September 25, 2022

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Department Press Briefing – August 15, 2022 – United States Department of State

42 min read

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

Washington, DC

2:11 p.m. EDT

MR PRICE: All right. Let me actually move this out of the way. Okay, with that literal housekeeping, good afternoon, everyone. I know it’s been a while since I’ve seen almost all of you, but it’s good to be back, good to resume the daily press briefing. Let me start with this.

Many of us here at the department and across the government and millions of Americans and Afghans alike are mindful of today’s meaning as the 20-year-long U.S. military mission in Afghanistan ended nearly one year ago. Ending the longest war in American history was never going to be easy, but one year later we are in a stronger position as a country because of the President’s decision – better able to focus on the threats and challenges but also the opportunities of today.

As the Secretary has said, the end of our military mission in Afghanistan does not mean the end of our diplomatic and humanitarian mission. For more than two decades, the men and women of the State Department have served courageously and passionately to help deliver a better future for the people of Afghanistan. Our diplomats did their duty in dangerous conditions during those two decades with some paying the ultimate price in service to their country and to that mission. They served through the withdrawal, facilitating the evacuation of over 120,000 people a year ago. They have continued to work tirelessly ever since.

In the last year, the United States has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep the American people safe from terrorist attacks, as we demonstrated most recently during the strike against al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, to stand by our Afghan allies and their families by resettling tens of thousands of them here in the United States, demonstrating the very best of the American people’s generosity. And we’ll continue to welcome our Afghan allies over the weeks and months ahead.

We’ll also keep supporting the Afghan people during the dire economic times as the largest donor of humanitarian aid to the people of Afghanistan. We have demonstrated that we’re able to fulfill our enduring commitments to the Afghan people using the various diplomatic tools at our disposal and with exceptional help from our partners like Qatar, the UAE, and our European allies and others. We are grateful for that support. And of course, the international community will continue to expect that the Taliban meet the commitments they have made to the Afghan people in key areas. We are doing all of this as we continue to urgently seek the release of Mark Frerichs.

We can take on all of these challenges without putting our service members at risk in an open-ended military commitment. The same is true for our partners, including NATO, which is now more purposeful than ever in the face of Russian aggression against Ukraine.

As a result, we are able to focus our resources to face new global challenges, confronting Russian aggression, managing the competition with the PRC, addressing shared challenges like COVID-19 and climate change, and seizing opportunities in the Indo-Pacific among other regions. For the first time in nearly 20 years, our forces are not in harm’s way in Afghanistan, and we are fully focused on the challenges and opportunities that define the 21st century.

With that.

QUESTION: Okay. Thanks, Ned. Welcome back.

MR PRICE: Thank you.

QUESTION: I do have a couple on Afghanistan, but I’ll go to those after other people ask about it. I’m sure they will. I want to start with Iran.

MR PRICE: Sure

QUESTION: I know that you haven’t seen the Iranian response yet to – no one has, at least unless it’s come out in the last five minutes – to the EU text, but the foreign minister gave a pretty expansive, detailed presentation of what we can expect to see in it. One of the things he said is that the Iranians want a guarantee that on transition day, which, according to the JCPOA would be next November, like 2023, that all of the statutory sanctions will be lifted. That would require congressional action. Is the administration in any kind of a position to be able to offer – to make such a promise that those sanctions will be lifted, because the administration that signed the JCPOA in the first place wasn’t in a position to make that promise and said only that it would seek the repeal of those sanctions?

MR PRICE: So Matt, let me start out by saying that when it comes to the Iranian response, I would refer you to the EU. When it comes to a response from the EU, I’d refer you to the EU. When it comes to the United States, as we’ve said before, we will share our views on the text proposed by the High Representative directly with him. We will do that privately. We do agree, however, with his fundamental point, and that is that what could be negotiated has been negotiated. And that is why the High Representative took it upon himself to propose a text that is substantially based on the March proposal that has been in play for some time.

Let me also take a step back and answer your question this way. President Biden, for our part and for his part, has been – has provided clear instructions to the team. We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. We will use all tools available to deter, to contain, and otherwise counter dangerous Iranian activities in the region and in some cases well beyond, not the least of which, as we’ve all been discussing in recent days, is the plotting against former U.S. officials and other potential threats to American citizens.

We continue to believe that diplomacy is by far the best, the most effective means by which to constrain verifiably and permanently Iran’s nuclear program, and we’ve taken a principled and very deliberate approach over the course of the past 15 or 16 months or so with the remaining JCPOA participants. If Iran is prepared for a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA, so are we. We have made that abundantly clear since the outset.

If Iran – and this gets to your question – cannot or will not accept a mutual return to the full implementation of the JCPOA, we are equally prepared to continue the vigorous enforcement of our sanctions and the imposition of other diplomatic pressure. We will do that with the unity that we have been able to restore over the course of the past 18 months or so with our European allies, with other partners around the world, and with the broad international consensus we’ve managed to forge regarding the need to deal with Iran’s nuclear provocations.

I made this point just a moment ago, but it has been clear since March what a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA would look like. There has been in recent days some highly inaccurate reporting about sanctions related to the IRGC as well as sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program, including – as well as the IAEA’s probe into outstanding safeguards issues related to Iran’s nuclear program, so allow me to reiterate the point that we have made now consistently for several months:

The only way to achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA is for Iran to drop further unacceptable demands that go beyond the scope of the JCPOA. We have long called these demands extraneous. They have no place in Vienna. They have no place in the discussions regarding a potential return to compliance with the JCPOA. The President has been clear and steadfast that the FTO designation and other sanctions on the IRGC are beyond the scope of the JCPOA, to give you just one example. If Iran wants these sanctions lifted, they will need to alter their underlying conduct; they will need to change the dangerous activities that gave rise to these sanctions in the first place.

