriched our country with people of great intellect and vigor and ability such as the Afghans.
So is the State Department going to go beyond these categories and, according to the Bushes, cut the red tape – that we have an obligation to get rid of all this bureaucratic red tape and with that supplemental and what the Congress passed – members of Congress, many Democrats, were saying that you guys are being way too bureaucratic in the requirements to get the people out of there and then process them.
MR PRICE: Andrea, that is precisely what we are trying to do. Our goal is to bring to safety as many Afghans as we possibly can for as long as we can. And we have spoken to the broad categories of Afghans for whom we are going to extraordinary lengths to bring them to safety. We have spoken about the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa holders, we have spoken about those so-called Priority 1 referrals to the U.S. Refugee Assistance Program, the new category for Afghans – these are Afghans who have helped the American people over the years, who have worked closely with U.S. organizations, NGOs —
QUESTION: But what about the larger program, Ned? And how do they get to Kabul?
MR PRICE: NGOs —
QUESTION: How do these people ever get to Kabul, no less the airport?
MR PRICE: — NGOs and media organizations as well. This was a broad and new category that we announced to resettle an even larger universe. But we are also working to do all we can for a category of Afghans we’re calling Afghans at risk, and Afghans at risk refers to women, it refers to girls; to human rights defenders, journalists, other civil society actors who might not otherwise qualify for the SIV program, for the P-1 referral or for the priority – so-called Priority 2 referral.
So, again, we are going to extraordinary lengths. We are gratified to have a partner in Congress that, in the course of – over the course of several weeks now, we have worked with, especially in the context of the SIV program, to cut some of that red tape. As you know, the SIV program, it is defined by statute. If memory serves, there are 14 steps that were written into statute that an SIV applicant would need to go to – to go through before he or she could be considered a special immigrant and be granted access to the United States.
But let me just offer a bit more context, because I think it’s important as to what we’ve done. When this administration came into office – and let me just take a step even further back. We have spoken of the SIV program, of course, in recent days and recent weeks. But this is a program that has existed for years now. The United States Government over the course of those many years has welcomed more than 76,000 Afghan special immigrants – that is to say, Afghans who at great personal risk to themselves or to their families have helped the United States Government over the years. In recent days alone, we have brought 2,000 of them to the United States, and most of them have now begun their new lives through refugee – through —
QUESTION: Ned, let me follow up on that. (Inaudible.)
MR PRICE: But Christina, I promise I’ll come back to you.
QUESTION: We understand, but we all have questions about today, so if you guys – if my colleagues want to go, that’s fine. But we know this history, Ned. We do. We’ve got limited time and we’ve got a lot of questions.
MR PRICE: I will come right back to you, but let me just – because I think the context is not unimportant. What is also true is that when we came into office, there was a large backlog of SIV applicants, of SIV applicants who had waited months or even longer. We have gone to extraordinary lengths since the earliest days of this administration to shorten that backlog, to cut some of that red tape. We have worked with Congress —
QUESTION: Congress says that it’s only because of their pressure, that you were way behind – not you personally, but that the State Department lagged terribly on this and that they had to force this legislation.
MR PRICE: This was a backlog, Andrea, that we inherited. When we came into office in January 20th, there were thousands upon thousands of special immigrant applicants who were in this backlog. We have been gratified to find a partner in Congress. We have worked with Congress to cut some of this bureaucratic red tape. Again, it’s a 14-step process. So on top of that, as the security situation began to change, of course, our embassy went on ordered departure on April 27th. Even with the ordered departure, we were able to surge additional resources to Kabul – consular officers specifically – to take on some of this backlog and to make progress. Just as we did that, we moved some of the functions that previously were being conducted in Kabul to the United States so that we could have even greater resources dedicated to that.
With those steps, we were able to cut many, many months off the average wait time for SIV applicants. Our embassy in Kabul, I should say, did all of this under stressful and tense circumstances and amidst a COVID outbreak. COVID, of course, played – was a limiting factor in terms of how much not only the last administration was able to do against this backlog but also for us, especially as COVID took a particularly severe turn at our embassy in Kabul. Over the course of April, May, June, July, if you look at the average processing times, we shaved significant processing times off of each of those applicants.
QUESTION: Okay, but over the course of those months, you’ve gotten 2,000 people out. You now have —
MR PRICE: That is not true.
