Department Press Briefing – September 15, 2021
2:04 p.m. EDT
MR PRICE: Good afternoon. It’s been a few days. Good to see everyone. Just one element at the top, and that is the fact that today marks the one-year anniversary of the signing of the Abraham Accords, the historic agreement signed between Israel and the Governments of Bahrain and the UAE. That agreement along with Israel normalizing relations with Morocco shows that peace is possible and worthwhile for the leaders who courageously pursue it – and for their peoples.
One year later, we see over half a billion dollars in trade between Israel and these new partners and direct flights between Tel Aviv, Abu Dhabi, Marrakesh, and Manama, with huge implications for freedom of travel in the region. We continue to support these agreements and their signatories and we look forward to opportunities to further expand and advance cooperation between Israel and countries around the world.
Importantly, we will also endeavor to ensure that as Israel and other countries in the region join together in a common effort to build bridges and create avenues for dialogue and exchange, we’re able to make tangible progress towards the goal of advancing a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
This Friday, the Secretary intends to gather virtually with counterparts from Bahrain, Israel, Morocco, and the UAE for an event that will commemorate the one-year anniversary of the signing of the accords and discuss ways to further deepen ties and build a more prosperous region.
In closing, I would also like to recognize that today is Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year, and I wish all those observing in the United States, Israel, and around the world an easy and meaningful fast.
And with that, I’m happy to take your questions.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: I noticed that the Secretary spoke today with the Qatari foreign minister and also Stoltenberg. Afghanistan was, according to the readouts – the rather slim readouts, actually – but was a major topic of conversation between both. Is there anything new to report on either the diplomatic efforts to get more Americans, LPRs, SIVs, other at-risk Afghans out? And what is the purpose with – what does NATO now have to do as an organization with what’s going on in Afghanistan now that there are no more troops there?
MR PRICE: Well, we – Matt, we’ve talked about our ongoing, enduring commitment to Americans, to lawful permanent residents, to Afghans to whom we have a special commitment to facilitate – help facilitate their departure if they choose to leave the country.
I can tell you that yesterday, on September 14th, the department assisted one U.S. citizen and two LPRs in departing Afghanistan via an overland route. As we have done in the past with these overland routes, we provided guidance to them, we worked to facilitate their safe passage, and embassy officials greeted them once they had crossed the border.
Of course, this follows a series of actions over the past couple weeks. Last week, as you know, there were two Qatar Airways charter flights. Those departed Kabul with 29 U.S. citizens and 11 LPRs aboard. We are deeply grateful to our partner, Qatar, in these efforts. As you know, the Qataris are not only playing a key role at Kabul International Airport, but they are administering these charter flights which we very much welcome and we hope to see more of in the coming days.
When it comes to the overland routes, a total of seven U.S. citizens and 13 LPRs have departed overland since August 31st. That includes the one U.S. citizen and two LPRs that I mentioned earlier today. In total, between these charter flights and the overland crossings that we’ve discussed, 36 U.S. citizens and – I should say at least 36 U.S. citizens and at least 24 lawful permanent residents have departed Afghanistan with our assistance since August 31st. That will very much continue.
QUESTION: Sorry, maybe I misheard you. They departed Afghanistan on these flights?
MR PRICE: The 36 U.S. citizens and 24 LPRs, that is a total between overland routes and charter flights since August 31st.
QUESTION: All right. And then you – can you – I realize that you’re reluctant to talk in more detail about the overland routes. Can you at least say, have they all used the same overland route?
MR PRICE: There have been different routes utilized, and we are reluctant —
QUESTION: To the same country?
MR PRICE: I’m just not going to go into it, but we are —
QUESTION: But can you rule out – since you say that embassy officials greeted them on the other side – let’s see – let’s – one country —
MR PRICE: There’s one country – there’s one —
MR PRICE: There’s one country we might be able to rule out.
QUESTION: Yeah, okay. All right. So that’s – and then in terms of the NATO question.
MR PRICE: Well, look, NATO has been —
QUESTION: Is there a role for NATO potentially, or NATO members in getting people out?
MR PRICE: Well, we know that NATO as an institution and also NATO as a collection of Allies has played a pivotal role in Afghanistan over the years. We’ve said it before, but it was in together, adjust together, out together. That does not mean that NATO’s focus on Afghanistan has abated or ended in any way. Of course, the Secretary just had an opportunity to speak to the secretary general today, and we’ll continue to engage with NATO as an institution just as we continue to engage with our individual NATO allies on a bilateral and multilateral basis on questions of humanitarian support, on questions in the region, questions of providing support to our citizens and those to whom we have a special commitment in Afghanistan.
QUESTION: Okay. But it’s not – you’re not looking to NATO to potentially assist in the air – in air evacuations of people from Kabul or wherever else in Afghanistan?
MR PRICE: I’m not aware at present there’s any such operation envisioned.
QUESTION: Okay. And then the last one is: In terms of the formation of the Taliban government that you guys have spoken to and said that it doesn’t really meet – it’s not great – are there still contacts between you guys and the Taliban in Doha or elsewhere regarding the government formation, or are those talks purely about getting the remaining people out?
MR PRICE: Our discussions with the Taliban that have been ongoing have been pragmatic. They have been focused by and large on practical issues, and first and foremost in terms of our priorities and, consequently, in terms of our discussions with the Taliban, have been on issues of safe passage – ensuring that the Taliban knows that not only the United States but also our allies and partners around the world, we intend to hold them to the private and public commitments they have made to allow our citizens and to allow those to whom we have a special commitment to leave the country.
