Department Press Briefing – August 20, 2021
3:57 p.m. EDT
MR PRICE: Good afternoon, everyone.
First, of course, an update on Afghanistan. As you’ve heard, we have evacuated approximately 13,000 people on U.S. military aircraft since August 14th, and we have relocated more than 18,000 since the end of last month. The U.S. military evacuated 5,700 people in the last 24 hours alone.
Our diplomats – whether in Kabul, here in Washington, elsewhere around the world – have been working around the clock – and I mean that literally – to coordinate thousands of evacuations; line up partner countries to help with the effort, including transit and resettlement; and lay the groundwork for a diplomatic approach moving forward.
We’re focused on safely getting as many people out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. And of course, our top priority is the safety and the security of the American people.
To do that, we have set up an unprecedented task force with the sole goal of locating and offering guidance to any U.S. citizen who may be present in Afghanistan and who wishes to depart.
Hundreds of consular officers from across our Bureau of Consular Affairs and our posts worldwide are taking part in this effort. This task force uses all available data to contact U.S. citizens who may still be present in Afghanistan to determine how best to assist each one of them.
Each U.S. citizen who has contacted us and who may still be present in Afghanistan will receive a personalized communication, and in many cases that’s a phone call, to determine their present location and potential interest in repatriation.
U.S. citizens requesting assistance who have not already completed what’s called the Repat Assistance Request form, which is available on the embassy’s website, should do so as soon as possible. We encourage all U.S. citizens in Afghanistan to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program regardless of if they need assistance, so that we can be in a position to communicate important information going forward.
Second, I’ll share an update on our ongoing intensive diplomatic efforts. Over the past several days, we have mobilized a global effort through diplomatic channels to evacuate U.S. citizens, personnel from partner nations, and of course, at-risk Afghans from Kabul.
We extend special thanks to our partners around the globe who have been instrumental in this operation in all of its many parts. Bahrain, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Qatar, Tajikistan, Turkey, the UAE, the United Kingdom, and Uzbekistan have been, or will soon be, transiting Americans or, in some circumstances, others through their territories to safety.
Albania, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Mexico, Poland, Qatar, Rwanda, Ukraine, and Uganda have also made generous offers regarding the relocation efforts for at-risk Afghans.
We deeply appreciate the support they have offered, and we are proud to partner with them in our shared support for the Afghan people.
We are very encouraged that other countries are also considering providing additional support. And this is something on which we will continue to be focused.
Finally, this morning, Secretary Blinken participated in a virtual meeting of NATO foreign ministers to discuss the ongoing security and humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, as well as our joint efforts with NATO Allies and other partners to safely evacuate our citizens and our Afghan allies who may be at risk. The Allies agreed that any future government must adhere to Afghanistan’s international obligations; safeguard the human rights of all Afghans, and that includes, of course, women, children, and minorities; uphold the rule of law; allow unhindered humanitarian access; and ensure that Afghanistan never again serves as a safe haven for terrorism.
Secretary Blinken also conveyed his deep appreciation for Allied sacrifices and commitment over two decades alongside us in Afghanistan as well as our enduring commitment to the alliance going forward.
One additional element before I get to your questions. Today, in concert with the United Kingdom, the United States is imposing additional costs on the Russian Federation on the one-year anniversary of the poisoning of Russian opposition figure Aleksey Navalny, which, of course, was used with a Novichok nerve agent.
Together with our allies, we condemn the August 2020 attempt on Aleksey Navalny and subsequent actions intended to stop his efforts to hold the Russian Government accountable, including his imprisonment in January of this year. It’s clear that Russian officials targeted Mr. Navalny for his activism and efforts to reveal what are uncomfortable truths about Russian officials’ corruption and his efforts to give voice to Russian citizens’ legitimate grievances with their government’s – with their government and its policies.
Our actions today – which were exercised by the U.S. Departments of State, Treasury, Justice, and Commerce – send a clear signal that there will be no impunity for the use of chemical weapons, including for the individuals and the organizations involved in this case.
Any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and contravenes international norms. The United States calls upon Russia to comply with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention.
We reiterate our call for the Russian Government to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Navalny.
The department also submitted a report to Congress today pursuant to the Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Act of 2019, or PEESA as we call it, to continue to address Nord Steam 2. As a result, two Russian entities will be sanctioned, and two Russian vessels will be listed as blocked property.
As we have said, the administration continues to oppose Nord Stream 2 as a bad deal for Ukraine, and a bad deal for Europe, and a harmful Russian geopolitical project. We remain committed to implementing PEESA even as we take steps to reduce the risks an operational NS2 pipeline would pose to European energy security and the security of Ukraine and frontline NATO and EU countries.
With today’s action, the administration has now sanctioned 7 persons and identified 16 of their vessels as blocked property pursuant to PEESA in connection with this Nord Stream 2 project.
The administration continues to work with Germany, with Ukraine, and other allies and partners to implement the July 21st Joint Statement that we agreed to with Germany on Support for Ukraine, Energy Security, and Our Climate Goals.
Today’s actions send a clear signal to Russia that the United States is united in our commitment to impose costs on Russia for its aggression and malign activities and to support a more secure and sustainable energy future for Ukraine and our partners in Europe.
With that, I don’t know where to begin since we’re missing our front row, but please.
