MS ORTAGUS: Thank you so much. Thank you, everyone, for joining. I apologize. I know that we gave you very last minute notice about this call, but as you can imagine, there are a number of scheduling issues that we have up in the air. And we wanted to make sure definitely get Zal with all of you to sort of set the stage for what to expect tomorrow in Doha. So it sounds like a actually good number of you were still able to dial in despite the – despite the last minute notice, so thank you – thank you so much for doing it.
I think it’s incredibly poignant that we’re having the call this morning on the morning of 9/11. Probably like many of you, I’ve had my television on watching the day of remembrance and the names called. And it’s just I think a reminder to all of us at the State Department how serious what we’re doing is and how important it is to America’s history on 9/11 and to our future.
So just to remind everybody of a few housekeeping details: This call is on the record, but the contents of the call are embargoed until the end of the call. I know a number of you are going to have questions. And so just a reminder that you can even get in the queue now if you’d like by dialing one and then zero. However, we’d respectfully ask since we have – I think we’ve got over 70 people on the call already. In order for us to get to as many of your colleagues as possible, if you could try to keep it to one question and to be succinct just so we can try to take as many questions as possible because Zal does have limited time.
So on that note we’re fortunate to have Ambassador Khalilzad today on the line to talk about the launch of the Afghanistan peace negotiations which will kick off in Doha tomorrow. And I think all of you saw that the President announced yesterday afternoon in his press conference that Secretary Pompeo is headed over. And he is in the air as we speak.
As the Secretary has said, Afghans will soon be sitting at the table together to discuss how to deliver what the Afghan people are demanding: a reconciled Afghanistan with a government that reflects the country and that isn’t at war. We know this is just the beginning of a long and challenging process, but we are pleased to have arrived at this historic moment and to have an agreement in place that ensures America is never again threatened by international terrorists from Afghan soil. I’m now going to turn it over to my dear friend Zal who I’m sure all of you are anxious to hear from. Zal, go ahead.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Well, thank you very much, Morgan. Good morning or good afternoon, everyone. I’m delighted to be with you. Tomorrow obviously as Morgan said is a momentous day for Afghanistan.
For the first time in 40 years, Afghans will sit together, the government delegation that includes people who are not part of the government as well as four very distinguished women, civil society, political groups will be sitting with an authoritative Taliban delegation to discuss and hopefully come to an agreement on a political roadmap to end the protracted war that Afghanistan has had. The people of Afghanistan demand an end to the war. We support them in that effort. And this meeting tomorrow is one of the key requirements, a product of the U.S.-Taliban agreement which was signed on February 29th.
That agreement had three other elements, one which is a timetable for phased and condition-based U.S. withdrawal of forces; two, a commitment by the Taliban that they will not allow terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, to threaten the United States, U.S. allies from the territories that they control and if they became part of a future government that commitment will continue; and the other key part was a comprehensive formal ceasefire. That will be one of the subjects of the negotiations between the two sides.
On that day we also had a declaration – joint declaration with the Afghan Government where the Afghan Government supported these elements that I described, meaning that Afghanistan, the territory that the government controls and a post-peace Afghanistan, would not allow terrorists such as al-Qaida to threaten the United States, and that – and our allies, and that we expect to have a good and enduring relationship with Afghanistan.
We also would like to clarify that these negotiations are an important achievement but that there are difficulties, significant challenges on the way to reaching agreement. This is a test for both sides, for the Taliban and the government. Can they reach an agreement despite differences, in terms of their visions for the future of Afghanistan? We are prepared to assist if our assistance is needed, but this is a new phase in the diplomacy for peace in Afghanistan. Now we are entering a process that is Afghan-owned and Afghan-led. There will be no mediator and no facilitator when Afghans meet with each other. They will be talking to each other. The secretariat of the conference will also be carried out, that function, by the Afghans from the two sides.
And with that, I am – I’d like to stop and to respond to your questions and to your comments. Thank you.
MS ORTAGUS: Wonderful, thanks. Just a reminder to everybody, to dial 1 and 0 to get into the question queue. No surprise, first up in my queue is someone who’s covered this for a long time: Kim Dozier, TIME Magazine.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. Ambassador Khalilzad, can you tell us how the U.S. convinced the Afghan Government to release prisoners convicted of deadly attacks on Australian and on French citizens or troops, against Australian and French objections? And also a status update on Navy veteran Mark Frerichs kidnapped by the Taliban and missing American Paul Overby. Thanks.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: As – thank you. As part of our agreement with the Taliban, there was a commitment to help release – or exchange, actually – up to 5,000 Taliban imprisoned from Afghan jails – and Afghanistan has more than 13,000, or had more than 13,000 prisoners in Taliban prisons at that time – and that the Taliban were going to release up to 1,000 Afghan Government prisoners. And clearly these prisoners that were held by the Afghan Government, some of them have committed violence against international forces that have been in Afghanistan, but the joint statement clarifies that as a confidence-building measure in order to achieve a great objective, which is start the peace process with the key part of which is intra-Afghan negotiations, that difficult decisions had to be made, and the release of prisoners was one such difficult decision.