If we do manage to return a – manage to affect a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA, we’ll continue to confront the IRGC’s threats using – including the sanctions that will remain in place, but other relevant tools as well.

Again, to be clear, we do not plan to relax enforcement of these sanctions. We have not offered to do so in the context of the JCPOA talks, and that includes the due diligence and other compliance standards we expect third country – third countries to meet as well.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, but that doesn’t really answer my question, which is: Are you in a position to be able to offer – to promise Iran that on transition day these statutory sanctions will be repealed by Congress?

MR PRICE: What we are looking for is a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.

QUESTION: I understand that. And that is in the JCPOA.

MR PRICE: And the proposition on the table has always been – and this was the formula in 2015 and 2016 at —

QUESTION: Okay, so it’s not going to change. It’s only going to be you’re going to seek. So you’ll go to the Hill and ask them to repeal if Iran —

MR PRICE: We will continue to consult very closely with the Hill. Rob Malley, Brett McGurk, others have regularly briefed the Hill on progress, or lack thereof as the case might be in terms of the indirect discussions with Iran. We’ll continue to consult closely with them. But the formula that was at the heart of the JCPOA and the JPOA before that is really the same today as it was in 2014, 2015, and 2016: In return for Iran placing verifiable and permanent limits on its nuclear program, we would lift sanctions on that nuclear program.

QUESTION: So there won’t be any change to that language in terms of seeking rather than promising?

MR PRICE: I am not going to get into the specifics of any language that may or may not result from this.

QUESTION: All right, and then – okay. And then secondly, I noticed that when you mentioned the other activities of Iran, including the plot to kill the former National Security Advisor, you didn’t mention the attack on Salman Rushdie, which actually was – actually happened. It wasn’t just a – does that mean, because you didn’t mention it, that you don’t believe there is a direct link between that attack and the Iranian Government?

MR PRICE: It means that there is an active law enforcement investigation ongoing. We’re not going to get ahead of those law enforcement equities. The Secretary issued a strong statement yesterday condemning the heinous attack on Salman Rushdie’s life, noting that beyond being a literary giant Salman Rushdie is someone who has defended, really embodied, the principles that we strive to protect and to promote around the world – freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of religion – and the attack that we saw on his life in some ways was an attack on those very principles. But not going to get ahead of any law enforcement investigation. We’ll let that play out.

QUESTION: But then – I’ll stop after this – but you regard that as outside the scope of the JCPOA, along with the plot to kill former National Security Advisor Bolton, right?

MR PRICE: The JCPOA is about the single —

QUESTION: That’s —

MR PRICE: — the central challenge we face with Iran, the core challenge, what would be the most threatening challenge we could possibly face from Iran, and that is a nuclear weapon.

QUESTION: Okay. But I mean, if they have people running around inside the United States trying to kill former officials and celebrated authors, that seems to be of more immediate threat than a nuclear weapon down the road sometime.

MR PRICE: These are all threats. But I think we could all agree that as we continue to counter the threats that we’re facing from the Iranian regime today, including through all of the tools at our disposal – law enforcement, diplomatic sanctions, financial, otherwise – there is no doubt that a nuclear-armed Iran would feel an even greater degree of impunity, and would pose an even greater threat, a far greater threat, to countries in the region and potentially well beyond.

QUESTION: Afghanistan, please?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR PRICE: Let’s finish out Iran and then we’ll —

QUESTION: Can I follow up on Rushdie?

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: Let me just follow up on Salman Rushdie. The Iranian foreign ministry said that while they claim they have no involvement in this attack, that it is Salman Rushdie and his supporters who are to be blamed because of the principles they espouse. Do you have a reaction?

MR PRICE: I do.

QUESTION: Do you have a reaction to the Iranian Government blaming the victim here, Salman Rushdie, for this attack?

MR PRICE: I do. It’s despicable; it’s disgusting. We condemn it. The Secretary yesterday in his statement, while noting that the investigation is ongoing, made the point that Salman Rushdie has been under threat for decades now. And it is no secret that the Iranian regime has been central to the threats against his life over the course of years now. We have heard Iranian officials seek to incite to violence over the years – of course, with the initial fatwah, but even more recently with the gloating that has taken place in the aftermath of this attack on his life. This is something that is absolutely outrageous, it’s despicable, and we want it to be very clear that it is not something that we can tolerate.

QUESTION: Well, can I just follow up? While this – more broadly, while this may well be a lone actor, what is the concern about others being supported, incited, encouraged by the rhetoric that comes out of Tehran?

MR PRICE: That’s always the concern. It is the concern, and it has been the concern when it comes to specific individuals like Salman Rushdie, but of course this language – language that has really amounted to incitement to violence – has had a much broader and wider target set than one individual. The number of statements that emanate from Iran towards the entire country of Israel, towards the Jewish people, towards any number of individuals, groups that the Iranian regime, for whatever reason, opposes – this is something that, of course, is not new to Iran, but it is something that we condemn at every turn.

QUESTION: Afghanistan, please?

MR PRICE: Anything else on Iran? Let – let me just finish us out.

QUESTION: Yeah, on (inaudible) case of Masih Alinejad, does the administration see her case as an example of transnational repression? A man arrested in front of her house is an Azerbaijani citizen, and the Azeri Government is remarkably silent about him. Do you – I mean, in your opinion, do you think Iran is involved in this case? And do you have any information about how he entered the country, and how much this is distinctly about the case of transnational repression?

MR PRICE: We do see this as a case of transnational repression, and in some ways attempted transnational aggression. The Department of Justice has released information about the plot against her, and obviously there have been concerning developments since. I don’t want to weigh in on the specific actors involved in this, because there’s still an active law enforcement component. But Iran is one of the many governments that has sought to export not only repression, but also aggression. And we have – again, using all of the tools at our disposal, including in this case law enforcement tools – sought to in the first instance thwart threats against individuals. We have spoken to the plot not only against her, but also John Bolton as well, and to use the tools at our disposal to make clear that there will be severe costs and consequences if this type of activity continues.