QUESTION: I just have a couple questions on numbers. In his speech today, the President said that the U.S. was making the same commitment to Afghans – he mentioned SIV applicants, people who had worked at NGOs, other vulnerable Afghans – as he was making to U.S. citizens. Do you have a general estimate of how many people would be included in that universe of potential evacuees, to include all those groups of Afghans?
MR PRICE: Well, let me take this in turns. As you know, we have a commitment to the American citizens who are in Afghanistan. We have spoken of our enduring commitment to those Afghans who have worked with us, and that includes our locally employed staff – that is to say, those who worked with us at our embassy in Kabul – as well as the many brave Afghans who partnered with the United States Government over the course of some 20 years, in many instances putting themselves or their families at risk. This so-called SIV program is a program that this administration has prioritized from day one, and we have made very clear that we are committed to doing all we can for these brave Afghans and their families.
When it comes to American citizens, when it comes to our locally employed staff, and when it comes to a certain segment of the SIV population – that is to say, those SIV applicants who have completed stages of their security vetting process – we have reached out to them, and we have instructed them to consider traveling to the Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Now, each one of these universes, numbers are – precise numbers can be difficult to discern. We know in the SIV population that there are a number of Afghans who have completed what’s called the chief of mission stage and who have completed part or all of the security vetting stage. Those are the SIV applicants that we’ve reached out to.
When it comes to – and of course, their dependants. And so you know that SIV applicants are eligible to bring a spouse and minor children as well, which, of course, adds to the tallies.
There have been a lot of questions, of course, about figures when it comes to U.S. citizens, and so it’s worth offering just a bit of context there. I think as you know, Nick, whether the country is France or Afghanistan, the State Department doesn’t track the movement of American citizens.
QUESTION: I’m not asking about American citizens. I’m just asking about the broad universe of Afghans who would potentially come out. The President said in an interview with ABC a couple days ago – he put that number at no more than 65,000 people. There was a statement today from one advocacy group that said that the U.S. should consider airlifting out now 200,000 people. There are some estimates that there may be as many as 500,000 people who need to come out. So we know the President has a number in his head of 65,000 people for that broad universe, not talking about American citizens. Does the State Department have a number when it looks at the overall capacity, obviously, that it can get out, but how many people may want to come out?
MR PRICE: So again, that overall number is going to depend on a few factors. First, it’s going to depend on the number of people who wish to be relocated, and that includes in all of those categories. We have made contact with many of these individuals. We have indicated that if they wish to relocate, that we are offering to facilitate that for them. And then in some cases, they should make their – they should consider making their way to the airport compound. But the broad point here is that we have dramatically increased capacity over recent days. And this, of course, is capacity that is on top of Operation Allies Refuge, which we launched in the middle of last month to begin the airlift operation for a segment of the SIV population. What it comes down to is the fact that we are going to do as much as we can for as long as we can for as many people as we can.
QUESTION: But the – is that the – I just – just to hammer this out, the President has – someone gave him a number of 65,000 people. So can you just – I mean, clearly, when you go about planning this evacuation process, you have this deadline of August 31st, you have the capacity – maybe that’s somewhere in the range of 100,000 people, whatever it may be. What is the State Department thinking in terms of how many people overall are actually going to want to come out?
MR PRICE: Those are conversations that are ongoing right now. Again, we have reached out to all of these populations – to American citizens, to Afghans who may be at risk, to third country nationals, partners who have worked with us on the ground – to in many cases make the offer of relocation. But before we can relocate someone, we need to ascertain that that person in fact wants to be relocated. When it comes to the American citizens, this taskforce that I talked about, what they are doing – and these are not individuals who are based in Kabul, they’re based around the world – they are going through the registrations, the registrations that American citizens based in Kabul have submitted using the contact information that they have provided. And it first started with emails but now we’ve moved on to personal communication and personal correspondence. And we are reaching out with phone calls and contacting them, asking about their situation, where they are, who they may be with, and whether they would like to seek relocation to the United States.
QUESTION: Just – I mean, I just – you guys are in a situation now where you have this deadline, and you have the promise from the President. I just don’t see how those two things can be squared if you have this promise from the President to help this massive group of people, but you have essentially now an 11-day deadline to get all that done. How are you going to do it?
MR PRICE: We have, as you’ve heard from the Department of Defense, tremendous airlift capacity. That capacity has increased by the day. Right now, we are able – and you’ve heard the numbers today – 5,700 people, 13,000 people since August 14th, 18,000 people since the end of last month. Of course, there are several different ingredients. The most important ingredient is the people and having the people present and alerting the right categories of people at the right time. That is something that the Department of State has been doing for several days now. The airlift capacity is another element of this and DOD has spoken to their ability to increase that capacity over the past several days. But then the transit sites, and as you know, many of these individuals we’ve been able to relocate have been going to Doha, Qatar of late.
But we are gratified that we have a number of countries, many of which I just mentioned, that have offered to host, whether it is American citizens who are transiting back to the United States, whether it is third country nationals, and some of them have been very generous and offered to host at-risk Afghans. I can confirm that we have begun to transfer people from Doha. The first flights have arrived at Ramstein Airbase in Germany. We expect to have other locations coming online in the coming days which will allow us to make sure that we’re able to maximize that flow because, again, what we want to do in all of this – the metric and the only metric we care about is how many people we are able to relocate, to bring to safety, whether this is Americans that we are repatriating to the United States, whether it is third country nationals whose relocation we’re facilitating to their home countries, or whether it is to at-risk Afghans.
