QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thanks for your time.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Bret, it’s great to be with you.
QUESTION: President Ghani said this weekend he would not release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, saying, quote, “The release of prisoners [is] not in the United States authority… it is the authority of the Government of Afghanistan.” Does that hamper what you just agreed to?
SECRETARY POMPEO: So there’s a long series of discussions that have been taking place over months and months, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the habits of old days are hard to break and this will be a bumpy road going forward. If you look at the agreement, it has a provision about the exchange of prisoners, it talks about discussions with all the relevant parties in moving forward. We have a team on the ground even as we’re sitting here now, working – working to deliver not only on that element, right – that’s an important confidence-building measure – but delivering on the larger task, which is to keep the levels of violence down and getting the team spelled so that the first time in 20 years, something the previous two administrations couldn’t achieve – a commitment to break with al-Qaida and a commitment to sit down with the other side has not been done before, and we’re – that’s the next step. That’s the next goal. I’m confident it’ll be challenged, but we’re determined to get there.
QUESTION: Yeah. I want to talk about the break with al-Qaida, but this morning the Taliban, through a spokesman, said they were resuming operations against the Afghan Government and its forces, not U.S. troops. That’s what they said in response to the president about the Taliban prisoner issue. How is that going to work?
SECRETARY POMPEO: So I’ve seen lots of remarks. Just watch what really happens. Pay less attention to statements, pay less attention to things people say. Watch what happens on the ground. There’s been a lot of work done at detailed levels about how this will proceed. So far, so good. We’re just hours into this. I’m sure we’ll have days when we stare at it and say the problem is big, but we’re determined. The President’s made this commitment. Our mission set is to protect America from the threat of terrorism from Afghanistan, to reduce our cost. I was the CIA director, I was a soldier. I want to see fewer Americans having to make their third, fourth, and fifth trip there, and fewer Americans coming home injured, maimed, or worse yet, never having a chance to be with their loved ones again. That’s the President’s mission. It’s what this agreement is aiming to achieve.
QUESTION: The President as a candidate was very critical of President Obama setting a timeline and talked about it a lot. You’re setting a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops.
SECRETARY POMPEO: It’s very different. What we’ve done is fundamentally different than what the Obama administration did. Indeed, we accomplished what they tried to do but could not. They never got the Taliban to break with al-Qaida and they never got a commitment that says if you execute the following – conditions-based – that is, if the violence levels come down – that is, if the security posture for the United States of America is reduced, then and only then we’ll begin to deliver a commensurate footprint inside of your country. You can see the deal. We’ve made it all public. There’s no secret side deals. Members of Congress will get to see the two classified implementation military elements of this, but the deal is laid out there for the world to see, and now it’s the diplomatic and military task of the United States to deliver on the President’s two commitments.
I’m confident that over time we’re going to get to a better place.
QUESTION: Here’s what President Ghani said this weekend. He said, “The most important verification that needs to take place, not just Taliban cutting ties with al-Qaida but with all terrorist groups. In our discussion, that is going to be one of the most fundamental issues, and this requires verification, not just verbal assurances.” As you know, the Taliban has a long history with al-Qaida. It’s detailed in the 9/11 Commission Report. This weekend on Face the Nation on CBS, you said that it was a strict cut, and you said that the Taliban would now work against al-Qaida, and they’ve made a break.
Al-Qaida is mentioned twice in the passages in the report, in the language. It says it will not allow any of its members or other individuals or groups, including al-Qaida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies. But that’s not really a break; that’s not renouncing —
SECRETARY POMPEO: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
QUESTION: A renouncing of al-Qaida?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Absolutely. Absolutely. When you say you’re not going to let them operate there, you know it, Bret. They’ve done it for 20 years. They’re not going to let them operate anymore. That’s – that is a central provision. That’s one that for 20 years – I’d know; Ambassador Khalilzad was there trying to get exactly that language for two decades. We got it. But what’s more important than the language, Bret, is the execution. President Ghani here is right: verification matters. We’ll have the ability to see what they’re doing. Are they really living up to that commitment? It’s our expectation.
I met with them myself when I was in Doha. I looked them in the eye. They revalidated that commitment. Now they’ve got to execute it. Now we’ll be able to see, the world will be able to see, if they truly live up to that obligation. It’s important because that’s the reason we went there, Bret. You know that. I still think about 9/11 and you can feel – you can feel the emotion of that day. I know all Americans can. We went there to defeat al-Qaida. We have crushed them and we put real, real costs on the Taliban over the past months. It’s why they came to the table. It’s why we’re having these discussions. It’s why I am hopeful that all parties in Afghanistan will take seriously the commitment to try to reach the political resolution that is the only path forward for the Afghans.
QUESTION: So what do you say to a skeptical American who looks at this ahead of an election and says that this was about living up to an election promise and not really about the specifics in the deal on the ground?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, well, they’re wrong. But to – besides that, promises do matter. We’re trying to live up to all the commitments that we make. It’s a good thing that the President made this commitment. It’s a good thing we’re on the path. But that’s not why this timing took place. It took us longer than we had wished to reach this point. These were hard-fought negotiations. The Taliban expressed interest in having these negotiations when President Trump gave the Department of Defense the authority to really go after them in serious ways, and it took us this long.
We now have a timeline. This timeline extends past the election, and it is conditions-based. We’ve got to get it right, Bret. We have an obligation to get this right for the American people. We’ve got to keep America safe from attacks in Afghanistan, and by the way, that goes for other places al-Qaida exists as well. The American people know all too well that we fight terrorism not just in Afghanistan any longer. We have it in lots of places. We’ve got to get the footprint right so we have the resources, capabilities, and skills to do what President Trump is committed to. We took down al-Baghdadi, we took out Qasim al-Raymi, we took down Qasem Soleimani, we took down Hamza bin Ladin. This President has a clear record on keeping America safe and we’re determined to continue to do that everywhere, including Afghanistan.
QUESTION: Two quick things as we wrap up here. John Bolton, former national security advisor, calls this an Obama-style deal. I know you pushed back on that earlier. He also tweeted out, “North Korea, true to form, resumes ballistic missile testing, yet again violating UN Security Council resolutions. U.S. policy must finally face the reality that North Korea will never voluntarily stop pursuing deliverable nuclear weapons.” Is he right?
SECRETARY POMPEO: The President’s made a real commitment to try to find a path forward. Chairman Kim now, goodness, almost two years ago made a commitment to denuclearize. We’re determined to try and achieve that. The path forward for the North Koreans is very clear. We are hopeful they will choose it and we’re using every diplomatic tool we have in our tool bag to get to the right place.
QUESTION: Last thing: coronavirus. Are you considering moving staff anyplace besides China out of a spreading coronavirus environment? Italy, Europe, other places?
SECRETARY POMPEO: It’s a good question, Bret. Look, it’s the Vice President and Secretary Azar are running the elements of this. We’re working with them to make sure we get it right. We want to keep our team safe, not only our diplomats and all the people that fall under the State Department in countries around the world, but we want to make sure we keep our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines safe as well. It’s a complicated decision-making process. We’re constantly evaluating both the right number of people to have and where we can have them.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, we appreciate the time.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Great. Thank you, Bret.