We’re focused on this on a political dimension, and that includes engagement with the Taliban in this pragmatic context, but also in the very technical dimension, because there is a technical dimension to this as well, whether it’s operations at Kabul International Airport, whether it is facilitating those overland passages, so we are focused on that priority goal in a number of different ways.
QUESTION: All right. Sorry, this really is the last one, I promise: For weeks now, the number of American citizens that you believe are – want to leave and are still stuck there has been about a hundred, according to you guys. That doesn’t – there’s a lot of skepticism about that number, that it’s so low. Do you have any more clarity on that? Has it gone down? Presumably it has, because some people have gotten out since the 31st.
And then the Secretary twice in his testimony the last two days talked about several thousand LPRs who are there. Can you be more specific about that number, how many several thousand is, and how many of those actually want to leave the country as far as you know? Thanks.
MR PRICE: So let me take those questions in turn. First, on the American citizens question, you are right, American citizens have departed Afghanistan since August 31st – 36 total, 24 LPRs whose departure we have facilitated. So that’s at least 36 and 24 in those respective categories.
When it comes to the number of American citizens in Afghanistan who wish to leave, the Secretary spoke about this yesterday and on Monday, but this is really nothing more than a snapshot at any given time. And it’s a snapshot because this figure is going to be dynamic. As I just said, Americans have safely departed Afghanistan since August 31st, but we are constantly – the invitation is always open for Americans to reach out to us. The invitation is open for NGOs, for advocates, for members of Congress, for lawmakers to reach out to us if they are familiar with an American in Afghanistan who has not been in touch with us and who may want to leave.
So just as we receive reports of additional Americans in Afghanistan – and several members on the Hill referenced this yesterday – it is then incumbent upon us to cross-check through our databases, to attempt to reach out to those Americans, to verify that that person is, in fact, an American in Afghanistan who does wish to leave. In many instances, we’ll find that reports of an American may refer to an American back in the United States who has friends or distant relatives in Afghanistan, individuals who are not, in fact, American citizens or LPRs, and that’s what requires us to do some degree of due diligence.
We’ve also noted that with the successful facilitation of these charter flights and these overland transfers, we fully expect that additional Americans who at first may not have been in contact with us at all or who initially may have told us that they were content remaining in Afghanistan will change their minds. And so we fully expect that as Americans see that we are living up to our commitment, that we are upholding it, that we’re making good on that commitment in safe and effective ways, that they too may either raise their hands for the first time or change their calculus. Ultimately, this figure is dynamic not only because of the question of the denominator – how many Americans raise their hands, how many come to us – but because this is about human decision making.
The Secretary spoke to this on the Hill yesterday. But for every American who is in Afghanistan who decides that she or he wishes to leave, these decision are ones that are never easy, and they are never easy because in almost all cases, these are individuals who call Afghanistan home, who have lived there for their entire lives, or at very least – at the very least years or decades, sometimes for generations. And so it’s never a simple or easy matter to say I want to pick up from the place that I have called home for my entire life and start a new life in a place I may not know or know hardly at all. But that is what we have given these Americans and these lawful permanent residents the ability to do, and we will continue to live up to our commitment to help them depart the country if they so choose to do so.
QUESTION: The UN Human Rights Commission yesterday reported that it has received multiple allegations that the Taliban have been violating women’s rights and conducting searches for those who worked with U.S. companies and security forces. There have also been allegations of Taliban killing civilians in the Panjshir Valley. Has the United States been collecting evidence of alleged Taliban abuses and alleged war crimes, and if so, does the State Department plan to issue a public report and when?
MR PRICE: So we are always watching very closely what is going on inside of Afghanistan. Every single one of these reports, including the reports you referenced from the UN, are ones that we take extraordinarily seriously, ones that we will vet to the best of our ability to determine if there is, in fact, a legitimate basis for these claims. And then we have made clear that we will hold the Taliban accountable not only to their own commitments, commitments they have made to us privately, but also they have made to the international community publicly, and those commitments include to forego retaliation, to forego reprisals, to respect the basic rights of the people of Afghanistan. And that certainly includes the women and girls of Afghanistan, the country’s minorities as well, who have achieved such tremendous gains over the course of the past 20 years.
For us it’s about policy, but it’s also in many ways personal, and it’s personal because – for a couple of reasons: No country has done more for the people of Afghanistan over the course of the last two decades than the United States. And no country will do more for the people of Afghanistan, I would be willing to venture a guess, for the people of Afghanistan in the coming years, in the coming decades. We are resolute that we wish to see and the international community wishes to see the gains of the last 20 years be preserved.
The Secretary, as you know, a week ago today hosted a ministerial with more than 20 countries taking part, and that was a common refrain during the discussion – the gains of the past 20 years and the need to do all we can to protect them.
The Secretary has spoken to his plan to appoint a senior individual in this department specifically to oversee our policy to support the women and girls of Afghanistan, the minorities of Afghanistan. And it is part of his commitment, the priority he attaches to this issue, to ensure that we remain trained and focused on this issue, and that we continue to work with the international community to galvanize support for the people of Afghanistan, and that support can take any number of forms, including humanitarian support like the UN funding conference that was held earlier this week where the United States made another generous contribution to the people of Afghanistan, but it will also – we can also support the people of Afghanistan by committing and ultimately holding the Taliban responsible if they do not abide by the commitments they have made to us and to the international community.
QUESTION: Move to North Korea?
MR PRICE: North Korea?
QUESTION: Can I ask a question about Afghanistan?