In many cases, SIV applicants will be brought to the United States. In some cases, we have heard these very generous offers of support from partners, from allies around the world, who will be willing to host at-risk Afghans as they undergo that processing.
QUESTION: Okay. So can you just list the countries that are right now receiving these U.S. evacuation flights? Just list and then we’ll move on.
MR PRICE: So we will actually have a statement from the Secretary where he is going to be in a position to offer some additional detail on this. But as you know, many of these individuals have been going to Doha to date. The first flights have now landed in Ramstein Airbase. Bahrain has agreed to host and has been playing host to some of those we have transferred from Afghanistan. And you will see in a statement from the Secretary I would expect later today, there is a broader universe of countries that have agreed to host either at-risk Afghans, American citizens, or third country nationals.
QUESTION: But we’re now almost a week into this evacuation effort. As of today, there’s only one country that is definitively accepting these U.S. evacuation flights. So what does that say about your guys’ process behind this?
MR PRICE: Well, that’s not accurate. There is one country where at-risk Afghans have been going. We have been at this for some time now since the security situation in Kabul began to deteriorate. We – among those we have evacuated in the past week or so have included members of our embassy team, American direct hire employees —
QUESTION: But at-risk Afghans are the majority of the people that we’re talking about here. So if you only had one country that up until this date has agreed to accept those Afghans, why was that the case? What happened?
MR PRICE: Well, Kylie, as you know, we have – and DOD has spoken to their tremendous capacity here in the United States to host SIV applicants at military bases, and they’ve spoken to this in terms of tens of thousands. My colleague at the Pentagon was just speaking to this. So it is not the case that there is only one location for at-risk Afghans.
As these operations have started —
QUESTION: There’s only foreign country that’s accepting at-risk Afghans at this moment, is that correct?
MR PRICE: There is – first of all, we have relocated to the United States 2,000 SIV applicants under Operation Allies Refuge. Doha has very generously agreed to host these at-risk Afghans as they undergo their processing and continue on to their final destinations. In many cases, that is going to be the United States if they are SIV applicants. So Qatar is not intended to be a long-term location for any Afghans, for any Americans, of course, for any third country nationals. And in fact, flights have already started to take off from Qatar to bring people on a commercial basis, on a charter basis to the United States in the case of American citizens, to Ramstein, as I mentioned, for others. And we’re going to have additional capacity coming online very soon in addition to the military bases here that, as you’ve heard from the Pentagon, can host thousands upon thousands of at-risk Afghans.
QUESTION: So I missed much of Kirby’s briefing today, but can you bring us up to speed on what exactly happened today with regard to the flights and the – I think one of the generals said that it was in the thousands of Afghans who were delayed for six hours today when it was – they were alerted that Doha had shut down. So are – is Doha or is the site in Doha – has it reopened? Is the throughput at equilibrium yet, or are all of those flights now headed to Ramstein?
MR PRICE: Well, the status of the facility in Doha didn’t change. It just reached a point where we thought it imprudent – the military thought it imprudent to continue relocation flights from Kabul to Doha until we were able to move some of the individuals in Doha to other locations.
QUESTION: Is that still the case?
MR PRICE: No, that is not the case. And again, you’ll need to talk to my Pentagon colleagues about this, but they briefed that there was a brief operational pause. That pause has now ended. As I was telling Kylie and Nick, we have now been able to transfer individuals from Doha to other locations, including to Ramstein Airbase.
I should also say that this is not just a purely military relocation effort. When individuals arrive in Qatar, especially U.S. citizens, they have charter options, they have commercial options, and that will continue to allow us to relocate individuals with some alacrity from Doha, and even moreso now that we have additional sites coming online, have already come online, and will come online in the coming hours and coming days.
QUESTION: So just to clarify, the people who were flown to Ramstein today, they came from Doha. It was not that they went from Kabul to Ramstein.
MR PRICE: That’s correct.
QUESTION: They went from – the flight still went from Kabul to Doha and, there were flights from Doha to Ramstein, right?
MR PRICE: That’s correct. That’s —
QUESTION: Why not just go from Kabul to Ramstein?
MR PRICE: This is an operational question better directed at DOD, but my understanding is that it is more efficient, including for fuel purposes, if the flights go from Kabul to Doha.
QUESTION: Can I have a quick one?
MR PRICE: I’ll come back to you, Conor, is that okay? Yeah.
QUESTION: Can I just clarify something from the top quickly?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: You listed countries where Americans and some others will transit through.
MR PRICE: That’s right.
QUESTION: Are they flying directly to those countries listed from Kabul or are transferred from Doha?
MR PRICE: So in most cases, individuals will transfer through a country like Qatar or a country like Bahrain, countries that are in the region, again, for efficiency of flight, for efficiency of fuel as well. And then from those locations, if they are American citizens, for example, there will be charter options, there will be commercial options. Some of you may have seen that some State Department charters have already arrived and have been arriving in the United States over the past hours, and so that will continue.
QUESTION: Just on the pause that Lara was asking about, the President said that it was because they didn’t have enough people to make sure that they were processing the arriving evacuees. Is that a failure of this department to have enough consular officers on hand to process as many people as you had coming in?