QUESTION: So you do believe that Iran is behind the attack, just to be clear about it?

MR PRICE: The – sorry, which attack are you referring to?

QUESTION: You do believe that Iran is behind this attack?

MR PRICE: Which attack are you referring to?

QUESTION: Alinejad’s case.

MR PRICE: Alinejad. Again, the Department of Justice has released information on it. I would refer you there.

QUESTION: Afghanistan question?

MR PRICE: Yeah, we’ll finish out Iran.

QUESTION: The Iranian Foreign Minister said today that U.S. gave green light exactly over two contested issues, and a third one, which is related to guarantees, is still under negotiations. How much of this can you confirm?

MR PRICE: Well, I have been – tried to be clear just a moment ago about some of the highly inaccurate reporting that has been circulating. The – we’ve been clear about what a return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA would look like. There are issues that the Iranians have put on the table that are clearly extraneous to the four corners of the JCPOA. Every time they have done that, we have made very clear that the JCPOA is about one thing and one thing only: it’s about Iran’s nuclear program. And we are prepared to negotiate one thing and one thing only: that is the steps that Iran would need to take to once again place the permanent and verifiable limits on its nuclear program, and the steps we, in turn, would be prepared to take to lift sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program if Iran agreed to take those steps.

QUESTION: You say you are prepared. Isn’t it done? Because Iran even said today, by midnight Tehran’s time, they are gonna give a final answer. Does your views, reviews, compromises – is it – are they still going, or is it finished? Is it final?

MR PRICE: We – as I said a moment ago, there is a core truth in what the – in what High Representative Borrell put forward a couple of weeks ago now. He made the point that what could be negotiated has been negotiated. That’s why he took it upon himself to put forward this proposal that is based on the March draft that had been negotiated and discussed extensively over the better part of a year between Iran and the other parties to the JCPOA, as well as the United States. So we do believe that what could be negotiated has been negotiated. We’re prepared to effect a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. We will find out if Iran could say the same.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR PRICE: Staying on Iran, okay.

QUESTION: Earlier – just to come back to what you said earlier, the private – your response is going to be communicated privately to the EU. Is there a timeline for that? Have they given you a specific deadline that you need to get back on? And obviously, that’s – if that’s going to be communicated privately, but are you able to tell us – to characterize what the response is given that you’re saying it’s on Iran to give us its extraneous demands. Is this – does that mean that the final proposal from the EU is basically okay by you, or are there still outstanding issues from the U.S. side?

MR PRICE: It would really stretch the definition of private if I were to detail here in public what our response to the High Representative will be. What I can say is that the United States has been prepared since the outset to return on a mutual basis to the JCPOA. We were engaged in the painstaking indirect negotiations with Iran that culminated in the draft that has been on the table since March. We have been prepared to accept that because it would reimpose the constraints – significant, permanent, verifiable constraints – on Iran’s nuclear program. That is what we seek to have reimposed once again to see to it that Iran’s nuclear program is no longer able to gallop forward, Iran can no longer march forward towards a breakout time that is growing shorter and shorter – and as it does so, acts with greater impunity around the world.

But we’re going to keep our discussions with the EU and the High Representative between us and the High Representative.

QUESTION: What about a timeline for that? Within hours from now or days?

MR PRICE: We will be in touch with the High Representative as he has requested.

QUESTION: On Iran.

QUESTION: On Iraq.

MR PRICE: On Iraq? Let’s go to – stay on Iran.

QUESTION: Afghanistan.

QUESTION: If – if Iran comes back to you – to the EU tonight and with no answer, or “yes, but we need clarifications,” or “no, we need clarifications,” what – how would you read this? I mean, buying time? And how do you respond to this?

MR PRICE: Well, the High Representative tabled this proposal more than two weeks ago. And over the course of the past two weeks, the parties have worked with the EU to pose any questions, to discuss any issues that lacked clarity or potentially lacked precision. So Iran has had an opportunity to do that. I don’t want to speculate as to what or how Iran might respond, but I can say that there is a track record here that extends 15, 16 months or so. And over the course of those 16 months, Iran has not consistently demonstrated the seriousness of purpose; Iran has not consistently demonstrated that, as are we, that it is steadfastly and sincerely committed to a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. Iran here has an opportunity to prove to us, but more importantly to prove to the world, that it is in fact committed to a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.

Okay.

QUESTION: Afghanistan?

MR PRICE: Let’s go to Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ned, Mr. Price.

MR PRICE: Sure. Nazira?

QUESTION: Welcome back.

MR PRICE: Thank you.

QUESTION: Yeah, thank you very much. You mentioned the beginning of your speech about Afghanistan, it’s really one year. It’s a long time for Afghan woman. Still Afghan woman suffer. Still we are crying for this flag. Woman protest on the street, Taliban shooting them. And school is still closed, as you mentioned, that United States continue their humanitarian assistance. That’s good. Thank you. But as I told you the day before yesterday and yesterday, around the world woman protest because of woman in Afghanistan, and Taliban answer them by shooting the gun.

Number two, President Ghani was – recently did an interview with CNN, and he totally blamed United States for collapse of the regime. Do you have any comments about President Ghani? And he said: Khalilzad has two faces; United States play game with me so many times. There’s a short interview.

MR PRICE: On your first question, there are a number of priorities, a number of enduring commitments we have to the people of Afghanistan. At the top of that list is to use every tool that we have appropriate to see to it that the Taliban lives up to the commitments that it has made publicly, that it has made privately, but most importantly, the commitments that the Taliban has made to its own people, to all of the Afghan people. And when we say all of the Afghan people, we mean all. We mean Afghanistan’s women, its girls, its religious minorities, its ethnic minorities. The Taliban has made these commitments; the Taliban, of course, has not lived up to these commitments.

