Briefing With Senior Administration Officials On Next Steps Toward an Agreement on Bringing Peace to Afghanistan (February 29)
MODERATOR: Okay, we’re going to try to give everybody as much time as possible. Let’s talk about ground rules up front. This is going to be on background, SAO, okay? This is going to be embargoed until – I don’t have an exact time on Saturday, but I’m working this out with DOD because they’re doing their own stuff as well, and the White House.
What I’m thinking is now – and Ruben or Cale or I, you will hear from us. We will definitively confirm. I’m thinking that the embargo is going to be lifted around the time that the Secretary does his press conference. Christina and Francesco will be with us. I will give you guys a heads-up ahead of time so you know exactly the hour and the minute that the embargo is lifted. So for now, this is very roughly until Saturday morning, but you’ll know hours ahead of time before. I just don’t – we’re still, as you can imagine, throwing this together and working on scheduling.
So everybody agrees to the ground rules?
(Chorus of yeses.)
MODERATOR: So still completely on background, what’s happening logistically that we’re all working on, the reason why a lot of this is still up in the air, is Secretary Pompeo and Secretary Esper will be at the White House tomorrow to meet with the President, then they will both depart. We go to Doha; they go to Kabul. So your DOD colleagues will be able to brief you on more – [Senior Administration Official Two] can obviously give an overview of everything that’s going on in Kabul. But that’s the logistical dance that’s going on, and I’ve got the White House and DOD and us, everybody has equities in this, so just trust me that the embargo will be lifted, I promise, but let’s keep it on background SAO now.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Hi, everybody. So we are in day five of what was announced last Saturday. Day six? Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I never know – I don’t know what day it is.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thursday. No, it’s day five.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Saturday. We started on Saturday.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. So Sunday to Monday to Tuesday to Wednesday to Thursday —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Okay, I can’t count.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: — to Friday to Saturday.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Okay.
MODERATOR: We’re near the end of the RIV.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Okay, we’re on – we’re five days into a reduction in violence agreement that was announced last Saturday. The United States, the Taliban, and the Afghan Government agreed to this and to hold this in place for seven days in advance of announcing the start of talks to seek a political settlement for the conflict in Afghanistan.
During this reduction in violence period, the Taliban have pledged to not undertake major attacks of any sort, including car bomb attacks, suicide bombings, rocket attacks, IEDs. The United States, for its part, has pledged to hold off on any air strikes and also raids on Taliban facilities, including other major military actions with the exception of the ISIS forces located on the Afghan border. And the Afghan National Army has likewise committed to withhold any major military activities.
Over the five – soon to be six – days in Afghanistan, if you are going by their time, we have seen a substantial reduction in violence. In addition to the substantial reduction of violence, we’ve also seen a level of commitment by all the parties, including the Taliban, to enforce the reduction in violence upon their various constituencies. We have established a communications channel between us and the Taliban that works in Doha for notifications, or questions, or concerns, and we have seen that used not only to – for us to raise concerns, but also for us to receive information from Taliban officials regarding their efforts or disavowing some of the acts of violence that we still have seen happen in Afghanistan.
So generally, it’s a level of both ability and political will that we hoped to have seen from the Taliban, and as we progress towards Saturday, we are expecting at this point that we will be able to confirm that it met our expectations to get us to the signing that will happen on that day. As [Moderator] alluded to, Secretary of State Pompeo will be traveling to Doha on Saturday —
MODERATOR: Tomorrow, Friday.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, he’ll be —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: The time change thing.
MODERATOR: Oh. That, too.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. On Saturday – let me say it more clearly. On Saturday, Secretary of State Pompeo will be in Doha to sign an agreement that will commit the United States and the Taliban to the launch of a political – a negotiation towards a political solution, political settlement, to the war in Afghanistan. At the same time in Kabul, Secretary of Defense Esper will be releasing a joint statement with the Afghan president likewise committing the Afghan Government to this process and welcoming the start of these negotiations towards what will hopefully be a permanent end to the conflict in Afghanistan.
