Briefing With Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Alice Wells

Special Briefing
Alice G. Wells
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Press Correspondents' Room
Washington, DC
March 5, 2018


MR SAYLES: So we have with us today Alice Wells. She’s a senior bureau official for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. She will be discussing on the record – so the ground rules are on the record – her recent trip to Kabul and also the Kabul Process conference from last week. So we’d like to, as you all know, keep the questions focused on what she’s here to brief on, and if you have other questions that kind of veer from that, we can cover them separately, but we’d like to keep it on topic to the extent possible. And with that, I will leave it to Senior Bureau Official Wells to give her opening, and then we’ll take your questions after that.

MS WELLS: Thanks for participating today. I had hoped to do this on Friday, but the government closure – and frankly, I was relieved, I was a little jetlagged, I’d just flown in that morning. But the Kabul Process, I think, was a really historic and benchmark event. And as President Ghani said in his remarks to the media, it really was with courage and conviction that he put forward what is a conception of a reconciliation process with the Taliban, and I was quite struck at the event that was attended by 25 other countries that – the degree to which he emphasized that peace is both a national and a religious responsibility.

And when I listened to President Ghani, I heard him offering a dignified process. This is not a surrender that’s being offered to the Taliban, but a dignified process for reaching a political framework. And again, he emphasized that this is negotiations without preconditions, a process that would lead to a cessation of violence, halt the ties with terrorism, and respect for the Afghanistan constitution. But it was clear, I think, that the Government of Afghanistan has listened carefully to the Taliban and was responsive to the Taliban in underscoring that issues like office and passports and delisting – the mechanics of how you actually arrange a dignified negotiation – were very much in their – in the forefront of their thinking and included in this offer that was put forward by President Ghani.

He was comprehensive. He was talking about a political process, a framework, a ceasefire, the Taliban as a political party in free and fair elections. He talked about a legal framework that would encompass this, whether it is via constitutional amendments and the removal of international or national sanctions, and he also, I think, buttressed it in an economic package, the recognition that reform, balance, development, that combatants would have to be given their place, a due place back in society. And what I saw was a real sincerity of effort by both the Afghan Government and the international community.

I mean, clearly, I think that there is a point of agreement with the Taliban that there needs to be a political solution, and I think we’ve made it very clear under the South Asia strategy that we will not allow the Taliban to win militarily, but the goal of the South Asia strategy is to provide a path to a political settlement.

And I think here it’s important to emphasize that negotiations are not about conferring legitimacy on one party or the other. It’s quite clear that the Afghan Government does not recognize an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and it’s quite clear that the Taliban don’t recognize the Government of Afghanistan. Recognition can come at the end of a process, a process that I think the United States can play a role in, can help facilitate, can be supportive of, but we certainly cannot substitute for the Afghan Government and the Afghan people.

I’ve often heard the Taliban in their public remarks talk about troop presence and the removal of foreign troops as a precondition for talks, but I would stress that troop presence is a sovereign decision, a decision of a government to make. The United States is in Afghanistan not as an occupying power but as a guest of and at the invitation of the Afghan Government enshrined in a bilateral security arrangement that was approved by the traditional Loya Jirga mechanism of the Afghan people, without any coercion involved.

And so what I see out of this Kabul Process is there’s a very, very strong endorsement by the international community for an offer that is quite forward-leaning, and frankly I think probably caught the Taliban by surprise with how thoughtful and comprehensive the package that President Ghani was putting forward.

I’ll leave it at that and take questions.

MR SAYLES: Okay. So we can take questions now. And if you all could just name your outlet as well, your name and outlet before you go.

QUESTION: Francesco Fontemaggi for AFP. Except from the offer from President Ghani, what makes you so optimistic? Do you have any sign from the Taliban, from the battlefield that something could move on their side also as well? You said they were caught by surprise, but you think that they can move and accept this offer? And the other question is: You said there are no preconditions, but – about the constitution. Does it mean that the Taliban will be asked to accept a constitution after it will be amended, or they have – still have to accept the current constitution?

MS WELLS: I don’t believe the Taliban have officially responded. You’ve seen comments in various newspaper articles, but no official statement by the Taliban. I think the importance of the Kabul Process was to sharpen the difference between – of what is on offer, what is on the table. I – the – to make it very clear that this is a pan-Afghan offer of a dignified political negotiation. And I think for any of you who actually watched the Kabul Process, this was not just President Ghani delivering an offer. He was flanked by Dr. Abdullah, by Foreign Minister Rabbani, by his Government of National Unity partners. You had members of civil society there; you had female representatives; you had members of the High Peace Council. This was a much broader vision that was being put forward, a much broader and comprehensive offer by the Afghanistan people.