MR PRICE: Final question on Afghanistan, sure.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask if there have been any movement on the flights out of Mazar. A week ago the Secretary said, quote, “Those flights need to move.” And also the Secretary had said State would be coordinating with veterans groups who are doing their own evacuation and extraction efforts. Has that been formalized? And if so, what does that look like now?
MR PRICE: So when it comes to the various groups – and certainly veterans groups have played an important and welcome role in this, but other advocacy groups, humanitarian groups, lawmakers, NGOs, private companies, media organizations, a constellation of actors have come to the support of the people of Afghanistan. And that is certainly something that this department is playing a leading role in coordinating. I can tell you not a day goes by, not an hour goes by, I would venture to guess not a minute goes by that many of us are in touch with individuals who are outside of the U.S. Government who are helping to coordinate these efforts. And there is a lot of activity focused on the potential for charter flights out of Mazar-e-Sharif.
I am not aware that any international flights, charter flights or otherwise, have left Mazar-e-Sharif. Of course, we have had a couple charter flights from Kabul International Airport that departed last week, including with U.S. citizens onboard. I know that the Turks and the Qataris, and if you listen to what the Taliban are saying publicly, the Taliban as well want to see not only charter flights, but normal commercial activity resumed at Kabul International Airport on an expedited basis. And it’s our hope that that will be able to happen in the not-too-distant future so that in addition to the charter flights that our Qatari partners have very generously administered to date, there will be additional options for individuals to leave from Kabul International Airport. So we will continue to work on this, just as we continue to work on these overland routes as well.
QUESTION: Sorry, what is the problem in Mazar? What’s the hold-up? Is it the same issue? I mean, we talked about documentation; you guys said that it wasn’t an acceptable reason, given the circumstances, to hold the flights. And then just nothing?
MR PRICE: We have been very clear that the individuals who have expressed a desire and a willingness to leave via Mazar-e-Sharif should be allowed to leave the country. There – the fact that to my knowledge a charter flight has not departed Mazar has nothing to do with anything that the State Department has or has not done, and in fact, quite the contrary. The State Department, as we have said, has pulled every lever available to us. We have gone to extraordinary lengths with not only our engagement with the Taliban, but also with these other constellation of groups on the ground and operating from afar, and also with countries in the region. And to our minds, these flights, these individuals, there is no reason they should not be able to depart. And that’s what we’re continuing to focus on.
QUESTION: And Ned, can I circle back to what my colleague said when she was asking about women’s rights and Taliban alleged abuses? You said the U.S. will hold them accountable. How are you going to do that? If you can’t even – you said you’ve used every lever you’ve had, and you can’t address this issue that’s much smaller.
MR PRICE: I said I – I said we’ve used every lever we’ve had in the narrow and specific issue of charter flights leaving from the Mazar-e-Sharif airport in northern Afghanistan. The question of holding the Taliban accountable is a much broader question, it’s a much more strategic question. And we’ve talked about this before. We do have levers available to us; the international community has levers available to it collectively. We, working in tandem with our allies and partners, have profound sources of leverage to hold —
QUESTION: And why can’t you use those sources of leverage on this issue? You see what I’m saying? It’s one way or the other.
MR PRICE: So we, as you know, Christina, we have been able to facilitate the departure of Americans from Afghanistan. We are continuing to work on that. And just yesterday, in fact, there was another case. So this is something where we have had some success – several dozen Americans, a couple dozen LPRs. We are pulling levers that are appropriate, and in doing so we’ve been able to safely effect the departure of these individuals.
QUESTION: Thank you. I saw your condemnation of the missile launch and your call for dialogue, but I wanted to ask you specifically: Have you heard back from North Korea privately on these calls for dialogue? And if not, how long are you willing to wait for them to engage?
MR PRICE: So it sounds like you saw our statement on this, but let me just reiterate it for those who haven’t. We do condemn the DPRK’s missile launches. These missile launches are in violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions, and we know that they pose a threat to the DPRK’s neighbors and other members of the international community. We are in the midst of this, committed to a diplomatic approach to the DPRK, and we call on the DPRK to engage in a meaningful and substantive dialogue with us.
All the while, our commitment to our allies, including Japan and the Republic of Korea, is ironclad. In fact, just yesterday Special Representative Sung Kim, our special representative for the DPRK, was in Tokyo, where he engaged in a trilateral conversation with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts. Today Sung Kim’s deputy, the deputy special representative, Jung Pak, is in Seoul. She had been there for pre-travel consultations. She is meeting at her level with her ROK counterparts as well.
We’ve been very clear about what we want to see happen. We are committed to the principle that dialogue will allow us to pursue our ultimate objective, and that’s quite simply the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. We have no hostile intent towards the DPRK. We have been very clear about that. What we seek to do is to reduce the threat to the United States, to our allies in the region, and that includes the ROK and Japan, and we think we can do that through diplomacy with the ROK. We’ve been very clear publicly and we’ve been very clear in the messages that we have conveyed to the DPRK that we stand ready to engage in that dialogue. I will refer you to Pyongyang for any reaction that they may have. But for our part, we stand ready to engage in that dialogue.
QUESTION: That’s a nice – referring us to Pyongyang.
QUESTION: We’ll get right there.
MR PRICE: We – as —
QUESTION: Since it’s illegal to use a passport to get there and I’m —
MR PRICE: I’m very clearly not suggesting you travel there to get these answers, but —
QUESTION: So you’re ready to wait forever?
