Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State
Ramstein Airbase, Germany
USAFE Officers’ Club
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good afternoon. Let me first start by saying to Foreign Minister Maas, my friend Heiko, thank you so much for what has been a very productive almost-day in Germany. We’ve been in very close contact from virtually my first day as Secretary of State. We’re partners across a vast array of issues that matter to Germany, to the United States, to the world. And I’m especially grateful for your leadership during this pivotal time both to facilitate a unified diplomatic response toward Afghanistan and to help thousands of people, including Americans, including vulnerable Afghans.
Thanks to you, to Chancellor Merkel, to the German Government, to the people of Germany, we were collectively able to evacuate 124,000 people from Afghanistan. Germany and the United States have been working very closely together to mobilize this massive military, diplomatic, and humanitarian effort under some of the most challenging circumstances imaginable. And the fact that Germany generously stepped up and offered to serve as a temporary transit location for Afghans at risk is a remarkable gesture of compassion and statesmanship. More than 34,000 people arrived here on their way to their next destination, many exhausted, vulnerable, uncertain about their futures. Here they found a safe place to catch their breath and many people eager to help them. They’re embarking on a new, more peaceful chapter of their lives thanks to Germany.
Hundreds of Americans also safely transited through here on their way home, and we will never forget how you helped to make that happen.
Of course, Germany’s commitment to being our partner in Afghanistan stretches back to 2001. You were one of the largest contributors of troops to coalition operations in Afghanistan. You were the second largest contributor to Operation Resolute Support, aiming to build a long-term foundation for security in Afghanistan. Germany lost brave service members, police officers in Afghanistan, and their sacrifice will not be forgotten. Now Germany, the United States, and our allies and partners are working together to coordinate and plan the way forward.
Yesterday the Taliban named a new interim government. We’re assessing the announcement, but despite professing that a new government would be inclusive, the announced list of names consists exclusively of individuals who are members of the Taliban or their close associates, and no women. We’re also concerned by the affiliations and track records of some of those individuals. We understand the Taliban has presented this as a caretaker cabinet. We will judge it, and them, by its actions. The international community has made clear its expectation that the Afghan people deserve an inclusive government.
Today Foreign Minister Maas and I co-hosted a virtual ministerial meeting of 22 countries plus NATO, the European Union, the United Nations, to discuss the next chapter on Afghanistan. The Taliban seek international legitimacy and support; any legitimacy, any support, will have to be earned. And we’ve heard that across the board from everyone participating in today’s session.
We also discussed how we will hold the Taliban to their commitments and obligations to let people travel freely; to respect their basic rights, including women and minorities; to ensure that Afghanistan is not used as a launching pad for terrorist attacks; and not to carry out reprisal violence against those who choose to stay in Afghanistan.
We’ll also hold the Taliban to their commitment to allow humanitarian access. The toll of conflict, drought, COVID-19, have hit the people of Afghanistan very hard and left millions displaced. According to the United Nations, some 50 percent of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance. Yesterday in Doha I had a chance to meet with Martin Griffiths, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, to talk about the urgent need for countries to work together to deliver aid and ward off a potential humanitarian crisis. The United States will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan. We’re gratified to have a partner in Congress when it comes to that commitment.
Let me also say a bit more about freedom of movement, particularly the issue of charter flights. I spoke about this in Doha yesterday as well. As I think all of you know, a number of groups and individuals determined to help are working to organize charter flights out of Afghanistan, including from Mazar-e-Sharif, for people who wish to depart. We’re grateful for those efforts.
There’s been a fair amount of confusion surrounding the flights, and let me just clarify a few things. As of now, the Taliban are not permitting the charter flights to depart. They claim that some of the passengers do not have the required documentation. While there are limits to what we can do without personnel on the ground, without an airport with normal security procedures in place, we are working to do everything in our power to support those flights and to get them off the ground. That’s what we’ve done; that’s what we will continue to do. Specifically, we’re working with NGOs, with advocates, with lawmakers around the clock to help coordinate their efforts and offer guidance where we can. We’re helping to arrange landing rights and liaise with other countries in the region in the question of overflight. We’ve made clear to all parties – we’ve made clear to the Taliban – that these charters need to be able to depart, and we continue every day, virtually every hour, to work on that.