And so I think it does put the onus on the Taliban to respond. I mean, the Taliban have raised concerns in the past about process and dignity and about not being coerced, and the package that President Ghani advanced – and he advanced this only weeks after another very vicious urban attack by the Taliban, in which the Taliban used a ambulance, against all international norms and protocols, to attack civilians in the capital. I think this was quite a courageous offer by the president that reflects the Afghan people’s conviction that at the end, there does need to be a political settlement.

So we will look carefully. We certainly encourage the Taliban to take this offer seriously. The – for the first time, the Kabul Process issued a unanimous joint statement, a joint statement by consensus. That was not the case that Kabul Process back in June. So this really does, I think, reflect a seriousness of purpose by the international community in supporting this government effort.

As for the no preconditions, I think President Ghani was clear that amendments to the constitution can be discussed. I think the international community is very focused on the rights of the Afghan people continuing to be advanced. In my own remarks at the Kabul process, I sort of – I underscored that the Afghan people want peace, but not at the cost of their own dignity and advancement, and I certainly think that President Ghani’s emphasis on continuing to enshrine the progress that Afghan women have made is a serious statement and one we need to support as well.

QUESTION: Dmitry Kirsanov of TASS, the Russian newswire service. The Government of Uzbekistan is planning to convene an international peace and security conference in Tashkent at the end of this month, as you know. The United States is invited, Russia is invited, China is invited, India, Pakistan – a whole bunch of other countries and international organizations. Do you view this process as complementing Kabul Process and all other efforts undertaken by relevant international players, part one? And part two, is the United States planning to attend and who is going there?

MS WELLS: We are planning to attend the Tashkent conference. We have not yet decided at what level but hope to make that decision soon. We do see the Tashkent conference as part of an extension of the Kabul Process. For us, what is important is that these mechanisms and conferences be Afghan-owned and led; and as you know, the Tashkent conference came out of a meeting between President Ghani and Uzbek President Mirziyoyev in Tashkent, the first visit by an Afghan leader to Uzbekistan, which produced a variety of agreements, including important economic agreements to expand connectivity between the two countries. We think that Central Asia and Uzbekistan in particular with the presidency of Mirziyoyev have an important role to play in stitching Afghanistan back into the region, and the energy ties, the trade ties, the people-to-people ties are extremely important to Afghanistan’s stabilization. So yes, we do support this initiative.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Lalit Jha from PTI, Press Trust of India. To what extent – what’s the impression about Pakistan’s role in this peace process? Pakistan, as you have said multiple times, has important role to play in this peace process. And secondly, do you think talks and terror can go together?

MS WELLS: Talks and terror? Pakistan has a very important role to play in a peace process. We believe that Pakistan can certainly help to facilitate talks and to take actions that will put pressure on and encourage the Taliban to move forward towards a politically negotiated settlement. And our engagement with Pakistan is on how we can work together, on how we can address Pakistan’s legitimate concerns and Afghanistan’s stability through a negotiated process as well. Obviously, as Pakistani officials have underscored, they see a variety of issues, whether it’s border management or refugees or terrorism that emanates from ungoverned space in Afghanistan, as important issues, and we would agree that all of these need to be resolved during the course of a reconciliation process.

We believe that the intensified efforts under the South Asia strategy to put military pressure on the Taliban are important, that these military efforts help shape the conditions for talks and help to underscore that there is no military victory for the Taliban, that ultimately their legitimate grievances will have to be addressed at a negotiating table. We’d like to see them come to this table sooner rather than later.

QUESTION: Can I follow it up, one, which you said about legitimate concerns of Pakistan? What are those --

MS WELLS: Some of those that I just mentioned. They have concerns over border management; over TT, the Tehrik-i-Taliban; Pakistan’s presence in ungoverned space in Afghanistan; refugee concerns. The Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship is quite important. We are supportive of the efforts to improve the bilateral relationship. The two countries have exchanged visits over the last several months to establish a framework agreement, to enhance the bilateral relationship. We support that and think it’s important.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Nick Wadhams with Bloomberg. Given that the security situation particularly in Kabul just seems to be deteriorating more and more, and Taliban control, whether over physical area or population, seems to be not diminishing, what leverage do you have over the Taliban to actually bring them to the negotiating table, and do you believe that there is one Taliban leader who would have the strength to unify that movement to actually bring the Taliban to the table if there are factions of the Taliban that do not want to negotiate?

MS WELLS: Starting with the last, I think there are always going to be elements and factions that do not participate – the irreconcilable, so to speak. I think a political process defines who is reconcilable, who is prepared to come to the negotiating table, who is prepared to adhere to an agreement that is negotiated through a political process. And so rather than preordain who is irreconcilable, let the process determine that. But certainly, we would anticipate that there will continue to be elements, not just Taliban elements, that will pose a terrorism threat and will need to be taken care of by the Government of Afghanistan with the support of its partners.