MR PRICE: We’re not saying that. We are saying that we continue to believe that diplomacy is the means by which we can achieve the goal that our policy review identified, and that is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. We have been regularly engaging with our allies in the region, including the trilateral forum yesterday that the special representative convened and the consultations today that his deputy is convening, as well as other countries in the region. And some of these countries are partners in the traditional sense, and some of these countries we have an aligned set of interests, at least aligned in certain areas when it comes to the DPRK and our desire to see diplomacy and meaningful progress on the road towards the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
QUESTION: Thank you. Ned, I want to go back to where you began at the top, at the one-year anniversary of the normalization agreements and so on. First, can you tell us that the Secretary’s meeting, virtual meeting – was that, like, hastily arrived at or was that – has that been in the making for a while?
MR PRICE: The anniversary has been in the making for 365 days.
QUESTION: I’m not talking about that. I’m not talking about the anniversary. Of course, the anniversary happens on the 15th of September. I’m saying that the virtual meeting that Secretary Blinken is holding with his counterpart on Friday, is that something that has been in the planning or is that something that was hastily —
MR PRICE: It is something we’ve been discussing with our partners in this effort for some time.
QUESTION: Well, it sure seems like it was hastily organized the last week.
MR PRICE: Because we announced it yesterday? Is that why you arrived at that conclusion?
QUESTION: No, no, I mean —
MR PRICE: Oftentimes we don’t announce events until the day before.
MR PRICE: So I can assure you we’ve been discussing this with our partners for some time.
QUESTION: Okay, that’s fine. I want to ask you, you talked – you lauded this – these accords after they’ve been in existence for one year. Can you point to one area where peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, where the war really is happening – there was no war between Israel and Bahrain or the Emirates and so on. Can you point to one area where these accords advanced peace between Israelis and Palestinians?
MR PRICE: Said, we’ve been very clear that the Abraham Accords and normalization agreements more broadly bring tangible benefits to countries of the region, and that includes Israel and its Arab neighbors. We’ve talked – and I mentioned this in my opening – the economic ties, the deepened economic ties between these countries, the deepening people-to-people ties between these countries as well, and, of course, the political and diplomatic ties that come with it.
We’ve also been clear that normalization agreements, that the Abraham Accords, they are no substitute for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. We are continuing to seek to achieve progress towards our ultimate goal, and that’s a negotiated two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. So the Abraham Accords, normalization agreements, are – they are unequivocally a good thing in our minds. They are unequivocally agreements and accords that we will seek to build on and strengthen, but also to bring to life new ones as well.
At the same time, we will continue to pursue policies that help us achieve the objective we seek in the Israeli-Palestinian context, and that is to see to it that Israelis and Palestinians alike are able to experience equal levels of security, of liberty, of freedom, and importantly, of dignity. And we can do both those things at the same time.
QUESTION: Yet, we have not seen like an iota of movement in that direction, the equality and so on. The Palestinians – all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza – all many millions of them for the next 24 hours, maybe two, three days and so on, will be entered total lockdown. So we have not seen any movement.
Let me just go on and —
MR PRICE: Well, Said, just on that, I think you have seen tangible ways that we have been able to improve the lives of the Palestinian people, including in Gaza. Either we have been able to do so or has been done in other contexts. COVID vaccines are one. The United States contribution of hundreds of millions of dollars to the Palestinian people, including Palestinian people in Gaza as well, the provision of aid by other countries in the region. So I don’t think it’s the case that there have not been any indications or any developments that wouldn’t improve the lives of Palestinians in tangible ways.
QUESTION: Okay. The Israel Prime Minister Naftali Bennett says that he will not meet with Mahmoud Abbas. Now, you’re calling for a resumption of talks of some sort and so on, but he seems to cut you off on that. Are you in talks with him for the resumption of talks between Bennett and Abbas?
MR PRICE: No, and let me just push back on one thing you said. It is absolutely true that we are seeking to see to it that Israelis and Palestinians experience equal measures of safety, of security, of prosperity, and of dignity, but we’ve also been very clear that the starting point that we have right now, the starting point that we had in January is not one where I think we would expect to see direct negotiations between the parties lead to any sort of breakthrough in the near term.
What we are trying to do is to pave a glide path to negotiations so that in incremental, tangible ways we can move closer and closer to that goal of seeing to it that Israelis and Palestinians alike can achieve these elements. But I don’t think you’ve heard us call for explicitly face-to-face negotiations at the present. We are realistic about where we are, we are realistic about the road ahead, but that doesn’t mean that we should not attempt to move the ball forward in meaningful and tangible ways. And as I’ve said, I think we’ve been able to do that on a number of important fronts.
QUESTION: Lastly, Israel-Iran question: The Israeli Minister of Defense, Mr. Gantz, told Foreign Policy that they are willing to live with an agreement or maybe returning to the Iranian nuclear accord. Do you have any comment on that?
MR PRICE: I —
QUESTION: Did you see that article?
MR PRICE: I did, and I will leave it to the Government of Israel to characterize its position on the JCPOA or the Iranian nuclear program more broadly. I think at a strategic level there is no doubt that we see eye to eye with our Israeli partners. Neither the United States nor Israel sees it as in our interests or anywhere near our interests to have Iran as a nuclear weapons state or a nuclear weapons threshold state, and so we are both committed to the idea that Iran should never be permitted and should forever be prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
We have had extensive and deep consultations with our Israeli partners. This has happened at every single level just about – the President with the prime minister, with the past – with the previous prime minister as well; Secretary Blinken with his counterparts, now plural; and Rob Malley and his team have engaged their Israeli counterparts as well.
