Briefing With Senior Administration Official On Next Steps Toward an Agreement on Bringing Peace to Afghanistan
OFFICE OF THE SPOKESPERSON
FEBRUARY 29, 2020
MODERATOR: Do you have anything that you want to start off with before they go back on questions?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I’m here to – we’re here to follow up.
MODERATOR: Okay, all right. Go ahead. Let’s start with whoever didn’t get one yesterday, and then we’ll go around.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you for doing this again, by the way. I’m just wondering, after the conversations yesterday, how the role of the U.S. plays out after Saturday. Does the U.S. stay in direct contact talks with the Taliban? What precisely is the U.S. role in the intra-Afghan dialogue? And how do we have any leverage other than using U.S. troops as sort of a carrot and stick going forth?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. Well, first of all, we absolutely will remain involved. I hope I mentioned yesterday that we are – we have already established a communications channel, which is currently based in Doha given the location of the various parties, where we will continue our role of mediating between the Taliban and the Afghan Government. And that communications channel is responsible for supporting the implementation of the agreement. It has been functioning during this RIV implementation period where we’ve exchanged information and sort of, “I heard this,” “You heard that,” sort of thing, and we’re hoping to build on that. There are multiple components of the agreement. There is what the Taliban will do on CT, there is the issue of troop disposition, there is a continuing issue of deconflicting military operations and reducing the violence. There will be the prisoners aspect that I referred to.
So those are the types of topics that will happen formally in the communications channel. Obviously, we would be present in intra-Afghan negotiations, and I’m going to pedantic about that term. Remember dialogue is just sort of like track two sort of stuff, not unimportant, but the negotiations among the Afghans on their political roadmap, that has more – that will have more weight in terms of an outcome, an ultimate outcome. So they’re still finalizing Oslo as the location. There is some back and forth on that issue because a lot of governments want to support this process, and that’s great news, so that’s why there’s a little bit of loosey-goosey aspect to that venue for the intra-Afghan negotiations.
QUESTION: Please correct me if I’m wrong, but the U.S.-Taliban agreement and Taliban CT obligations cover only Afghanistan territory?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, yes.
QUESTION: So are you not worried about the sanctuaries in Pakistan? And do you have anything in place to ensure, like, those sanctuaries, they interact with Taliban and al-Qaida, and that that doesn’t spoil the whole process?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. We have, as I mentioned yesterday, a very good dialogue with Pakistan. We’re also facilitating a dialogue between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and we expect Pakistan to play a constructive role in helping us implement the agreement.
MODERATOR: Okay. Conor.
QUESTION: On the CT commitments, does it include – does the agreement that will be signed on Saturday include an explicit repudiation of al-Qaida by the Taliban? And if not, what makes you – what gives you confidence that they will cut ties with the group beyond just a generic cutting ties with terrorists?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The agreement explicitly mentions al-Qaida and the actions the Taliban will take against al-Qaida. And yes, people are concerned about the historic relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaida. We think this is a decisive and historic first step in terms of their public acknowledgment that they are breaking ties with al-Qaida. That’s going to be a work in progress. So —
QUESTION: Can you be more specific on what those – like what the first step —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You’ll see – when you read the agreement, you’ll see the steps. It’ll all be laid out.
MODERATOR: Said, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Forgive me, but I’m still unclear on the intra-Afghan talks. Who’s going to participate?
QUESTION: We know that – we know that government – the government and the Taliban and civil society. But there are also other groups, and there are also tribes that have wielded a certain amount of autonomy.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Absolutely. We fully agree with you, and we’ve been in constant dialogue in Kabul with the government in terms of working with them to organize a national team that includes all those parties you’ve talked about in Afghanistan. And it will probably be a multi-tiered – my expectation is that there’ll be a multi-tiered delegation, right? There might be a leadership role; there might be an advisory body. Because there are so many factions of the – voices that need to be heard. So that’s still being worked out in Kabul and it’s not – I don’t have specific details on that.
QUESTION: And even if they had a roadblock or they collapsed —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah.