MR PRICE: So, Conor, what I’ll say is this is a complex operation the likes of which haven’t been attempted. When I say it’s complex, it involves the Department of Defense, Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, primarily in that context. So it’s a matter of transporting people from Kabul to Doha. It’s a matter of having facilities like the one in Doha, like the one in Ramstein, like the facilities that will be coming online elsewhere. But there’s also a DHS component to this, because in Doha there is immigration processing, there’s biometric processing that is taking place. And so there are a number of steps that individuals go through before they transit from Doha.
But again —
QUESTION: Will that continue now or will people just get off of one plane and get on another when they’re heading on to —
MR PRICE: Our goal is to make these intermediate stops, like the one in Doha, as brief as possible. Our goal is to have people reach their final destinations, whether that is the United States, whether that is another third country that has generously agreed to open its doors, to open its borders to those at risk and needing refuge. And so that would be our goal.
QUESTION: Follow-up on this: It’s important to have these agreements, but it’s also important that people have access to the airport. And it continues to be the case that many Afghans and many American citizens and lawful permanent residents as well have not been able to get through. Are you denying – is the administration denying, as the President did earlier, that is – that that is the case?
MR PRICE: I don’t think anyone is denying the reports that are out there. Every single report that we see – and we’re seeing some of the reports you are; in fact, they’re coming from some of your networks, the anecdotal reports, the reports on Twitter, on social media – every single report of impeded access is something we take extraordinarily seriously. The stories that we’re hearing from some of these individuals are harrowing.
What I can tell you, what I can confirm for you, is what we have heard firsthand. And we often have the best data when it comes to the American people, when it comes to U.S. citizens who are in Afghanistan. As I’ve said, we have been in regular touch with U.S. citizens in Afghanistan during this evacuation effort and regularly before that, offering them guidance about the security risk of remaining in Afghanistan, which, of course, have been profound for some time.
As we’ve been in touch with American citizens, as we have directed them to consider making that transit to the airport compound, we have received only a small number of reports from American citizens that their access has been impeded in some way, that they have faced any sort of hardship or resistance getting to the airport.
Having said all that, this is an issue that we take with the utmost importance. We’re treating it with the utmost importance. And that is why through both political and military channels we are engaging with the Taliban to do everything we can to facilitate safe passage – safe passage for Americans, safe passage for third country nationals, but also for safe passage for Afghans who may be at risk. And many of these harrowing stories are emanating from Afghans who are finding resistance, individuals who may not have a blue passport. And so we’re taking that very seriously.
In all of our engagements —
QUESTION: When you raise this with the Taliban, what is their response to you? And you say again and again that these conversations have been productive or constructive. Have they made this commitment to you again and again? And if so, it’s clearly not bearing out on the ground, so what are you willing to do about it?
MR PRICE: The Taliban have told us the same thing they have said publicly, that they have no intention of impeding our operations or of standing in the way of those who are seeking passage to the airport. Again, their —
QUESTION: Is there not a disconnect between the fighters and the leadership?
MR PRICE: Well, again, I’ve said this in several different context: Their words are one thing; the only thing that matters to us are the actions.
QUESTION: But on day five now, their actions have shown that they’re not willing to give people passage who don’t have (inaudible).
MR PRICE: Well, again, Conor, we can only speak to our firsthand accounts, and most of those firsthand accounts come to us from the American people, from U.S. citizens with whom we’ve been in contact on the ground and to whom we’ve provided direct and specific instructions about when and how they might seek to reach the airport. And we have not received a large number – in fact, we’ve only received a small number and sporadic reports – of individuals whose passage has been impeded. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to diminish in any way our efforts to impress upon the Taliban the importance of this.
The other point I would make is that it is – again, it is not just the United States that is saying this. More than a hundred countries, 112 countries at last count, have come together to make the point that their citizens, that third country nationals, and that all Afghans, all people in Kabul or Afghanistan more broadly, should be afforded the right of safe passage. We have been nothing but clear with the Taliban. They know that – where we stand on this. They also know of the severe and significant consequences should they seek to disrupt our operations or seek to threaten, seek to inflict harm, upon our people.
I can tell you – and this is relevant to the question – the special representative remains in Doha. He has continued to be in contact with the Taliban political office leadership that remains there in Doha. We have a military channel, as we’ve talked about as well. And we’ve impressed this upon them in both channels.
For what it’s worth, the Taliban, relevant to the ability to – of people to leave the country going forward, have assured us that they will allow Afghans who wish to leave the country to do so after August 31st. They at least profess to agree with us that a functioning, secure, and operational airport is essential to the well-being of the Afghan people and the maintenance of the Afghan economy. We agree with that. So there is certainly the possibility – and it’s one we’re going to continue to push for in every way we can with our international partners – that even once the U.S. military is no longer running the airport compound that the civilian airport will be running, will be accessible to commercial flights, to charter flights, and importantly – and this is something, a task that will remain even after the U.S. military and our diplomatic presence is gone – importantly, the Taliban must live up to its word about allowing safe passage to those who are seeking to go to the airport.
I’ve – let me just for fairness’s sake, please.