We have taken every opportunity we have in direct engagement with the Taliban, in working with our partners and allies around the world, to aggressively advocate for the rights of women and girls, as well as minority groups. Rina Amiri, our special envoy, has been focused on this task since she’s been at the department. Tom West, our Special Representative for Afghanistan, has made this a central point in every one of his engagements, direct and indirect, with the Taliban government.

It is core to us, as are the other key priorities, that the Taliban – the assurances that the Taliban made to us as well as to the international community that Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for terrorists; that the Taliban will engage in national dialogue towards a government that represents all Afghans; the promise of freedom of movement for those who wish to depart the country. And of course, a priority of ours is the safety and, ultimately, the freedom of Mark Frerichs, who has spent years of his life in custody.

All of these are priority – priorities of ours. We continue to raise them through diplomatic channels. It is also core to our humanitarian strategy for Afghanistan, and you referenced this. The United States continues to lead the world in the level of humanitarian funding and assistance that we have provided to Afghanistan, including, over the past year, more than three-quarters of a billion dollars to the people of Afghanistan, much of that specifically earmarked for the country’s women and girls, for its minorities.

Just last Friday we announced an additional $150 million, funding that is separate from that three-quarters of a billion dollars. Our Treasury Department has issued general licenses. We have worked with the World Bank on their Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund. We have worked with UN agencies and international financial institutions as well to seek relief for the humanitarian burden that has faced the people of Afghanistan for the past 20 years, but in some ways has been even more acute in recent months.

We made this point a year ago, that our commitment to the people of Afghanistan in different ways and different forms would not end upon the departure of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan. We have been able to make good on that. What we are going to remain focused on is achieving progress, doing all that we can to see to it that this humanitarian support, that these diplomatic steps, that these other tools that we’ve been able to wield – both in the direction of the Afghan people, but in some cases towards the Taliban itself, measures of accountability that we’ve imposed on the Taliban itself to see to it that these steps lead to progress for the people of Afghanistan, including its women, its girls, its minorities.

I don’t have a specific response to the remarks of the former president.

QUESTION: And also, Taliban declined Ayman al-Zawahiri strike attack. They say: United States should show us evidence; he was not on that building.

MR PRICE: I can assure you that we are confident he was there. We have the utmost confidence that Zawahiri was killed in that strike, in that precision strike against him. We have reason to believe, very good reason to believe, that members of the Taliban Haqqani Network were aware of his presence in Kabul. And we are taking a close look at the implications of that, because just as I mentioned a moment ago in the terms of the Taliban’s inability or unwillingness to live up to the commitments it has made to the people of Afghanistan with regards to the rights of women and girls, this was a grave breach of the U.S.-Taliban agreement. The Taliban can say what it wishes, but the facts are not on their side.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: On Iraq.

MR PRICE: Anything else on Afghanistan?

QUESTION: Afghanistan.

MR PRICE: Sure. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Ned, you talked about the status of women in Afghanistan. You briefly mentioned religious minorities. What is your assessment, though, of the plight of religious minorities in Afghanistan?

MR PRICE: Well, religious minorities in Afghanistan have faced a complex set of threats not only from the Taliban, which has not shown the tolerance and inclusivity that they have promised privately as well as publicly but most importantly to the Afghan people, but also from the likes of ISIS-K. And the number of attacks that we have seen attributable to ISIS-K against, for example, Shia mosques, Shia worshipers, individuals who were doing nothing more than exercising their universal right to freedom of religion, to freedom of belief, who have been killed in doing so. That is a testament to the threat that is faced by religious minorities in Afghanistan.

We will continue to see to it that groups like al-Qaida and groups like ISIS-K are not in a position to pose a threat beyond Afghan borders to the United States, to our partners, to our allies; but it’s also incumbent on the Taliban, consistent with the U.S.-Taliban agreement, but also the other commitments they have made to the people of Afghanistan, to do all they can to take on the threat posed by al-Qaida, to take on the threat posed by ISIS-K, not only beyond Afghanistan’s borders but to the very people of Afghanistan, including to its religious minorities.

Kylie.

QUESTION: Just on the Afghan central bank funds, Tom West had a statement out from the department today saying that the Biden administration doesn’t see the Afghan central bank as a near-term option in terms of releasing – unfreezing those funds and talked about Zawahiri’s being sheltered by the Taliban as a key factor in reinforcing concerns about the possibility of funds going to terrorist groups.

So what I’m curious about is what exactly would need to happen for those funds to be released. Do they need to take action that’s related to counterterrorism in the country? Are you guys still working on the mechanisms? What is – this pause, what does it need to be lifted, I guess?

MR PRICE: So I don’t mean to play media critic today, but there has also been some inaccurate – highly inaccurate reporting today regarding the ultimate disposition of the $3.5 billion in reserve funds. The idea that we have decided not to use these funds for the benefit of the Afghan people is simply wrong. It is not true. Our focus right now is on ongoing efforts to enable the $3.5 billion in licensed Afghan central bank reserves to be used precisely for the benefit of the Afghan people.

What Tom West is referring to, and the point we have made broadly, is that we don’t see recapitalization of the Afghan central bank as a near-term option. We’ve engaged and we still continue to engage Afghan technocrats with the central bank for many months now about measures to enhance the country’s economic – macroeconomic stability. We just don’t have confidence that the institutions, safeguards, and monitoring are in place to manage those assets responsibly.

And to your question, needless to say, the presence of Ayman al-Zawahiri on Afghan soil with the knowledge of senior members of the Haqqani Taliban Network only reinforces the deep concerns that we have regarding the potential diversion of such funds to terrorist groups. So right now we’re looking at mechanisms that could be put in place to see to it that these $3.5 billion in preserved assets make their way efficiently and effectively to the people of Afghanistan in a way that doesn’t make them ripe for diversion to terrorist groups or elsewhere.

