Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State
QUESTION: Let’s take all of this to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Thanks for being with us. Mr. Secretary, you’ve heard the reaction from the generals who’ve commanded troops in Afghanistan, including the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs and David Petraeus, who went on to become CIA director, who say this will leave America more vulnerable to terrorist threats, with Joe Dunford saying it would also have a catastrophic effect in Afghanistan itself. Your reaction?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, Martha, I just got back from Kabul. I met with President Ghani. I met with other leaders there. That was just after coming from NATO, meeting with all of our allies. And across the board I heard support for the President’s decision and the path ahead.
Here’s the reality – and by the way, I have great respect for General Petraeus, General Dunford, and others. But we had a very deliberate and fully informed process leading up to the decision by the President, and the fact is this: We went to Afghanistan 20 years ago, and we went because we were attacked on 9/11, and we went to take on those who had attacked us on 9/11 and to make sure that Afghanistan would not again become a haven for terrorism directed at the United States or any of our allies and partners.
And we achieved the objectives that we set out to achieve. Al-Qaida has been significantly degraded. Its capacity to conduct an attack against the United States now from Afghanistan is not there. And of course, Osama bin Laden was brought to justice 10 years ago. So the President felt that as we’re looking at the world now, we have to look at it through the prism of 2021, not 2001. The terrorism threat has moved to other places, and we have other very important items on our agenda, including the relationship with China, including dealing with everything from climate change to COVID, and that’s where we have to focus our energy and resources.
QUESTION: To that point, I’ve heard for decades the military talk about how hard it was to train Afghan forces, asking for more time and more time. But there’s also the argument that clearing out all of our forces leaves us with intelligence gaps. You had the new CIA director saying that it was simply a fact that our intelligence capability will diminish. Do you agree with that? And what do you do about it?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I think if you look at the full statement, including from the CIA Director Bill Burns and also what you’ve heard from the National Security Advisor and others, we will have the means to see if there is a resurgence, a re-emergence of a terrorist threat from Afghanistan. We’ll be able to see that in real time with time to take action. And we’re going to be repositioning our forces and our assets to make sure that we guard against the potential re-emergence.
By the way, the Taliban in the agreement reached by the Trump administration with the Taliban is also committed not to allow al-Qaida or other terrorist groups that might target the United States to re-emerge. We’re going to hold them to that commitment.
QUESTION: But you yourself have said you don’t really trust the Taliban.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, that’s exactly why we’re going to make sure that we have assets appropriately in place to see this coming if it comes again, to see it and to be able to deal with it. This is, again, a very different world than the one we had in 2001. We have different capabilities, different assets, and I think a greater ability to see something coming with time to do something about it.
But look, the other thing is this: We are very much invested in trying to pursue the peace process for Afghanistan, to bring the parties together to see if they can come to some kind of political settlement. Ultimately, it is in no one’s interest in Afghanistan, whether it’s the Taliban or anyone else and certainly not the people of Afghanistan, for the country to descend once again into civil war, into a long war. And if the Taliban is going to participate in some fashion in governance, if it wants to be internationally recognized, if it doesn’t want to be a pariah, it’s going to have to engage in a political process.
And our goal ultimately is an Afghanistan that finds a just and durable settlement to this conflict that has been going on for four decades. And in that situation and that environment, terrorism is less likely to emerge.
QUESTION: I want to go back to the Taliban again and talk about women and girls in Afghanistan. We’ve talked to many people about that. The Director of National Intelligence says the Taliban is likely to attempt to retake power by force if we leave. And right now, in some of the Taliban-held areas you have young women, you have girls who are beaten; there’s no chance for an education. Why is that acceptable?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: It’s not acceptable. And when I was in Kabul, I met with some extraordinary women who are leading as a mayor, a member of parliament, a youth activist, and doing other things. And what they’ve done with our support is quite remarkable. And I think Afghanistan in many ways is a transformed society.
But again, here is the thing: No one, starting with the Taliban, has an interest in going back to a civil war, because I think what everyone recognizes is there’s no military resolution to the conflict. So if they start something up again, they’re going to be in a long war. That’s not in their interest either.
Second, we’re going to be continuing to support the Afghan Security Forces. We’ve trained more than 300,000 over the years, and it’s a strong force. It’s going to continue to have international support, including ours. We’re going to be engaged in the peace process to see if we can move this in a better direction.
And the final thing is this, and I want to repeat it: If the Taliban has any expectation of getting any international acceptance, of not being treated as a pariah, it’s going to have to respect the rights of women and girls. Any country that moves backwards on that, that tries to repress them, will not have that international recognition, will not have that international status, and indeed, we will take action to make sure to the best of our ability that they can’t do that.
QUESTION: And I want to move on to refugees. The Biden administration is poised to break a major promise to increase the number of refugee admissions to 62,000, calling it unlikely; instead signing an emergency presidential determination that keeps the cap at 15,000, which was President Trump’s historic low number. Refugees International President Eric Schwartz said the President’s decision to reaffirm the refugee admissions calling – ceiling of his predecessor is deeply disappointing. Now, I know on Friday the White House said there was some confusion with that, and we’ll talk about it again in May. Can you please clear that up? Is the cap on? And how far could it go?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So, Martha, one of the biggest problems we faced was inheriting a broken system. And the refugee system that we found was not in a place, did not have the resources, the means, to effectively process as many people as we hoped. But what we’ve done now, what the President has done now in signing the initial directive, is to make sure we can start the process of actually bringing – bringing people in, and beyond that lifting restraints and – that the previous administration had imposed so that no one, for example, from Africa or the Middle East could come in. That has now been eliminated.
QUESTION: I know what you’ve done in that. But how many refugees do you think will be let in this year? And if you don’t make that 62,000, will there be 125,000 next year, which was your goal?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I think what the President has – and the White House have said today is that based on what we’ve now seen from – in terms of the inheritance and being able to look at what was in place, what we could put in place, how quickly we could put it in place, it’s going to be very hard to meet the 62,000 this fiscal year. But we’re going to be revisiting this over the coming weeks. I think there’ll be an additional directive coming out in the middle of May and – but the good news is we’re now starting, and we’re able to start to bring people in who’ve been in the pipeline and who weren’t able to come in. That is starting today. And we’re going to revisit it in the middle of May.
QUESTION: A hundred and twenty-five thousand next year, is that your goal?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, look, the President has been clear about where he wants to go, but we have to be focused on what we’re able to do when we’re able to do it.
QUESTION: Okay, thanks so much for joining us this morning, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Martha. Thanks for having us.
QUESTION: You bet.