QUESTION: Well, you’re up to – you just said – 2,000 was the number you said.
MR PRICE: Two thousand – if you would let me finish – so on top of all that, we started an ambitious, aggressive relocation effort, Operation Allies Refuge. We have relocated 2,000 Afghan special immigrants through Operation Allies Refuge. Many more – hundreds more – special immigrants were – traveled to the United States before Operation Allies Refuge began.
QUESTION: Okay, correct. So since Allies Refuge, you’ve gotten 2,000 people out. Two thousand. You now have less than 14 days to get how many – 40,000, 60,000 – with a limited staff at a tiny embassy that you’re operating out of the airport. I’m not impugning the difficulties for the State Department employees. I am sure they’re working hard. I’m sure they’re trying their best. But do you really think logistically it is possible to make any kind of a dent in that and get those people out?
Furthermore, what is the order for who is coming out of the airport? Is it – you said it’s not embassy staff anymore. So is it American citizens, then SIVs, then – look, who is coming out in what order? And if I’m a woman or a girl and I show up at the airport, does that qualify me as a P-2, as a person of special consideration?
MR PRICE: So a couple things. We are going to do, and we are doing as much as we can for as long as we can, to relocate, to bring to safety, whether that is to the United States or elsewhere, vulnerable Afghans, whether they are SIV applicants, whether they have refugee status, whether they fall into other vulnerable categories.
You’ve heard from DOD that the Department of Defense has been in a position to relocate tremendous lift capacity. So now that the airport is under the control of the Department of Defense, not only U.S. military aircraft have been able to land and take off, but also charter aircraft. It is also a goal of the United States and our international partners to see to it that the commercial flights are able to take off and land. This is something that we are working on very closely with our partners, with Afghans on the ground. The re-initiation of commercial operations will add a tremendous – would add tremendous capacity to those seeking to relocate from Afghanistan.
In terms of prioritization, of course, our first priority, our first responsibility, is always going to be to the American people. So we’ve spoken of our relocation and repatriation of our direct hire staff. That has now completed for the time being. I told you today that we have notified the first tranche of private American citizens who have expressed an interest in being repatriated to the United States. So those Americans —
QUESTION: (Inaudible) about 5,000?
MR PRICE: We’re not offering numbers, but it’s the first tranche, and I expect several tranches of Americans and their families – giving them explicit instructions about where and when to go. And we are going to do as much as we can for as long as we can for refugees or other vulnerable Afghans who may be interested in relocation.
QUESTION: Just a couple, Ned. So the embassy staff that are still in Kabul, is it your expectation that they will remain in Kabul indefinitely? And would they potentially return to the U.S. Embassy, or would that constitute recognition of whatever government comes next? I mean, are you thinking that they will leave once all these priority groups have been taken care of?
MR PRICE: Right now, Nick, we’re focused on the mission at hand. And the mission at hand is precisely what I was describing to Christina. That is, an effort to relocate – in some cases repatriate to the United States, in other cases to relocate to third countries – as many individuals as we can over as much time as we might have. Right now, we are thinking about this in terms of August 31st.
MR PRICE: If it is safe and responsible for us to potentially stay longer, that is something that we may be able to look at.
QUESTION: Stay longer, meaning the entire – the diplomatic presence that’s on the ground now?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry, say that again?
QUESTION: The diplomatic presence that’s on the ground now, you’re referring to them potentially staying longer?
MR PRICE: Look, we are – the first – our first responsibility has to be to the safety and security of our team on the ground. That is precisely why our embassy went on ordered departure on April 27th. It’s precisely why we conducted successive drawdowns of the embassy team after April 27th.
MR PRICE: It’s precisely why last Thursday we began the relocation to the Hamid Karzai International Airport and why we accelerated repatriations of our embassy staff after that.
MR PRICE: We are going to do as much as we can for as long as we can for vulnerable Afghans.
QUESTION: Okay. So then on Doha, just given what you said earlier about priorities shifting from negotiations with the Taliban to the other priority of reducing bloodshed, and given that senior Taliban leaders are now returning to the country, is it your expectation that Doha is essentially dead and it’s time to shift those conversations to some other format? I mean, what more can be gained out of Doha if the senior Taliban leadership are now back in the country and apparently or seemingly would have no incentive to negotiate power sharing when they basically control the entire country?