QUESTION: Okay, let me just follow up on this point. So the President said that any Americans want to leave, they just have to show their passport, I presume at the checkpoints that controlled by Taliban. So does this apply to the SIVs, that they go to the same checkpoint and say, “Please allow us, we’re going to the airport because we work with the Americans,” considering that there are reports that actually Taliban is compiling a list of everybody who worked with the U.S. on – does this make sense to you that the Taliban will allow them safely to exit and go to the airport?
MR PRICE: What it is, it’s something that is of profound importance to us. Whether or not it makes sense to the Taliban, we have – and they say that they get it. They say that they will allow safe passage to anyone who wishes to reach the airport. Again, these are the words of the Taliban. We take them for what they are. But we are going together with our international partners to do everything we can to see to it that they make good on their word and, at the same time, that they understand the consequences of not doing so.
Now, of course, American citizens do have in many cases a blue passport, and that may get back to the point that we were discussing earlier, namely that when it comes to those firsthand accounts, the number of reports we have heard directly from Americans about an inability to – or a risk they faced in transiting to the airport, those have been relatively small. We have seen the reports – you all have seen the reports – of Afghans who have been harassed, who may not have been allowed safe passage. I can tell you that we are providing very specific, precise instructions to everyone we are in a position to relocate. That includes American citizens. That includes our locally employed staff. That includes third-country nationals. That includes Afghans at risk and within that category the Special Immigrant Visa holders or Special Immigrant Visa applicants.
To all of these individuals, whether or not they have a blue passport, we are providing them with an official document that it is our expectation will facilitate their safe passage to the airport. This is something, again, that we take extraordinarily seriously, our – our international partners on the ground take it extraordinarily seriously for their nationals, for those who have worked alongside them in Afghanistan. And we are saying this with one voice to the Taliban and making the point in unison, in a chorus, that there will be accountability should the Taliban not live up to this commitment.
QUESTION: So what is the punishment if the Taliban doesn’t meet its commitment? What’s the punishment?
MR PRICE: So part of this is where the international community will stand as a large bloc, and we’re starting to see the international community signal very clearly that we are going to speak and we are going to act as a bloc when it comes to the Taliban.
Over the course of the past week, there have been any number of multilateral and international gatherings where this same message has rung true. Just this morning – and I mentioned this in the topper – the Secretary took part in a meeting of the NATO foreign ministers on Afghanistan. The foreign ministers said, “Any future Afghan government must adhere to Afghanistan’s international obligations, safeguard the human rights of its people, and uphold the rule of law, and allow unhindered humanitarian access.”
The same message came out of the G7 yesterday. The same message was put forward by some 112 countries earlier this week. The same message was put forward by the United States, our EU allies and partners, and a number of other countries in the region, the Indo-Pacific, and well beyond. This is, I suspect, the same message that we’ll hear on Monday when President Biden meets with his G7 counterparts when they meet virtually to discuss this. This is about whether any future government in Afghanistan will accrue what we know and almost certainly they know they need in order to run a country effectively.
QUESTION: We’ve already seen the IMF hold off on sending COVID-related funding to Afghanistan because it says they don’t know who’s in charge. Is the international community similarly prepared to impose financial sanctions, travel bans, asset seizures – essentially isolate the Taliban, because it does appear they’re going to be the ones in charge? Is that the kind of ramification the Taliban is running the risk of incurring?
MR PRICE: Absolutely. We have made that very clear. Right now we are undertaking our assistance. Of course, we are not going to provide assistance to any government, to any force that doesn’t uphold those basic norms, those basic obligations to their people and within the international community. We have been clear about this. There are dozens of statements from our counterparts around the world who have been clear about this. I could run through the list, but the one that – and I see some head-shaking, so I won’t, but you have heard from some of our counterparts that – and it’s a quote, not a single cent will – not another cent will go to a future government of Afghanistan that doesn’t uphold these basic rights, that doesn’t protect all of its people. That includes women, girls, minorities.
This is something that the United States is speaking very clearly about. We are watching very closely. But, perhaps even more importantly, we are doing that in conjunction, in cooperation with our allies and partners. And you’ve heard us say that in any number of multilateral contexts over the past few days, and we’ll continue to do that.
QUESTION: What about putting it on the FTO list?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: What about putting it on the FTO list?
MR PRICE: Look, we have a number of tools at our disposal. The Taliban right now is a specially designated global terrorist group. They’re on the SDGT designation list. That is one tool. There is – it’s both a stick and it’s both a carrot, a potential inducement to induce the Taliban to uphold those basic international norms, those – the basic rights of its people. But the FTO list, other sanctions, that’s one single tool. The United States has many different tools. Acting together with the international community, with the UN, we’ll have a number of different tools.
QUESTION: Ned, sorry. There was a report just now that the Defense Secretary told congressional leaders that Americans were beaten there. So can you confirm that, first off? And this is the first indication of – yet to come by the Taliban.
MR PRICE: Again, every single report, whether it is an American citizen – and we take – we are in direct contact with American citizens. We take those extraordinarily seriously – or the reports we’re seeing about at-risk Afghans who may be impeded. We take those extraordinarily seriously. It’s difficult for us to speak to reports that are anecdotal, that may be on social media. The reports we can speak to are those —
QUESTION: The Defense Secretary told congressional leaders, according to Politico just now.
MR PRICE: The reports we can speak to are those reports that we have heard firsthand because we are in regular, constant communication with American citizens on the ground, providing them guidance, providing them instructions. So oftentimes we do know the most about what American citizens are faring, but I’m just not in a position to confirm specific reports from here.
