Government

Department Press Briefing – August 31, 2021 – United States Department of State

4:32 p.m. EDT

MR PRICE: Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks very much for joining us today. Just a couple things at the top.

First, as you heard from the President and the Secretary, more than 123,000 people – including about 6,000 American citizens – have been safely flown out of Afghanistan. This was a massive diplomatic, military, and humanitarian undertaking – one of the most difficult and expansive in our nation’s history. It was a noble mission, and it was an incredibly effective one at that.

Our outstanding diplomats worked around the clock, and around the world, to coordinate the operation.

And our work continues, as you heard from the Secretary. A new chapter of America’s engagement with Afghanistan has begun.

Our post in Doha will manage our diplomacy for the way ahead with Afghanistan, including consular affairs, administering humanitarian assistance, and working with allies, partners, and regional and international stakeholders to coordinate our engagement and messaging to the Taliban.

As the President said just earlier this afternoon, the State Department will continue leading diplomatic efforts to ensure safe passage for any American, any Afghan partner or foreign national that wants to leave Afghanistan.

More than half the world’s countries have joined us in insisting that the Taliban live up to their commitment to let people travel outside Afghanistan freely. More than 100 countries have said that they expect the Taliban to honor travel authorizations by our countries. And yesterday, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution, a resolution that enshrines that responsibility, thereby laying the groundwork for another mechanism to hold the Taliban accountable if they do not follow through.

We will continue our work with allies and partners to facilitate safe travel out of Afghanistan, including by doing everything we can to support the reopening of Kabul’s civilian airport as soon as possible.

We are focused and clear-eyed as we enter this new chapter with Afghanistan.

Second, as part of the administration’s focus on racial justice and equity abroad and at home, the United States is proud to commemorate the first International Day for People of African Descent and support the recently created UN Permanent Forum for People of African Descent.

We are proud to have helped shape the mandate for the UN Permanent Forum for People of African Descent and supported the historic adoption of its resolution on – in August.

These important efforts promote the extraordinary contributions of Africans, Black Americans, and the African diaspora around the world.

We will use this forum as a multilateral platform for the United States and others to confront the scourge of racism, racial discrimination, and xenophobia globally.

And with that, operator, if you want to repeat the instructions for asking questions, we’ll answer questions.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 on your touchtone phone. You may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing 1 0 again. If you’re using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you have a question, please press 1 then 0 at this time.

MR PRICE: Let’s start with the line of Matt Lee.

QUESTION: I hope you can hear me. Two things, real brief. One, in terms of the airport and the negotiations with the Taliban between the Qataris and the Turks, are you guys – do you guys play any role on that? And do you have any indication of how close they actually are?

And then secondly, I wanted to drill down into the USAGM, the VOA, RFA employees and their families who didn’t get out. Do you have any update on getting them out? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Matt. So first on the airport. As you know, this is something we have been focused on for some time, knowing that a functioning civilian airport is important for not only the provision of humanitarian aid, but importantly for the ability of people to secure transit out of the country, should they choose to do so.

We have been working for quite some time with regional partners, and that does include our Turkish and Qatari partners on this. We have been working with private sector assessors as well. We noted earlier – excuse me, late last week – that an assessment of the airport had been conducted, and that information has been passed on to those involved in these discussions.

So we are not going to get ahead of our partners on this. We’ll leave it to them to speak to any progress or developments when it comes to the future disposition of the airport and its operations, but we have been very clear that we will continue to do all we can to support the reopening of Kabul’s civilian airport just as soon as that can happen.

When it comes to USAGM, the department is committed to the safety of those who have done service on behalf of the American people, and that certainly includes those who have worked for USAGM, the commitment, the dedication they have shown to the United States. The State Department and the Department of Defense worked around the clock to facilitate and to evacuate as many individuals as we could over this two-week period. As we’ve said, there were more than 123,000 people safely evacuated, and the vast majority of that 123,000 will have been Afghans at risk. We worked literally around the clock when it came to this USAGM and RFE/RL group and worked to facilitate their departure both via military – a military option, and later with a charter aircraft.

