Department Press Briefing – August 23, 2021
The USA, 23 Aug 2021
Ned Price, Department Spokesperson
3:38 p.m. EDT
MR PRICE: Good afternoon. So let me offer a few updates on the top about Afghanistan, and then happy to take your questions.
As you heard this morning, from 3:00 a.m. on August 22nd to 3:00 a.m. on August 23rd, 28 U.S. military flights evacuated approximately 10,400 people from Kabul. In addition, 61 coalition aircraft evacuated approximately 5,900 people from Kabul. Since August 14th, the U.S. has evacuated and facilitated the evacuation of approximately 37,000 people. Since the end of last month, the end of July, we have relocated approximately 42,000 people.
Here at the department our employees are working around the clock to help evacuate American citizens. Hundreds of consular officers and locally employed staff members, here in D.C. and at our embassies around the world, are placing personalized phone calls to U.S. citizens who may be in Afghanistan to determine their whereabouts, collect information that will guide their next steps, and offer them that tailored advice. Our team made several thousand calls over the weekend, and those efforts continue.
We are extremely proud of the volunteerism we are seeing across the State Department right now, with hundreds of employees answering the call to serve to help their fellow Americans and our Afghan allies.
The telework tools that we have all mastered in the face of a global pandemic mean that we can mobilize our human resources located around the world – and that is just what we’ve done.
So far, officers from the U.S. missions in Mexico, Canada, Brazil, and India are assisting, as well as many consular staff from this building and from throughout the Washington, D.C. region.
I want to take a moment and give special thanks to the locally employed staff members who have stepped forward to help with this effort.
Many locally employed staff from around the world have volunteered to serve at our embassy in Afghanistan over the years. Now, some are serving at our mission in Afghanistan again, but thousands of miles away in their home countries.
As always, U.S. citizens should check the embassy website for the latest updates. We continue to urge Americans and their immediate family members in Afghanistan to utilize what we call the Repatriation Assistance Form on our website to register their interest in departing, if they haven’t already done so.
I also want to provide an update on our global network of transit hubs. The United States wants to sincerely thank the governments of Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Italy, and Spain for their help in our efforts to safely transit U.S. citizens, at-risk Afghans, and other evacuees from Afghanistan.
Germany, Italy, and Spain’s armed forces bravely served alongside U.S. troops and other NATO Allies in Afghanistan and they are now continuing to support the Afghan people by collaborating with our ongoing efforts to evacuate Afghans at risk. President Biden and Secretary Blinken have personally expressed our gratitude for their continuous support as friends and allies, and for assisting in the temporary transit of Afghans to safety.
The temporary transit locations we have established at U.S. or joint bases in Germany, Italy, and Spain have capacity to process at least 15,000 people on a rolling basis, significantly expanding our ability to facilitate the relocation of U.S. citizens and at-risk Afghans from Afghanistan. The first flights from these European transit sites departed from Ramstein Air Base in Germany today. We are grateful to host governments for agreeing to allow the United States to host at-risk Afghans while we make arrangements to relocate them to the United States or to a third country.
Our embassies have been working with the U.S. military and our partners in these countries to receive flights and ensure safe transit of passengers to onward destinations.
With that – and with that background, be happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: Can I just ask you, Ned – thanks – on the 15,000 on a rolling basis, what is that? Over 24 hours?
MR PRICE: It’s 15,000 at any one time. So as at-risk Afghans, others transit from those countries, they – others will backfill and be able to take their place. So at any one time, this system of third country transit sites can accommodate 15,000 people.
QUESTION: Okay. And that’s Italy, Germany, Spain, and – and that’s what the 15 applies to, not – to nothing else?
MR PRICE: That’s correct. That’s correct.
QUESTION: Okay. Secondly, also really briefly, are you guys still sending consular and other people to Kabul to work at the airport, or has that now – have you now reached the – what you need?
MR PRICE: Well, so we are always evaluating the situation on the ground to determine that we have the right staffing posture to accommodate the tasks that we need to take on. We talked about this last week, but as of late last week we had doubled the number of consular officers on the ground in Kabul. We had sent additional consular officers to some of those initial transit sites in the Gulf, including to Qatar, to Kuwait, and the UAE. But the broader point I would make is that we have been able to take advantage of consular officers throughout this building and around the world.
QUESTION: Okay. But I’m not interested in the broader point. I’m just interested in an answer to the question. Are you still sending people there?
MR PRICE: If —
QUESTION: And if you’re not – which is fine if you are or not, I just want to know if you’re still ramping up. And then on the opposite end of that is that we are approaching the 31st, and if there is no extension in this, you guys are going to have to start thinking, and I want to know have you already started thinking about drawing them back down again if, in fact, they are going to leave, or if you guys think that maybe you can go back to the embassy.