As part of that kickoff, the United States will be committed to make an initial reduction in our forces in Afghanistan to a level that General Miller has identified as necessary to fulfill his mission. I think many of you have heard General Scott Miller on this issue, but he has spoken of 8,600 troops as being the necessary contingent to meet his mission, although he is much less focused on numbers and more focused on achieving the mission that the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs have given him here as well as with his – our coalition partners in the fight.
That will then be in place during the course of this negotiations, and the reduction in violence will continue, and also it will be our very early objective to try to gain a complete ceasefire in Afghanistan once all the parties are at the table.
The parties will be meeting in Oslo. That negotiation will kick off as soon as each of the various components of that can get their negotiators to Oslo. Our estimate is probably – we certainly expect it to be in the first half of March. It may take a week, a week and a half, for all the parties to travel there. Throughout this period, the reduction in violence remains in place, so it will give us a good opportunity to test the durability of the reduction in violence and also perhaps set a better stage for us to move towards a permanent ceasefire once all the parties are at the table.
The parties at the table will be, of course, the Afghan Government and opposition; it will be the Taliban; it will be Afghan civil society, and especially and including women’s groups will all be parties for this negotiation at the table. The United States will be present, but this will be an intra-Afghan negotiation.
I have with me here [Senior Administration Official Two] working closely, hand-in-glove, with Zal Khalilzad. Throughout the past year [Senior Administration Official Two] has been holed up in Doha with Zal, where, as some of you may know, the negotiations resumed late in the fall after the President had suspended them last year after the car bomb that happened in Kabul. Well, actually, the car bomb wasn’t in Kabul, was it?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: There was. There were several incidents, but one in Kabul.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yes, several incidents. The President authorized Zal and [Senior Administration Official Two] to resume those negotiations late in the fall, and the agreement that we have in place right now for reduction in violence and the structure of these negotiations going forward were very much driven by the great work of Zal and [Senior Administration Official Two] and their team.
So that’s what I wanted to say to start with. That catches you up as to where we are today. I’m going to ask [Senior Administration Official Two] if [Senior Administration Official Two] wants to add anything, and then perhaps we’ll open it up to some questions. I’ve got about 10 minutes I can stay down here, and then we’ll leave [Senior Administration Official Two] here until you exhaust [Senior Administration Official Two]. And trust me, [Senior Administration Official Two] knows a lot more about this than I do.
MODERATOR: [Senior Administration Official Two], do you have an opening?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: No. Great opening, unless there are questions.
MODERATOR: Okay, we’re going to – I know everybody has questions. Please, let’s try to get as many people in as possible. Let’s try to keep it to one question and then we’ll try to come back to everybody, because I know that there’s a ton, so – okay. Carol, I saw your hand first.
QUESTION: Why do you – I’ll keep it short. Why do you believe that women will be protected under this agreement?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, they’ll have a seat at the table during the negotiations. I can’t prejudge the outcome of this agreement, but a very high priority for us will be absolutely the protection of women’s rights, and we aren’t without influence in the process going forward. The United States is still a major presence in Afghanistan, and as this process plays out there’s going to continue to be an international aid and reconstruction effort that’s going to be necessary. There’s all sorts of ways that we and others will be able to help defend the rights of women in Afghanistan, and certainly that would be very much in the interests of the United States of America.
QUESTION: How closely is the withdrawal of U.S. troops tied into an actual resolution between the two Afghan sides? If, say, in a year the Afghans have not come to an agreement on how to govern themselves, is the U.S. going to continue to withdraw? Is that written into the agreement?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So the withdrawal of troops and the agreement itself move in parallel processes. Our withdrawal is in – aligned with this agreement and is conditions-based. There is – if the political settlement fails, if the talks fail, there is nothing that obliges the United States to withdraw troops. That’s not to say that the President doesn’t have prerogatives as Commander-in-Chief of the United States of America to make any decision that he feels appropriate as our President, but there is no obligation for the United States to withdraw troops if the Afghan – if the Afghan parties are unable to reach agreement or if the Taliban show bad faith in the course of this negotiation.
QUESTION: Are there any secret annexes in this plan that’s being signed? Members of Congress have written a letter to the Secretary about that, and whether or not there’s any kind of plans to share intelligence with the Taliban.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So there are parts of this agreement that aren’t going to be public, but those parts don’t contain any additional commitments by the United States whatsoever, nor are they intended to. What we will have in place are some confidential procedures for implementation and verification of the agreement itself, but we don’t have any additional commitments that we are making that won’t be in the agreement that the leaders will be signing on Saturday.
