Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State
U.S. Embassy Kabul
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good afternoon. Good to see everyone. I’ve come to Afghanistan today because it was important to me and important to President Biden to convey in person America’s commitment to an enduring partnership with Afghanistan and the Afghan people.
As President Biden announced yesterday, we’re withdrawing our troops by the 20th anniversary of 9/11. We’ve achieved the objective we set out nearly 20 years ago. We never intended to have a permanent military presence here. The threat from al-Qaida in Afghanistan is significantly degraded. Osama bin Laden has been brought to justice. After years of saying that we would leave militarily at some point, that time has come.
But even when our troops come home, our partnership with Afghanistan will continue. Our security partnership will endure. There’s strong bipartisan support for that commitment to the Afghan Security Forces. We’ll intensify our diplomacy with the Government of Afghanistan, the Taliban, countries in the region and around the world that have a stake in Afghanistan’s future. We’ll stand with the Afghan people, including through economic investment and development assistance, as they work toward a more prosperous future. We’ll continue to support civil society and to advocate for equal rights for women, including their meaningful participation in the ongoing negotiations and their equal representation throughout society. We’ll maintain the American tradition of providing humanitarian assistance for those most in need, including women, girls, and refugees.
I shared that message in all my meetings today – with President Ghani, with Chairman Abdullah, with representatives from civil society who are working for change every single day in their communities throughout the country. The United States will remain Afghanistan’s steadfast partner. We want the Afghan people, countries in the region, and the international community to know that fact.
It’s also a very important message for the Taliban to hear. As I think you know, I just came from Brussels. We consulted there with all of our NATO Allies, and the message that I heard from them was strong and clear. They’re proud of what we’ve done together over the past 20 years and they’re equally committed to continuing the partnership with Afghanistan.
For all of us, it’s been a long journey to this moment. There is a great deal of work and planning to do in the months ahead to ensure that the withdrawal is responsible, deliberate, and safe. But that work is going to be matched by our enduring support for Afghanistan economically, diplomatically, politically.
I do want to say that as we proceed, we will remember the extraordinary courage, strength, and sacrifice of our troops who have served in Afghanistan for the past two decades. At its height, the International Security Assistance Force had troops from 50 NATO countries and partner nations. Today, Resolute Support has troops from about 35 allies and partners. These service members risked their lives; thousands gave their lives. And we have succeeded in achieving the objective we set out to achieve because of their service, because of their sacrifice, and now we are embarking on a new chapter in our work here and in our partnership with the Afghan people.
Thank you, and happy to take some questions.
MR PRICE: (Off-mike.)
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I’m Palwasha Amiz from Salam Watandar. I’ll ask that, according to the schedule for the North American government, American troops are going to leave Afghanistan within months, and some other countries after this has decided that – to have the same decision and the international (inaudible) are going to leave Afghanistan, and especially the NATO members – member countries have announced it.
And so the question is that – what is your understanding? Is there a probability of civil war in Afghanistan and if we consider it happened so? And the Taliban get the – and other terrorists, like, get back to their last position, like we witnessed many years ago. So what would be the international community reaction to that? And please, about human rights, the situation in Afghanistan if it gets worse, and so what would be the reaction of the international community?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first, I think one of the things that we know from our experience of the last 20 years is that there is no military solution to the conflict that remains here. The only path forward to a durable, lasting, and just end to the conflict is through negotiation, is through a political agreement, and ultimately is through compromise. And I hope that the Taliban understands that as well. If as our forces are withdrawing the Taliban were to attack them, it would be met with a very forceful response. And of course, as I said, we’re going to continue to support the Afghan National Security Forces, but importantly we are doing everything we can now to advance diplomacy, to bring in regional and international partners so that everyone is using their influence and their leverage to advance a peaceful end to the conflict, to advance negotiations and ultimately an end to the conflict. It’s very important that the Taliban recognize that it will never be legitimate and it will never be durable if it rejects a political process and tries to take the country by force.