MR PRICE: Well, we are always evaluating what we have on the ground compared with our needs. If we need more people on the ground, we won’t hesitate to do it. We came to that conclusion last week. That’s why we doubled the presence of consular officers on the ground.
MR PRICE: But you are right, this is a mission with a – is a finite mission with an end date, whatever that specific date is, attached to it. So, of course, we are working very closely with the U.S. military to ensure that we are working in lockstep with them on their retrograde plans, so that in addition to what the U.S. military needs to bring back, their people, obviously, we will be working with them to ensure we have a timeline and to ensure that we bring back our people at the right time.
QUESTION: Okay, last one. Yesterday – and I didn’t see this interview; I saw the first one, I didn’t see the second one – in the CBS interview, the Secretary, according to the transcript that you guys put out, misspoke and said that he had spoken to President Karzai. And I’m less interested in his misspeaking and more interested in knowing whether or not there has been any discussion between the Secretary or anyone else, like Zal or anyone, between the U.S. and former President Karzai, or Abdullah Abdullah, or the others who are now in discussions with the Taliban leadership.
MR PRICE: Absolutely. So, as you know, Matt, there continues to be dialogue between the Afghans – that is to say, representatives of Islamic Republic – and the Taliban. For our part, we have been in touch with relevant and key stakeholders, individuals who are taking part in intra-Afghan discussions with the Taliban. We’re not in a position to read those calls out. This has been primarily on the part of our team in Doha, our team on the ground in Afghanistan, to make sure that we have a regular line in to those Afghan stakeholders.
QUESTION: So the Secretary has not been in touch with —
MR PRICE: No.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: So how are those talks going? Do you have a line in to them?
MR PRICE: So those talks. So throughout this process, even when it was taking place in Doha, this was a process that the United States together with our international partners that we were supporting. We were never part of the intra-Afghan dialogue, never part of the intra-Afghan negotiations. We were facilitating them. We were supporting them. We were providing what the Afghan – what the Afghans may have needed to potentially make progress. But we were not formally part of those – of that dialogue and those negotiations for a simple reason: because both the United States and our international partners concluded that any political outcome needed to be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led. That remains the case today.
So, yes, we are absolutely in contact with the Taliban through political channels, through diplomatic channels, military channels as well. We are absolutely in continued contact with representatives of the Islamic Republic and stakeholders who are part of this ongoing dialogue. And what we’re doing now is doing all we can to encourage a peaceful and orderly transition to an inclusive government with broad support. This is what we have been focused on in terms of how we are working with the parties, what we are communicating with the parties, what we’re conveying to them. But just as importantly, this has been the message that representatives of the Islamic Republic, that Taliban officials have heard from the international community, whether it was from NATO, whether it was from the G7, whether it was from the 113 countries that came together at our organization about a week ago today to press for this very outcome.
So I’m going to leave it to them to speak to how that dialogue is going. But I can tell you for our part we’ve continued to be in close contact to urge an outcome that entails a peaceful and orderly transition to an inclusive government with broad support.
QUESTION: Ned, my colleague reported that on Saturday a cable came here – a memo was sent to Afghan staff at the embassy on Wednesday inviting them to head to the airport and that it was so difficult for them to – the physical situation was simply impossible, and that some staff reported being separated from children. They said, quote, “It would be better to die under the Taliban’s bullet than face the crowds again.” One staff member said they felt betrayed, that it was – it undermined their sense of dignity, their loyalty. This is embassy staff who should have been presumably prioritized, but they were left behind when the evacuation took place, basically.
MR PRICE: Andrea, what I can tell you —
QUESTION: And I do have a follow-up, Ned.
MR PRICE: Sure. I will tell you that I just came from a meeting with the Secretary about an hour and a half ago, and this was something that he proactively raised in that setting, and he also conveyed it was something that he has discussed with the President and offered that he and the President are completely on the same page.
We have an obligation to these individuals, a sacrosanct obligation. They have served the United States. They have not only worked for us, they have worked with us. Our embassies around the world could not function without locally engaged staff. That is as true in Paris or London as it is in a place like Kabul. So we absolutely have a responsibility to these individuals who have worked with our colleagues on the ground in Kabul and, in some cases, over years or even longer. They are absolutely a priority in terms of our evacuation and relocation planning.
