Briefing with Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad On Updates from the Road to Afghan Peace and Reconciliation
Morgan Ortagus, Department Spokesperson
June 1, 2020
MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. Good afternoon, everybody. Happy Monday. Welcome to June. Hard to believe we're here in June already and to this on-the-record briefing from U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. Just a reminder to everybody, if you want to go ahead and get into the questions queue now, you can by dialing 1 and 0. And also please remember that while this is on the record, the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call, please.
All of you know that it has been almost 20 months and a lot of ups and downs since Ambassador Khalilzad came into the department to find a way forward in Afghanistan. Since we last spoke with the ambassador, he has traveled to the region again, which means we'll have a chance today to hear about his engagements with senior representatives of all sides involved in the Afghan conflict.
Over the course of the past few weeks, we have had a number of positive developments we'd like to highlight: the Eid ceasefire and strong effort by both sides to release prisoners and address other concerns. But the road to peace and reconciliation is not linear, and we continue to work through other remaining challenges.
Today is International Children's Day, and our ongoing diplomatic process in Afghanistan is all about securing a peaceful, safe future for the children of the United States, Afghanistan, and around the world.
Ambassador Khalilzad will open with brief remarks, then per usual will take your questions for the remainder of the time. Again, contents of the briefing embargoed until the end of the call. It is on the record. Go ahead and get in the answer – excuse me, in the Q&A queue by 1 and 0. Okay, go ahead, Zal.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Thank you very much, Morgan. Good afternoon, everyone. The last time when I spoke with you, I emphasized the issues of violence and that violence has increased inconsistent with the spirit of the agreement at least that we have signed with the Taliban, and two, that the prisoners release was not where we wanted it to be. Today, I want to update you as to where we are, and as Morgan mentioned, I believe we are in a more hopeful moment that validates our approach. One, that with regard to violence, Morgan mentioned the Eid ceasefire by the Taliban which was reciprocated by the government, and by all accounts violence was down dramatically during Eid.
Since the Eid ceasefire, violence has been relatively low. It hasn't gone back to pre-Eid circumstances or conditions. And at the same time the Government of Afghanistan in response to the ceasefire and the reduction of violence that has taken place has accelerated the release of prisoners. So far, we have about 2,400 to -500 number of Talib prisoners that have been released since the signing of the agreement between the United States and the Taliban, and two, that the Talibs have released some 400-plus government prisoners that they hold.
We're focused now on getting to the intra-Afghan negotiations, which is really the most important for Afghans to have peace is an agreement on a roadmap for a political settlement between the representatives of Afghanistan's Islamic Republic, an inclusive team that was established some weeks ago, and the Taliban.
Also, I am happy to report – you knew that already – that the political crisis in Afghanistan that produced two presidential inaugurations, now it's been resolved and the two leaders are working together on an agenda for peace. We're beginning to discuss with them where the intra-Afghan negotiations will take place, when it will take place, what role will the international community play, and those are the kind of issues that we are focused on.
So let me conclude by saying that we are in a good place. The road ahead, as Morgan mentioned, will have challenges and difficulties, but we're optimistic that finally we are moving forward to the start of the intra-Afghan negotiations. And not only we are trying to make sure that the remaining issues dealing with the prisoners release, which is that up to 5,000 prisoners have to be released by the government, and all the prisoners that the Talibs have must be released before intra-Afghan negotiations can begin, and that we are hoping that violence will stay low so with the release of prisoners we can begin the intra-Afghan negotiations about the future of Afghanistan and an end to the war in that country which has been going on for 40 years.
Thank you, and over to you for questions and comments.
MS ORTAGUS: Great. Thanks. First up in the queue is Kim Dozier, Time Magazine.
QUESTION: Thank you. Ambassador Khalilzad, the UN just came out with a report today that's drawing on member-states' intelligence and security services for its evidence. And it says that the Taliban has maintained relations with al-Qaida, told them throughout their talks with you they told al-Qaida they'd honor their historical ties, and they've even talked about forming a joint force, whereas Secretary Pompeo told Face the Nation after signing the deal that the Taliban had agreed they'd break that relationship and push al-Qaida out. So which is it? Is the al-Qaida relationship moving on a different timeline?