And I think something struck me very profoundly today. I’ve had the privilege of visiting here on a number of occasions over many years, going back to the early 2000s. And I think something President Ghani said struck me very powerfully, and that is the Afghanistan of 2021 is not the Afghanistan of 2001 or 1999 or pick a year before that. The country has gone through profound, positive changes. Society has changed dramatically. I met with representatives of civil society groups, women leaders, extraordinary people and young people who are reflective of a new Afghanistan. And similarly, the Afghan National Security Forces, thanks to the partnership with the international community, are very well trained and a strong force that exhibits extraordinary courage and sacrifice every day.
So I think it would be a mistake, for example, for the Taliban to see Afghanistan through the prism of 2001 or the 1990s. This is, in many ways, a new Afghanistan, one we’re very, very pleased to have been a partner to and one we’re committed to remaining a partner for.
MR PRICE: Matt, please, go ahead.
QUESTION: All right. Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I’m sure that – and you’ve got the sense, despite your words that are intended to reassure the Afghan leadership and the Afghan people, that there is a palpable sense of unease, if not dread, of a kind of fear of abandonment. And to be honest, if we are being honest, there is a history of that in this country, particularly with the United States and other Western countries.
So what can you do to – more to convince them that your words are not just words and that we’re not going to have a redux of what happened in the ’80s, where the country was essentially forgotten about by the West and left to fester?
And then secondly, upstairs in your remarks to the embassy staff you talked about how you’re – that local – you take care of safety and security of local employees and one of the ways to do that is through honoring the SIV, the Special Immigrant Visa program. How exactly are you planning to do that? Are you going to step this up? You were asked a similar question in Brussels yesterday, but I wasn’t quite sure of the answer. Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Sure. Thanks, Matt. A couple things. Look, this is a time of transition. And with any transition comes uncertainty, comes concern. And I very much recognize that and I see that. And let me say a couple of things in that regard.
So, as you know, we met with President Ghani, with Chairman Abdullah, and other leaders from the government today. And I listened carefully what they had to say, particularly in response to the President’s speech last night and the decision we made. And I’ve got to say, at least what I heard today was pretty consistent across the board – respect for the President’s decision, profound appreciation for our years of partnership, but also commitment to and optimism about the next chapter that we are going to write together.
What I heard in private today from President Ghani was entirely consistent with the statement that he released publicly yesterday – no difference. Again, a lot of gratitude for what the United States and partners have done over the past two decades, but also something I mentioned just a moment ago, which, again, I found pretty powerful, that Afghanistan doesn’t live in the past, that it’s no longer 2001 or 2011. And what we talked about was a partnership between our two countries fitting for 2021 and beyond.
And so what does that mean? Well, two things. One, to your point, I did come to, in the first instance, deliver a message with the strong encouragement from President Biden that our partnership with Afghanistan is enduring. We will remain side-by-side going forward. And I laid out a number of areas where that partnership is going to manifest itself in very concrete ways, including, as I said, ongoing support for the Afghan National Security Forces; work together on development, on economic progress; support for civil society; and our strong diplomatic engagement and bringing other countries into the effort to advance the prospects for peace. So that was the message.
Now, to your point, and it’s exactly the right point, that message now has to be followed, and it will, by action. And I think that the Afghan people will see in the weeks and months ahead that, as I said, even as we are drawing down our forces, we are stepping up in all of these other areas our engagement with Afghanistan, with its government, and with its people. And look, ultimately, as they say, the proof will be in the pudding. But it was very important to make clear what we plan to do, and now it is up to us to do it.
And look, on the Special Immigrant Visa program, this is something that I’ve felt very strongly about for years in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and potentially in other areas where men and women have worked side-by-side with our soldiers, with our diplomats, and have put themselves at great – and their families and loved ones – at great risk by the fact of doing that and working with us. So this is just something that I’m committed to, and to the extent that there is demand for that coming from Afghanistan, that’s something that I’m going to work on and make sure we’re committed to.
MR PRICE: (Off-mike.)
QUESTION: Thank you. I’m Sharif Amiry from TOLOnews, and welcome to Kabul. Are you not concerned that after 11 September Afghanistan will face a civil war, one? And do you think that the Istanbul conference will take place on the 24th of April?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So I don’t think that it is in anyone’s interest, to say the least, for Afghanistan to descend into a civil war, into a long war. And even the Taliban, as we hear it, has said it has no interest in that. The Afghan people clearly have no interest in that. Everyone I heard from today expressed a strong desire for peace.