QUESTION: And sorry, just to follow up on that. So our – is the onus on the Biden administration to develop those mechanisms right now, or is the onus on the Taliban to actually prove that they can manage this money responsibly?

MR PRICE: This is something that we’ve discussed collaboratively with technocrats within the country, individuals who know the ins and outs of Afghanistan’s financial system. We will continue those discussions to – as we seek to devise a way to see to it that these funds are dispensed in the manner in which they were intended.

QUESTION: And then just on the House Republicans report out today, can you just explain to us why the department decided not to provide transcribed interviews to this committee? I understand you guys briefed the committee and staffers multiple times on Afghanistan, but why not provide them with the transcribed interviews that they were asking for?

MR PRICE: So let me – before I get to that, there are a number of facts within this report – a report, by the way, that was the product solely of the Minority staff on the committee – but a number of facts that this report overlooks. There are a number of facts that this report gets wrong, but there is one fundamental fact that this report ultimately either elides, ignores, misrepresents, and that is the fact that we inherited an agreement. When this administration came into office, we inherited an agreement that the last administration had negotiated just about a year ago. As we said at the time, it wasn’t an agreement that we precisely would have negotiated, but it’s one that we inherited.

And as part of that agreement, we inherited a deadline. And among the elements that that agreement stipulated was the fact that for all intents and purposes the status quo by that time – 2,500 U.S. forces, the smallest number of U.S. service members that had been in Afghanistan since the start of the U.S. military operation there – in the face of the strongest that the Taliban had been since 9/11 – but that status quo would not have been an option going forward.

There were two options, really, that were available to this administration. It was to withdraw U.S. service members or it was to double down for a renewed combat mission. And ultimately, as we all know, President Biden made clear that he was not willing to continue with an open‑ended military commitment where more – more than 4,500 – excuse me, nearly 2,500 American service members had paid the ultimate sacrifice, more than $2 trillion in investment had been made, and we had this agreement that in many ways precluded a fuller set of options, an agreement that had been in place for some time.

When it comes to the department’s interaction with the committee – and you alluded to this, but we provided over 150 briefings to members and staff on Afghanistan since August of last year. Those briefings have covered a wide range of topics – the withdrawal, women and girls, relocation operations, counterterrorism, talks with the Taliban, among other issues. We engaged member offices on hundreds of congressional inquiries related to people in Afghanistan. This committee, HFAC alone, held 21 full and subcommittee hearings and member briefings leading up to and following the evacuation operation last year which expressly focused on Afghanistan or during which questions regarding Afghanistan were asked and answered.

The Secretary testified at two open hearings dedicated exclusively to Afghanistan as well, as well as other open hearings where questions on Afghanistan were asked and addressed. And other senior members of this department have answered dozens of questions relating to Afghanistan in other open hearings. We’ve briefed HFAC over multiple hours on issues of policy making, contingency planning, operational details related to the evacuation operation, and answered questions related to the current state of Afghanistan, and we consistently stayed until we had exhausted all of their questions from both Republicans and Democrats on the committee.

As part of those 150 briefings, the relocation team not only briefed this committee, HFAC, but also its Senate counterpart, Senate Armed Services Committee, House Armed Services Committee on a regular basis every two weeks on relocation operations, a cadence that later switched to every three weeks but remain regular. And those updates continue to be ongoing.

QUESTION: And when is the State Department’s own review happening? And just you said that there are facts that are wrong in the report. Are there any facts that you would like to dispute on the record?

MR PRICE: There are a number. I’m not in a position to detail 119 pages’ worth. But one that comes to mind immediately beyond the sort of the central idea that the status quo – preservation of the status quo – was not an option, I believe the report makes the accusation that about a quarter of the evacuees from Afghanistan, only a quarter, were women and girls. That is not accurate. In fact, it is —

QUESTION: And what is that percent?

MR PRICE: It is over 40 percent.

QUESTION: Of the evacuees?

MR PRICE: Of the evacuees.

QUESTION: During that period of time?

MR PRICE: During that period of time. That’s correct.

In terms of the after-action review that the State Department has undertaken, as you know, Secretary Blinken ordered a review so that we could harvest and learn the lessons not only of the final weeks of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan but really of the final chapter of our presence, of our physical presence, in Afghanistan. Dan Smith, a retired career ambassador, led that review. The review itself is classified so that it could draw from every appropriate original source material. We are finalizing elements of that report. It is our hope and expectation that we will be able to release publicly elements of that report. But part of the reason there is – this process has taken some time is because the report itself is classified and we need to make sure that everything we do or say is consistent with classification, security, and other imperatives.

QUESTION: On Iraq?

MR PRICE: Anything else on Afghanistan? Sure.

QUESTION: So a year on, can you clarify how many Afghans are in the SIV application pipeline? I know there was a briefing recently that said that there were quite – that cited a figure of 74,000. But can you give a figure on how many applicants plus their immediate family members are in the pipeline or eligible to apply? According to, for example, veteran-led organizations, that figure is 160,000, probably more.

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: And can you also just characterize what is the working relationship between the State Department and some of these veteran-led organizations that are still helping to get Afghans out of Afghanistan but also third countries? Is the State Department continuing to work with them on that, to rely on them on that? What’s a fair way of characterizing that?

And just quickly, on the House Republicans report, one of the – what they say is a new finding is that only 36 U.S. consular officers were on the ground at the airport in Kabul during the NEO, during the evacuation. Is that figure correct, and is that figure significant in terms of whether or not that had an effect on the process of getting Afghans and others and Americans out?

MR PRICE: Sure. So on your first question, there’s been some confusion around this figure. So to clarify, as of last week, as of August 9th of 2022, there were about 17,000 individuals who had submitted the paperwork required for chief of mission approval. There are additional individuals in the pipeline, but those individuals have in some cases only expressed interest in applying for SIVs, or in some cases they have submitted some but not all of the paperwork required for the chief of mission approval.