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Well, thank you, Kim. First, the report I have not read, but from what I've heard it covers the period until March 15th, and you remember that the agreement we signed on the 29th of February. Two, we are monitoring Taliban compliance with that agreement, which, as you know, stipulates that there will be no hosting of al-Qaida or any other terrorist group that could threaten the security of the United States and our allies. We have had good discussions with them, and we have a monitoring group that monitors in detail what's happening with regard to their commitments, the Talib commitments on terrorism, not only vis-a-vis groups such as al-Qaida but also on Daesh or ISIS. And we believe that there is progress, but we will continue to monitor those activities very closely.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks. Let's go over to Tracy Wilkinson, LA Times.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you. Sort of a follow-up to that: U.S. troops withdrawal has been conditioned on the Afghani partners meeting certain requirements like, as you just talked about, the relationship with al-Qaida. Are those conditions still in place and are they being met? In other words, where does the withdrawal of U.S. troops stand at this point? Thanks.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: We are committed to the agreement that we have signed, which we believe historic, that opens the opportunity for us to achieve our goal of not feeling – not being threatened by terrorists based in Afghanistan. And that commitment is not only from the Taliban, the result of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, but also by the Afghan Government as a result of the joint declaration between the two sides which was signed – or declared, rather, on the same day. Now, as you say correctly, our commitment to what we have said we will do is conditioned on what the other side's commitments are and the delivery on those commitments. That framework is fundamental and that is very much in place.
On the reduction of forces, of course based on the agreement and subject to the conditionality that I mentioned, we are proceeding with the drawdown. For details of that, I encourage you to talk to the Pentagon.
MS ORTAGUS: Great, thank you. Dan Sagalyn, NewsHour.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Hello, Mr. Ambassador. Can you tell us, have the Afghan Government – has the Afghan Government and the Taliban agreed that the prisoner issue that has stalled progress in the next round of talks – have they agreed that this prisoner issue has been resolved, or are still more prisoners having to be – or do more prisoners still have to be released before a commitment to the date and the details of the intra-Afghan dialogue begins?
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Of course there has been a lot of progress in the last few days on the prisoners released, as there has been progress on the violence issue. But there is more prisoners to be released by both sides, and we hope that violence will stay at very low levels before intra-Afghan negotiations begin, and those negotiations will determine and decide on a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire in Afghanistan.
So we're hoping that we can get into the details of when, where, and related issues regarding the intra-Afghan negotiations, but no, more work still needs to be done, more steps need to be taken on release of prisoners and, as I said, the importance of keeping violence low.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks. Jennifer Hansler, CNN.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. Could you go into more specifics on how the U.S. intends to hold the Taliban to account on its commitments, particularly on breaking ties with al-Qaida given that our presence on the ground is being reduced? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Well, thank you for the question. We, as I said, monitor closely what happens with regard to terrorism, in terms of delivery on the commitments that the Taliban have made. We do notice that they are fighting Daesh and that's one of the commitments that have been made.
Second, we know that they are moving on the other fronts in terms of commitments that they have made. You can, I'm sure, appreciate that I can't go too much in details in an open press brief on what they have done vis-a-vis particular groups, but we see progress. But they have a lot – a lot more to do, and our commitment on the commitments that we have made, our delivery on those commitments, is very much conditional on them delivering on their commitments with regard to terrorism and related commitments.
So we are monitoring it, as I said, closely. We have a group that pays attention to this, watches it very closely. And we also raise issues that we have if there are issues – when there are issues with the Taliban, not only by me when I visit with them and with the Afghan Government when I visit with them, but we have also special channels for this effort, and they are raised in those channels, and of course raised by military and political representatives in Kabul as well.
We recognize the importance of this issue – this is vital – the issue of terrorism. And not only we press them, but we also take measures when necessary. We continue to do the security steps, operations that are needed as well. So we have a comprehensive approach for different phases on how to deal with the issue of terrorism, but we – we believe there is progress, but more work needs to be done by them.
MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. Okay, let's see, Aamer Madhani – I apologize if I screwed up your name – AP.
QUESTION: Yeah, thanks. Hi, Ambassador. How much pressure does the Islamic State's stepped-up activity put up on the deal moving forward? And from a U.S. security perspective, how critical is it to get the Taliban into the fight against IS?
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Well, the Taliban fight Daesh, as you know, and they've been substantial adversaries vis-a-vis each other. Daesh is working against peace, is working against reduced level of violence, and they have been responsible, some of – for some of the most dastardly attacks recently, including the attack on the hospital. We believe that the Talibs have been important, besides the Afghan Security Forces and ourselves, in the fight against Daesh that has taken place. And Daesh is a fact of life in Afghanistan.
We believe that an agreement between the government and the Taliban to end the – that war, and cooperation between the two on a political roadmap, will put Afghanistan and the Afghan forces, Taliban, the government, in a much stronger position to pursue the fight against Daesh until Daesh is eliminated in Afghanistan. So we regard the agreement that we have made and the steps that have been taken as helpful in the fight against Daesh, but Daesh is still there and a lot of work needs to still be done to deal with the threat that Daesh poses.
MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. Jessica Donati, Wall Street Journal.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. The agreement states that the U.S. will withdraw based on conditions, but if Trump pulls out on Election Day, as he is reportedly planning to do, will you be able to preserve the agreement?