As the situation outside of the airport grew increasingly dangerous, we advised individuals to shelter in place, as we continued to develop departure options. We did not forget about USAGM employees and their families, nor will we. These individuals have served the United States. They have not only worked for us, they have worked with us, and we remain keenly focused on getting them out safely just as soon as we can. We will remain focused on that.

Let’s go to the line of Nick Wadhams.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks very much, Ned. Can you tell us how many AGM staff remain in the country, and specifically what you’re actually doing to try to get them out? And then second, what portion of the 123,000 were SIVs? Do you have specific numbers for the number of evacuees who were SIV applicants? Thanks.

MR PRICE: So Nick, on your second question, we have been able to provide fairly precise figures when it comes to American citizens, but even then we have noted some of the difficulty with providing precise figures.

When it comes to other categories – and that includes our locally employed staff, that includes SIVs, it includes other Afghans at risk – throughout this process, our priority had been to bring as many people safely to the airport as quickly as possible, to put as many people on as many planes as quickly as we could. So we do have some partial accounting of the numbers. We do have some manifest data. But much of that information is going to be forthcoming once these individuals have cycled through transit points in the Middle East, in Europe, and for those who are being relocate to the United States, relocated here.

Again, the vast majority of the more than 123,000 individuals who were safely evacuated are Afghans at risk, and as soon as we have a breakdown to provide when it comes to the SIVs, how many SIVs were among them, we will provide that.

I’d make another point here, is that our commitment to not only helping American citizens, lawful permanent residents, but those who have worked with us, worked for the U.S. Government, supported the American people over the years, that commitment did not expire yesterday, did not expire today, and it will in fact be enduring. So we remain committed for – to seeing to it that those SIVs who are eligible for evacuation and for relocation to the United States, that we will continue to work diligently to support their safe passage and to support their departure from Afghanistan if they choose to do so.

When it comes to USAGM, and this is a broader point, but our goal in all of this is to effect a safe evacuation for all of those – a safe departure for all of those who wish to leave the country. It is not prudent for us to speak to the tactics that we are considering, the conversations that we’re having, but when it comes to groups that are special priorities for us – and, of course, USAGM falls within that category – I can assure you that we are going to extraordinary and all appropriate lengths to bring them to safety as quickly as we can.

We’ll go to the line of Kylie Atwood.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. Just a few quick questions going back to the Americans. Just to be really clear, is there a current pathway out today, tomorrow for the one to two hundred Americans that are still in Afghanistan who want to leave? And if there’s not, do you have any estimate for how long it’s going to take to develop that option? And then my last question is: What is your message to Americans who may be hearing about private flights in and out that are not coordinated through the U.S. Government? Should they get on those flights? Thanks.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Kylie. What I can say is that we have already been in touch with the American citizens in Afghanistan who either decided to remain there or who were unable to be evacuated. We have already made clear to them that our commitment to their safe departure from Afghanistan remains, and that includes for those who have told us they want to stay and for those who may change their minds, whether that is today, tomorrow, or a year from now. We have provided them with guidance as to how they can continue to be in touch.

When it comes to – and we have made clear that we will continue to be in touch with them – and when it comes to the small group of Americans, the fewer than 200 and likely closer to 100 Americans who have indicated a desire to leave the country, we will continue to be in regular contact with them to provide them any and all assistance that we are able. We’re exploring a number of different options. Again, it wouldn’t be prudent for us to detail what those options are, but we are exploring every potential option to bring any American out of the country who wishes to depart.

We’ll go to Missy Ryan.

QUESTION: My apologies to everyone if this question was already asked. Can you just talk a little bit about the plans for the mission in Doha, what stage the planning is at, what the activities will be, and what the postures will be vis-a-vis sanctions and designations?