I know that none of us are happy about the release of prisoners that committed violence or – against our forces, but we want to keep the big picture in mind, unhappy as we are. But we’re hopeful that that step, the start of intra-Afghan negotiations, can lead to the end in the war and that Afghanistan never again becomes a threat to any of us. And I think that logic was compelling, and none of the countries that are concerned have made this as an issue that this will affect relations with Afghanistan. They don’t like it, but at the same time they understand that this was an Afghan decision – a decision that was difficult, but necessary, they felt in the end, to start intra-Afghan negotiation and to give peace a chance.
MS ORTAGUS: Great, thank you. Thanks, Kim. We’ve got all the heavy hitters on the line today, Zal. We’ve got Elise Labott, who’s now with SiriusXM, up next.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Hi.
MS ORTAGUS: Elise? Elise Labott?
QUESTION: Can you hear —
MS ORTAGUS: Got it. Yes, we can hear you now.
QUESTION: Can you hear me? Oh, sorry. Thank you so much, Ambassador. Really appreciate you doing the call. I’d like to ask you about the assassination attempt on Amrullah Saleh, the vice president, the other day. And you’ve seen that these targeted killings have risen even though we’ve seen a drop in large-scale attacks. The government blames the violence on maybe not Taliban proper but all these military groups linked to the Taliban, and saying that the Taliban is serving kind of as an umbrella organization to use violence as leverage at the negotiating table. And I was wondering if you could kind of expand on this idea and what you think about even though the targeted attacks – even though the large-scale attacks on civilians are dropping, they really are targeting a lot of officials.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Yeah, well, we’ve condemned the attack on Mr. Saleh, but there are spoilers who don’t want the peace process to take place or to go forward, and there are people who prefer the status quo to a peace agreement. There are people who prefer the U.S. to remain entangled in a conflict in Afghanistan. And a number of players are bad and some are at war also not only with the government but they are at war with the Talibs as well. One such group is Daesh, and Daesh has been responsible for quite a lot of violence in Afghanistan and it does not want the peace process to go forward. The Talibs are fighting Daesh as well as the –ISIS, as well as the Afghan Government, as well as the coalition forces.
With regard to the specific attack against Mr. Saleh, we do not know who was – at this point who did it or that it was a terrorist group or some internal faction. It’s too early to tell. But generically I can say there a quite a number of players. If there is peace between the Taliban and the government, I think Afghanistan will be in a stronger position to deal with the smaller groups that are part of the reality of Afghanistan. And with the two at war, that provides an opportunity for a terrorist group such as Daesh. Thank you.
QUESTION: So you don’t believe that these groups are kind of – that the Taliban is using these groups for leverage in the talks? You don’t think that?
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: As I said, for example, one of the main groups that has been responsible for some of the most significant violence in Afghanistan, for example the attacks against the maternity hospital or some of the other attacks, has been the ISIS group in Afghanistan. And that’s a group that the Talibs are fighting as well as they have done some of the heavy lifting in the fight against Daesh in Afghanistan, and the government is fighting it too. And so I – as I said, we don’t know about this specific attack, but there could be a number of different players or – that one could —
MS ORTAGUS: Great. Okay, Zal, do we still have you? It sounded like it cut out for a second. Zal, do we still have you? Zal?
I’m going to keep going with the questions and hope that he is on. Laura Seligman from Politico. Laura from Politico. Could we —
QUESTION: Hello. Thank you. Can you hear me?
MS ORTAGUS: Great, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, I wanted to ask the ambassador if he would be willing to stay a few months under a potential Biden administration.
MS ORTAGUS: Zal?
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Yeah, I’m back on.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. You back on? Can you hear us?
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Yes.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. You had a question from Laura from Politico. Laura, would you like to ask it again?
QUESTION: Sure, yeah. I just wanted to ask if the ambassador if he’d be willing to stay additional months if – in the case of a presidential transition if a Biden administration comes in.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Well, that’s premature to respond to that. I believe that we still have a couple of months. I’m hoping that the negotiations will make some progress, but a decision will have to be made after elections as to what happens. But I’m committed to staying at least until the elections.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, great. I want to apologize if I screw up the pronunciation of your name, but we have Muath – M-u-a-t-h – Alamri.