QUESTION: — what kind of impact will it have on the U.S.-Taliban agreement?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. Well, let me just say something personal if I might for a minute. I’ve done a lot of work in Iraq. I’ve done a lot of work in South Sudan – in broken systems like this. It’s not good copy to – I don’t have a perfect answer for you. It’s not like the Taliban are endlessly evil or that this will bring flowers and roses and doves overnight, right? This – we’ve been – we and the Afghans have been in this conflict for decades. There are patterns of behavior, psychological views. People are going to have to begin making a big shift.
So if you approach this as a “gotcha” thing, it’s not going to be successful. What we’ve reached a point where there’s a critical mass on all sides for people want a change, want a better future, want a better option, and our job is to continue to create the incentives, continue to create the momentum for people to move forward and change the negative trajectory. So it’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be perfect. You know this.
MODERATOR: Behind you, sorry.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, go ahead.
MODERATOR: (Inaudible), right? Yeah.
QUESTION: Wait, me? Or —
MODERATOR: Yeah – no, no, go ahead.
QUESTION: You said just a second ago, just to clarify, that there’s still some talk about the venue. So that Oslo thing is not yet —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it’s more than likely going to be the venue. I’m – but I view this as a positive thing, right? There are a lot of countries that want to support the process and have been reaching out to the Taliban or reaching out to the Afghan Government. So we’re doing sort of one more sort of sweep and consultation with everybody about how to approach that.
QUESTION: Okay, so that – we may have to hedge a bit on saying Oslo.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, exactly.
QUESTION: And then the other thing – [Senior Administration Official] said something – this might have been a slip, but he said we’re prepared to work with President Ghani. Does that mean you now have recognized him as the new president and that —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, we recognized the outcome of the election.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And I think [Moderator] did a statement on that.
QUESTION: I saw the statement.
QUESTION: It said it noted the outcome.
QUESTION: I was still unclear that – so you are working with Ghani. Abdullah would have a place in this —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, remember, we have an interest in the state. We’ve invested for 18, 19 years in building state institutions, so we have an interest in democracy, we have an interest in the values of the Islamic republic. So we’re —
QUESTION: Someone like Abdullah would be part of this multi-tiered —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. Yeah, and I think you’ll see – my expectation is that in Kabul, where the – when – with the event with Secretary Esper, you will see Ghani and Abdullah and other figures. And I – my expectation is the multi-tiered whatever it’s going to be will include everybody, because that’s the only way it’ll work, right.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that? Who is choosing these players? Who gets to choose these players? And do they still have about 10 days to pick their teams, for lack of a better phrase, or is that a little bit fuzzy?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Afghans are choosing.
QUESTION: Is there a limit to how many?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, they – the design is up to them, so there are practical considerations that are going to have to be balanced with political considerations, right, because everybody wants to be a part of it. And of course we and our other likeminded partners are encouraging them to have a representative, inclusive team that factors in all the different perspectives.
QUESTION: Is it still 10 days?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The goal is 10 days.
QUESTION: Following on the question about President Ghani, the Taliban had said on the record that they wouldn’t go to intra-Afghan talks if he took his five-year term, if he took office. So by the U.S. convincing him not to have his inauguration, basically have we gone back to a government of national unity? Is that what you’re asking them to sort of stay in?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, we didn’t convince him not to have an inauguration. We just asked him to delay it while they worked out both having an inclusive government arrangement, right, and – as well as worked on developing the team. So the expectation is, is that in an intra-Afghan negotiations, all of the Afghans when they sit down together are going to work out a governing arrangement, a new governing arrangement, right. We’re trying to bring the Taliban off the battlefield into a political process. So if that’s successful, then there’ll be a new arrangement prior to five years. But you can’t – you don’t know what will happen, right, so you can’t not have a government. So that’s why it’s tricky.
QUESTION: What if President Ghani digs in his heels and says whatever we’re talking about in Oslo or wherever is what stays until the end of my term – doesn’t happen until —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think there’s a lot of interest on the part of all Afghan stakeholders and in the part of the international community for – to encourage the Afghans to reach a mutually agreed outcome.