With respect to security in Kabul, I think, unfortunately, we can anticipate that as we put more pressure on the Taliban in the battlefield and as we make it harder for them to mass as they’ve been able to do in fights in rural areas, they are going to adjust their tactics and it will not come as a surprise if we see more terrorist tactics addressed at urban audiences. And so we’re working very closely with the Government of Afghanistan to improve security not just in Kabul but in other major urban centers.

But this is unfortunately the byproduct of what is going to be greater success elsewhere under the enhanced South Asia strategy. I don’t agree with the assessment necessarily that we’re going – that we’re going to see the Taliban increase their control. What we’ve seen is the Taliban control about 12 percent of the population, the government controls about 56 percent, and other areas are contested. Over the last year, the Taliban have not succeeded in threatening major urban centers. So already there’s been an erosion in certainly what they had hoped to achieve on the battlefield, and that erosion will continue, again, with the increased assets being brought to bear under the South Asia strategy.

So we will see the battlefield conditions change, but at the same time, the door has been opened quite significantly for – to a political process. And so to try to characterize the South Asia Strategy as a military plan is simply wrong. There are two parts to this strategy, each is equally thought out and invested in, and I think President Ghani did an extremely effective job in laying out a vision that he has for not – for his country and for the Taliban as fellow Afghans.

QUESTION: I’m Bill Gallo, Voice of America. I’m just wondering if you have seen any change in Pakistan’s behavior as it relates to Afghanistan since the move of the U.S. to freeze aid?

MS WELLS: We’ve not seen decisive and sustained changes yet in Pakistan’s behavior, but certainly we are continuing to engage with Pakistan over areas where we think they can play a helpful role in changing the calculus of the Taliban.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up on that, because I was going to ask the same question? I mean, so it – so does it not work to hold aid hostage to this kind of thing?

MS WELLS: Well, I wouldn’t say that. I think we’re in the beginning of a process with the Pakistani Government. We have a series of high-level exchanges, Foreign Secretary Janjua will be here in Washington for meetings tomorrow. We’re certainly not walking away from Pakistan. There will be very intensive dialogue through both our military and our civilian channels to discuss how we can work together. I mean, Pakistan has an important role to play in helping to stabilize Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Matthew Pennington from AP. As part of this Afghan-led peace process, do you see a time at which there could be direct talks between the U.S. and the Taliban? Because it seems that that’s what the Taliban are constantly demanding, that they speak to the U.S. because you have the leverage over the presence of U.S. forces in the country.

MS WELLS: Well again, I would reiterate, our forces are there at the invitation of a sovereign government. And so, the sovereign government is the one that we negotiate with over – over true presence. No one is precluding any formula, but I think what first has to happen is that there has to be agreement between the Taliban and the Government of Afghanistan to engage with one another. This – again, this does not confer recognition of one another. This is a negotiating process between the Afghan Government and the political movement of the Afghan Taliban.

After that, I would expect that there are many regional partners who have a stake in and an interest in supporting a peace process, as was the case in the bond process that ushered in the post-Taliban government. I think that there will be broad international support for a negotiation, and the kind of diplomatic architecture that’s in place right now underscores that. You have an international contact group, you have the Kabul process, in the past you’ve had a 6+1. We’ve done a quad with the Chinese, Afghans, and Pakistanis. The international community has organized itself in a variety of ways to be supportive of a peace process, but it’s the actual process itself between the Afghans that has to emerge for us to support.

QUESTION: So do you need that as a first step before there could be direct talks between the U.S. and the Taliban?

MS WELLS: The – the Afghan Taliban and the Government of Afghanistan need to be able to engage together. That’s a critical first step.

QUESTION: If direct talks between the U.S. and the Taliban can help facilitate the government and the Taliban together --

MS WELLS: The United States is not --

QUESTION: -- wouldn’t you reconsider it?

MS WELLS: The United States is not a substitute for the Afghan people and the Afghan Government, and the Afghan Taliban are going to have to be very persuasive to the people of Afghanistan that – as they have themselves claimed – that they’ve moved beyond what they were in the 1990s, which we all remember quite well. So it’s critical that the Afghans be able to talk to one another. And as the Kabul process of last week, I think, just underscored, the international community would be very supportive of that negotiation effort.

QUESTION: Abigail Williams of NBC. There were reports for some time of Russia arming the Taliban. I wonder if you’re seeing that, and if you are, what it is that’s being done to counter that.