QUESTION: Two dozen diplomats at the embassy in Kabul sent a dissent cable in July directly to the Secretary. On that same call with House lawmakers this afternoon, the Secretary said that he received that cable and read it in mid-July. Why were there no preparations for a smoother transition?
MR PRICE: I will come to that, because I – we do not agree with that premise, but let me start with just a broader word about how we approach this generally. We believe that constructive internal dissent is valuable. It is something we welcome. We believe it to be patriotic. We know it to be protected. And we have full confidence that constructive internal dissent makes us more effective, and that’s why the Secretary has pledged and in fact does read every single communication that comes in through the dissent cable. Not only does he read it, he contributes and approves every single reply that goes back.
More importantly – and to be very clear about this – we are determined to incorporate the channel’s constructive and thoughtful ideas into our policy planning, into our contingency planning. That is always, always, always – to your question – what we do.
We’re also committed to the integrity of the channel. We want our employees to know that this channel is protected; this is a channel where they can express their candid, unvarnished thoughts and analysis to the highest levels of this department without fear of retribution, without fear of reprisals, and that’s precisely why we don’t comment publicly on these messages even when they may not be classified.
So that’s the backdrop. When it comes to the SIV processing, when it comes to contingency planning, let me make a couple points. As you know, and we’ve had an opportunity to discuss this in this room and in other venues in recent days, we have gone to extraordinary lengths to expand our capacity to process Special Immigrant Visas over the course of this administration. I mentioned this yesterday, but it’s relevant to this discussion: When we took office, not a single SIV interview had been conducted since March of 2020. Now, of course, this was due to the COVID protocols that were in place. But within two weeks of this administration taking office, those SIV interviews had restarted.
As of earlier this month, we were processing more than 800 visas per week. That is an increase of more than eightfold. We were at about a hundred visas per week as – earlier this year. And that doesn’t happen by accident. That was the result of steps that the department took, that President Biden took – President Biden issued an EO that ordered this department to take a holistic look at this program and to streamline it, to make improvements, which is precisely what we did. It is also a function of the support we have had from members of Congress, because, again, this is a 14-step program that is defined in statute, and so we have to work in partnership with Congress on this in terms of the programmatic details of it but also the budgetary implications.
So by earlier this month we had been able to increase our processing eightfold, and we did that in spite of a COVID outbreak, in spite of a program that was in some state of disrepair when this administration came into office. I mentioned this yesterday, but there was actually an inspector general investigation into the SIV program mid last year, and it was pretty blunt in its findings: chronic understaffing, a lack of a single coordinating figure, an interagency dynamic that included not only the Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, other departments and agencies that made the processing less than – less than streamlined.
On top of all that, the increase throughput in terms of visa processing, we mid-last month announced the launch of Operation Allies Refuge, and this was the effort to bring – actually bring to this country SIV applicants who had completed a certain stage of the security vetting process. That effort is now very much still underway, although in a different form.
I say all that not to suggest that we have accomplished what we sought out to do – far from it. There is a lot of unfinished business here. And in fact, in many ways the most important elements of this project are ahead of us rather than behind us, because right now, working together with the U.S. military, we are in the midst of an airlift operation that, at least to my mind, is largely unprecedented. And it is a reflection of the commitment we have to SIV applicants that not only have we followed through on that commitment to grant them the visa, which is what the SIV program was envisioned to do, but that we are in the midst of an ambitious operation to actually bring them to the United States.
So to be clear, every time we get a constructive idea, whether it is at the table in a policy meeting, whether it’s from our counterparts at a different department or agency, or whether it’s through the dissent channel, we incorporate that into our planning by – it is fair to say that by last month, of course, there was quite in-depth contingency planning. Contingency planning was something that we started for Afghanistan early in this administration, knowing that we faced a series of important dates, with May 1, the decision that would come before that, and the retrograde operations that would come after that. So the contingency planning, the scenario planning was already very much underway. Every single good and constructive idea was fed into that. It made us better, it made us more efficient, and ultimately it has allowed us to serve our Afghan partners even more effectively.
QUESTION: But —
QUESTION: That constructive idea, it’s actually coming from our colleague from CBS News who says that she’s interviewed multiple green card holders who are sitting in Doha in what looks like a gym, they’re not being allowed to leave. Some have been there for several days, which doesn’t make any sense, because if they’ve got valid visas, they should be able to get on a flight and get out. Do you have – is this an aberration in a system that’s overwhelmed right now, or do you – is this something that you can take and look into to kind of unfurl this process?
MR PRICE: Well, as I said, our goal is to see to it that individuals are in transit countries for short a period as possible. And it’s certainly our intent to have and to see this process speed up, and we’re going to be able to do that for a number of reasons, but first and foremost because we have this additional capacity coming on board. In order to see a steady flow through places like Doha, we are – we have already brought other sites online. I’ve confirmed that flights have landed at Ramstein. You heard me list a litany of countries that have agreed to host in some form or fashion American citizens, third country nationals, Afghans at risk.
QUESTION: Right, but these guys seem to be – have slipped through the cracks, I think is the concern. And so is this a process that’s just completely overwhelmed at this point?