QUESTION: Thanks for doing this, [Senior Administration Official].
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hi. Nice to see you, Carol.
QUESTION: It’s good to see you too. Say, I have a – just sort of a practical how these talks work, because last time the Afghan Government was talking about like having a delegation of 150 people. Sounds with this multi-tiered aspect it could be as big or even larger, so sort of how does that work, and will they be talking face to face or will the Norwegians be shuttling back and forth?
And also just a quick follow-up on the Pakistan issue. It sounds like – do you see this as sort of a fundamental change in the Pakistani attitude, and what do you attribute it to?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. The – on the first question, the details are still being worked out, and it won’t be just the Norwegians. There’ll be other governments who will be supporting and facilitating the talks, so it would be, for example, us, the United States; Indonesia is likely to play a role, Germany is likely to play a role, Uzbekistan is interested in playing a role. So different types of partners that can help the parties. Did I mention the UN? We expect the UN would also be playing a role. So they’re working out the design of how to do that most effectively, so I think that I would come back to you on how that develops.
And on the second on Pakistan, I believe it was President Trump’s decision to cut off military assistance to Pakistan and to say that if they wanted a better relationship with the United States, they needed to work with us on helping solve the problem in Afghanistan.
MODERATOR: That’s a good point.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that’s the fundamental change.
QUESTION: Thank you. So U.S. recommitting to all its commitments towards Afghan Security Forces financially, operationally, training, and so on?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That will be in the joint declaration.
QUESTION: Okay, and – thank you. And one other: You mentioned the prisoners. What – can you tell us what you were able to agree on the prisoners in the agreement, if there are numbers, a timeline for —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There are aspirational numbers and timelines in the agreement. This is a very difficult issue. Both parties have strongly held views and we are going to try and help broker a positive outcome.
QUESTION: Can tell us the numbers, or —
MODERATOR: Aspirational. That’s the key operative word.
QUESTION: The aspirational numbers, can you give us any idea, a sense —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So again, I think – to me it’s really important and it would be helpful if you would pull up the declaration that they issued during the dialogue in July in Doha last year that Germany and Qatar helped organize where all the Afghans listed sort of their priorities and that issue was listed as a priority for everybody, all the parties. And we’re using that as a basis to try and continue to facilitate meeting that goal, and that’s referenced in both the joint declaration and in the agreement.
QUESTION: And what —
QUESTION: Sorry, just.
MODERATOR: All right. That’s enough. Go ahead. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Thanks. Two things. One, who will actually oversee or mediate the talks in Oslo or wherever they take place? Is it Zal or —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: All the parties that I just talked about. I mean, fundamentally, it’s up to the Afghans.
QUESTION: But don’t you need one person who’s kind of driving it?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I – actually, that’s not what the parties have said. They’re interested in the support of the – of everybody who’s been working to help achieve that. My expectation is that we will play a prominent role, but I also believe that countries and organizations I’ve identified will also play an important role.
QUESTION: And then in the talks, did the Taliban say to you and your colleagues, we recognize we cannot win militarily?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
MODERATOR: Go ahead, Jennifer.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: But that – to be clear, they would continue fighting if they felt they didn’t have an alternative process to address their interests. I mean, they are – they would be prepared to continue fighting if they didn’t feel that there was a political alternative. But yes, that was the basis for us being able to move forward over the past year, because that all sides recognize that there’s no military solution to the conflict.
QUESTION: One of our colleagues was told by an Afghan politician that the U.S. assured them if the Taliban broke the deal, the U.S., quote, “would have enough lethal power to destroy them.” Is – are those the assurances being made to the Afghan Government about if the deal falls through, and is that the immediate recourse, or are there steps if there are violations in the deal?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t speak like that, and I don’t think General Miller speaks like that.