MS WELLS: I can’t speak to arming of the Taliban. What I can speak to are concerns that we have by Russia and by Iran that justify the Taliban on the basis that they are opposed to ISIS Khorasan. And this breakdown in consensus against the Taliban and the idea that there should be diplomatic intelligence liaison with the Taliban, we think, is quite detrimental to peace and prospects for peace because it sustains a Taliban ecosystem that has encouraged and supported these terrorist groups in Afghanistan.

The way to defeat ISIS Khorasan is to strengthen the Government of Afghanistan and to work with the Government of Afghanistan to defeat ISIS. It’s not to support the Taliban. And so that’s our concern over what we’ve seen as hedging behavior by countries in the region.

QUESTION: And is that something you guys are addressing when – is that something you’re speaking to the Russians about?

MS WELLS: We’ve raised our concerns with the Russians. We’ve certainly raised our concerns about propaganda that suggests that the United States is not intent on defeating and fighting ISIS Khorasan. Over the last year, we’ve intensified our efforts against ISIS Khorasan. We’ve tripled the amount of bombing raids against ISIS. We’ve expanded our own military efforts. We’ve taken emirs off the battlefield, thousands of – over 1,600 fighters off the battlefield.

And those efforts will continue because I think all of us recognize that while the Taliban may be – represent an insurgency, they stand for and are Afghan nationalists of one type. ISIS is a nihilistic force that is bent on the very destruction of Afghanistan. And so there is a seriousness, an extreme seriousness of effort, in defeating ISIS by Resolute Support Mission and by the U.S. bilateral counterterrorism forces that are in Afghanistan.

MR SAYLES: We have time for one or two more questions. I – first and then last.

QUESTION: James Astill from The Economist. You recognize that Pakistan has two or three legitimate grievances. Do you recognize that the Taliban have any legitimate grievances?

MS WELLS: Certainly. We’ve always said that the legitimate grievances raised by the Taliban over justice, over corruption, over predatory governance of the past – those issues need to be resolved. And what we --

QUESTION: But in the design – in the design of the constitution, not in the quality of governance?

MS WELLS: And I think that’s why it was quite significant that President Ghani suggested that there could be constitutional amendments so that the constitution is owned by all the Afghan people. What we’ve encouraged the Government of Afghanistan to undertake are the series of reforms that have been enshrined in the Afghanistan compact that look at improvements in governance and economics and reconciliation and military security, because those questions have to be answered.

MR SAYLES: Okay. One more. Actually, in back.

QUESTION: The DNI said last month that conditions would --

MR SAYLES: Can you just tell us your --

QUESTION: Oh, Chris Gordon. Chris Gordon, Wall Street Journal. DNI said last month that conditions would probably deteriorate because of political instability, Taliban attacks, chronic financial problems, and ANSF performance. Do you guys agree with that?

MS WELLS: I think what we’ve seen, as I just – as I raised earlier – is that we’ve already started to curtail Taliban actions, that they haven’t been able to threaten the population centers as they did in 2016. And so while there was some minor expansion in terms of geographic area covered by the Taliban, their ability to actually control major population centers has already been affected by the changes brought by the South Asia strategy. We’re going to continue to increase the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces, the strengthening of their special forces, the strengthening of their ability to undertake air operations. And we too will come to the fight with greater authorities, as General Mattis has mentioned.

So I think what you’re going to see over the duration of this strategy that has been planned by the Afghan National Security Forces and supported by Resolute Support Mission is a shrinking of the Taliban’s ability over time. And that hopefully will have a positive effect on their own calculus of beginning political negotiations.

QUESTION: Can I just ask one quick --

MR SAYLES: That’s all.

QUESTION: Let me ask one quick follow-up on Abbie’s question on the issue of Russian arming the Taliban. Is that something you do not have any evidence of or is that just something you don’t want to discuss?

MS WELLS: It’s not something that I can speak to. All I can say is that what we – what we’ve seen publicly and what the Russians have stated publicly is their willingness to engage diplomatically and in an intelligence fashion with the Taliban. And that has to be disturbing because the Taliban is not an asset, the Taliban is creating the terrorist ecosystem that allows 20 terrorist organizations to operate in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area.

MR SAYLES: That’s all we have time for.

QUESTION: Do you have more detail on the Pakistan foreign minister’s visit tomorrow here?

MS WELLS: It’s – the foreign secretary is visiting tomorrow and she will be holding meetings with counterparts and government, and I think doing some activities with think tanks as well.

QUESTION: Is she meeting with Secretary Tillerson before he departs for --

MS WELLS: She’ll be seeing Deputy Secretary Sullivan.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR SAYLES: And that’s all we have time for.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thanks for doing this.

MR SAYLES: So again, it’s on the record. We’ll have a transcript released later this afternoon.

QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.

QUESTION: Thank you.