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Well, two points on that, that one, we have agreed on a timeline already for withdrawal in the agreement, and as you said correctly, it's condition based. And the issue of whether – if the conditions are met at a faster pace or sooner than the timeline that we have agreed to in the agreement, whether – it is the prerogative of the President if he thinks that the conditions have been met and we could do it faster. But the key thing is that whether the conditions have been met, and I think that is a – we are – is the most important issue, and we are monitoring that very closely.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks, Jessica. Okay, let's see, Conor Finnegan, ABC.
QUESTION: Hey, Ambassador, thanks for doing this. Just following up on my colleague's question earlier on the UN report, it also said that the Taliban was consulting with al-Qaida during your negotiations with them. Were you aware of that?
And then a second question: What's the status of the $1 billion of U.S. assistance that Secretary Pompeo said was frozen? Was any of that money ever withheld? Is it being released now that there is a political agreement? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: On the money, you should consult with the Pentagon. I think the Secretary has spoken on that issue. On the details of the implementation, I refer you to the Pentagon. On the al-Qaida-Taliban issue, I've said before as well that the Taliban have committed to breaking with al-Qaida and not to host al-Qaida, not to allow any group including al-Qaida to use the territory that they currently control against the United States and our allies, to threaten us or our allies, and that if they become part of a future government as a result of intra-Afghan negotiations that they will follow the same policy nationwide.
And as I said before, we have the same agreement with the Afghan Government, and as I said again, that we are monitoring that very closely. And the Taliban are a complex entity – individuals, subgroups – and I can't speak on behalf of any individual Talib member, but the Taliban as a whole have made this commitment. We hold them to that commitment, and what we do and what we have committed to – its implementation is very much dependent on them delivering on their commitments.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks. Nick Schifrin, PBS.
QUESTION: Hey, Zal. Thanks for this. Got NewsHour in stereo today. Couple questions, one on the conditions-based that you said – referred to with the President. Just confirming that you do believe that the President will maintain the strategy of a conditions-based withdrawal instead of a withdrawal simply based on a timeline.
And to go back to the original question about the UN, as you know, you and your military colleagues found more connections between the Taliban and al-Qaida than I think a lot of people expected during these conversations. You used the word "progress." Can you detail with as much specificity what kind of progress you've gotten since February 29th? Thanks very much. On – specifically on separating the Taliban and al-Qaida. Thanks.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: First, our approach is condition-based and remains so. And second, that the Taliban have made commitments, specific commitments with regard to al-Qaida and other groups that could threaten the United States in terms of the – their presence, in terms of training, in terms of recruiting, in terms of fundraising in the territory that they currently control. And the job is not done yet on that, but as I said before, progress has been made and our future steps in terms of force reduction and related commitments depends on the Talibs delivering on those commitments.
I'm sorry I can't be too specific or very specific about this as to what they have done, but we are monitoring that. That is obviously very important, and the key is – the key message that I want to send is that our delivery on the commitment that we have made is contingent on them delivering on their commitment and those two are a package. Actually, there are four issues that are a package: withdrawal, terrorism, intra-Afghan negotiation, and permanent and comprehensive ceasefire. Now, with the prisoners released and the reduction of violence, we are hopeful that we will soon be able to focus on the intra-Afghan negotiations and a political agreement and on a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.
I believe that our approach by the progress we have seen recently is validated and – however, you all are very experienced people. This is a complicated situation both internally and internationally, and it's – it's not a straight line, this progress. There might be setbacks, but we are at a better spot than when I briefed you last.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks. Okay, the last person that I see in the queue is Kylie Atwood, CNN. If anybody has a final question, dial 1 and 0 now, because we don't have anyone else. So Kylie Atwood, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thanks, Ambassador. Two questions: So first, you've mentioned a few times that you can't be too specific about what the Taliban has done to fight al-Qaida or break from al-Qaida. And why is that that you can't be more specific about that?
And my second question is: Last year Secretary Pompeo said that al-Qaida doesn't amount to a shadow of its former self and that the U.S. had delivered on its mission to oust al-Qaida from Afghanistan. Does that remain true today? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Thank you. On the second question, of course al-Qaida once used to be present in Afghanistan in a big way. Usama bin Ladin and many of the leaders of al-Qaida were in Afghanistan. We asked the Taliban to deliver them after 9/11 to us. They refused. As a result of the fight that we have had, al-Qaida has been devastated in terms of numbers of losses. And there is still some presence but a small presence, and we have succeeded in getting Taliban, which refused to break with al-Qaida at that time, to say what I have repeatedly referred to.
So on that front I think no doubt that is a big change that has happened in terms of al-Qaida and Afghanistan, al-Qaida and the Taliban compared to what was the case before 9/11 and then afterwards in the – so.
On the second note – your first question asked why I can't talk in greater detail. These are sensitive issues between al-Qaida, which is a terrorist organization, and the relationships that have existed, the break or adjustments that are being made, and these are issues of intelligence and I don't want to get into those, not surprisingly, as to exactly how – what we see happening. I hope you'll understand that I can't talk about it, because if we talk about it, it may have other consequences. And besides, I'm not allowed to talk about them. That's all I can say about that.