As you know, this is also a complex situation. Many of these flights have been organized by NGOs or individuals who have a deeply felt desire to help people, and again, we’re grateful to be working with so many passionate advocates. But there’s also a risk of people looking to extort money from desperate and vulnerable people, which, of course, we want to prevent. Additionally, some of the groups claiming to have all of the documentations and arrangements locked down unfortunately don’t, often for good reason. But this creates further complications.
The bottom line is this: Those flights need to be able to depart. And we will work every day to make sure that they’re able to do that. We will continue to press the Taliban to allow the charters to leave, and also critically to open HKIA, the Hamid Karzai International Airport, to the regular flow of civilian aircraft, which can enable the safe and orderly departure of people from Afghanistan.
Our efforts to help people who want to leave Afghanistan will continue. So will our intense diplomacy to advance our vital national interests and those of our Afghan allies and partners. And I know we’ll continue to work with Germany closely every step along the way.
Our cooperation is a testament to the strength of our friendship, our commitment as NATO Allies, and the shared values that have long connected the German and American people. What Germany has done over the past several weeks for Americans, for Afghans, for citizens of many countries will be remembered for a long time. And on behalf of the American people, Heiko, to you, to Germany, thank you.
FOREIGN MINISTER MAAS: (Via interpreter) Tony, thank you very much, and once again, a warm welcome to Germany, and at the same time, thank you very much for the warm welcome you have given us here at the airbase in Ramstein, probably the most American place to be found in Germany. And being here, I would like to mention that the American soldiers here in Ramstein have been symbolizing over decades the German-American friendship. They are part of social life here. There are people-to-people contacts with the citizens here in Rhineland-Palatinate, and the American soldiers contribute to our security here in Germany and also beyond, to European security, and we are very grateful for that. And I would like to clearly tell them they have been, they are, and they always will be welcome here in Ramstein and in Germany as a whole.
Tony, one lesson that we have drawn from the long days and short nights during the evacuation period and the evacuation operation at Kabul airport is that the answer to the development in Afghanistan cannot be provided by one or two countries alone. The number of challenges we are faced with require a minimum of international cooperation and close coordination at the international stage. Today, we have made a contribution, and I am delighted that our joint invitation to a ministerial meeting has been accepted by more than 20 states and organizations. The discussions that we had with the colleagues have shown that there is great concern about future development in Afghanistan – not only here in Germany these concerns are felt.
Right in front of our eyes, a severe humanitarian crisis is emerging and we need to prevent that from happening. This is why we need provide humanitarian assistance quickly to the people on the ground, especially through the United Nations. And this is not only a moral obligation; it is also a question of regional stability. We expect from the Taliban that they allow access for that.
The reopening of the Kabul airport is planned and it would be a very important step. We hope that we will succeed very soon in reopening the airport, and we thank everybody who has made a contribution and who is making a contribution to that. Beyond the necessary humanitarian assistance, what a foundation for a new cooperation with new rulers in Kabul can look like is something we have discussed with the EU foreign ministers last Friday, and it was also an important topic today. We expect that possibilities for people in Afghanistan for whom we are responsible – that these people will be able to leave the country and that the Taliban prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorism again. Terrorism is a threat to all of us all over the world – all across the world. And together with our partners, we demand the protection of basic human and women’s rights, and a government that truly includes all groups of society.
Against this backdrop, the news that we have received from Afghanistan yesterday night do not make us overly optimistic. The formation of an interim government without including other groups is not a symbol for more international cooperation and stability in the country. And we hope that when the future consolidation of the government – this is still an ongoing process – that the necessary signals will be sent out. And it has to be clear to the Taliban as well that international isolation cannot be in their interests, especially not in the interest of the people in Afghanistan. A country with an economic meltdown will never be stable.
My trip to the region a little more than a week ago clearly showed that to me. If we don’t take action, we might see further instability in Afghanistan with all the impacts this has: extremism, drug trafficking, terrorism for the entire region. This is why all participants have agreed on one thing today: Nobody has an interest in turning one’s back to Afghanistan; on the contrary, we need to act together to use our influence on the Taliban. And this is why I believe that today’s meeting was a start of a broader consultation process, a process that we need in order to implement the goals that we have, step by step. Thank you.
