MR PRICE: Good afternoon. Happy Monday. As you all can see, we have a special guest with us today. Secretary Blinken will offer some remarks at the top. He’ll have time for a question or two, at which point we will resume with our regularly scheduled programming. So without further ado, Secretary Blinken.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Ned, thanks very much. Good afternoon, everyone. Good to see everyone here. Before I turn to today’s announcement, I want to take a moment to address a few urgent matters.
First, I want to condemn again the attack on Friday against the commercial ship the Mercer Street, which was peacefully transiting through the north Arabian Sea in international waters when it was targeted by a drone laden with explosives, killing two people. We’ve conducted a thorough review, and we are confident that Iran carried out this attack. It follows a pattern of similar attacks by Iran, including past incidents with explosive drones. There is no justification for this attack on a peaceful vessel on a commercial mission in international waters. Iran’s action is a direct threat to freedom of navigation and commerce. It took the lives of innocent sailors. We’re currently coordinating with our partners and consulting with governments in the region. And we join others around the world in sending our deepest condolences to the families of the British and Romanian crew members who were killed.
Second, on Friday, the White House announced two outstanding public servants who, with the consent of the Senate, will be joining our team here at the State Department.
Rashad Hussain is the President’s nominee for ambassador at large for international religious freedom. He previously served as special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, among other key roles in the Obama administration, and he’s currently director for partnerships and global engagement at the National Security Council.
Deborah Lipstadt is the President’s nominee for special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. She’s a scholar of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies who fights relentlessly against Holocaust denialism, including in a landmark London trial when she was sued for libel by a Holocaust denier, resulting in an overwhelming victory for Deborah and all those fighting Holocaust denialism. She was also a two-term member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and represented our country at the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
We’re eager for Rashad and Deborah to be confirmed and to get to work, because this is a critical moment. According to the Pew Center, 56 countries – home to a majority of the world’s people – have high or severe restrictions on religious freedom. Here in the United States, as in many parts of the world, we have seen a rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred in recent years. This hits painfully close to home. As you know, there was an anti-Semitic incident here in this building last week. That was deeply disturbing – not only because it was a deliberate act of hate toward many of our employees, but because this is the State Department. And at our best, the State Department leads the fight for the dignity and freedom of people everywhere, and we’re resolute in the fight against anti-Semitism. So that swastika wasn’t only a threat directed at Jewish people in this building. It was also an insult to our global mission and our national ideals. There’s just one response that we’ll make to that kind of hatred, and that’s to become even more committed to the fight against anti-Semitism. Deborah and Rashad will help us do that. The investigation into that incident is ongoing. We’ll share new information as it becomes available.
While I’m on the topic of nominees, the State Department now has more than 65 nominees who have been formally nominated and are awaiting confirmation. Within the next week, we’re hopeful that a third of those – 25 nominees – will be pending a vote in the full Senate. These are critical national security positions. They include overseeing security at our embassies and facilities around the world and helping clear the passport application backlog caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The American people need these services. The nominees also include those who would lead our diplomacy in vital regions of the world, including Latin America, Asia, Europe, and Africa. The American people need these nominees in place. So we urge the Senate to confirm these individuals expeditiously, before the August recess.
Now let me turn to another urgent matter. Even as we withdraw our forces from Afghanistan, the United States and our partners remain deeply engaged. We’ll continue to work toward an Afghanistan where all Afghans can live in safety and security, and we will continue our support for Afghan institutions and for the gains that the Afghan people have made over the past 20 years. Our partnership with the people of Afghanistan will endure long after our service members have departed. We will keep engaging intensely in diplomacy to advance negotiations between the Afghan Government and the Taliban with the goal of a political solution, which we believe is the only path to lasting peace. And we’ll keep working closely with countries in the region, which all have a stake in a stable, peaceful, democratic Afghanistan. At the same time, Afghans who worked with the United States or the International Security Assistance Force at some point since 2001 are facing acute fears of persecution or retribution that will likely grow as coalition forces leave the country. We have a special responsibility to these individuals. They stood with us. We will stand with them.
Over the past 13 years, the State Department has issued more than 73,000 Special Immigrant Visas to eligible Afghans who have helped the United States and also to their families. Last year alone, we issued nearly 8,000 of those visas. Now we have accelerated and expanded the program. Congress recently increased the cap by another 8,000 visas. The first flight of Operation Allies Refuge arrived in the United States on Friday, the second flight arrived early this morning, together transporting around 400 people, and those flights will continue. We’re now focused on relocating a group of more than 1,000 applicants and their families who have nearly completed processing – around 4,000 people in total. Additionally, we’re pursuing third-country agreements, so eligible Afghans can be quickly relocated to wait safely in another country while we finish elements of this rigorous vetting process.
Getting to this point was not a simple matter. Earlier today, I visited the interagency task force located here at the State Department responsible for executing this 24/7 operation. I conveyed to them how grateful we are that they’re giving their all to this tremendously important and also meaningful mission.
Now, as you know, the Special Immigrant Visa Program is defined carefully by statute. And we know that there are Afghans who don’t qualify but who helped us and deserve our help. Some may not have the qualifying employment for the special immigrant visa – for example, they worked for a project funded by the U.S. Government, but not for the government itself. Some may not have met the minimum time-in-service requirement – for example, employees who began working for us more recently. And some were employed by American media organizations or NGOs, doing vital work to support democratic progress in Afghanistan.