MS ORTAGUS: Zal, do you have time for another question?
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Sure.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. We – Sami Mahdi from Radio Azadi in the queue.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you so much, Mr. Ambassador, for this opportunity. I have two questions. The first question is the inclusive government is formed and we have the High Reconciliation Council now. What do you think – when will the intra-Afghan peace talks start? And some names like – names of countries like Germany, Norway, Qatar, and Uzbekistan are mentioned. Any idea where this will take place?
And the second question is: The change in the Taliban (inaudible) reports suggest that the COVID-19 has spread among the leadership of the Taliban. Do you see this as a positive progress and for peace or not? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Well, thank you. On the intra-Afghan negotiations, the date and the location are two of the issues that we're very much focused on right now among other issues regarding intra-Afghan negotiations. As you can imagine, both sides, meaning the government or the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan team and leadership and the Taliban, have to agree on those issues and others, location. And there are obviously several countries that have offered to host those negotiations, but two sides have to agree where.
And then there is also the issue of date and the issue of date relates to prisoners issue as well and that – but the fact that we are focusing on those issues right now is a sign of progress. Perhaps to – some of you might have been hopeful and optimistic that we will get there by now, but a lot of people who have been pessimistic that we could get to this place where we are discussing where and when intra-Afghan negotiations would begin and that there will be enough progress on the prisoners issue. You know the evolution of the discussion among Afghans in the government and with the Taliban on that issue and on the issue of violence. So we're working on that, and we're working also with international partners both in the region and internationally. My trips are in part to make sure we have everyone together internationally in support of this process.
Now, on the issue of the virus, the coronavirus issue, its impact. Yeah, we are very concerned about this impact in Afghanistan, and we have provided assistance to Afghanistan. We are concerned and worried about the impact that the virus is having, could have, as we are concerned about this issue in many other places. But as far as the specific implications for specific groups, I do not have anything to share at this time.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Thanks, Zal. Zal, we're over time now. There's still people left in the queue, but unless you want to take anything else – do you have time for anything else or do you want to go ahead and end?
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Well, I leave it to you, Morgan. If you want to take another one, I am willing, but it's up to you. You are the boss.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. I apologize, because we still have three or four more people in the queue, but I'm just going in the order that it came in. So this will be the definite last one. And I apologize that we can't get to everybody today. Shaun Tandon. Shaun, are you still on?
OPERATOR: I don't see that participant queued up. My apologies.
MS ORTAGUS: Arshad Mohammed.
QUESTION: Thanks, Morgan. Ambassador Khalilzad, two things. One, going back to your comment on the UN report, the agreement that you reached was indeed February the 29th, but the UN report, as I believe you said, goes up to March 15th. That still suggests that there is a contradiction between your agreement saying that they would cut ties – the Taliban and al-Qaida – and what the UN report says. So can you please address that?
And second, the Secretary of State said in writing on March 23rd that a billion dollars was being cut from U.S. aid to Afghanistan. The last time I checked on that, which was 10 days ago, nothing had been cut. Can you not tell us whether any of that money has been cut? And if you can't tell us, I mean, does – if the money hasn't been cut, does it not suggest that your threats in this regard are empty and will be taken as empty by the Afghans and potentially others?
AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: Thank you. On your second question, I think the money is cut and the implementation is – and – with the Pentagon, so you'll have to get on the details of the implementation as to when, what part, from which account they are taking that's – that end of it handled – the Pentagon, and I would like you ask them that.
With regard to the report, as I said, I haven't read it in detail, but I was just briefed by the staff a little while ago that it covers that period that I mentioned, until March 15th. Yes, the Taliban have obligations with regard to al-Qaida. This covered the period immediately after the agreement. We recognize it takes time to take the steps necessary operationally to deliver on their commitments. We observe they've taken some steps. They have to take a lot more steps. And we will monitor this very closely, and we will take appropriate steps to protect our national security.
With regard to terrorism, we do not want Afghanistan to again become a platform. And if the Talibs not do deliver – and I'd rather not speculate – then, as I said before, the commitments that we have made is also then subject to change if the other side doesn't deliver on its commitments. And the commitment is also not only with the Taliban but with the Afghan Government as well, so all sides of Afghanistan.
The commitments themselves were significant for them to commit in a public agreement the commitments that they have made. We couldn't get that a long time ago, so I would not dismiss that as important. Implementation is also very, very important, and we are saying that they have made moves, but we – a lot more steps have to be taken by them, and we will be watching that very closely.
So thank you, everyone. Thank you, Morgan. I appreciate this opportunity, and all the best.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks, everybody. Thanks for dialing in. Have a great one.
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