MR PRICE: Our first question will go to Will Mauldin with The Wall Street Journal.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. Mr. Foreign Minister, is Germany willing to accept any Afghans from here at Ramstein Air Force Base for asylum if they have family members in Germany, or if they don’t? And is this issue hurting U.S.-German relations as the two countries try to rebuild relations in the Biden administration?
And for you, Mr. Secretary of State, I wanted to ask – specifically you mentioned the Taliban government. I wanted to ask specifically about Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is the interior minister, wanted by the FBI, currently on the other side of the law in Afghanistan, as interior minister. Will the U.S. continue to pursue him? And since he’s interior minister, is he the kind of person you can work with to get these charter flights out of Afghanistan? What specifically – does the U.S. have any issues remaining with the charter flights or is it only the Taliban which is allowing them to depart – not allowing them to depart? Thank you.
FOREIGN MINISTER MAAS: (Via interpreter) It is true that on Ramstein Airbase, people have asked asylum, but let me say that this is less than 1 percent of the people who have been transferred here. We are working with our American partners. We are working together very closely. We speak every day and we have made clear – we have reached clear agreements about how long people can stay here, how we organize processes, and how we can support our American partners in order to implement the agreement that we have made. And these are implemented to 100 percent. We are very grateful for that. We will continue to do that over the coming days and weeks, and the cooperation on the basis – what we have agreed upon is a very good cooperation. I’m very grateful to our American friends and to Tony Blinken in particular for being together in this process and for implementing this process together.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. Will, in response to your question, a couple of things. First, just to come back to the end of your question on the charter flights, let me be very clear: Those flights need to be able to leave, and the United States Government, the State Department, we are doing everything we can to help – to help make that happen.
Second, with regard to the composition of this government, or interim government, I noted the fact that it certainly does not meet the test of inclusivity and it includes people who have very challenging track records. Our engagement with the Taliban and with a government, interim or long term, will be for purposes of advancing the national interest, advancing our interests, the interests of our partners. We have and we will find ways to engage the Taliban, to engage an interim government, a future government, to do just that and to do it in ways that are fully consistent with our laws.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: No, those flights need to move. I pointed out some of the complications that are there, but those flights need to move.
MODERATOR: (In German.)
QUESTION: (Via interpreter) A question to both foreign ministers, a question regarding the interim government and how we deal with that government. Will Germany and the U.S. start diplomatic relations with Afghanistan? The American colleague already said that the minister of the interior is on the blacklist of the FBI, and even if prospectively other groups will be included in the government in the future, this minister of the interior seems to be in that position. So would you reopen embassies in Kabul? Or at what stage would we restart diplomatic relations with Kabul under these conditions?
FOREIGN MINISTER MAAS: (Via interpreter) I can’t tell you when that point in time will have come, but I can tell you that we have had direct talks with the Taliban up to now. If we hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have been able to evacuate vulnerable groups – Germans, Afghans – from Afghanistan. We continue to have German nationals in Afghanistan, but we don’t have any diplomatic representation in Kabul, in Afghanistan. So in order to evacuate these German nationals, we need to have people to talk to on the ground.
And the question of a diplomatic representation is something we’re discussing with our international partners. We are coordinating our efforts on this issue. We don’t think it’s helpful for everybody to do their own thing, and this is one reason for our meeting with so many colleagues here today. We want to have an international coordination process. We don’t want to be played off against each other from the Taliban. But if we want to evacuate German nationals and our local staff and vulnerable groups from Afghanistan in whichever way, it will be necessary to continue to talk to the Taliban regardless of a diplomatic recognition.
This is not what we’re talking about now. I can’t see anything that points to that right now. Now this is about evacuating people from Afghanistan for whom we have given permission to enter our country. And in addition to that, we need to talk about humanitarian assistance. We are ready to provide humanitarian assistance with the help of the UN agencies. This requires discussions and talks, and if it – if this is about making sure people don’t starve, I think it would be irresponsible to not have these talks.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: And I fully agree with my friend Heiko. I would simply say or simply add that the nature of a Taliban-led government’s relationship with us, with the international community, will depend entirely on its actions in the weeks and months in time ahead.