QUESTION: You have a political crisis ongoing in Kabul over the election results, and you’re going to this agreement without having resolved that crisis. How does the United States intend to proceed in trying to deal with that crisis, which is holding up the appointment of the Afghan – I don’t know what you want to call it, the Kabul delegation, the Afghanistan delegation? And are you trying to use that as a way of settling this dispute, i.e. giving Abdullah Abdullah and/or his team leadership roles in the negotiations in exchange for them accepting Ghani’s election?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So regarding the negotiations, this has to be a multiparty representation. We have to have all interests in Afghanistan represented in an intra-Afghan process. As far as the formation of a government, the Afghan Government is doing that according to – the Afghan people are doing that according to their own constitutional procedures.
I recognize what you’re saying, but we are certainly prepared to work with the president, President Ghani, as we go forward in this. And the government is certainly aware of the necessity to have all voices represented in this negotiation in Oslo if a lasting and durable political settlement’s going to be reached.
[Senior Administration Official Two], do you want to say anything more about Afghan politics here, or – I mean, it’s – you’re closer to it than me, but this is for the Afghan people to decide.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, I mean, the goal is for there to be a national team, right? So it’s important for the Taliban to sit with the government, but the government doesn’t represent all of the Afghan political system. So that’s our objective. And we’re focusing a lot on the U.S.-Taliban agreement, but also on Saturday, as [Moderator] has alluded, Secretary Esper will be in Kabul.
And we already have a bilateral security agreement with the Afghan Government. We already have a strategic policy framework. So those arrangements, which are designed to support and define our relationship with the Afghan Government, remain in place. So the joint declaration will reaffirm those arrangements. We’re not abandoning the Afghan Government; we’re not abandoning our investment in Afghanistan. But we’ll also, as [Senior Administration Official One] said, elicit Afghan Government support for the way forward and specifically establishing this national team to get into the negotiations with the Taliban.
QUESTION: Can I – the withdrawal or reduction to 8,600, when exactly does that happen? Is that spelled out in this – in the agreement? And then beyond the 8,600, is there anything in the agreement to be signed on Saturday that commits, albeit conditions-based, the U.S. to withdrawing completely? And when?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Mm-hmm. So the 8,600, which you probably are aware, the initial component of reduction from about 13,000 to about 8,600, is something that General Scott Miller has long ago identified as the right-sizing of the force in order to achieve his mission set. That’s been out there for some time, Matt. But the – during the course of this negotiations, the President gained the confidence to take that first step provided that we were able to get to the starting point. And also, so that 8,600 will be part of the initial agreement and it will play out over several months. It doesn’t happen immediately. It takes a while to get out. It’s not going to happen overnight. But that is the commander on the ground’s recommendation, that is the President’s intention, and that’s in the agreement.
As far as the longer-term goal, the President’s aspiration, of course, remains ultimately to bring a political settlement here, end the war, and end the U.S. military commitment to Afghanistan. The President does not seek a permanent commitment of U.S. forces to a war in Afghanistan. There are a lot of ways that we can and will continue to work with the Afghan Government in the aftermath of a political settlement, and there’s many venues of cooperation between us and them, but it is the President’s ambition to reach a political settlement and have the United States forces leave and end the fight. That is his goal.
Now, in the course of the agreement, it requires us to reach a political settlement that will create the conditions under which we do that. And if we’re unable to reach a political settlement, if for any reason this process doesn’t work, there’s nothing that obligates the President to take that course.
QUESTION: Right. But if everything goes according to plan – and I realize it’s a hypothetical – is there something in the agreement to be signed Saturday that gives a time or a period, time period for which the U.S. would —
MODERATOR: You mean the withdrawal timetable?
QUESTION: Yes, exactly, to go to zero.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So Matt, if everything goes according to plan, Afghanistan —
QUESTION: Yeah, recognizing that’s —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: — Afghanistan will be at peace, aid agencies and international donors will have free movement around the entire country of Afghanistan to be able to finally bring economic opportunity to people who’ve suffered through 18 years of war, the Taliban and the Afghan civil authorities will have reached a political settlement that is a durable settlement that will allow them to exist and coexist in the same country without fighting, and you will see also at that point an end to support for terrorism and an end for any compelling need for American military forces to be deployed in a war-fighting capacity in Afghanistan.