As you know, Andrea, we are now in a position to offer tailored, personalized advice to those we are relocating from Afghanistan, to those we are evacuating from Afghanistan. We’ve been doing that, of course, to American citizens. We’ve been doing that to Special Immigrant Visa applicants. We’ve been doing that to other Afghans at risk. But our locally engaged staff, they are absolutely a priority, they are absolutely part of our plans, and that commitment to them, to their safety and security, is something that is in no way diminished.
QUESTION: Well, couldn’t they – why weren’t they on the original evacuation from the embassy?
MR PRICE: So when the embassy was evacuated and our personnel started to make the way from the embassy in Kabul to the secure facility on the airport compound, many of, if not all of, our locally engaged staff were not present on the embassy compound at that time. They were working remotely given the volatile security situation. Many of them were at home, were not at work. I can tell you that we have been able to relocate members of our locally engaged staff, but they were not brought to the airport compound with the American direct hires at that time just because they weren’t at the embassy compound by and large that day.
QUESTION: And one other thing, if you will: I’ve been told that at the airport, military, the Pentagon, has been complaining about bureaucracy, frankly, from DHS – particularly Customs and Border Patrol – and State to do the full interagency vet, presumably on SIVs, rather than doing a preliminary vet and letting them board and do that in Doha or Ramstein or wherever, and that this is being – is really frustrating the military and becoming a roadblock, that it’s not just State, that it is primarily DHS but with State’s understanding. So this is the IC, the whole interagency lengthy vet before letting people move on. Can you look into that?
MR PRICE: I am happy to look into that, but I’m also happy to offer some context right now. You look at where we are in terms of really the metric that matters – the number of people we have been able to bring to safety over the past 24 hours, from 3:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m., yesterday to today, and you see a story of remarkable progress: 10,400 individuals in that 24-hour period alone. If you include coalition aircraft, that’s an additional nearly 6,000 people – 5,900 people in addition to that. If you look at the sum total since August 14th, again, it’s 37,000 people.
QUESTION: But that doesn’t answer the specific question as to whether more could be moved more quickly —
MR PRICE: Well, let —
QUESTION: — because capacity is now exceeding the numbers that are being loaded, we understand.
MR PRICE: And let me get to that. Those numbers, I should add, also are in the context of an operation that is just over a week old. It was a week ago that the airport compound was secured and that this operation was able to begin in many ways in earnest.
Now, when it comes to SIV applicants, the SIV applicants that we have prioritized at this stage are those applicants who have received initial vetting. So the vetting has taken place in recent days, weeks, months in some cases.
QUESTION: But this is clearly the others.
MR PRICE: So this is not happening at the airport compound.
QUESTION: No, I know. I’m talking about this larger population who have somehow gotten into the airport and can’t be boarded because of interagency bureaucracy that involved the State Department. And I’m asking a policy question: Beyond the, “Are they armed and do we know who they are or can they prove who they are,” why do we have to do this entire – and I presume it’s several-day – vet if it is all these agencies, including the IC?
MR PRICE: Well, I’ll make a couple points. It is true that before anyone is brought to the United States, that person undergoes —
QUESTION: But I’m talking about a third country. I’m not talking about to the United States.
MR PRICE: I understand. I understand, but before anyone is brought to the United States, that person would undergo a rigorous vet. That includes intelligence, it includes law enforcement, counterterrorism professionals, to ensure that we are being faithful to the high and rigorous security standards.
When it comes to individuals who may be on the airport compound, it’s difficult for me to speak to any specific cases, but broadly speaking, the interagency – that is, to say every department and agency that has a role in this vetting process – and, of course, that includes the State Department, it includes the Intelligence Community, it includes the law enforcement community, it includes DHS and DOD – we are making every effort to complete these steps as quickly as we can, because when it comes to the vetting that is taking place at those transit points, that vetting will then allow us to bring individuals to the United States once it’s completed and bring additional people out of Afghanistan.
QUESTION: But —
MR PRICE: But for people who are on the airport compound in Kabul, I understand your question, and what I can tell you is that we are surging resources. We’ve surged resources here at the department. We have surged resources throughout the administration to see to it that we can speed and accelerate these processes as much as we can consistent with the high standards.
QUESTION: But I’m asking you a different question. Surging resources doesn’t answer the question as to why not do this at the third country – surge them there and get them out of Kabul, where they can have better facilities, sanitation, food, et cetera.
MR PRICE: Well, that vetting by and large is taking place at these third countries. When it comes to SIVs, again, all of those who have received instructions to come to the airport have already completed certain stages of the security vetting process. So that initial vet on these individuals has been completed. In many cases, they’re then taken to a third country, where they will undergo more rigorous vetting if it hasn’t yet been completed.