MR PRICE: Again, it’s very difficult for me to speak to anecdotal reports. Even if I could, we typically don’t do that from the podium out of privacy concerns and other considerations. But every report like this is one that we will look into. Broadly speaking, we do expect that the flow through transit points like Doha will move at a faster clip in the coming hours and the coming days given the capacity that’s coming online.
QUESTION: So, for example, there is an Afghan who works for the U.S. embassy. Now he’s stuck outside. What should he do to get in? Can he get a piece of paper which will let him pass? And when you say that Taliban have assured you that they’ll let them pass, that’s not happening, so someone like him, the only thing he has is assurances from the Taliban – the U.S. won’t do any more. And how long are you prepared to wait before you deliver on the threatened punishments that you mentioned earlier? And would it be too late for these guys who are stuck outside? Taliban know who they are because they claim to work for the – because they say they work for the U.S. Are you going to wait a week, two weeks – and by then they could be killed along with their families.
MR PRICE: So again, it’s very difficult for me, impossible for me to speak to specific cases. What I will say, though, is that a member of our LES team, our locally employed staff, we have been in touch with them. In – an individual in a position like that will have contact information, will have been in touch with officials on the ground, with this building’s consular corps. So that back and forth is something we have dedicated profound resources to. Some of this is taking place on the ground in Kabul, but we have brought online actual call centers around the world where our teams are on the phone speaking to those on the ground, asking them about their whereabouts, asking them about their plans and intentions, asking them with whom they’re with, to get the best sense of how we might be able to help specific individuals. So it’s not something I’m typically able to do from the podium, but there are hundreds and probably more people in this building and around the world who are doing just that.
To your second question, we recognize that time is of the essence. We recognize that in order for us to help the largest number of people, that our operations need to be efficient and effective. I think you are seeing that. You have seen the – you’ve heard from the Pentagon, you’ve heard from the White House about the number of people who have cycled through the HKIA over the course of the past couple days. Again, we are going to have additional capacity for relocation sites coming online in the coming hours and the coming days. We expect that will further improve the efficiency of this process. But we do know that the most important element, the most precious resource we have now is, in many ways, time. And that is why people in this building and around the world are working around the clock to be of assistance to as many people as we can for as long as we can.
QUESTION: Can you just give us some more details? You mentioned this task force focused just on Americans. Is that a new task force, or is that a part of the larger State Department task force?
MR PRICE: No. So this is a task force that is dedicated just to this mission. It is dedicated solely and exclusively to contact with American citizens who have indicated a desire to be repatriated to the United States. As you know, American citizens are encouraged to register with the embassy when they arrive in a foreign country. We have used that registration system to be in touch with that entire community, and some people who aren’t in a country like Afghanistan actually use that registration system to get updates from the embassy in Kabul. So even the number of people who are registered for a system like that isn’t precisely reflective of the number of people on the ground. On top of that, you have Americans who come and go. And it was certainly our encouragement and, over the past several weeks, warnings to private American citizens that they should leave Afghanistan given the deteriorating security situation. We have urged them to do so since – for months now. As of – for weeks now we have warned them to do so.
So this task force is following up on the primarily email communication that we’ve been in with these American citizens. And it is to find out precisely where these individuals are, if they would like to be repatriated, do they have any family members with them, how might they be able to relocate to Kabul or to HKIA if they’re not in the Kabul area. So this is a very personalized, it is a very tailored approach to provide as much assistance as we can to every single American. Because again, that is our priority, to offer repatriation services to every single American who wishes to come back here.
QUESTION: So is this just a State Department task force, or is this interagency?
MR PRICE: This is a —
QUESTION: And then you are – sorry? Yeah.
MR PRICE: It’s a Department of State effort.
QUESTION: Okay. And once you have that information, are you sharing it with the U.S. military? And is the U.S. military now going out and getting any of those people to bring them to the airport? Because there are reports of U.S. helicopters now leaving the airport in Kabul to go get some Americans and Afghans.
MR PRICE: I am going to let my colleagues at the Pentagon discuss what they are doing now. Of course, the President referenced an effort to bring a number of Americans, 168 Americans, across the perimeter. But when it comes to what we may be in a position to do to assist Americans, we will do everything that we responsibly can to assist Americans. What we’re talking about now, this task force that has actually – we’re calling these American citizens, but we’re also going to be in a position to text them, to continue emailing them, every conceivable form of communication – this is indicative of that. We’re not ruling anything out, but again, right now we are focused on ascertaining where these Americans are, the condition that they’re in, how many people they may be traveling with, and what their desired plans are.
QUESTION: And are you sharing that information at all at an interagency level?
MR PRICE: Look, if it will prove useful to our interagency partners and it’s appropriate to do so, we will. But right now we are trying to ascertain the universe of Americans who may be interested in relocation and the ways we might be able to assist them.
Take a final question or two. Daphne.
QUESTION: There has been an increasing number of reports of Taliban targeting the press. Is the United States in its conversations with the Taliban asking them not to interfere with journalists and allow them to work freely?
And I just have a quick clarifying question, again, from the top, sorry. You said most flights would go through a country like Qatar before going on to the dozen countries you listed. Are there any cases where flights are going from Kabul to any of those countries directly?
MR PRICE: In almost all cases – I don’t want to be categorical here because we don’t want to rule anything out – in almost all cases, certainly the cases I’m aware of, these flights are going to the nearby transit countries, again, as a way to maximize the flow, as a way to reduce the burden on the fuel supply at HKIA.