MR PRICE: Sure. So the Secretary mentioned this team in Doha. He mentioned that it will be led by Ian McCary. The – part of the team is already there. They are already hard at work.

In terms of what this office will be doing, there will be a range of functions that will fall within it. One will be maintaining channels to Taliban representatives in Doha. Part of the advantage that Doha affords is that it has long been a venue for engagement, for diplomacy with not only our regional partners and other partners when it comes to Afghanistan, but with the Taliban political office. The Doha office will also engage with foreign Afghanistan missions co-located in Doha and elsewhere in the region. Again, Doha is the site and has been the site of much of the locus of diplomacy when it comes to Afghanistan.

The Doha office will conduct functions that are quite similar to what our now-suspended operation in Kabul was doing: providing reporting on security, political, and economic developments in Afghanistan. The office will support – excuse me – the safe passage and relocation efforts for American citizens, for lawful permanent residents, for SIVs and other Afghans at high risk. The Secretary last night mentioned that Ambassador John Bass will be taking on this task from main State here, but he will be, obviously, working quite closely with the Doha office. The Doha office will liaise with the international organizations, NGOs operating in Afghanistan, and will serve a number of other functions.

We will go to the line of Simon Lewis, please.

QUESTION: Thanks, Ned. Yeah, I wanted to follow up on Kylie’s question. I understand you don’t want to detail exactly what the options are in terms of those people, but just to kind of clarify the situation – so obviously there’s people who haven’t been able to leave. They’ve been instructed to shelter in place. So is that sort of an indefinite shelter in place instruction until – at the moment until the airport sort of starts up again?

And related to that, are there – what sort of options are you looking – I mean, obviously you don’t want to discuss options, but are there – are there neighboring countries that you’re talking to about possibly getting people across land borders? And if you could sort of explain the diplomacy that’s going on there. Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Simon. So look, I will say that we are focused on all possible options that would allow us to bring Americans who wish to depart out of Afghanistan. It would not be prudent for us to speak to this in great deal at this time. The Secretary in his remarks last night spoke about a few elements of it.

Number one is reinforcing the Taliban’s commitment to safe passage. This is a commitment that the Taliban has now made publicly multiple times, including on national television and radio by a senior Taliban official last Friday, but it’s also a commitment that more than half the world’s countries have told the Taliban in no uncertain terms that they expect the Taliban to adhere to and, speaking collectively, we will be able to make a point that there will be consequences should the Taliban not do that.

The passage of the UN Security Council resolution yesterday, enshrining the Security Council’s view that this commitment must also be respected, is an important signal. But perhaps even more meaningfully, it gives us another lever now that this commitment is enshrined in an UNSCR to potentially hold the Taliban to account should they not follow through on this commitment. So reinforcing safe passage is important.

We’ve talked about the airport, and this is work that’s been ongoing for some time now with our partners in the region, with other stakeholders, to do all we can to support the reopening of Kabul’s airport as soon as we can for civilian flights.

The Secretary in his remarks last night did refer to overland routes. We’re – for, I think, reasons that should be obvious – not in a position to speak in any great detail about this, but I think it reinforces the point that we are looking at all available options to bring Americans to safety who wish to depart Afghanistan. That is the commitment we’ve made, and that is the work that we’re undertaking right now.

Let’s go to Rosiland Jordan.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) call. A basic question: With embassy operations suspended in Kabul, is there a protecting power – and I use that term very loosely – on behalf of the U.S. in Kabul right now?

MR PRICE: Thanks, Rosiland. So protecting power is a formal term. We just don’t have an announcement to make. If we do have an update there, we’ll be happy to let you know at the appropriate time.

We’ll go to Conor Finnegan.

QUESTION: Hey, given that you said Ian McCary and his team will now maintain channels with the Taliban political leadership, what role with Zalmay Khalilzad have? Does he stay in his role? Does he continue his outreach as well?