And so in the event that all this works – and there is a lot of work to do between now and then – yeah.
MODERATOR: World peace. Lara.
QUESTION: Thanks. You had mentioned that —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: This will be my last question. I apologize, but I’ve got to run.
MODERATOR: And then we’ll go – okay, in the back.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Sure. So just very quickly, is there a metric or a redline for a level of violence that would nullify this peace deal? You mentioned car bombings, suicide bombings, that kind of thing. And also, why was it that it was determined that seven days was long enough for this reduction in violence to – as a faith-based measure?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: So the reduction in violence is being closely monitored by General Miller. I’m going to refer to you this – on the specifics to the Pentagon on that one, because he is actually the one who’s both been maintaining the metric on violence, violent activities and activity – violence initiated by the Taliban for a very long time, not since – even since the beginning of this reduction in violence, but also he is the one who has developed the metrics to measure the reduction. But we have seen a substantial reduction, and what we expect is a positive trend to continue that reduction.
Of course, our goal very early is to actually get to a complete ceasefire. Now, that doesn’t mean there will be a complete absence of violence. There’s no society in the world that could aspire to that level, and Afghanistan is a place that has been wracked by conflict for 18 years. The Taliban are showing, in our estimation, both the commitment and the capability to enforce the reduction in violence on the forces that are under their control. But Afghanistan isn’t a place that is under anyone’s singular control, and we recognize that, and there will continue to very likely be in – a campaign against ISIS forces in Afghanistan even as this proceeds.
As far as the one week versus one month versus whatever, first of all, this is an incremental development since the agreement was first broached in September of last year. The idea of the reduction in violence in previous iterations was to have commenced with the signing of the agreement. And one of the lessons, or perhaps even salutary benefits, was putting a premium on creating that period of calm in advance of the signing.
So now this reduction of violence that precedes the signing for a week is a first test, but it’s not the end of the test, because, as I said, it’ll still take a week, maybe up to two weeks, for the parties to gather in Oslo, at which point the reduction in violence will remain in place.
And upon reaching Oslo, there will be commitments that the parties will be making that will further reduce the level of violence. And also, as I’ve said a couple of times, our aspiration is very early on, once we have all the parties at the table, to reach a real ceasefire, which will require a lot more effort and will require all voices in Afghanistan to be represented at the table, because it would – everyone will need to be committed to that for it to hold. And keep in mind, the Afghan Government and the Taliban are not yet actually meeting and negotiating face to face. That will not happen until we get to Oslo.
QUESTION: They are on prisoners.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Not on the ending of – or the political settlement to end the war.
I’m going to wrap it there and leave – I’ll leave you with [Senior Administration Official Two]. [Senior Administration Official Two] will get into a lot more granularity with you. And [Senior Administration Official Two], I’m going to turn this over to you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, [Senior Administration Official One].
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks. Thanks, folks.
MODERATOR: See you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: And [Senior Administration Official Two] and I are both getting pinged by the Secretary, so we’ll stay as long as we can until I get the hook. I promised you next. Sorry, go ahead. No, no, behind you.
QUESTION: Thank you. Joel Gehrke here from the Examiner. Thanks for doing this. I wonder, just following up on what he said there, what’s the difference between a reduction of – between the reduction of violence we’re doing right now and the total ceasefire that you envision, and then in that – if everything goes to plan and we get complete peace in the country, how does this aspirational processes account for ISIS-Khorasan?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Sure. Well, what – not to get pedantic about words, but what we’re experiencing what now is what we negotiate – we negotiated an understanding with the Taliban in coordination with the Afghan Government because all parties this past week have essentially ceased defensive operations, so the Afghan Security Forces, we and the coalition, and the Talban.
So we did that to meet – the President decided last September to suspend our talks. He felt that the continued levels of violence were inconsistent with sort of nine rounds of a serious agreement which was designed to move them off the battlefield into a political process. So the continued use of suicide bombs and other attacks he felt just wasn’t realistic. No peace process could survive that kind of violence. We were also taking it to them very hard as well at that time and have continued to do that throughout the past year.