But that is very much the point of the network of transit countries and partner countries throughout the Middle East, throughout Europe, the rest of the world – more than 26 countries across four continents. It is in part a system that will allow us to provide safe haven to these individuals who in some cases – well, in all cases before they come to the United States, but in some cases still need to complete part of that rigorous vetting process.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks. A couple of questions. One, the National Security Advisor in his briefing at the White House earlier today was asked for the number of American citizens who have been evacuated. He indicated he would give that number out; he just didn’t have it at hand. Do you have that number?
MR PRICE: I don’t have a precise figure to give you, in part because that number changes all the time. Just within the past 24 hours, again, more than 10,400 people. We are evacuating thousands upon thousands of people per day, so I just don’t have that figure to provide right now.
But what I can tell you is that we are – as you heard Secretary Blinken say yesterday, we believe there are several thousand Americans in Afghanistan who would like to leave. What we are focused on right now, among the many other tasks we are prioritizing, is being in direct and personal contact with them. This is not about sending a blast via a warden message or posting something on the website. This is about placing in many cases phone calls to American citizens we have reason to believe are in Afghanistan and want to leave. Over the weekend, as I said, we have placed several thousand phone calls, not only to determine if we have in fact reached an American citizen who wants to leave, but to learn more about where that person is, if that person would be traveling with any family members, how we might be able to assist that American citizen who seeks to leave.
QUESTION: Okay. Another question: You were talking a few minutes ago about some of the ongoing negotiations or discussions with the Taliban. Is that still taking place in Doha with Ambassador Khalilzad or has that moved on? Are there other people in this administration who are now talking to the Taliban?
MR PRICE: Yes, so we have multiple channels with the Taliban. It is true that Ambassador Khalilzad remains in Doha, as does some – as do some members of his team. Most of the political council has moved from Doha to Afghanistan, but there still are representatives of the Taliban in Doha, so that is a channel that is ongoing. We also have several State Department officials on the ground in Afghanistan who also are in touch with Taliban representatives on the diplomatic and political front.
In addition to all of that, of course, the military has its own channel to discuss tactical and deconfliction issues.
QUESTION: And just one last question: It’s been said that the United States will help Afghans who want to leave even after the U.S. military mission ends, whenever that set date is going to be. But speaking to Andrea’s question, I’m just wondering how the United States is going to assure that to Afghans who are vulnerable, given that the Taliban are already going across door-to-door, threatening people, brutalizing people. I appreciate that these are kind of delicate negotiations, and you don’t want to speak to the specifics of it. I’m just wondering how you or the United States Government can give any kind of confidence to Afghan people that they will not be left behind.
MR PRICE: Well, in the first instance, what we are doing now is mounting an ambitious and in many ways historically unprecedented airlift operation to bring as many individuals from Afghanistan to the United States or to third countries as a temporary way point. Again, the progress we’ve made in terms of how many individuals we are now able to bring to safety every day, I think tells the story of this department, of the Department of Defense, of our interagency partners throwing everything that we have.
QUESTION: But that’s an airlift that’s going to end when the military mission ends —
MR PRICE: Well, but what —
QUESTION: — and so that’s what the question becomes.
MR PRICE: What does not end when the military mission ends is our commitment to at-risk Afghans.
QUESTION: Exactly. So how do you bolster that commitment?
MR PRICE: Well, let me make a couple points. And again, I don’t want to delve into hypotheticals as to what that end date might be or what the details of it might resemble, but let me make a couple points.
One, the Taliban has agreed and committed to provide and to permit safe passage, safe passage for – if you listen to their statements at least, to Americans, to third-country nationals, and to Afghans. This is the message that they have said publicly. This is the message that the United States and our closest allies and partners, in fact more than half of the world’s countries, have signed onto in terms of making clear to the Taliban that they have a responsibility to provide the safe passage and that together we will hold them accountable if they do not.
As with all Taliban commitments, we are focused on deeds, not words. What matters to us is the follow-through. What matters to us is the follow-through both now, before August 31st, and the follow-through after August 31st.
Let me make another point. The Taliban has also said publicly that they want an Afghanistan that has a relationship with the rest of the world. They want to ensure that the – that Afghanistan under a future Afghan government is not the pariah that it would become in certain circumstances. The fact is that this cannot happen without a functioning airport. A functioning state, a functioning economy, a government that has some semblance of a relationship with the rest of the world, needs a functioning commercial airport. We are in discussions with the Taliban on this very front. They have indicated to us in no uncertain terms that they seek to have a functioning commercial airport. So that is our hope and expectation that there is a functioning commercial airport.