QUESTION: Yes, Muath Alamri, no problem. Good morning, Ambassador and everybody. I have a question. According to the agreement with the Taliban, the U.S. should revoke some sanction on Taliban members. And now, do you think this – it’s time to revoke those sanctions? And if you could elaborate more about the challenges that you had faced when you dealt between the Afghan Government and Taliban. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Well, the agreement has a specific timeline for when the reconsideration of sanctions on the Taliban begins, and that is when intra-Afghan negotiations get started. We are committed to the terms of the agreement, and the agreement also specifies the conditions, the start of which is the intra-Afghan negotiations. As to how to – the challenges to get to this phase, of course the prisoners was one of the biggest challenges that was finally overcome, but there were others as well, but I would point to the prisoners as the principal challenge.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, thank you. I believe we have Peter Loewi up next in the queue. Peter Loewi.
QUESTION: Yes, can you hear me?
MS ORTAGUS: We can hear you.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Yes.
QUESTION: Great, thank you, Ambassador. I was wondering about the role of the troop drawdown in the negotiations and how soon we expect to hear an announcement about that.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Well, as I mentioned before, the agreement with the Taliban and the joint declaration with the government has a condition-based phased reduction or withdrawal of our forces – that not includes only U.S. but also coalition and NATO allies – and we are right now in Phase 2. Phase 1 got us to 8,600. Phase 2 will get us to around 4,500 by the kind of mid-October to mid-November timeframe, and we are in that phase. Thank you.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Up next, we’ve got Voice of America in the queue. Mirwis Rahmani.
QUESTION: Yes, Mirwis Rahmani.
MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Can you hear me?
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Yes.
MS ORTAGUS: We can hear you.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you, Ambassador Khalilzad, for this call. I had a question about the rights of woman in Afghanistan. As you know, Taliban have been vague in their statements and comments regarding preserving these rights, and the U.S. as well has not been more vocal about preserving these rights during these peace talks. So my question is: Will the woman rights in Afghanistan be preserved during these peace talks?
The question number two is: What guarantees Taliban has offered that they will sever their links with terrorist organizations? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Thank you. On the women’s rights, we support obviously women’s rights. That’s the second-most important issue for us after terrorism, and we encourage that women participate in the negotiations. And as I said, four women are part of the Islamic Republic negotiations team. I expect them to be fully prepared to defend their rights. The future of Afghanistan is obviously up to the Afghans to decide, but we would like to see an Afghanistan that’s sovereign, that is unified, that’s democratic. And the United States will decide its policies or its relations with Afghanistan based on the decisions and agreements that Afghanistan makes and the implementation of those agreements.
With regard to your second question on Taliban commitments with regard to terrorism, they have made those commitments and our actions are linked, in terms of further reduction of forces, to the actions or the implementation of the commitments that they have made. And a key commitment that’s of great – is of great importance given that we are talking on this day which is the anniversary of 9/11 – I myself personally was in the White House when the – in a meeting in the Situation Room when the attacks of 9/11 became real, had a huge effect on our country, and personally on myself, on the trajectory of what I have done since then. And therefore, we do not want Afghanistan ever to become a platform to threaten the homeland like the one that we faced on that dastardly day.
So that is obviously the most serious issue for us. We will take action as necessary that that objective that I described is achieved and is – that achievement is maintained. Thank you.
MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. So unfortunately, I have to call last question. I apologize, but I’ve got to get Zal on a call that starts at 11:00 that he’s probably going to be late for. So one last question from Spencer Ackerman, Daily Beast.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks very much for doing this call. When you say this process will now be entirely Afghan-led – no mediator, no facilitator, they’ll be talking to us – can you say a little about what ultimately the U.S. role during this phase will be and what, if anything, the Afghans have expressed to you about – that is, the Afghan Government – about what they want and don’t want the U.S. role to be during this phase?
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Okay. We’ll be prepared to help when our help is needed. We’ll obviously be monitoring; we’ll be engaging each side. And we are very good at – obviously, that’s one of our comparative advantages. We think all of the problems – there can be a solution if the will is there. If bridging formulas are needed, then we’ll have to think about it. We’ll consider; we will help.
But this is an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process, and if they don’t need our help, that will be fine. That will be – it will be encouraging, but this is important. It’s important obviously for Afghanistan. It’s important for the region; it’s important for the world. It’s important for the United States. So we are ready – we are ready to help, but the process starts with Afghans talking to each other, and after the opening ceremony tomorrow the two teams will meet to decide on how they will proceed. And that’s the way it ought to be and that’s the way it’s going to be hopefully. Thank you.
MS ORTAGUS: Well, thanks, everybody. Again, apologies for the last-minute notice but I’m very glad that so many of you were able to be on the call, and you’ll be hearing more from us soon. And thank you for your questions and for your time. Good-bye.