MR PRICE: Well, we believe that continued dialogue has the potential to be constructive. As I said yesterday, dialogue to date has had constructive elements. We have heard things that were welcome. We are going to be looking to that follow-through.
MR PRICE: So not the entire political office – the entire political office has not relocated to Kandahar or other parts of Afghanistan just yet. There are still Taliban representatives on the ground in Doha. But you are right that in many ways the center of gravity is shifting from Doha to Afghanistan. We will continue to adjust. As I said before, we adjusted the focus of our dialogue as the conditions on the ground began to change rapidly in recent days, and we’ll continue to do that going forward.
QUESTION: Okay, thanks. And then one last one from me, just following up on your issue of – you mention vulnerable groups and women being included in vulnerable groups. Would women in Afghanistan automatically qualify for P-2 status given their gender and the threats that the Taliban have made or the way that they’ve treated women in the past?
MR PRICE: So they’re really two different things. There is a so-called Priority 2 referral status for those who are referred to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.
MR PRICE: And that is defined in a set of categories. To be – to paraphrase, it’s individuals who have worked for U.S.-based NGOs, individuals who have worked for U.S.-based media organizations. I should say on that score, I think as many of you know, we expanded the definition of employment to see to it that stringers and contractors and those working on assignment can also qualify for the P-2 program.
But then, Nick, there is a separate category of so-called vulnerable Afghans. These are Afghans who, because of the course of their work, their advocacy, their name recognition, what they have done over the years to stand up for the rights of their fellow Afghans who may be especially vulnerable, that’s what we mean when we refer to vulnerable —
QUESTION: What about – what about their gender?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: What about their gender? I mean, is that —
MR PRICE: Well, in many cases, they have stood up and been forceful advocates for their fellow Afghan women and girls.
QUESTION: But what is the process for that? Do people need a referral of some kind at this point? And if you’re committed to safely evacuating them, why have them still go through this sort of paperwork in order to get out of the country?
MR PRICE: So when it comes to – when it comes to referrals, there are – we are and will be looking to relocate as many Afghans who may fall under the P-1 and P-2 categories as quickly as we can. We are going to continue sending very specific communications to American citizens, and we will provide guidance to others who may fall into these other categories about when and how they should seek to leave the country. In some cases, that may be through the U.S. military. In some cases, there may be charter operations. I can tell you that there are a number of American NGOs, private organizations, that are seeking to charter flights to bring to the United States or bring elsewhere individuals with whom they have worked on the ground over the course of many years.
So, yes, the United States Government is – has mounted this ambitious, large operation to bring to safety as many Afghans as we can for as long as we possibly can. But we have also been working very closely, including many people here at the State Department, working very closely with private American organizations, with NGOs who are also engaged in an effort, including in some cases with potential charter options.
QUESTION: If the U.S. was unable to foresee the speed of the fall of Kabul even with the Taliban down the road, when it comes to spotting an emerging threat from al-Qaida, for example, shouldn’t your allies now expect substantially less from the U.S. Government?
MR PRICE: We talked about this some yesterday, but it is especially important to us. In some ways, it is especially important to us because it has a direct bearing on our top priority, and that is the safety and security of the American people.
We know a couple things to be true. Over the course of the past 20 years, terrorist groups that have been active in Afghanistan, principally al-Qaida, the group that the United States military went into Afghanistan in October of 2001 to pursue, has been degraded and decimated. That is absolutely true. The terrorist threats that have emanated from Afghanistan in recent years have certainly not been on the scale of what we saw pre-9/11 or in the years post-9/11. And there is – there’s a couple reasons for that, but the overriding reason for that is the fact that our military and our broader U.S. government partners conducted their mission to degrade and to decimate that al-Qaida network there extraordinarily effectively. They accomplished the goal that successive American presidents set out for them.
It is also true that when our service members, Special Forces, intelligence agencies first went into Afghanistan in the early part of this millennium, they were operating with a set of tools that were far less effective than what the U.S. Government can muster now. Over the course of the past 20 years, technologies, strategies, tactics have been honed, have been refined, and we’ve seen the results of those in the degraded state —
QUESTION: And where were those tactics and techniques last week as Kabul fell?
MR PRICE: These are two separate things you’re talking about. Let me just talk about the terrorist threat and then I’ll go to what you’re referring to.