And then just a quick follow-up: With the mission now in Doha, will visas for Afghans be issued electronically, or will Afghans be forced to travel to an embassy in another country to pick up a visa? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Conor. So when it comes to the special representative for Afghan reconciliation, we talked about the functions of the Doha office. The Doha office will perform as many functions as possible akin to what was done in our now-suspended Embassy Kabul. But there will still be the need for broader engagement on Afghanistan, and that broader engagement will include with allies and partners, with other key nations, with multilateral organizations. There are any number of challenges we’re confronting where we have an embassy, we have a chief of mission, and then we have a special representative.

In terms of visas, we’ll let you know if there’s anything more we can provide in terms of what those visa issuances might look like going forward.

Let’s go to Laura Kelly.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for taking my question. My question might kind of follow up on Conor’s, which is, for Afghans who are stuck in a travel limbo, they don’t have travel documents to really get to another country to then be able to get to the U.S. Some of them don’t have passports because they gave them to the U.S. Embassy Kabul or gave them to other embassies that were shut down. So do you have any guidance for these Afghans and how they go about getting travel documents to begin to prepare to leave Afghanistan if it’s possible that they can leave?

MR PRICE: Well, Laura, what I would point you to is a statement that more than a hundred countries put out over the weekend, and it was a statement that did a couple things. It made clear that together we will expect the Taliban to adhere to the commitments that it itself has made, but that we also expect that the Taliban will honor the travel documents that are in possession of those seeking to depart Afghanistan or travel documents that are provided to those who are seeking to depart Afghanistan.

So I’m not in a position to speak to what other countries may do in terms of documentation or other – or other credentials that they may be in a position to provide to their citizens or to Afghan nationals they are seeking to – whose departure they are seeking to facilitate. But there is a widespread expectation among the international community that the Taliban will honor documents that are officially provided.

I’ll take one final question here. We’ll go to Francesco Fontemaggi.

QUESTION: Hi, Ned. Thank you for taking my questions. Has the U.S. been talking with the
Taliban since the last soldier left yesterday? And if yes, at what level? Was it the Doha team? And was it only about getting other people out the country, or was it about other stuff like humanitarian aid or other?

And then I think there was an unanswered question about the posture towards sanctions and designations. Will there be any general license to allow humanitarian aid?

MR PRICE: Thanks, Francesco. So on your – on the second question – and I apologize for not answering it before – the Taliban today is subject to the same sanctions and designations that it was yesterday, and I expect that will be the case tomorrow and for at least the foreseeable future, based upon the Taliban’s actions. We’ve heard their words. We’ve made clear that when it comes to our authorities, we’ve heard from our partner – our allies and partners that when it comes to their authorities, what we will be looking for are actions.

So of course, the Taliban is designated as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist organization as an entity. That also applies to some of its individual leaders. Some of its individual leaders are designated under drug trafficking authorities. Their travel to the U.S. is restricted under various authorities as well. The Taliban is subject to UN travel restrictions; certain of its leaders are.

And the message from the United States and from the international community has been clear that any change in our posture will need to be predicated on the Taliban following through with the various commitments it has made, the commitments that it has made to safe passage; its willingness and ability to uphold the rights of its citizens, including Afghanistan’s women and girls and the country’s minorities as well; its counterterrorism commitment; and its upholding of the basic human rights of its people with a form of government – governance that is – has a degree of inclusivity to it. We have made those points in private. We have also made them in public as well.

In terms of our engagement with the Taliban, obviously, it continued until the end of the U.S. military mission. The – our team in Doha is already there. The team that had been there had also been in regular contact with Afghan stakeholders, including representatives of the Taliban, on a regular basis to discuss deconfliction and tactical operations, including to effect the safe passage of American citizens, of at-risk Afghans, and third-country nationals to the airport. And now that we are in a new phase, we’ll be in a position to describe that engagement going forward in the coming days as well.

Thank you all very much for joining, and we will see you tomorrow.

(The briefing was concluded at 4:59 p.m.)

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