So today, the State Department is announcing a new resettlement program for Afghans who assisted the United States but who do not qualify for Special Immigrant Visas. We’ve created a Priority-2, or P-2, designation, granting access to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for many of these Afghans and their family members. A great deal of hard work has gone into this already, but even more lies ahead. There is a significant diplomatic, logistical, and bureaucratic challenge. We take our responsibility to our Afghan partners deeply seriously, and we know the American people do as well. We have a long history in the United States of welcoming refugees into our country. And helping them resettle into new homes and new communities is the work of a huge network of state and local governments, NGOs, faith-based groups, advocacy groups, tens of thousands of volunteers. It’s a powerful demonstration of American friendship and generosity.
Many Americans are asking how they can help Afghan refugees in their communities get resettled. The answer is to reach out to your local refugee resettlement agency. There are national websites with state-by-state phone numbers. These agencies are always looking for extra hands and will be grateful for the help.
Again, I want to emphasize that although U.S. troops are leaving, the United States remains deeply engaged. We will continue to support Afghanistan through security assistance, humanitarian development aid, and diplomatic support for the peace process. The Afghan people deserve a just and lasting peace, and the security and opportunity that peace makes possible. We will do all that we can to advance that goal. And we’ll continue to welcome Afghan immigrants and refugees as our neighbors, in gratitude for helping us despite the danger. We won’t forget it.
MR PRICE: Nazira.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. Mr. Secretary, first of all, thank you so much. I am Afghan woman. I suffered a lot. I know about the Afghan people also. I represent them today. Thank you very much for your service.
But still, Afghan people have suffered a lot, like especially Afghan journalists, especially women. They are under a lot of risk in Afghanistan. Any good news for them, too?
And the second question —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Please.
QUESTION: — is Taliban is still increasing their attack, and today, U.S. embassy and British embassy in Kabul said that Taliban kill innocent people in Spin Boldak, Kandahar. Any reaction, although they sign agreement with you guys in Doha, Qatar?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So with regard to Afghans who may fear persecution, may fear violence, and who may not qualify either for the Special Immigrant Visa Program or what I just announced today, the P-2 program, they can also avail themselves of their right to seek refugee status in the United States and apply for that. Now, to be clear, you have to do that from outside of Afghanistan, from a third country. But they can go to the UNHCR, for example, and seek refugee status.
We’ve seen the reports of atrocities being committed by the Taliban in various places where they are on the offensive, and these reports are deeply disturbing and totally unacceptable. And I think it speaks to a larger issue, which is this: The Taliban has repeatedly said that they seek in the future a number of things – international recognition, international support; they want their leaders to be able to travel freely around the world; they would like sanctions lifted on them. And none of those things are going to be possible if the Taliban seeks to take the country by force and commits the kind of atrocities that have been reported. An Afghanistan, as I’ve said before, that does not respect the basic rights of its people, that does not have a representative and inclusive government, that does not abide by the main gains of the last 20 years is an Afghanistan that will be a pariah state, certainly for the United States, and I believe for the international community.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: If I may follow up on my colleague here from Afghanistan, how do these people under the P-1 program even get to third countries? You’re asking that Turkey and other neighboring countries – Iran – open their borders. How can they get from here to there past Taliban checkpoints? They’ve got targets on their backs.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah.
QUESTION: And if I might follow up also on the Mercer fleet, how do you interpret this action that you are attributing to Iran? If this is correct, do you view this as an indication of the new government’s policy? What action is going to be taken either by us, by Israel, or in some way a combination?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Andrea. So with regard first to Afghans who seek to leave the country and seek to avail themselves of the refugee programs, et cetera, you’re right: This is incredibly hard. It is hard on so many levels. It’s hard to pick up and leave everything you know, potentially family, friends, community, culture, language. It’s – and it’s hard to get yourself to a place where you can take advantage of what opportunities exist to seek to apply for refugee status. And we recognize that. This is, alas, the case for millions of people around the world who find themselves in very difficult situations, and particularly in Afghanistan now, especially a group of people who may have worked for us, worked for NGOs, media organizations, women and girls, and others who feel an acute sense of threat and fear with – for the future.
And so, as we see again and again, people have to do very difficult things to make sure that they can find safety and security, and we will do everything we can to help them, including making these different avenues of arrival to the United States for this group of people possible. We are also dedicating very significant assistance, humanitarian assistance, not only in Afghanistan itself, but to neighboring countries to enable them to support those who come to their countries, again, seeking potentially, refugee status somewhere or immigrant status somewhere.
So that support, I think, makes it a little bit easier. But I don’t want to deny the challenge and the difficulty. It is indeed a hard thing. Our obligation, I believe, is in the first instance to make sure that we are making good on our commitments to those who, in particular, put themselves on the line, put their families on the line to help us, whether it was, again, working directly for the United States Government, for our embassy, for our military, for the international security force, or whether it was working for NGOs, media organizations, and others.
And, of course, as we just discussed, some Afghans who are not – don’t fit into any of those categories but may feel particularly at risk, we also have the principal refugee program available for them.
With regard to Iran, so we have seen a series of actions taken by Iran over many months, including against shipping. So I’m not sure that this particular action is anything new or augers anything one way or another for the new government. But what it does say is that Iran continues to act with tremendous irresponsibility when it comes to, in this instance, threats to navigation, to commerce, to innocent sailors who are simply engaged in commercial transit in international waters. And as I noted, we are in very close contact and coordination with the United Kingdom, Israel, Romania, and other countries, and there will be a collective response. Thank you.
MR PRICE: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.