As talks were ongoing in Vienna, we briefed the Israelis before, after, and in some cases during each round to ensure we were conducting this diplomacy with transparency, knowing that at the end of the day, our goal and the goal of the state of Israel when it comes to forever preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon – those are one and the same.
QUESTION: Are you disappointed that the Iranian Government dismissed the deputy foreign minister, Mr. Araghchi, who was the chief negotiator, and brought in someone who is more of a hardliner? Will that impact the potential negotiation, resumption of talks?
MR PRICE: It is up to the Iranian Government to select who it wishes to represent Iran in any different – any context. For our part, our Iran policy is designed to advance our interests regardless of who holds what position.
QUESTION: Hey, Ned, just linguistically, you just said something that struck me. I want to know if paving a glide path to negotiations is the latest entry in the pantheon of Mideast peace euphemisms, along with the roadmap, political horizon. Is that just something you came up with —
MR PRICE: I would be very surprised if that becomes part of the catechism.
QUESTION: Like I said, thanks. This is sort of back to Afghanistan, but a question about the refugees here in the U.S. We understand there are nearly 49,000 on American bases, bases inside America. There are a lot of hoops to go through, there are delays now because of measles. Can you say anything about at least an aspirational timeline for getting those people moved out of U.S. bases and either resettled or, if they’re going somewhere else, wherever else it’s going? But what sort of timeframe are we looking at?
MR PRICE: Our timeframe is as quickly and efficiently as we can. As you know, these individuals are undergoing some final elements at U.S. military bases. Just as soon as they are able to finish that medical processing, the other steps that they may be undergoing at those military bases, we would like to see them resettled in communities. We know there are communities across this country and resettlement agencies across this country that are looking forward to welcoming our country’s newest residents, to incorporating them into their communities, and to showing them all that this country and that American life has to offer. So it is not in our interest, it’s not in their interest for them to reside on a U.S. military base or any other official installation for any longer than is necessary, and I think you’ll see that we’re able to administer these final steps with a good deal of efficiency.
QUESTION: Thank you. So the Secretary said the other day about Pakistan-United States relations, and he said there is going to be a review or, as he puts it, reassessing. What does that mean? What are we looking at here, and when would this start?
MR PRICE: Well, what I would —
QUESTION: Given that Pakistan is right now helping with the Afghan refugees as well, so.
MR PRICE: So when it comes to Pakistan, we have been in regular touch with Pakistani counterparts as well as Pakistani leadership. We’ve discussed Afghanistan in some detail. As you know, Pakistan was represented at the ministerial that Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Maas convened last week at Ramstein Airbase in Germany. Pakistan contributed to that forum, echoed much of what we heard from other participants. And as I said before, there was a good deal of consensus that the gains of the past 20 years, especially on the part of Afghanistan’s women and girls and minorities, is – preserving those is in everyone’s interests. Easing the humanitarian plight of the people of Afghanistan is in everyone’s interest. That includes Pakistan as well as countries that may be farther afield.
Pakistan we know has frequently advocated for an inclusive government with broad support in Afghanistan, and what the Secretary was referring to yesterday is that we are going to continue to look to Pakistan and to other countries in the region to make good on their public statements, on commitments they have made, to in different ways step up to support the people of Afghanistan and to work constructively not only with us but the international community to see to it that the priorities that we share – and that includes the humanitarian concerns, it concerns the rights and the gains of the Afghan people over the past 20 years, as well as the counterterrorism concerns that we all have – to ensure that we are all walking in the same direction. That’s what the Secretary was referring to yesterday.
QUESTION: Just to follow up on Ambassador Khalilzad’s interview with the FT yesterday, in there he basically seems to suggest that the Taliban at one point were – was asking whether the U.S. would be willing to provide security for Kabul in that period where there would be some sort of a transitional government or something else.
But the suggestion there would seem to contradict the claims from Secretary Blinken and others that the Taliban didn’t want the U.S. to stay around at all and that the big reason that you had to stick to the timeline under the Trump agreement was that you would be exposed to attack. But your own special envoy in this article seems to be suggesting that in fact, the Taliban was open to the idea of the U.S. providing continued security. So can you address the remarks that he made in that article?
MR PRICE: What the special envoy was referring to was the dynamic before President Ghani fled the country. As he told the FT, he was engaged in discussions with the Taliban on what we hoped would be a political transfer, a negotiated agreement from one Afghan government to the next. And in the context of President Ghani remaining in Afghanistan, remaining in a leadership position, I think there was a hope that there could have been effected an orderly arrangement by which, through political dialogue and diplomacy, one Afghan government would, over time, give way to the next, and optimally one that was inclusive, that was representative of the Afghan people.
What we saw happen, of course, it didn’t quite play out that way. What the special envoy – special representative, I should say, was referring to was the fact that Ghani, despite saying very different things privately and publicly, fled the country and there was a power vacuum that ensued. And Ambassador Khalilzad made the point that with that power vacuum, the Taliban felt that they had no option but to enter the city of Kabul and essentially cement what we saw play out that weekend.
QUESTION: But he’s saying in there that they essentially felt that they had no option to do that, as you say, only after asking the U.S. if it would provide security, and you guys said no.
MR PRICE: What is true is that Ghani’s departure and the disintegration of forces following the departure did not leave us in a position to defend Kabul. Having American forces policing the streets of Kabul, whether that would have been viable or not – and to be clear, it is far from certain that that would have been a proposition that would have been welcome. U.S. military forces had a mission. We were engaged in that mission to bring to safety tens of thousands – 124,000 individuals over the course of a couple weeks. And policing the city of Kabul, that is not something that was ever contemplated as part of that mission, and I do not think anyone here is confident that would have been viable in any way.
