Press Conference in Kabul, Afghanistan

Press Conference
John J. Sullivan
Deputy Secretary of State
Kabul, Afghanistan
January 30, 2018

DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: Good evening. My name is John Sullivan. I’m the Deputy Secretary of State, and I’m honored to be here this evening in Afghanistan.

Before I start my remarks I want to express on behalf of the United States government, Secretary Tillerson, myself, our deepest condolences to the Afghan people, the Afghan government, all those who have been killed, the families of those who have been killed, wounded over the senseless attacks over the last couple of weeks. It’s really been quite an emotional period here in Afghanistan for our friends and colleagues, and I’m honored to be here today to stand with them, express our condolences, but to stand with them and tell them how strong our commitment is to our partnership.

I’d like to thank President Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah and the members of the Afghan National Security Council for hosting us today in Kabul, and for the opportunity to discuss the progress made thus far on the reforms pledged under the Afghanistan Compact.

I’d also like to thank Ambassador Bass and his terrific team here at the U.S. Embassy for supporting my visit and making this trip here possible.

I also met today with General Nicholson and met with some of our troops here in Kabul, and it’s quite apparent that we have a terrific team here, both civilian and military.

During our meeting today General Nicholson stressed our excellent partnership with the Afghan Security Forces and praised their daily growth as an effective fighting force dedicated to defending Afghanistan.

This is an important year for Afghanistan and I’m optimistic that the country is making great strides on the road to peace and development. We support Afghanistan’s progress with our South Asia Strategy which sends a clear message that the Taliban cannot wait us out because our commitment to Afghanistan is not based on a timeline. We have an enduring partnership and we’ll work with the Afghan government to ensure that Afghanistan is able to prevent terrorists from exploiting its territory to threaten the world.

It’s clear that President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah share a common vision for a secure, stable, and prosperous Afghanistan, and are working to bring about reforms to achieve this vision. I want to applaud the Afghan government for its commitment to implementing President Ghani’s ambitious four-year road map to improve Afghan security. We look forward to parliamentary elections in 2018 and presidential elections in 2019 which will give the Afghan public an opportunity to select representatives who will actively shape the country’s future.

We applaud Afghanistan’s commitment to reforms that improve governance, security and inclusiveness. Afghanistan must continue to strive for a stable and inclusive government that provides a voice for all of the Afghan people.

In my meetings with President Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah and members of their cabinet, we discussed the upcoming Kabul Process Conference. The United States welcomes this conference. We’re committed to working with Afghanistan to create the conditions that will lead to a peace agreement. This is an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led initiative that needs to lead to a peace settlement where the Taliban stops its violent campaign, breaks ties with terrorists, and commits to the Afghan constitution, including protections for women and minorities.

This afternoon I participated with President Ghani in a meeting on the Afghanistan Combat Executive Steering Committee. I’m heartened by the progress Afghanistan has made in so many areas. I’d like to congratulate the government of Afghanistan on the successes they have achieved thus far in implementing the Afghanistan Compact since it was launched in August of 2017.

We’ve already seen a number of reforms including crack-downs on corruption throughout the government, an application of the rule of law by jailing a number of high-ranking officials for corruption. Just one example of Afghanistan’s reform work is seen in the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum which now has an on-line registry of existing government-approved mining concessions that is vital for transparency.

Implementation of these reforms carries with it opportunities to improve the delivery of government services, stem official corruption and prepare for secure national elections.

Earlier today I had lunch with some of Afghanistan’s young leaders, the people working for the future of this country. They shared their concerns, their dreams and their optimism for a better future. They reminded me of the impact the U.S. partnership with Afghanistan is having on the Afghan people.

Our work together to counter terrorism, to end the war, to secure peace, is part of a much broader partnership to ensure that Afghanistan’s future is brighter than its recent past.

The young leaders I met today share this same vision. They believe in Afghanistan’s future and they give me optimism that our cooperation is making a difference.

Now I’d be happy to take questions.

QUESTION: Thank you for giving the first one.

His Excellency, we see that ongoing situation in Afghanistan got complicated. Now many Afghan people complain that the recent attack in Kabul, Kandahar, Nangarhar and other provinces of Afghanistan, but the negative response of Pakistan [inaudible] regarding to decision made by President Trump against Pakistan. And they say it shows that Pakistan never ready to [commence] the fight against terrorist groups in their country.

What’s your comment in this respect? Thank you.

DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: Well our fight is with the Taliban and with extremist elements, terrorist groups here in Afghanistan. We’re committed to that fight, to supporting our Afghan partners in this struggle which has gone on for too long, for many, many years.

The South Asia Strategy to which you refer was adopted after careful study by President Trump and his administration. It’s a regional policy. It’s focused on improving the situation in Afghanistan, but it’s a broader regional approach that includes a relationship with Pakistan, India and other countries in the region.

