Moderator: Good afternoon from the U.S. State Department’s Brussels Media Hub. I’d like to welcome all participants to today’s telephonic press briefing. Today we are very honored to be joined by Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks by Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West, and then we will turn to your questions. We will do our best to get to as many as possible in the time that we have today, which is approximately 20 minutes.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I’ll turn it over to Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West for his opening remarks. Please go ahead, sir.
Mr. West: Thank you very much. It is a pleasure and an honor to speak with you today from Brussels. Earlier today I briefed a meeting of the North Atlantic Council here at NATO Headquarters. I wanted to give a sense of recent U.S. engagements with the Taliban, and we consulted meaningfully and candidly on the way ahead.
And here at NATO, it’s often said that we went in together, we adjusted together, and we left together. Now I would offer we need to look forward together. I have to say, I found a sense of common purpose and shared objectives on that way ahead. Number one, allies want to be sure that safe passage out of Afghanistan is assured, including for Afghans to whom we have a special commitment. We want to see the Taliban fulfill their bedrock and oft-repeated commitments not to allow terrorists to pose a threat to any country. Allies are supporting a robust humanitarian response to the worsening crisis there. The United States, as many will have seen, recently announced an additional $144 million as part of that response, bringing our total this year to $474 million. And we want to see woman as part of that response participate in every aspect of humanitarian aid delivery countrywide.
We all want to see human rights, minority rights, and the rights of women and girls – including access to education at all levels throughout the country – respected, assured, and delivered upon. Statements are not enough.
We want to see steps taken to form an inclusive and representative government, and that’s a point I think is especially shared by many regional powers as well.
And I want to say I was part of the evacuation effort in Kabul, and I think a lot of our engagement with the Taliban really from mid-August through September was necessarily heavily focused on the urgent operational matter of departures, evacuations of Afghans, of foreign diplomats, and others. Over the past several weeks we’ve started to determine internally how we were going to protect our vital national interests going forward. And so in October, on the 9th and 10th, I was part of an interagency delegation that engaged with a high-level Taliban delegation in Doha over a two-day period. Those talks were followed on the 12th of October by a U.S.-Europe engagement that included many, many of our allies who were represented today here at the NAC.
We are preparing for a next round of interagency U.S. engagement with the Taliban. I don’t have a date to share with you at this stage. But look, it’s just imperative that allies act and work together effectively when it comes to securing our interests in Afghanistan. It’s also imperative that we work with the region – with Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, and the Central Asian states – on our common and abiding interest in a stable Afghanistan that does not represent a threat to its neighbors, is at peace with itself, and respects human rights, women’s rights, the rights of minorities, and so forth.
So with that opening, I’d be happy to take your questions.
Moderator: Thank you very much for those remarks. We’ll now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. Our first question comes to us from Zheela Noori from Voice of America in the United States.
Question: Good afternoon, Ambassador West. With your travel, do you plan to also attend the regional meeting in India? What do you expect? What is the U.S. leverage over the Taliban that with this travel, it will influence them at least for forming an inclusive government for Afghanistan? Thank you.
Mr. West: Thank you. In my upcoming travels I do plan to visit Pakistan, Russia, and India. I will not be a part of – I think you’re probably referring to the recent meeting announced that India will host of national security advisors.
On your second question, look, the Taliban have voiced very clearly and openly their desire to normalize relations with the international community; to see a resumption in aid; to see a return of the international diplomatic community to Kabul; to see sanctions relief. And the United States can deliver none of these things on our own, and we have to work together with the international community in order to see those things about. But that’s not an insignificant give and take, and again, we just want to first consult with our likeminded allies on exactly what the roadmap looks like.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Our next question was pre-submitted by Lailuma Sadid from Brussels Morning in Belgium, and Lailuma asks about the future of NATO in Afghanistan: “What’s next? What’s the next plan?”
Mr. West: I don’t think we made any final decisions today about the next step. I think what’s important is that we consulted here today. Look, I think allies are going to continue to play a heavy role in Afghanistan, and Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and non-NATO, but the EU has I think heavy interests in Afghanistan as well. And so we will all engage forthrightly and in a clear-eyed manner with the Taliban and with shared interests and objectives.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Our next question comes from Paul Shinkman with U.S. News & World Report.
Question: Yeah, hi, sir. Thanks very much for doing this. Two questions on the same subject. Can you give us an update on U.S. efforts to establish some sort of new counterterrorism presence in a neighboring country? What’s happening right now? Where are talks taking place? And is the option of a new counterterrorism base, a new base in a neighboring country, still something that the U.S. is pursuing? And I have a second question on Pakistan.
Mr. West: Thank you. On that first question, look, the President’s made clear that we will maintain an unwavering commitment to ensure that Afghanistan never, ever again becomes a launching pad for terrorists that can harm us or harm our allies. The President has also mentioned that we will ensure that we reorganize our capabilities to see that we have what we need to accomplish that objective. My colleagues in DOD are focused on that mission, and I would refer to you – refer to DOD for more detail on that issue.
And please, on Pakistan.
Question: Yeah, so it seems like the most likely new U.S. counterterrorism presence in the region would be in Pakistan given that it appears as though the U.S. is sort of being boxed out of the other neighboring countries, and I’d be interested if you correct me if you think that that’s not correct. But several Pakistani officials have publicly criticized the U.S. in recent days for not being clear about its ambitions for its follow-on, over-the-horizon mission in Afghanistan. Have you heard those concerns from the Pakistanis? How do you respond to that? And do you think that the U.S. has been clear enough about what it plans to do for the region?