Historically, about 40 percent of applicants don’t pass the chief of mission approval stage. Just to give you a bit more context, because we’ve had an opportunity over the past year to speak quite a bit about the SIV program, but I think it is worth the reminder as to how this program has evolved over the past 18 months. When this administration came into office in January of 2021, not a single interview had been conducted in Kabul for an SIV applicant since March of the preceding year, March of 2020. Of course, some of that was due to COVID restrictions, but at least part of that was a reflection of the way in which the previous administration had not maintained this program, how it had been allowed to atrophy and to go into a state of disuse and disrepair.

We immediately surged resources to this program by – within 10 days of this administration coming into office, SIV interviews had restarted in Kabul. We increased the number of SIV – of staff processing SIV applications by more than fifteenfold. We took a holistic look at the congressionally mandated steps, interagency steps required to process a single SIV applicant, and we streamlined that process. And we’ve continued to do so. You saw elements of that streamlining even within recent weeks.

By April of last year, by April of 2021, the embassy had set a goal of interviewing 850 principal applicants per month. Recall, that number had been at zero applicants per month as of January. And in fact, between March and August of last year, we increased the number of visas issued per week – not the number of interviews, but number of visas issued per week – from 100 in March to 813 the week of August 6th. And that number has continued to climb.

By March – excuse me – by May of last year, we had reduced average processing time by more than a year. And with all of these steps that we had put in place over the course of the last year, we’ve issued more than 15,000 SIVs since the beginning of the Biden administration. We have taken the average processing time for chief of mission review, this key step at the outset of the process, from 883 days, where it was on January 1st of 2021, to 82 days, decreasing by more than tenfold the time required to process individuals through this initial phase.

There have been nearly 90,000 Afghans evacuated or otherwise transported to the United States since August 15th of last year. The point we made last year with the 124,000 individuals we evacuated from Afghanistan at the time, of those Afghan citizens, many of them were Afghan SIV holders, Afghan SIV applicants, or individuals who have been or were SIV-eligible. Since the end of the U.S. military-led evacuation, since essentially September 1st of last year, we have facilitated the departure of some 13,000 Afghans from Afghanistan. Again, some SIV holders, others eligible, others who had other forms of status.

You had another question in there that is now escaping me.

QUESTION: The – on the House Republicans report, the figure that they cited.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: It’s a lot of numbers.

MR PRICE: On consular officers. What I can say is that when it became apparent that we would be undertaking a large-scale evacuation from the airport in Kabul, we surged consular resources to the airport. We doubled the number of consular officers who were on scene.

What I can also tell you is that the number of consular officers, whether at any stage of the evacuation, was not a limiting factor, a significant limiting factor in the number of individuals we were able to process onto the airport compound and onto planes. There were a number of logistical problems and challenges, not the least of which is that it was – HKIA is a large compound that needed to be secured with relatively few entry points in a very high-threat environment, a high-threat environment that was reflected in the tragic attack that we saw towards the end of that evacuation operation.

But we had an appropriate level of consular officials on the ground. Secretary Blinken made a point to regularly ask his team if we needed more consular officers, if we needed any other class of State Department official on the ground during that period to facilitate more people getting out, and the answer that was delivered to him, the answer that was apparent to us, is that the number of consular officers on the ground was not a significant limiting factor.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR PRICE: Anything else on Afghanistan before we move on?

QUESTION: On Iraq?

QUESTION: Yeah, yeah.

MR PRICE: Afghanistan? Afghanistan?

QUESTION: No.

MR PRICE: Oh. Anything else on Afghanistan? No? Okay.

QUESTION: China-Korea.

QUESTION: Iraq?

MR PRICE: You’ve been asking Iraq, right? And I’ll come right back to you, Janne.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR PRICE: Yep.

QUESTION: Thank you. In a letter, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked Secretary Blinken and the department to engage the – at a high level Iraqi Government and Kurdistan Regional Government over oil and gas issues. Is the department willing to engage at the high level? And what is it – what prevents the department from engaging those governments at the high level?

MR PRICE: I’m not immediately familiar with that congressional correspondence; I’m just not prepared to offer a response. But we regularly engage at senior levels with our Iraqi partners, with our partners in the Kurdistan region as well. But I just am not prepared to speak to that particular issue.

QUESTION: Okay. In the letter it also says that they are concerned about reports that the Iraqi finance ministry is applying the recent supreme court ruling selectively over the – on U.S. companies. Is that something that the department is also concerned about?

MR PRICE: We will take a look and we’ll provide you a response.

QUESTION: One last, on Turkey though.

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: The Turkish officials are saying that the delegation invited by the U.S., the U.S. is on the way to come and discuss F-16. What can you tell us on that?

MR PRICE: Turkey is an important NATO Ally. Turkey has an important role to play. We have had discussions directly with the Turkish Government. Our focus, as is theirs, is on Turkey’s continued interoperability with NATO, with current NATO equipments and equipment it needs as well. But those conversations are ongoing.

QUESTION: So there is a delegation coming or in town?

MR PRICE: These conversations regularly take place. I couldn’t speak to a specific delegation.

Janne.

QUESTION: Thank you. I have two questions on China – China and Korea. First, the Korean issue. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol in his congratulatory speech yesterday on August the 15, he said if North Korea comes to denuclearization negotiations with sincerity, he will provide drastic support to North Korea. What does the United States think about this drastic support proposal to North Korea?

MR PRICE: Well, we strongly support the ROK’s aim to open a path for serious and sustained diplomacy with Pyongyang. Our shared goal, shared with the ROK as well as our other allies and partners, is the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and we’ll continue to coordinate closely with the Yoon administration to this end.