I also think that when you look at the region, when you look at Afghanistan’s neighbors, when you look at other regional powers that have an interest in Afghanistan and perhaps influence with different groups in Afghanistan, none of them have an interest in a civil war that could produce refugees flooding into other countries, extremism and terrorism directed potentially at other countries, drug trafficking spilling out even more. The consequences of that future are literally in no one’s interest. So that’s one.
Second, as I said before, the Taliban says that it wants certain things, including international recognition, including international support for Afghanistan, including have the ability of its leaders to travel freely. And if it were to provoke a civil war, none of those things would be possible. So I think there are lots of things arguing against that. And again, as I’ve said a couple of times already, this is a very different country than it was 20 years ago.
So our focus is in working to advance the prospects for a political settlement, and that has to start with meaningful negotiations. And we’ve invested, I have to tell you, significantly in that from pretty much the first days of this administration. And it was a topic today in conversations with President Ghani and with Chairman Abdullah, both of whom expressed their strong support for the process. Ambassador Khalilzad has spent much of the past two months in the region. He’s been shuttling between Doha, Kabul, and elsewhere.
We’ve offered concrete ideas and support, but we recognize this basic principle, which is that at its core, any peace process has to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. We can provide support, we can provide ideas, but ultimately it has to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.
As important, we’ve also sought, as I mentioned, to ensure that the broader international community, and particularly countries in the region, recognize a collective responsibility we share to help advance that work.
So our hope is that this can really begin in Istanbul. We’re waiting to see a definitive response from the Taliban about their participation, but we’re preparing for that. I want to express gratitude to Turkey, to Qatar, to the United Nations for convening the conference. And again, the goal is precisely what we’ve been working to do in recent weeks, and that is to accelerate the peace process. The gathering will be supported by high-level attendance from the international community, and the proceedings will complement peace talks that are currently happening in Doha.
My hope is that all of the Afghan parties are preparing for constructive participation in the conference, and this would be, I think, a positive start to moving in the direction that I think everyone I’ve talked to recognizes is the only direction for a durable and just and lasting peace and an end to the conflict.
MR PRICE: We’ll take a final question. Sarah.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Sarah.
QUESTION: Hi, Mr. Secretary. What is your response to the CIA director saying that pulling out of Afghanistan is expected to diminish U.S. intelligence? The CIA, FBI, they’re all going to be on the Hill today. What do you say to anything we might hear from them?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So, of course, we’ve looked very hard throughout this process over the last two months as the President was deliberating and deciding on our policy. We’ve listened very hard to all of the key agencies in our government, starting with assessments from the Intelligence Community and, of course, from the Pentagon, from the department that I’m privileged to lead, the State Department, from every concerned agency. And in addition, we listened very carefully to our allies and partners about their ideas, their concerns going forward. We consulted with a broad range of experts, including on questions of counterterrorism.
And I think as you heard the President say last night in some detail, first, what brought us here was the 9/11 attack, and we came here to deal with those who attacked us and to do our best to ensure that Afghanistan would never again be a haven for attacks directed against the United States or any of our allies and partners.
And as I said and as the President said, we have largely succeeded in that effort. But the other thing that he pointed out last night was that that threat has changed dramatically from what it was in 2001. It is not the same threat that it was 20 years ago. We’ve seen, even as the threat has been significantly degraded here, even as Osama bin Laden was brought to justice a decade ago, we’ve seen in different parts of the world far from Afghanistan al-Qaida affiliates and – take root, as well as now ISIS or Daesh affiliates. And to concentrate all of our – or the vast bulk of our forces in one place where the threat is actually not current simply doesn’t make sense.
The President had also said that as we’re drawing down our forces, we will be repositioning the tools and assets that we have to guard very carefully against the possible re-emergence of a threat from Afghanistan. And we’re confident that we have the means to do so. In addition, the Taliban did make a commitment in the agreement that it reached with the United States last year to prevent the re-emergence of al-Qaida here in Afghanistan as well. We will hold them to that commitment to the extent they have the – they’re in a position where they need to be enforcing it.
So all of that was factored in. And as I said, the focus of our policy is on the threat that we face today, not the threat that we faced 20 years ago.
MR PRICE: Thank you very much, everyone.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you.