I met recently with the Foreign Ministers of the Central Asia nations, the so-called C5, two weeks ago ag the UN Security Council in New York City to discuss Afghanistan and its role in the region.

We will continue our dialogue with Pakistan. Our position, the President’s position has been made clear about our expectations for Pakistan under the South Asia Strategy. We also encourage the government of Afghanistan to continue its bilateral discussions with Pakistan.

Pakistan needs to be part of the solution, and that is the focus of our South Asia Strategy, is a regional approach to the security challenges in Afghanistan and we’re committed to following through on that policy despite the violence of the last two weeks which has harmed so many, unsettled so many here. But my trip here to Kabul is in part to reassure our colleagues here of the United States’ commitment to that South Asia Policy and to seeing ultimately a successful resolution of that policy for a brighter future in Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Pam Constable from the Washington Post.

Your prepared remarks, I don’t know when they were prepared exactly, but made a number of references to hopes for a peaceful settlement, hopes for peaceful negotiations and an end to the conflict.

In the last day or day and a half we’ve seen a number of events and comments that would seem to challenge that assumption and that hope. What President Trump has said, followed by what the Afghan government has said, and what the Taliban have said just in the past recent hours suggests that things are not going very well on that front. In fact it almost seems like it might be a point [rupture].

Can you comment on these recent developments and comments? And are you at all concerned that this really could be a negative turning point in the hopes for peace?

DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: Well there’s certainly been extremely negative developments, and I think the President’s comment from yesterday that you referred to and others reflect the fact that our policy, the South Asia Policy, is conditions based. We understand that this policy, implementing this policy may take a considerable amount of time. We’re not setting time lines either for our withdrawal or for the implementation of peace talks. I think the comment that you referred to by the President is a reflection of the fact that we saw these horrific acts of violence recently, and they’re an indication that at least some members of the Taliban are not interested in having a discussion about a peaceful future for Afghanistan.

That doesn’t change the long-range strategy of our policy which is to be firm militarily, to convince the Taliban or significant elements of the Taliban, that there isn’t a military solution to the security situation here, that ultimately the peace and security of Afghanistan will be determined by peace talks. But we are prepared for the long run to, in partnership with the Afghan government, to keep the pressure on the Taliban, to convince them that there isn’t a military solution, and that ultimately a peaceful resolution of this conflict is what’s ultimately going to attain.

We don’t have time lines. This is conditions based. And the conditions of the last two weeks, the violent acts of terrorism that we’ve seen certainly give us pause but don’t change our policy or deter us from standing with our Afghan partners.

QUESTION: Good evening. This is [Nassar][Inaudible] from [Inaudible].

My question actually relates to my colleague from the Washington Post regarding Donald Trump’s recent remarks and the remarks that were made by both [Inaudible]. It looks like there’s a shift to the policy that you’re referring to which is things are not really looking good in terms of reconciliation, and it’s going to be settled on the battle ground.

If that shift has taken place or is going to take place, do you think there’s going to be more commitment from the United States in terms of taking to the battlefield in terms of troops increase and so on?

DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: Well, I disagree with the premise of your question that there’s been a shift in our policy. As I said before, our policy as stated by the President is conditions based, and we’re committed to supporting the Afghan government in its fight against extremism, extremist violence. We’re going to provide a level of support to the Afghan government, military support, economic support, along with coalition partners. But there hasn’t really been, there’s not a change in our policy. I don’t expect there to be. The President didn’t announce a change in our policy, because our policy is conditions based. The President was commenting on horrific acts of terrorism which we saw over the last few weeks, and our policy and our support for our Afghan partners will continue until those conditions which are laid out in the policy, where we have the Taliban willing to come to the negotiating table to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the conflict here. That policy remains in effect.

QUESTION: [Najeeb Mashel] with the New York Times.

I’m sorry to keep repeating the same question, but in the South Asia Policy, President Trump laid out that all the influence of the U.S. government would be used to take the conflict towards a political settlement.

Yesterday he said we don’t want to talk to the Taliban. He said we don’t want to talk to the Taliban. He said we want to defeat them. There is no word of defeat in the policy. How is that not a shift in the policy, sir?

DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: The policy is conditions based. We want to bring, convince the Taliban, you can characterize it as defeat as the President did, convince the Taliban that there isn’t a military solution to what they want in Afghanistan. The only solution is at the peace table.

When we reach that point, when negotiations will start is going to be conditions based. We’re not setting a time line for when negotiations would start. Or when we need to complete negotiations, otherwise we’re going to withdraw. It’s a conditions-based policy supporting our Afghan partners, and ultimately, at the end of the day, it may take a long time. We’ll be persistent and persevere, and it may take a while for the parties involved to realize that this President, this administration, has changed the terms of our engagement. That it’s conditions-based, not time-based, and we’ll be firm in that resolve.

MODERATOR: That’s all we have time for. Thank you all for coming. If you have any other questions we can try to help you after the press conference is over.