As part of that, we believe that a robust and effective trilateral relationship between and among the United States, the ROK, and Japan is critical both for our shared security and for advancing our common interests in defending freedom and democracy; upholding human rights; championing women’s empowerment; combating climate change; building more secure, resilient supply chains; promoting regional security and stability; strengthening the global nonproliferation regime; and bolstering the rule of law in the Indo-Pacific and across the globe.

This is a relationship that – the trilateral relationship – that in many ways transcends the Indo-Pacific and has implications for our collective positioning, and the free and open nature of the international system well beyond the Indo-Pacific. So we’ll continue to discuss this with the Yoon administration, we’ll continue to discuss this with our Japanese allies, and we’ll, I suspect, continue to discuss this on a trilateral basis.

QUESTION: Can sanctions be lifted in early – in the early stage of negotiation with North Korea, or sanctions will be remained continuous? The United States position is the – U.S. supports post-denuclearizations. What is difference between that?

MR PRICE: Well, unfortunately, that question is a complete hypothetical at this point because the DPRK has heretofore not demonstrated any indication that they are interested in diplomacy or dialogue. We have continued to make clear that, for our part, for the part of some of our allies and partners, we are prepared for that dialogue and diplomacy. We believe that diplomacy provides the best means by which to fulfill that ultimate objective that you put forward, that you stated: the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Don’t want to get ahead of what that diplomacy and dialogue might look like, what it might entail, because, unfortunately, we’re just not there yet. But we believe that diplomacy can bring practical, pragmatic steps that the United States could take, that the DPRK could take, that our allies and partners around the world could take towards that ultimate goal of the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

QUESTION: Lastly, on China, Chinese official recently said that China’s ultimate goal is to unify Taiwan by force. How would you comment on this?

MR PRICE: Well, it’s been clear for some time that there is one side, there is one party that seeks to change the status quo, the cross-strait status quo that has been at the center of stability and security across the Taiwan Strait for some 40 years now. It is not the United States. It is not Taiwan. It is the PRC that is challenging the status quo, that is seeking to erode the status quo, and then even with its recent provocative and totally unnecessary response to the congressional delegation that visited Taiwan earlier this month has again demonstrated that – its willingness to challenge that status quo.

QUESTION: Can you – do you have any thoughts on the latest CODEL to visit Taiwan and any thoughts on the comparatively subdued response from Beijing to that one?

MR PRICE: I don’t have a specific response, other than to restate the point that we made previously. Members of Congress, congressional delegations, have gone to Taiwan for decades and they will continue to do so. Some 10 or more congressional delegations have visited Taiwan this year alone. Members of Congress visiting Taiwan is entirely in line with our one – our longstanding “one China” policy. In the face of that – and this goes back to what we saw earlier this month – the PRC has entirely overreacted.

Our response to the PRC’s provocations has been measured, has been responsible. We made clear that we did not intend to escalate and that there was no reason for a crisis, but we also made clear – and you heard this from the White House on Friday – that we won’t be deterred from flying, from sailing, from operating in the region in accordance with international law. And that’s why President Biden directed, as you heard on Friday, the USS Ronald Reagan to remain on station longer and announced that additional steps would be forthcoming in our support for Taiwan.

QUESTION: Okay. But if you’re willing to characterize their response to the Pelosi visit as an overreaction and provocative, how do you characterize their response to the Markey visit?

MR PRICE: Well, any response – any response to a peaceful visit by members of Congress – any response that entails bellicose rhetoric or military maneuvers or provocative actions is totally unnecessary and an absolute overreaction.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, have you seen any of that since this second visit?

MR PRICE: I’m not going to characterize what we may have seen.

QUESTION: Okay, so you’re only going to characterize it if you think that it’s out of line? If the reaction is kind of like normal and like, “We don’t like it, we’re opposed to it, Taiwan is ours,” but that’s it, then you’re okay with it?

MR PRICE: The point is – the point is, Matt – the central fact is that these are peaceful visits by members of Congress who are traveling there to show their support for the people on Taiwan.

QUESTION: Okay. But this is not an overreaction?

MR PRICE: I’m just —

QUESTION: It’s not – I mean, is the only time it’s an overreaction when you come out and actually say that it’s an overreaction?

MR PRICE: It is an overreaction when we heard bellicose rhetoric or when we see —

QUESTION: Okay. But you didn’t hear it this time, did you?

MR PRICE: When we see provocations, when we see military maneuvers.

QUESTION: Did you hear the bellicose rhetoric this time?

MR PRICE: I have not looked closely at what we’ve heard.

QUESTION: Austin Tice’s anniversary? Can we talk about – it’s been 10 years. Debra Tice, his mother, told me that she’s so far very disappointed that after the President in May said there would be an all-in government effort, that she has not seen evidence of it.

And on a related matter, do you think that now that the Brittney Griner appeal has been submitted, that that will delay any effective prisoner swap? Or could that take place while the appeal is pending?

MR PRICE: So when it comes to Austin Tice, we did just mark a somber milestone, 10 years in captivity. He recently celebrated his 40th birthday, a quarter of his life separated from his family, separated from his loved ones. We’ve consistently called on the Syrian Government to ensure that Austin and every U.S. national held in Syria can return home. When it comes to our efforts to seek the safe return of Austin, we have engaged extensively – and that includes directly – with Syrian officials and through third parties.

Unfortunately, despite our calls, despite our engagement, despite the engagement of third parties in other countries, Syria has never acknowledged holding him. But we are going – we are not going to be deterred in our efforts. We are going to pursue every avenue for securing Austin’s safe return to Debra and Mark and to his entire family.

QUESTION: Direct efforts? Not through third parties. Direct efforts since the President’s promise to Debra Tice?

MR PRICE: We have directly engaged Syrian officials to seek to effect Austin’s return home to his family.

QUESTION: Can you say at what level?