What we know, coupled with that, is that these guarantees of safe passage, these commitments to safe passage, don’t have an expiration date. So it certainly stands to reason – and we will hold the Taliban to this; the rest of the world will as well – that individuals who seek to leave after the U.S. military is gone will have an opportunity to do so. Our commitment to the Afghan people doesn’t end in that sense. Our commitment to the Afghan people won’t end in the sense that our humanitarian commitment will remain as well.
QUESTION: Well, I just don’t really understand what commercial airlines would go into an airport that’s run by a terrorist organization, as the U.S. considers it and the UN. So what can you tell us about your talks with the Taliban or with NATO, with Turkey, with anyone else, about taking over the airport?
And the UN has also called for an air bridge for humanitarian aid. What can you tell us about that?
MR PRICE: Well, I can’t go into private discussions, but what I can say, I can acknowledge that this has been a topic of discussion with the Taliban, it has been a topic of discussion with our allies, it has been a topic of discussion with many of our partners. There is actually agreement between and among all of these actors, of course, between the United States and our partners and allies but also with the Taliban, that all of our interests would be served with a functioning airport. Now, commercial flights are one thing; charter flights are another. There are, as you’ve seen when it comes to charter flights now, they have been able to remove and bring to safety thousands upon thousands of individuals.
Look, we don’t want to get ahead of things. Right now, we are focused on the evacuation operation that the United States Government is running and that the United States Government will be running for as long as we’re in a position to do so. Our point, however, is that the Taliban have made certain commitments. They have made statements. The rest of the world has made – sent those very same clear messages to the Taliban. So there would seem to be some confluence of interests here, and it is certainly something that would be in our interest, it would be in many ways in the interest of the Taliban, which have indicated that as well, and it would certainly be in the interest of the Afghan people to see that outcome fulfilled.
QUESTION: With all due respect, how can this government trust what the Taliban says? It would appear that the Taliban is simply the latest in a long line of actors and other countries that will say what sounds appealing to us here in the West, and then once the West pulls out – notably, its military – these forces then go on and do what they feel like doing, and the people are left wanting, in the best of circumstances. What is the U.S. actually prepared to do at this moment to make certain that the Taliban isn’t following up on marking homes where Afghans who worked with the U.S. Government had been living, and that they don’t go back and actually kill their people? It seems as if the leaders are willing to say one thing and they’ve given a message to their foot soldiers to do what they really intend to be doing, which is running the country in their vision, not in one that is going to be in good standing with the international community.
MR PRICE: Well, I want to be very clear about one thing: We are not in any way trusting the Taliban. This is not about trust. This is about what’s in our interests and also what’s in the interests of the people of Afghanistan, and those two things are aligned. Right now it is a fact that we are dealing with the Taliban on these issues in part to make very clear where it is that the United States stands, where it is that the rest of the world stands. This is not about asking permission. This is not about establishing any sort of formal relations. This is about doing all we can to facilitate safe passage, to ensure that the Taliban know that any effort to impede the evacuation of American citizens, to impede our operations while this is up and running would be met with a very swift and severe response. So that has been our message; that has been the message of the rest of the world.
I can tell you that – and it’s not only the Taliban – it is in the interests of every ruling entity the world over to have a functioning economy, to be able to provide for their people, to have a relationship, to whatever degree that entails, with the rest of the world. And we have been very clear – and by we I mean the royal we here, the United States with our allies and partners around the world, more than half of the world’s countries in at least one case – we’ve been very clear that those things would be quite difficult, if not impossible, if the Taliban do not live up to their basic commitments, if they deny the rights of their citizens, if they deprive more than half of their population of their basic rights, if they commit the sort of atrocities that we’ve all seen take place over in Afghanistan over the years. None of that would be foreseeable if the Taliban were to choose that path.
So together with the international community we have significant sources of leverage, but the Taliban also have an interest as well. If they want any semblance of durability, if they want the tools they need to be able to administer a country as large, a country as expansive as Afghanistan, what the United States and what together we say with our international allies and partners, that will matter to them in very profound ways.
QUESTION: Let me follow up. It’s interesting that you just said that we’re not here negotiating with the Taliban. Is that a justification for why we have not seen anyone, certainly at the Secretary’s level, engaging with Mullah Baradar or whoever would be their foreign minister, that you have people who are lower on the food chain, as it were, engaging, talking, cajoling, arguing, whatever verb you want to use with the Taliban in order to not give them this sense that somehow they are more important than they might think that they are?
MR PRICE: It’s not about seeking to prevent self-aggrandizements or anything like that. It is a —
QUESTION: But certainly, you can use it to fuel however you want to run your country.