MR PRICE: When it comes to the terrorist threat, we have heard from our Intelligence Community that we have the capacity to observe and to respond decisively if we see a threat emerge in Afghanistan that poses a threat to the United States.
QUESTION: What if you don’t see it because you’re not there? Your contractors are gone.
MR PRICE: Andrea, Andrea, Andrea, there are many places where we don’t have American forces on the ground where we can and where we have responded decisively to terrorist threats that have emerged. Yemen is one example. Parts of Syria is another example. I could give you a litany of countries where we don’t have service members where we have responded effectively and decisively.
QUESTION: You do have service members in Syria.
MR PRICE: In parts of Syria, I said, where we have responded effectively and decisively. Now what you’re referring to is something entirely different. What you are referring to is the fact that we were taken by surprise. It is undeniable that we were surprised at the pace by which the Taliban were able to pursue their territorial advances and the speed with which they encroached on Kabul. But the decisive factor there was the way in which the Afghan National Security Forces, a force that on paper far outmatched what the Taliban had to muster by at least three to one – 300,000 trained, well-equipped Afghan forces that had an air force, that had heavy equipment, that had special forces, that had received technology from the U.S. Government – there was not the capacity or the will – they could not find the capacity or the will to take on the Taliban advance.
On top of that, there was the political question that was also unexpected. As you know, President Ghani and some of his colleagues left the country. They left the country quite suddenly. With that, with those two elements converging, it is absolutely true that we were surprised at the speed at which the Taliban were able to approach Kabul. But that has nothing to do with the ability that we have and that we will retain to take on terrorist threats that may seek to threaten the United States.
QUESTION: The Taliban today said they will not harbor foreign fighters to launch terrorist attacks abroad. Do you believe them?
MR PRICE: Again, we are going to listen to their words. What we will be looking for are their actions. It’s their deeds that matter to us, especially on a matter of utmost importance like this.
QUESTION: Can we do one – go ahead.
QUESTION: Just quickly —
QUESTION: Can we do a non-Afghan – go ahead, but can I get a non-Afghan question?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: While there is relative calm in Kabul, there are reports of atrocities in other cities that the Taliban hold. When – before the fall of Kabul, the embassy was corroborating some of those reports. Do you have anything to say about that? Do you have any confirmation of whether or not some of these atrocities have been committed – extrajudicial killings, harassment of women, things like that?
MR PRICE: We are going to be watching very closely. Right now, as we’ve said, this is a fluid situation. We, of course, had seen and the world had seen atrocities occur over the course of weeks and months as the Taliban’s campaign progressed. Over the past 72 hours, the conditions on the ground have changed dramatically. We are going to be watching very closely for a couple reasons. Number one, we are going to be working with the international community to do all we can to provide humanitarian assistance, to provide support to vulnerable Afghans – Afghans who may be at risk going forward from the Taliban. Now, of course, they claim otherwise, but we are going to be poised to work with the international community to pull every lever we can, to use every tool at our disposal with the international community to provide support and assistance.
But two, there’s the question of what comes next, the question not only of what the United States does vis-a-vis a future Afghan government, but what the international community does. And so this is another reason why we’re watching very closely. We have made very clear our expectations of any government with which we could be expected to work in Kabul. If that government doesn’t respect the basic rights of its own citizens, including the rights of its women and girls, that is not a government that we would be expected to work with. Importantly, it’s not a government that the rest of the world or at least much of the international community would be expected to work with.
And finally – but there’s a tangible element to this, and it’s a point that is quite important because it has practical implications. It is more than a matter of political recognition or diplomatic connectivity. It is a matter of – in some ways it’s an existential question. It has the potential to be an existential question for any government. We know that the government that had existed in Kabul over the past 20 years could not have endured were it not for the support of the United States, the largest bilateral donor, were it not for the support of the United Nations, were it not for the support of the international community.
The same could well be true of what comes next. It is a question of carrots. We certainly have carrots in terms of the assistance that any future government in Afghanistan might be expected to need. But also, the sources of leverage that we’ve talked about, the fact that working with our partners in the international community, working with the UN, there are significant costs that collectively we would be able to impose on any government that does not respect the basic rights of its people. And that’s something we’re prepared to do.
QUESTION: So if you’re saying that the behavior of that future government is what matters, what happened to the idea that any government imposed by the barrel of a gun is what mattered?