QUESTION: Sure, but just to put a final point on it, I mean, the notion, though, that the Taliban was open to the U.S. providing security, whether or not you were willing to do it, does seem to contradict what has been basically the central justification for the speediness of this withdrawal, which was that if you stayed a day longer, you were going to be – after August 31st, you were going to be exposed to Taliban attacks. Everything he’s saying in there suggests that the Taliban were, in fact, open, whether you wanted to or not, to the U.S. sticking around.
MR PRICE: So I’d make a couple points. Number one, we were concerned not only with violence from potential Taliban supporters, but there was an even more acute concern when it came to ISIS-K. And we saw devastatingly the lethality that that group is able to bring to bear inside of Afghanistan. We did not need another reminder of the tremendous danger that our service members and others would have been exposed to had we stayed beyond August 31st.
When it comes to the Taliban, look, we have been very clear about this. The U.S.-Taliban agreement very clearly stipulates that American forces needed to be on the way out as of May 1st. This is – we were confident in the fact that extending indefinitely beyond May 1st, that reneging on that element of that agreement would not have preserved the status quo, and we had every reason to believe that our service members, that our diplomats, that other Americans would have been the target of violence, including from both ISIS-K and potentially the Taliban too, had we – had the President not resolved to complete the withdrawal that was before him.
There was no question that blowing through a deadline would not have preserved any status quo. The choice the President faced was one of withdrawal or escalation. We have been very clear about this: There was no third option. The conditions we found on April 30th would not have been the conditions we found on May 1st or May 2nd, and this was not a President —
QUESTION: It does seem like your own special envoy is essentially contradicting that.
MR PRICE: I do not think he is contradicting that, and I think you have actually heard him say that the May 1 deadline was not something that we could have renegotiated. It is not something that the President or others in his administration were willing to risk, putting brave Americans in even greater danger to potentially use them as leverage or to extend an already overextended mission that had seen our service members and the U.S. Government accomplish the mission that was set out for them 10 years ago with the decimation of the al-Qaida network, with the killing of Usama bin Ladin. This was not a mission that the President was willing to see extended by another week, by another month, by another year, by another 20 years.
QUESTION: But Ned —
QUESTION: Yes —
QUESTION: — how do you know it was not something that you could have renegotiated? And to Nick’s point to what Zal is apparently saying is that the Taliban were essentially asking you to renegotiate it.
MR PRICE: That is not the case at all.
QUESTION: That’s not the case at all?
MR PRICE: I can assure you —
QUESTION: What’s the timeline – what’s your understanding of the timeline of when President Ghani fled? Was it before the Taliban entered Kabul or afterwards? What’s the timeline – did the embassy get shut down and moved to the airport before the Taliban entered Kabul or after they entered Kabul?
MR PRICE: So we had announced, as you will recall, late in the week before the president fled – President Ghani fled – that we —
QUESTION: That was on Sunday the 15th.
MR PRICE: We had announced on that Thursday that we had begun the process of moving our embassy from the airport to HKIA. Now, of course —
QUESTION: Not from the airport —
QUESTION: From the embassy.
MR PRICE: From the embassy to HKIA. Correct.
QUESTION: Well, actually, are you sure about that?
MR PRICE: I remember standing right here and saying very clearly that we were repositioning.
QUESTION: And that was before the Taliban entered?
MR PRICE: That’s right.
QUESTION: Can you tell us the status of Ambassador Khalilzad now?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: Where is Ambassador Khalilzad?
MR PRICE: The ambassador is in Washington. He has —
QUESTION: Is he in this building or —
MR PRICE: I have not seen him in these halls, but my understanding is that he is here and he is remaining engaged with the Taliban. He’s been working part – as part of the team that is pressing these issues of safe passage, freedom of movement for American citizens and for others to whom we have a special commitment.
QUESTION: Would you say that he is the direct – the point man and coordinator with Qatar and —
MR PRICE: We have a team in Doha that is led by Ian McCary. Ian McCary and his team, they are in Doha precisely because that has tended to be the locus of diplomacy, not only with the Qataris but other special envoys and special representatives are based there, and so that is the team that is often engaging on these issues.
QUESTION: Thank you. I just wanted to ask quickly about the priorities of Secretary Blinken and President Biden and Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield next week at the UN General Assembly. We’ve mentioned the crises, plural, here today as well as other priorities of the administration and friction with China and UN organizations. What will be their priority next week and what will be – what do they hope to accomplish?
MR PRICE: Well, I don’t want to get ahead of the agenda. We’ll have an opportunity, I would expect, late this week and then certainly early next week to offer a little more granularity on what the high-level week will look like for our purposes.
But I think there are some key themes that you will see feature in next week. One is climate and I think you will see a concerted focus on the climate agenda and raising climate ambitions across the board. Another, of course, is COVID, and we know that in order to put an end to this virus, in order to see to it that it doesn’t pose a threat to people anywhere, we need to confront it everywhere. And you’ve seen the United States step up as a global leader in terms of vaccine sharing, in terms of manufacturing and production capabilities and capacities. I suspect you will hear more about that when the President meets with some of his counterparts. And, of course, I think democracy and human rights will also be key themes as the world’s countries come together. But, again, we’ll have much more to say about this in the coming days.
QUESTION: I want to go back to the Middle East. You said earlier when you were answering Said’s question that your starting point is not for direct talks between the Israeli and Palestinians, and instead you want to lay the ground, build confidence, build trust until this moment is viable. But we’ve been witnessing lately low-intensity escalation on the Gaza Strip, rocket firing, retaliation from the Israelis lately, last – two days ago. Do you think that this continued escalation around Gaza Strip will undermine your work or your hope that the moment for direct talks will come?