MR PRICE: It is a – it is largely a function of the fact that our discussions with the Taliban have been operational. They have been tactical. They have been focused on – focused largely on our near-term operations and our near-term goals. And those near-term operations and those near-term goals in the first instance are focused on what is going on at the airport compound at HKIA. That is what we are focused on at the moment.
Now, it is true that we have begun with our allies and partners in various fora – NATO, G7, through bilateral dialogue and multilateral diplomacy as well at various levels – to begin to have conversations about what the international community would want to see of any future government in Afghanistan and to be very clear about what would be unacceptable to us. We have done that publicly. It is true that over the course of many months the Taliban certainly have a good sense of that from private discussions that have taken place in Doha. None of this will come as a surprise to them.
But when it comes to the political outcome, that is something that in the first instance we are establishing common expectations, establishing shared concerns, shared goals, and shared outcomes – not with the Taliban but with international allies and partners, knowing that when we approach the Taliban together as a bloc, as a bloc of many of the world’s most powerful and influential countries, that what we say will have outsized influence. It’s always important what the United States says. It is going to be even more influential when we speak with one voice with our closest friends and allies.
QUESTION: One final quick point. When you say the Taliban has made commitments, does the Taliban understand that given the U.S.’s commitment to its citizens, to SIV applicants, and to others in that pool, that if this operation needs to go beyond August 31st the Taliban must allow that operation to continue?
MR PRICE: Look, this is a decision that only one person will be able to make. That person is not in Afghanistan. That person is not in this building. That person sits in an office without corners in the White House. President Biden will ultimately have to decide when this operation will come to a close. I can tell you that it is our goal to move as quickly as we can and as efficiently as we can to bring to safety as many people as we can. And I think you are seeing in the metrics in recent days and certainly over the past 24 hours that we are making good progress on that.
It is not our goal to be there one day, one hour, one minute longer than is absolutely necessary, but not going to get ahead of that.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that very briefly? Has the Taliban communicated to the U.S. Government outside of the interview they did with Sky that they will not be permitted – that we will not be permitted to go beyond the 31st?
MR PRICE: What I will say, Andrea, is that we have multiple channels with the Taliban – diplomatic channels, political channels, military channels. We have discussed a whole host of operational issues, issues in the first instance pretty squarely focused on our operations at the – at HKIA to remove our people, our partners, and third-country nationals from Afghanistan. There have been pretty involved discussions on that, but I’m not going to get into the details of it.
QUESTION: I mean, you were talking about the – in response to the question about treatment of civilians, you’re using the kind of phrasing, “if the Taliban,” does this, acts in a certain way. It’s sort of conditional on their behavior going forward. But doesn’t that sort of give an impression that you’re – there are already reports, for example, from before they even took Kabul that massacres of Hazara men that Amnesty recorded last week. There are a lot of those reports already out there, so you’re sort of offering them a clean slate in a way by saying if they behave in such a way going forward, they – these are the potential carrots and sticks that we have.
And in addition to that, we’re hearing – everything we’re hearing at the moment, or a lot of it, is coming out of Kabul. Given that your diplomatic presence there is basically focused on this evacuation, are you concerned that there could be ongoing rights abuses happening outside of the capital that you’re not seeing and not raising concerns about because you’re involved in these strategic negotiations or talks with the Taliban in order to complete this? Are you missing other things that are happening and therefore letting them potentially get away with things that you’re also saying are conditional for how you’re going to treat this government going forward?
MR PRICE: Yeah, I’ll make a couple points. The expectations that the United States and the rest of the world have for the Taliban in terms of how any future government of Afghanistan would govern, would treat its people, would uphold or not the rights of its citizens, would protect the gains made by Afghanistan’s women, girls, minorities over the years. That is something that is just important to us in Kabul at this very instance as it is to what takes place much farther afield in places where the United States is not.
So this is not confined to what is happening right now. It is also not confined to what happens going forward. We have been talking about the expectations on the part of the United States and the rest of the world. We’ve been talking about the commitments that at least the Taliban have purported to make – and again, we will judge them by one criterion and one criterion only, and that’s their action.
But just because we are talking about responsibility and accountability going forward does not mean that we are turning a blind eye to accountability for past actions. We have a number of our tools at our disposal. The United States does. When we are working in tandem with the rest of the world, with the UN, we have a number – even greater number of tools. Some of these tools are broad, some of these tools are narrow and fairly tailored. We will be prepared to apply whatever tool is necessary given what unfolds and given our assessment going forward of what has unfolded.