QUESTION: Just a technical question to kind of follow up on Kylie’s. The American involvement in the intra-Afghan, will that be handled by you and by Zal and your office going forward, or is that something that the embassy is going to be taking over at this point? And has the embassy played any role in all of this? I mean, what will it be doing from here on out?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, the embassy definitely has played a role, and our team is interagency. So we don’t – and particularly me, I don’t like to think of people as siloed. This is an all-hands-on-deck effort.
MODERATOR: That’s a great point. I mean, just like as a total anecdotal, every call that I’ve been on with the Secretary, [Senior Administration Official] is included, General Miller, and embassy. I mean, a very whole-of-government approach, to use a catch phrase that we love.
QUESTION: But it’ll be your office in Oslo, right, helping, as opposed to —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Right. But I anticipate there would be participation from Embassy Kabul. But we’ve – I – before John Bass left them and – we are in constant contact with the embassy. They’re playing a very important role. So I – Zal tends to take up all the oxygen in the room, but there’s a lot of other people who are working on this.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: [Senior Administration Official], thanks for doing this.
QUESTION: Can you say that on the record? (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think he knows. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: And thanks for coming back. Can I go back to the prisoners and to Kim’s point and ask a little bluntly here – are you guys going back to Kabul on Sunday or Monday? And is that a reflection of concern that the Afghan Government is not ready and willing to commit to the prisoner release that the Taliban want and that the Afghan Government isn’t ready and willing to commit to a list that you guys are happy with and that they know that the Taliban will accept?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: A list of prisoners?
QUESTION: No, a – sorry, a list of people to go to Oslo or to go to anywhere —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay. So let me start with that one. It’s hard work for them. That’s one of the reasons it’s not done, right. Everybody wants to be part of this, so figuring it out is not easy. And so my anticipation is that Ambassador Khalilzad will go back and help facilitate those discussions and support those discussions. But a lot of folks are involved. As Zal says, this is not – we don’t have a monopoly on diplomacy. So, for example, the EU Zal equivalent is in Kabul now. So everybody’s playing a role to try and help make that happen. And it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s tough for them.
So, yeah. So on the prisoners, think about it this way. Mechanically, it’s actually not that hard. Like, there’s a number of people. We know who they are, right. There are some people that we’re not concerned about; there are some people we may be more concerned about. There needs to be a process. It will logistically take some time for people to be released. For both parties – it’s an admirable thing that the Taliban care about their people. I’ve been in other countries where their leaders don’t care about their people, and it’s important to them to move forward. They think it will build confidence among the movement and this process. That’s positive.
From the Afghan Government side – and I should also say the agreement makes explicit that those who are released need to make commitments that they won’t go back to the battlefield and that will support the agreement. For the Afghan Government side, they obviously have concerns, and they are also looking to have influence on the Taliban in terms of the Taliban’s continued restraint and violence. So I consider the issue really to be about how many and how quickly.
QUESTION: So the Afghan Government thinks that it has a card there politically.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They do. They do.
QUESTION: And so they do. Politically, it’s not that easy for them to do this.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Right.
QUESTION: So are you concerned that this could be a real stumbling block over the next couple weeks?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, I don’t think it’s easy, but I think it’s doable. Nothing in this is easy.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that? Does the – are the – so are the prisoner releases related to the ceasefire and CT commitments, or are they related to the talks?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Not explicitly. Not – I mean, that’s not true, not explicitly. There – I don’t think of – I’m tired, so I haven’t thought of it that way. They are – it’s not uncommon, right, when you’re ending a conflict that both sides hold the other side’s guys and that you have to develop a way to release them. So it will be part of the negotiations. And then so it will impact on all the discussion. But it’s not really a CT thing specifically, although generically there’s concern about their conduct, right, once they leave.
QUESTION: Or is it related to the talks, like by – like you have the talks starting March 10th, is there that kind of date, like, you have —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, right. So in a conflict like this – so there’ll be – there’s other language, too. For example, there’s language on sanctions, right. So we have U.S. domestic sanctions against the Taliban. We have supported sanctions in the Security Council against the Taliban. So all the kinds of architecture that’s available to the United States to put pressure on a party, which we’ve done over the years, right. We’ve built up this edifice, right, to put pressure on them. So part of the process of making peace is to begin to take down the edifice.