MR PRICE: Well, our goal in the first instance is to see to it that these escalations, including rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, come to an end. We have been very clear in condemning this rocket fire, the indiscriminate attacks that have emanated from Gaza. But we also know that if – the fact that Gaza continues to suffer from a humanitarian emergency has only contributed to the ability of Hamas and other terrorist groups to have a powerful foothold in Gaza.
And so this gets back to the point I was making before. Right now what we are trying to do is to lay the groundwork so that the Palestinian people, including Palestinians in Gaza, are – have a degree of humanitarian relief and so that we can build a path towards a time when Israelis and Palestinians are able to enjoy those key concepts: prosperity, safety, security, dignity in equal measure. We’re under no illusions that this is something that we’ll be able to do overnight or even in a slightly longer timeframe.
And my point about negotiations was just that we are also under no illusions about where we are and where we aren’t in terms of what may be viable and what may be on the table. Where our focus is now – and you’ve seen this in terms of our humanitarian aid and assistance to the Palestinian people; you’ve seen this in terms of our diplomacy and engagement with the Israeli Government, as well as with the Palestinian Authority; you’ve seen this in terms of our multilateral work and some of the humanitarian and relief assistance that is being provided to the people of Gaza, both by the United States and by other countries in the region and beyond – is that we are seeking to make tangible steps in that direction in the hope that one day, and hopefully one day before too long, we are actually able to make progress in the context of face-to-face negotiations between the parties towards a negotiated two-state solution.
QUESTION: Any comment on the Israeli foreign minister plan, which he called economy in exchange for security? And was it in consultation with you?
MR PRICE: Was it – sorry, what was the last part of the question?
QUESTION: In consultation with the administration, with the U.S. administration.
MR PRICE: If we have anything to add there, we’ll let you know.
QUESTION: So a lot has happened in the last month, and I know you’ve been up here a lot. There’s been a lot about Afghanistan, but you are – I just need to point this out, because you’re going to want to correct the transcript: You absolutely did not say on August 12th, Thursday – at the briefing on August 12th – that the embassy was moving to the airport.
MR PRICE: No, I did not say the embassy was moving to the airport.
QUESTION: No, it was staying.
MR PRICE: Yeah, right.
QUESTION: In fact, you said it was staying open at its current location.
MR PRICE: But I said that we were starting —
QUESTION: After Christina and I pressed you on it for several – a lot.
MR PRICE: And —
QUESTION: You didn’t say – you said, “[Our] embassy remains open and we [will] continue our diplomatic work [there.]” Thus, the embassy did not close at its location and move to the airport with Ambassador Wilson and the flag until Sunday the 15th.
MR PRICE: Until Sunday, that’s right.
QUESTION: After the Taliban entered the city, correct?
MR PRICE: That is my recollection, but I said that we were starting the process of moving people to HKIA that day, correct.
QUESTION: Well – no – well, you said you were starting the process of reducing your civilian footprint.
MR PRICE: Correct.
QUESTION: And that followed the Pentagon announcement that they were sending troops to the airport. There was never any – I mean, there was a lot of scuttlebutt about it, that you might move to the airport, but you said that the embassy was staying at the embassy location, not going to the —
MR PRICE: I – as I said, we were reducing our civilian footprint, exactly.
QUESTION: Well, then all right, whatever.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Okay. Human rights groups yesterday put out a statement calling the U.S. decision to withhold only a portion of the 300 million a betrayal of the U.S. commitment to make human rights front and center. What’s your response to that? And could you also share what specific actions the U.S. is looking for from the Government of Egypt to move forward with the 130 million? And have you shared those with the government? What was their response?
MR PRICE: So as you heard from us yesterday, I believe, the Secretary has decided that $300 million in FY2020 Foreign Military Financing will be made available to Egypt for the purpose of counterterrorism, border security, as well as nonproliferation programs. We will move forward with using 130 million of that 300 million for purchases if and only if Egypt takes specific actions related to human rights.
The Secretary and the President have had an opportunity in both cases to discuss this with President Sisi. The Secretary has had an opportunity to discuss it with Foreign Minister Shoukry as well over the course of months. The two leaders agreed in May on the importance of a constructive dialogue on human rights, and we have conveyed to Egypt’s leaders, as you alluded to, specific steps we have urged them to take. Because we are continuing to discuss our serious concerns regarding human rights in Egypt, the Secretary will not certify that the Government of Egypt is taking sustained and effective steps related to the legislative human rights related conditions on that total of $300 million in 2020 FMF funds.
And so instead, the administration is making available that 300 million in assistance for Egypt in those categories that I mentioned, and that’s border security, nonproliferation, and counterterrorism programs. And we will move forward with that $130 million, the maximum amount that we could withhold, only if the Government of Egypt affirmatively addresses specific human rights related conditions.
When it comes to those specific conditions, I’m not in a position to outline any conversations that we have had with our Egyptian counterparts. What I can say is that we have continued to publicly and privately raise at high levels our concerns about the human rights situation in Egypt, including freedom of expression, political association, and press freedom. We have spoken very clearly privately with the Egyptians on all of these fronts, so I’m not able to provide you with additional detail, but we have been very clear in those conversations.
QUESTION: Did you get any assurances from them? What was their reaction?
MR PRICE: I wouldn’t want to characterize any private conversations. Yes.