MR PRICE: I cannot.

QUESTION: And can you follow up on Griner and whether you have to see the completion of this appeals process, which could take months, before there would be a prisoner swap?

MR PRICE: No element of this trial changes our judgment that Brittney Griner is being wrongfully detained and should be released immediately. That is why we’ve put forward a number of weeks ago what we consider to be a serious, substantial proposal and an effort to seek her release, to seek the release of Paul Whelan as well. We are in communication with the Russians on this matter, and we encourage them to pursue this, to do so constructively.

QUESTION: Ned, can I follow up on that?

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: Some of us in this room had a chance yesterday to meet with Tice’s parents. And what they’re talking about is sending delegation, first time since Trump administration. That is not happening. Are you considering that?

MR PRICE: We have been engaged directly with Syrian officials. We will continue to pursue every avenue that we feel has the opportunity to create the conditions for Austin’s release.

QUESTION: Thank you. And on Brittney case, are we in the zone of quiet diplomacy —

MR PRICE: Sorry, which case?

QUESTION: On Brittney case. Are we in the zone of, quote/unquote, “quiet diplomacy,” which Lavrov seems to have been suggesting a couple of weeks? Is there any behind-the-scene negotiation going on? And why do you think they don’t want public attention to this case?

MR PRICE: I just said we’re in communication with Russian officials on the serious, substantial proposal that we put forward. We are going to do everything we can to see the release of Paul Whelan, to see the release of Brittney Griner. We’re not going to speak to the details of that. But we will continue to urge the Russians to engage constructively so that we can bring this to a resolution.

Yes.

QUESTION: My question is on Mexico. Last week both central and northern Mexico experienced a very violent wave of criminal violence, and these are regions home to many U.S. citizens living in Mexico. There are reports of dozens of injured, dozens of killings in – during this wave. The U.S. embassy and U.S. consulates have issued security alerts during the past days regarding the situation. What’s the latest assessment that the U.S. State Department has on the situation on the ground? And can you let us know whether there’s any report of U.S. citizens injured or killed during this wave of violence?

MR PRICE: Well, as you know, we have a responsibility to message appropriately to the U.S. citizen community in countries around the world when we have identified a threat or potential threat in a particular country or region. We issued an alert to U.S. citizens on August 12th, making Americans aware that the U.S. Consulate General in Tijuana was aware of reports of multiple vehicle fires, roadblocks, and heavy police activity in Tijuana, in Mexicali, in Rosarito, in Ensenada, in Tecate as well, and our own employees, U.S. Government employees, were instructed to shelter in place.

A couple days later, yesterday, on August 14th, the consulate issued an alert informing U.S. citizens that the shelter in place instructions were no longer in effect for U.S. Government employees. And we’re working very closely with Mexican law enforcement and government officials to evaluate current conditions in Baja, California. And the Mexican Government, we know, has deployed hundreds of troops to help stabilize the situation.

So we’ll continue to communication via embassy messages and alerts to the U.S. citizen community in the area should there be additional updates.

QUESTION: No reports on injured or killed U.S. citizens?

MR PRICE: I just don’t have any reports to share if there are.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR PRICE: Yes.

QUESTION: Thank you. I have follow-up questions on China. The Chinese reactions to Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was more harsh than previous U.S. congressional delegations. What do you think is the long-term and short-term impact of Speaker Pelosi’s visit on security in East Asia? And do you expect such Chinese operation to continue in the future?

MR PRICE: That latter question is a better question for Beijing than it is to the Department of State. Our contention, and what I think you saw from a number of countries around the world, was to note the total lack of congruence between a peaceful visit by an elected member of our Legislative Branch to a – compared to what we saw from the PRC, including a series of military maneuvers; a series of ballistic missile launches, including several that landed in close vicinity to Japan.

I wouldn’t want to speak to what the PRC is seeking to do, but our concern has consistently been that even as we seek to preserve the cross-strait status quo and countries in the Indo-Pacific seek to do the same, it is China that is seeking to alter, to water down that status quo and to rewrite it unilaterally in its favor. That is something that we have consistently stood against. Everything we have done has been pursuant to our interest in security and stability, pursuant to our “one China” policy, the Taiwan Relations Act, the three Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances. What we have seen from the PRC is deeply concerning because rather than preserve the status quo, China seeks to undermine it.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) on Austin Tice?

MR PRICE: Yeah.

QUESTION: Can you confirm that the Lebanese security general chief, Abbas Ibrahim, gave you an answer from the Syrians regarding the case?

MR PRICE: I’m just not in a position to speak to the specifics of the engagement that we’ve had with Syrian officials regarding Austin Tice, but we have engaged. We will pursue every opportunity to engage if we feel it has the potential to bring Austin home.

Yes, last question.

QUESTION: On the (inaudible) crisis between Russia and Ukraine, Russia keeps targeting key administrative buildings in and around the nuclear power plant, and Zelenskyy urged the global community to force Russia to give back the power plant. What is your position on that?

MR PRICE: Well, we’ve spoken about this. We remain concerned about ongoing military operations at or near Ukraine’s peaceful nuclear facilities. We have called on Russia to return full control of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant to Ukraine. You probably also saw that the G7 issued a statement late last week reiterating the need for Russia to hand back control of the plant to Ukraine. We’re closely monitoring the activity at the plant. Both the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Safety and Security Administration report that radiation sensors are continuing to provide data, and through that data we’ve seen no indication of abnormal radiation levels.

Nevertheless, Russia’s military activity around the nuclear power plant is the height of irresponsibility. It is not what we would expect of a country that purports to be a responsible nuclear power. We believe that the fighting there is dangerous, it’s irresponsible, and we do continue to urge an end to all military operations at or near Ukraine’s facilities and the return of full control of those facilities to Ukraine.

Thank you all very much.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:21 p.m.)

 

More from: Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

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