But the language is carefully constructed to be conditional, right, depending on Taliban performance. If the Taliban don’t do what we hope they’ll do, our requirements to take down that edifice are vitiated. Does that make sense? Yeah.
QUESTION: So but as I understand, the prisoners have to come first —
MODERATOR: Courtney. Can we do Courtney?
QUESTION: — don’t they? Don’t they have to come early? I mean, the Taliban expects prisoners to come —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, action on prisoners needs to come early. But like everything else, it’s all contingent upon Taliban performance. That will effectively be the answer.
QUESTION: Would this include – real quickly, will this include Western hostages as well, anything in their —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There’s – no, because we already dealt with the Western hostages in the fall. There is – there are reports of others that we’re working on separately. But that wasn’t part of – that wasn’t factually available when we were doing the agreement.
QUESTION: Can I ask a question about just sharing of this information? So you guys have already gotten criticism from Congress on what’s going to be signed on Saturday.
MODERATOR: Well, that’s from a few members.
QUESTION: Yeah. But I mean 22 Republicans. That’s a large number. So do you think, number one, that you have shared enough with Congress throughout this process? And then with the Pentagon, it was mentioned yesterday that there are parts of the agreement that aren’t going to be made public. I think [Senior Administration Official] said that it was more kind of implementation of —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, they’re just implementing arrangements. Yeah.
QUESTION: Right. But have you shared all of that information with the Pentagon?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Of course. Of course we’ve shared with the Pentagon, yeah. And the Secretary determines the pace of engagement with Congress.
QUESTION: Just to clarify on the prisoners again. It’s really a separate issue, it’s not attached, directly linked to this agreement about withdrawal of U.S. troops in the draft?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s in the agreement, right.
QUESTION: But it’s aspirational.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, it’s not. I mean —
MODERATOR: [Senior Administration Official] meant – [Senior Administration Official] said the numbers were aspirational.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The – no, we have absolutely committed to helping mediate and resolve this tough issue. It’s a tough issue, right. That’s – it’s clear. That’s why everybody’s focused on it. I think what you’re seeing also are maximalist positions by either side, because they’re using it for their own reasons. That’s why we’re – that’s why we’ve agreed to mediate it.
QUESTION: Can I ask you a really stupid way? If you were to put it in one of the baskets, would you put it in the CT basket or the Oslo basket or would it get its own little basket that’s all a part of the big deal? I know that’s really pedantic, but I’m just trying to figure out where it goes.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, no. And I’m sorry, and I know it’s hard when you don’t have it in front of you and I’m probably not very articulate. But I would consider —
QUESTION: No, you are. You are. It’s a lot.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would consider it its own basket, right. But there’s a lot of baskets, right. There’s a lot that needs to be handled. And they’re all on the truck. Yeah.
MODERATOR: Okay. Courtney. Last one, then we got to go. We all have to go.
QUESTION: You talked about the multi-tier delegation going back to the intra-Afghan negotiations. Do you anticipate some of those having a, sort of a purely advisory role and not having a voting say?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, I’m not – I’ve not been in Kabul doing those discussions. I’m not really the best person to talk about those. And what I’m giving you is my best speculation about the status of those talks. So I would heavily caveat that in what I’ve given you. So that – they’re still working out those mechanisms and arrangements. So I think the – everybody understands – and from President Ghani on down, everybody understands they need an inclusive, strong team and they’re working on putting that team together. And how it will exactly be structured, I can’t stay here, so I just – or can’t say here. So I just want to be clear about that.
MODERATOR: Yeah. We’ll have a lot of follow-up next week, obviously. So this is – won’t be the last discussion, right, on this.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. It’s a work in progress, which is why I can’t be specific about —
MODERATOR: Yeah. Is Zal coming back here at all, to D.C.?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t know.
QUESTION: Are you going to Doha?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah.
This article was last updated on 31 Mar 2020