QUESTION: So what mechanism is that for detecting these potential atrocities that have been happening or are happening now?
MR PRICE: Well, look, we have a full suite of sources of information. Some of them we can all see what is taking place on social media, what is captured by reporters on the ground. It is true that there are NGOs that remain active and operational in Afghanistan. They send back reports. They make those reports public. In fact, we’ve discussed one of those NGO reports even here in recent days. We have other assets at our disposal too that will give us and our allies broad insight into what is happening.
So there will not be any impunity. There will not be any effort, any willingness on the part of the United States to turn a blind eye. What we will be willing to do is to act appropriately using the tools that are at our disposal to respond both going forward and, if appropriate, to hold individuals accountable for past atrocities.
QUESTION: Thank you. A large number of religious minorities in Afghanistan are seeking to flee the country given their past experience with the Taliban rule. Some of them have been taken by India, the Sikhs and the Hindus, but is the U.S. trying to accept some of those religious minorities from Afghanistan?
MR PRICE: So Lalit, we are prioritizing for safe relocation a number of individuals. We have, of course, talked about American citizens, our locally engaged staff who worked with us at the embassy, SIV applicants. But then there are – there’s a much broader category of at-risk Afghans, and the fact is that there may well be many Afghans who, because of their past actions, because of their appearance, because of their beliefs, because of their gender may be at risk to Taliban reprisals. We have at our disposal a number of avenues to help those individuals. First is refugee status, and there are a couple different refugee statuses that are applicable here. They’re tiered by priorities.
Priority 1 referral status would be appropriate in some instances for the kinds of people you described.
Priority 2 refugee status – this is a status that you heard the Secretary announce in the Afghan context from this podium a few weeks ago – may also in some cases be appropriate for individuals who fall into the categories you described.
So we are committed to helping as many Afghans at risk as we possibly can, but I also don’t want to leave you or anyone with the impression that the only way to help is to put someone on a plane. Again, our commitment to the people of Afghanistan will endure long beyond August 31st. We will be in a position to continue our humanitarian support to the Afghan people, which, over the course of years, has been in the billions of dollars – $3.9 billion since 2002. We announced more than a quarter million dollars in June alone. The President last week authorized $500 million – 500 million additional dollars to help internally displaced persons in Afghanistan, refugees, and other who – others who may be at risk.
Our humanitarian benefits will certainly continue to flow to the people of Afghanistan, but again, we will also use every diplomatic, every economic, every tool that we and our partners have to send a very clear signal and to hold accountable anyone, any force, any regime that would seek to deny the basic rights of their citizens. We’ve been very clear about that.
Take a —
QUESTION: One more question.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: Can you give us a sense of the role Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is playing right now, what he’s doing in Qatar?
MR PRICE: So Ambassador Khalilzad has been in Qatar for – in Doha since earlier this month. As you know, he has gone to and from Doha over the course of several months now, and, in fact, actually predating this administration. He’s carried out diplomacy both there and in other places as well with the extended Troika and other groupings that are relevant to this.
In recent days, as I mentioned before, of course, members of the political council have – many of them have relocated from Doha to Afghanistan, but there are representatives of the Taliban still present in Doha. Ambassador Khalilzad and his team also have been in touch electronically, over the phone, with representatives of the Taliban to convey the same messages that the Taliban is hearing from State Department diplomats on the ground in Afghanistan and to reinforce the messages as well that the Taliban is hearing from the U.S. military.
QUESTION: I have one also follow-up: Do you consider Taliban the de facto ruler of Afghanistan right now?
MR PRICE: Look, we are – it’s been a fluid situation. There has not been any sort of formal transfer of power. What we are focused on right now is the mission at hand, and that is to bring as many people to safety as we possibly can.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: I’m just trying to figure out why exactly you guys aren’t sharing the number of Americans who have been evacuated. I mean, clearly you have that information. That information is being shared with the Hill. So it’s not for lack of information, it’s a decision you’re making. Can you talk a little bit about that?
MR PRICE: Well, look, we’re not trying to hide the ball. What we’re trying to do is to avoid giving you information that may be rough, that may be outdated. Our first priority is the safe evacuation of American citizens. There have been several thousand Americans who have been evacuated over the course of this operation, but at the moment, I’m just not – I don’t have in front of me a specific figure to offer.
But what we are focused on now is making contact with the several thousand Americans who may remain in Afghanistan and who may wish to relocate. Our goal is to and our commitment is to offer tailored, personalized guidance to all of them, to provide instructions as to how they can reach the airport and ultimately how they can be repatriated to the United States.
QUESTION: Can we switch to Iran?