MR PRICE: Michael Crowley, The New York Times.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you both. Secretary Blinken, my question is about Iran. Your envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, is visiting Moscow and Paris this week to consult with allies on the nuclear negotiations with Tehran, which have now been stalled for months. Last week, Iran’s foreign ministry said that the talks would likely not resume for another two to three months, and as you know, Iran’s progress on enriching highly – on enriching uranium continues. You and other officials have been saying for months now that there is some point at which it will not be possible to return to the JCPOA because of Iran’s nuclear progress. Is two to three months too long for that scenario, where you return to the JCPOA as we knew it?
Minister Maas, related, there’s a new IAEA report that is highly critical of Iran, saying that Tehran is stonewalling the nuclear agency’s work, blocking inspectors and hindering the agency’s investigations into the nature of its program. Back in February, Germany and other European nations considered a formal censure resolution of Iran, but held off in order to allow diplomacy to work. That was now many months ago. Would you now support a formal IAEA rebuke of Iran? Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Michael, I’m not going to put a date on it, but we are getting closer to the point at which a strict return to compliance with the JCPOA does not reproduce the benefits that that agreement achieved because as time goes on and as Iran continues to make advances in its nuclear program, including spinning more sophisticated centrifuges, enriching more material, learning more, there is a point at which it would be very difficult to regain all of the benefits of the JCPOA by returning to strict compliance with the JCPOA. We’re not at that point yet, but it’s getting closer. And that’s why we’ve been very clear that the ability to rejoin the JCPOA, mutual – return to mutual compliance is not indefinite. Rob Malley is in the process, as you noted, of consulting with Russia and also with our European partners, and we’re very much focused on that right now.
FOREIGN MINISTER MAAS: (Via interpreter) We have taken note of the also new reports of the IAEA, and unfortunately it seems to be the case that this transitional period in which no negotiations have been taken place that Iran uses these – this time to breach the agreement. And we are currently consulting with our partners under the agreement on how we will react. We still think it would be possible. I mean, negotiations have been taking place, and we still think it is possible to conclude these negotiations. I had a phone call with my Iranian colleague last week, and I told him that his remarks that only after two or three months it would be envisageable to come back to the negotiation table is a point of time that from our point of view is too far away. And we could interpret this as Iran having different plans with regard to the JCPOA. So I asked him to make sure that they will return earlier to the negotiation table, and that would be a good opportunity to make clear what the – what Iran’s government’s position with regard to the JCPOA is.
We expect that the new government in Tehran will support the negotiations that have been conducted and will continue to do so, and we will do everything we can to bring these negotiations to a success. But two or three months is a timeframe that is too big for us.
MODERATOR: (Via interpreter) Ilja Tuchter, Rheinpfalz.
QUESTION: (Via interpreter) Minister, I need to ask another question when it comes to asylum seekers. You said one by one and – by 100 percent, the agreement is being implemented and these people are flown out to the U.S. Does that mean these people cannot use their right to asylum in Germany? And about which number of people will we be talking about over the coming months that will be on the waiting list of the federal government? And we – the ministry of the interior says it has 40,000 people on a list. How do they come up with this number?
FOREIGN MINISTER MAAS: (Via interpreter) Well, these are two separate issues. The legal situation is quite clear when it comes to asking asylum. So the applications – less than 1 percent of the people who came here will be looked at under the process. There are different reasons for asking for asylum – some people may have relatives in Germany – and it is not the case that we think that the situation in Ramstein will continue the way it is for months. The way people work here, we believe that the process will take a few more weeks.
So this is a manageable situation, but the legal basis is as it is, and it will apply and will continue to apply in this place. Now, those who have – will receive a right to stay in Germany, that is of course true for German nationals, for local staff, and for very vulnerable groups. We have pointed out that when it comes to local staff, it could be up to 40,000 people, but that does not mean that there will be 40,000 people, because these people need to register as vulnerable groups, as people in danger, and not all local staff we had have done so over the period of time we have set out. And this is the number that exists, and that could be reached without being able to say whether it really will be 40,000 people in the end. It could be 40,000 people.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you all.