When it comes to members of the press, this is – and I’ll address this on a couple levels. I know I and all of my colleagues in this building, we have been in touch with many of you, with your news organizations, in some cases with your Afghan affiliates on the ground. And we actually do have an element here in this building that is focused squarely and exclusively on efforts to relocate members of the media because we do recognize there is a rather large – it’s smaller now than it was several days ago, but there is still a rather large contingent of media representatives on the ground in Kabul.
We have been gratified that a number of journalists have been able to safely relocate from Afghanistan. We, of course, saw the statement that The New York Times put out, I believe, it was yesterday. We have been in regular touch here on the ground in Kabul with news organizations and individuals who fall into those categories in order to offer every bit of assistance.
Now you asked a slightly different question, and the question you asked was reports of Taliban harassment of the press. This is something that we do take extraordinarily seriously, and we take it extraordinarily seriously on a couple levels. One, it’s the basic matter of freedom of the press. The press, whether it is in Kabul or Washington, D.C. or any other country or city around the world, should be able to report without intimidation, without harassment, without threat. And every single report that contravenes that is a matter of great concern.
We are also taking note of – and we’ve seen this from some of your colleagues – the reports that members of the press have been impeded in their passage – in their safe passage, what should be their guaranteed safe passage through the city and to the Kabul International Airport. That is also something – those reports – that we take extraordinarily seriously. We’re raising this on all levels with our interlocutors, and we’ll continue to do that.
QUESTION: A bit different question about Korean Peninsula. State Department announced the Special Envoy to North Korea Sung Kim is visiting Seoul tomorrow. So could you give any details of the talking point of his meeting with South Korean officials? And also, does he have any plan to contact with North Korea directly during his visit?
MR PRICE: Well, you are right. We did confirm earlier today, I believe it was, that Special Representative Kim will travel to the ROK, South Korea, from August 21 through the 24th. During his visit, he’ll meet with his counterpart – that is, the Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Noh Kyu-duk – and other senior South Korean officials. They’ll, in the context of those discussions, discuss the situation on the Korean Peninsula and continue to plot a coordinated way forward.
As you know, we have emphasized the role of our allies when it comes to our collective efforts to advance our shared goal, and that is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. It is why Secretary Blinken went to Japan and South Korea as his first overseas trip. It’s precisely why the heads of state of Japan and South Korea have both visited the White House. We know and we have determined through the course of our North Korea policy review that one of perhaps the most effective approach will be an approach that relies on coordination and acting in concert with our allies and partners. And certainly, the ROK is one of those very important allies.
QUESTION: One last one on Afghanistan. There’s this report from a Norwegian security firm that was sent to the United Nations and provided to the U.S. and other governments. I’m wondering if you can speak to whether or not the administration views it as credible. And then there’s also a report from Amnesty International today about Hazaras being targeted and killed. You’ve spoken repeatedly about the administration watching what the Taliban is doing. You now have evidence that they are committing atrocities. To Jessica’s question earlier, the tools that you’re talking about using are long term, and we’re talking about things that could happen in a matter of days and hours. What are you doing – what are you willing to do – right now to address these atrocities?
MR PRICE: Well, on your question about the NGO report, I understand this was an NGO report that was prepared for and provided to the UN. We have been in touch with the UN about this report. We have received a copy of the report. We are going to take a very close look at it, but I’m just not in a position to offer any initial conclusions just yet.
When it comes to the Hazaras, these are reports from last month, I believe. And last month and this month and the month before that, we have been very clear and have spoken in no uncertain terms condemning reports of Taliban atrocities. We’ll continue to condemn these – any reported atrocities precisely because they are violations of the public commitment by Taliban leaders to seek reconciliation for all Afghans. This is what the Taliban have said they want.
Now, again, their actions often don’t match their words. What matter to us is the former. We will be watching with the international community their actions. If we determine that the Taliban have continued to commit atrocities, that they are not living up to the responsibility they have to protect and uphold the rights of all of their citizens – including women, girls, and minorities – we will work with our allies and partners to hold the perpetrators accountable.
Now, you ask about the temporal element of this, short term versus long term. We are making very clear to the Taliban, especially when it comes to our priority right now – that is to say, the operation ongoing at HKIA, our operations together with our international partners – we have made very clear to the Taliban that any effort to impede that operation and certainly any effort to threaten or seek to inflict harm on any American would be met with swift and a pretty decisive response. We have made that very clear to them.
When it comes to any future government in Afghanistan, look, there are discussions that continue to be ongoing between the Afghan parties, the Taliban and representatives of the Islamic Republic. Together with our allies, with our partners, we have encouraged them to pursue a political settlement that first and foremost protects and upholds the rights of all of Afghans’ citizens. This is something that we have been outspoken about. But again, importantly, it has been something that we have spoken about with a single voice together with our closest allies and partners and together with a universe of countries around the world that when we act in concert it’s more than about these ephemeral issues of recognition or legitimacy. It is about questions that may well be existential to any regime: the ability to govern, the ability to run a country effectively, the ability to have a functioning economy, the ability to travel, the ability to access funds.
These things matter. These things will matter to any government around the world. They will certainly matter to any future government in Afghanistan that will be more reliant than almost any other country in the world for international assistance.
Thank you all very much.
(The briefing was concluded at 5:02 p.m.)