QUESTION: Hold on, can I just – I have two more quick questions.
MR PRICE: Okay, sure.
QUESTION: You talk about the ongoing assistance that the United States will provide to the people of Afghanistan. Can you give us a status update on humanitarian assistance, security assistance? I mean, how can the Biden administration feel confident to be sending millions of dollars in assistance if the Taliban are in control of the country?
MR PRICE: Well, right now we’re not. And we have had a review of our assistance to the Afghan Government underway for several days now. As I just said, there hasn’t been a formal transfer, and so we will cross that bridge as the situation develops and as we do our own evaluation about what is in the interests of the Afghan people, what is consistent with our own interests and our values as well.
But just as we do in countries around the world, we can provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan, leaving aside any assistance to an Afghan government. That is what we have done. That is what we’ve continued to do. As I mentioned, President Biden only recently authorized 500 million additional dollars in support for vulnerable Afghans, including internally displaced persons inside the country, for refugees. This is on top of the hundreds of millions of dollars that we have allocated towards the people of Afghanistan this year alone.
QUESTION: And how are you getting that money into the country right now given the security situation?
MR PRICE: So there are still NGOs that are operating on the ground. Just as we do around the world, we have implementing partners who are active, to whom we can provide assistance. And they in turn can administer that assistance. So we still do have partners on the ground in Afghanistan.
QUESTION: On Iran, have you heard any word from the new Iranian president regarding the talks in Vienna?
MR PRICE: Look, the – we have made very clear that it remains profoundly in our national interest to seek to effect a mutual return to compliance of the JCPOA. It remains in our interest for a simple reason: because a mutual return to compliance would once again subject Iran to the most rigorous, most intrusive inspections regime ever negotiated. It remains in our interest to see to it that Iran is permanently and verifiably prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
I know that the new government in Tehran is still in formation. They have decisions to make about their orientation not only towards the international community, but specifically towards diplomacy in the context of Vienna and diplomacy to see – test the proposition that we can effect a mutual return to compliance. So I will leave it to the Iranians to speak to where they are on this. We have made very clear where we are on this, and our allies and partners in the P5+1 context have made that very clear as well.
QUESTION: And one more: Hizballah is trying to import fuel oil from Iran to Lebanon to face the fuel crisis there. Do you have any reaction to that?
MR PRICE: Well, again, all of the sanctions that are in place on Iran remain in place. When it comes to petroleum, when it comes to oil, that has not changed.
QUESTION: Go ahead. I’ve got a Belarus question, but I want – hopefully after you. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Okay, on Iran – yeah. The Israeli prime minister will be – will be coming to Washington and he will meet President Biden on Thursday. According to multiple media reports, he has a new Iran policy to introduce to President Biden. Do you believe this plan could be an alternative to what has been happening for the few months?
MR PRICE: I will leave it to the Israeli prime minister to describe to the American President any thoughts that the Israeli Government may have when it comes to Iran. I can imagine that Iran will be a topic of discussion, including regional security issues more broadly, but I also can imagine that the meeting between President Biden and Prime Minister Bennett, their first, will be an opportunity to discuss the strength of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, the partnership that this administration is committed to deepening in the face of COVID, in the face of regional security concerns, and as we seek to see to it that Israelis and Palestinians alike can enjoy equal measures of what is important to both people: prosperity, freedom, and importantly, dignity. I think all of these things will be on the agenda.
QUESTION: One more on Afghanistan. It’s more like a clarification. Usually they do the security check in Kabul or in – at multiple different stops on the way to the U.S. What if someone got denied this security check, does not – has not been approved? What are you going to do with this person?
MR PRICE: Well, what I can tell you is the very rigorous vetting that involves intelligence professionals, law enforcement professionals, homeland security professionals will be required before anyone arrives in this country. I’m not in a position to discuss a hypothetical. Obviously, anything like that would be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
QUESTION: The IMF is releasing almost a billion dollars to Belarus, and I wonder what you think about that given your attempts to isolate Lukashenka regime – Lukashenka’s regime.
MR PRICE: Look, our position on the Lukashenka regime has not changed. We have made very clear what – where we stand on this. We call on the Lukashenka regime to end the crackdown on members of civil society, the media, athletes, students, legal professionals, and others; to immediately release the hundreds of political prisoners who remain outrageously detained; to engage in a genuine dialogue with democratic opposition and civil society; and importantly, to hold free and fair elections under international observation. That is where we have stood. That’s where we continue to stand.
QUESTION: And the IMF decision?
MR PRICE: I don’t have a response to that.
Thank you all very much.
(The briefing was concluded at 4:43 p.m.)