Mr. West: Look, we are going to cooperate with the countries of the region when it comes to counterterrorism, and that includes with the Pakistanis. I’ll be in Pakistan later this week and look forward to continuing those discussions. I apologize, I don’t have any more for you on that matter right now.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question comes from Deborah Haynes with Sky News in the UK.
Question: Hi, thank you very much. I have a couple of questions too if that’s okay. First of all, can you give a sense: Is there any thinking about when or if the U.S. is going to reopen its embassy in Kabul? And secondly, just following on from my colleague’s question, could you give a sense of how you’re viewing the terrorist threat right now on the ground in Afghanistan? Like, is it – obviously you don’t want it to become a haven again that could affect – or terrorist haven that could affect Western countries, but are you seeing a flow of foreign fighters into the country that is a growing area of concern? Thanks.
Mr. West: Look, when it comes to reopening our embassy in Kabul, I have to tell you candidly that we are not seriously thinking about taking that step at this time. I think what we want to see is the establishment of a record of responsible conduct by the Taliban, of predictable conduct, and then we’ll assess what needs we have on the diplomatic front.
Insofar as how we view the terrorist threat in Afghanistan, look, we want the Taliban to succeed against ISIS-K. I think they have a very vigorous effort underway against that group. We condemn the innocent loss of Afghan lives that have taken place in recent weeks at the hands of vicious ISIS-K attacks across the country. And so there I think we’re worried about the uptick in ISIS-K attacks and we want the Taliban to be successful against them.
When it comes to other groups, look, al-Qaida continues to have a presence in Afghanistan that we are very concerned about and that is an issue of ongoing concern for us in our dialogue with the Taliban.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question comes from Moritz Koch with Handelsblatt in Belgium.
Question: Hi. Hi, Tom. Thanks for doing this. I have a question about China and the role China is playing in bringing stability to Afghanistan. Do you welcome increased Chinese engagement in Afghanistan or are there concerns that China would gain a sphere of influence?
Mr. West: I think all the countries of the region have a positive role to play in Afghanistan’s future, and that includes China. So we welcome a positive role by China. I won’t be drawn out now on exactly what kinds of engagement we would welcome or not welcome, but certainly all the countries of the region, including China, have a positive role to play in Afghanistan’s future.
Moderator: Thank you. And our next question comes from Nick Schifrin with PBS NewsHour.
Question: Hey, Tom. Hope you’re well. We haven’t asked about the humanitarian situation, so I wondered if I could ask about that. There are a lot of people out there, as you well know, who are calling the U.S. to do more not only on humanitarian aid but questions of unfreezing billions of dollars in reserves as well as leaning on things like the World Bank and the IMF or allowing things like the World Bank and the IMF to deliver actual salaries to the Afghans ahead of what is going to be a catastrophic winter in terms of the humanitarian situation. So can you address what the U.S. is doing and can you address your critics saying that the U.S. isn’t doing enough fast enough? Thanks.
Mr. West: I spent October 27th in New York meeting UN leadership, the leadership of OCHA, UNDP, UNICEF, as well as Under-Secretary Rosemary DiCarlo. The UN has an absolutely essential role to play in Afghanistan right now. They have a big footprint. They are delivering lifesaving aid. And that entire response, its effectiveness is one that the United States will be utterly and squarely behind. That is why we are delivering this year $474 million in humanitarian assistance. We welcome many allies who have really leaned into this effort from their capitals as well, and we hope that that continues.
Look, when it comes to salaries of civil servants and so forth, I would say I am aware of creative and urgent thinking that a number of organizations are doing about ways in which we might be able to see the World Bank or the UN pay salaries. The United States has not taken a position on this matter. It’s certainly one up for debate, but, frankly, we haven’t seen the specifics of the proposals, how we can ensure that zero money ever reached the Taliban, how we can ensure there would not be leakage to any terrorist organizations, and, frankly, what we would see in return from the Taliban for taking any steps in that direction. I think we want to form common positions. We want to consult openly and candidly with our Congress on the advisability of moving in this direction. So it’s an area of discussion in our government, but we have not made a decision.
Moderator: Thank you very much. And we have time for one final question, and it will go to Jennifer Hansler with CNN.
Question: Hi there, thanks so much for doing this. I was wondering if you could elaborate more on the safe passage issue and what the biggest obstacles to getting Afghans out of the country – is it the Taliban? Is it logistical, the logistical situation? And on HKIA, was there any discussion this morning about reopening the airport in a more significant way? How far out might we be from that? Thank you.
Mr. West: Look, safe passage – I think the Taliban have delivered by and large on their commitment to us to allow Afghans to whom we owe a special commitment and American citizens and LPRs out of the country over the past several weeks in particular. I think the real challenge we face, as you point out, is potentially logistical, especially as we head into the winter months. Commercial airlines have been operating unscheduled relief and charter flights at great financial and operational risk under what are called daytime visual flight rules. Many runway lights are damaged and not functioning, and the airport’s ability to operate in the winter months I think is in question. So we recognize the need for international flights to resume regular scheduled operations and we support that resumption soon. But look, that’s also a matter for the Taliban to move ahead on with potential partners in that endeavor.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Unfortunately, that was the last question we have time for today. I want to thank you, Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West, for joining us and thank all of the reporters on the line for your participation and your questions.