MR PRICE: We have always said that we, like our partners in the international community, supported a political settlement. We believe – present tense – we believe that a political settlement stands the best chance of offering protection, offering inclusion for the people of Afghanistan. We continue to believe that. If you take a look at what the members of the UN Security Council said, they continue to believe that.
QUESTION: But this group has seized power by force now, and they are not – they don’t care about those statements of what you believe. This is a terrorist organization that now has control of the country, and you’re saying that their future behavior is what you’ll weigh. How does what has happened for the last week and a half, months not matter more?
MR PRICE: It – all of this absolutely matters. All of this absolutely matters. And what we’re saying now will matter. It will matter to any future government not so much because the United States is saying it, but because, as you have seen over the past couple days, the international community, a broad swath of the international community, the countries that are – in many ways will be most important – Afghanistan’s neighbors, important stakeholders in the region, some of the most generous countries on the face of the earth, the countries that have allowed – had allowed the Afghan Government to endure over the past 20 years. When we’re speaking with one voice and we’re talking about assistance, potential assistance, or we’re talking conversely about the tools, the implications, the sources of leverage that we are prepared to wield against any government that does not respect the basic rights of its citizens, those are more than words. Those have practical consequences.
QUESTION: Wait, there is an assumption in the question that – you answered it positively – I just want to make sure that it’s correct. Do you believe that the Taliban has taken power by force, at the barrel of a gun?
MR PRICE: There has not been —
QUESTION: Did they —
MR PRICE: There has not been a formal transfer of power. Of course, it’s a fluid dynamic. There are ongoing discussions between Afghan leaders following —
QUESTION: So the – but the question was you – you said you would never recognize or deal with a government that had seized power by – at the barrel of a gun. You’re not prepared to make that statement yet, that the Taliban has seized power at the barrel of a gun, right?
MR PRICE: We are taking stock of what has transpired. There continues to be dialogue between Afghans, between representatives of the Taliban and representatives of the Islamic Republic.
QUESTION: Right. But you say that – you say also that the center of gravity has shifted from Doha to Afghanistan.
MR PRICE: Right.
QUESTION: Isn’t it clear from what’s happened over the past couple of months that the center of gravity was always in Afghanistan and never in Doha, and it was basically a waste of time —
MR PRICE: I’m not —
QUESTION: — in Doha?
MR PRICE: Look, we are not prepared to say that. We’re not prepared to say that for —
QUESTION: Because what happened in Doha has accomplished a great deal? What – I mean —
MR PRICE: Matt, when you —
QUESTION: I’m not trying to be sarcastic. I just want to know. I mean, do you think that anything that has been achieved in Doha since February 2020 has actually accomplished anything?
MR PRICE: The intra-Afghan dialogue, the discussions between the Afghans – in this case, the Taliban and the representatives of the Islamic Republic – those are ongoing. It matters very little whether that happens in Doha, whether that happens in Kandahar, whether that happens in Kabul. All along, our goal has not been to be prescriptive. Our goal has not been to forge a consensus, to create a consensus. Our goal has been to support that intra-Afghan dialogue, and it’s an intra-Afghan dialogue that remains ongoing.
QUESTION: Can I ask – just one – did you get an answer to my question about Bahrain from the other week? And if you don’t have it right there, I can get it later from you.
But then secondly, the Secretary – or you put out a statement semi-late last night about the Secretary – well, it was a comment from the Secretary about the legislation in Poland. And I’m just wondering if anything has changed since then, because the Israelis seem to have a stronger reaction than you did, at least on the restitution part, and I’m wondering – and suggesting that the U.S. and Israel – that they and the U.S. would be taking some kind of joint action. So is there anything new on that since the statement from last night?
MR PRICE: Well, you’re right, we did issue quite a strong statement from Secretary Blinken. What he made clear is that we are deeply disappointed by amendments to the Code of Administrative Procedure that restrict compensation for property wrongfully confiscated during Poland’s communist era. We have said all along that Poland is an important NATO Ally. The alliance we have with Poland, the alliance we share with Poland and our other NATO Allies, is based on, among other things, mutual commitments to democratic values and to prosperity. And so with that in mind, the Secretary and the broader department – we have urged the Government of Poland to demonstrate its commitment to these very shared principle – these very shared principles, and to make good on that, to make good on that indeed.
Thank you all very much.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 4:03 p.m.)