QUESTION: Just to follow up on a question about Khalilzad’s comments. The Secretary told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that – he was asked, have you – did you ever consider whether to renegotiate the deal with the Taliban. He said, the Taliban made it clear that it was going to hold us to the deadline of the previous – the previous deadline, and that it would resume the attacks if we did not. So was there a change, then, from that point to what Khalilzad was describing of the Taliban then even asking for U.S. to take on security in Kabul —
MR PRICE: No. What the Secretary said is precisely why we faced one of two choices: withdrawal, or escalation. And with the latter, not only would —
QUESTION: I understand that; we’ve heard that many times. But the – what Khalilzad was describing about the situation there in Kabul was not escalation, it was the Taliban saying – hoping that the Americans could help with security. It’s a different scenario than what’s – than what’s laid out here.
MR PRICE: I think if there is a perception that the Taliban was hoping that we would deploy our forces or stay longer, that is – that does not reflect, that does not track with reality. And in fact, the Taliban were very clear, to include publicly, regarding the fact that they would continue to hold the United States to the commitment that the previous administration had made when it came to the May 1 deadline.
On top of that, we also faced a very stark reality, and we had a horrific reminder of the very complex, the very challenging, the very dangerous threat picture that we would have faced if we stayed a moment longer in Kabul. So there was never an option for – well, let me put it this way: There was never a realistic, there was never a viable, there was never a practical option for the United States to stay in Afghanistan, whether the context was August 31st or at any other time. Because we knew the consequences of that. We knew the consequences of that from the very clear public statements from the Taliban, but also over the course of months and months of engagement with them. We were left with a very clear and stark impression that if the United States sought to prolong our presence on the ground, our service members, who had not been the target of attacks during the full implementation of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, would again be targets of Taliban violence, not to mention terrorist attacks by groups like ISIS-K.
QUESTION: Well, that suggests that you actually raised it – raised the idea with the Taliban. Because the impression that we’re getting from the White House, from you, from the Secretary, from General – from Secretary Austin is that you didn’t even raise the issue with the Taliban about possible renegotiation, even for a minor amount of time, because the President had basically decided already that he was going to keep to the withdrawal on that timeline no matter what.
MR PRICE: And the President came to that decision —
QUESTION: But so did —
MR PRICE: — knowing what the consequences would be of —
QUESTION: Well, how did he know what the consequences would have been if Zal or someone else didn’t actually raise it with the Taliban and say, “Hey, what do you think about if we renegotiate?” Did that actually happen?
MR PRICE: Matt, we have had —
QUESTION: Did that – did that ever happen?
MR PRICE: The Secretary referred to this yesterday in his testimony that Barbara just read.
QUESTION: Did it ever happen that you brought up with the – you keep saying, “Well, we are – we’re under the distinct impression that,” or “Our understanding was that” – well, did you directly raise it with the Taliban?
MR PRICE: The Taliban made it very clear to us —
QUESTION: In response to what?
MR PRICE: In the context of diplomacy and discussions —
QUESTION: Did anyone ever try to renegotiate?
MR PRICE: — the Taliban made it very clear to us that if the United States would seek to renege on the agreement, that they would not continue to abide by the commitment that they had made.
QUESTION: So basically “Don’t even try,” so you never did, right? Is that right?
MR PRICE: It was made very clear to us that there was no ability to renegotiate an agreement that the last administration signed onto that stipulated quite clearly that if American troops remained on the ground, that they would once again become the subject of attacks and aggression.
QUESTION: So it was never raised with them, the possibility of renegotiating; is that correct?
MR PRICE: Matt, I’m telling you they – I’m telling you they made it – I’m telling you —
QUESTION: Because – I know that they made it very clear, but did they make it clear in response to you bringing it up, or did they just say, “Don’t even think about it,” and then you guys said, “Okay, we won’t.”
MR PRICE: I am not going to detail the diplomacy. What I will tell you is that we were very confident that if our troops remained on the ground past that deadline, that they would be subject to the sort of targeted violence that this President and others in this administration were not willing to risk or even countenance.
QUESTION: So why not even ask?
QUESTION: Some say —
QUESTION: Was it not worth asking to renegotiate it?
MR PRICE: Christina, I am not speaking to the ins and outs of the diplomacy.
QUESTION: This is not ins and outs. This is like a basic question we’re trying to get the answer to. Either they didn’t do it – as Matt just said, either they didn’t do it in reaction to you asking, or you didn’t ask because you didn’t think it was an issue. Can you just tell us which one of those it is?
MR PRICE: The Secretary spoke to this yesterday.
QUESTION: So is that a no?
MR PRICE: We were – had every reason to believe, and if you look at the Taliban’s own public statements you would have every reason to believe that American troops would have been the target of violence once again if we did not adhere to that deadline that the previous administration signed us up to.
QUESTION: So is it accurate to say the administration didn’t try to renegotiate it?
MR PRICE: Said.
QUESTION: I was going to say some on both sides of the aisle say the President basically reversed or reneged on agreements, other agreements committed to by the former administration. Why this one? Why did he keep this commitment to the Taliban?
MR PRICE: Because, Said, at the heart of this commitment was the safety and the security of our service members, of Americans who would have very much been in harm’s way. I think if you look across the board, you will find this administration seeking to renew and to revive diplomatic achievements that previous administrations were able to negotiate. We’ve already talked about a couple of them in the context of this briefing. But if this administration had sought to renege on or had sought to recraft or reinterpret in significant ways this particular agreement, it was more than about political implications or consequences. It would have implicated the safety and security of American service members and put them in harm’s way in a way that this President was not willing to do.
Thank you all very much.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:08 p.m.)