So he set up this test, and it took us some months to get going and it wasn’t until December that they finally understood that we were serious about it. And then they went and had very extensive consultations with their leadership, with the military commanders, with the religious leadership, with the political leadership and came back with a backing for the plan that you see this week, which is going quite well – knock on wood. And I think we are at day six. It is confusing. I have no idea what day it is. I had to look at the – on my phone to see what day of the week it is.
But so that’s new. That’s different from what was in the agreement. The – what – one positive outcome is we hope that we’ve sort of reset the baseline, right, by bringing down the violence substantially that all parties can see the value to it. You can see how well people are reacting in Afghanistan. I think you saw the great photos yesterday of General Miller and the Afghan defense minister. But perhaps more important than them are ordinary Afghans who have had a great week, and including the Taliban have stopped their restrictions on the telecom towers, so everybody’s been able to have cellphone coverage 24/7.
Signing – once we sign the agreement, then there are commitments that we had previously negotiated for additional efforts to reduce violence. The agreement explicitly calls on the Taliban to sit down with the other Afghans in the intra-Afghan negotiations, and where they will discuss the modalities and the timing of a comprehensive and a permanent ceasefire.
In a lot of civil wars, it’s not uncommon – you can’t get a ceasefire upfront, although everybody wants a ceasefire upfront. It’s an outcome of a process where insurgents feel that their political objectives have been met. Right now we don’t have an existing political process. They want a little bit more confidence that that will come into being before they’re willing to give up all of their leverage.
So we’re going to continue to push them, their commitments in the agreement in that regard. So in our minds we’re thinking it of it as a stairstep, right, where we’re pushing everybody down towards a reduction of violence. But ISIS is still there. There were some events this week that are likely attributable to ISIS. There are other militant groups active in Afghanistan. There are criminal groups. It is not Switzerland. So everybody should have I think realistic expectations that it’s not going to be 100 percent zero overnight. It’s a process, and everybody’s going to have to keep working. There’s a lot of mistrust, decades of fighting, so it’s not going to be easy. And I just want to set expectations so everybody’s realistic about what’s coming.
QUESTION: Not even Switzerland is Switzerland.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yes, yes.
MODERATOR: Go ahead. I promised you. Yeah.
QUESTION: Thank you. I wanted to ask you about Pakistan’s role, what kind of assurance or commitment you have received from Pakistan and if they have a place at the – seat at the table.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Pakistan has been an important partner to us in this effort, given Pakistan’s history in this conflict, which is well known to everybody. They’re an important player. So it’s been useful to us to have a productive working relationship with the Government of Afghanistan [i] on this issue. They originally – when Zal started this process – were cooperative in releasing Mullah Baradar, who has been the lead of the negotiating team. He was Mullah Omar’s named successor. He’s played an important role in this process.
Most recently they have been helpful in supporting our effort to press for the reduction of violence that we’ve achieved this past week. So – but nothing is easy between those two countries. There’s a long and difficult history. No one thinks it’s perfect, and we’re going to need continued support and effort by Pakistan to help move forward on implementation of the agreement.
QUESTION: Thank you. I wanted to follow up on the withdrawal of troops. The initial phase will take several months, said [Senior Administration Official One]. But will it start immediately, or immediately after Oslo starts? And is it a clear timeline for the condition-based withdrawal written in the agreement? Even if you can share it, is it written in the agreement?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: So I’m so glad you said conditions-based, which means [Moderator] is successful at her job in getting that line out.
MODERATOR: For once. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Just to get an answer.
MODERATOR: Thank you. I owe you a drink on the plane, Francesco. (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Let me explain a little bit about what the [Senior Administration Official One] said. It’s so explicit in the agreement that our commitments with regard to drawdown of troops are based on our assessment of whether or not the Taliban are abiding by their commitments on CT. We went into Afghanistan with NATO after 9/11 because of the threat to the United States and our allies. We are still there because we are concerned about the terrorist threat, although we have made enormous progress over the course of this war, including against ISIS and including against AQ.
So assuming the Taliban – and that’s a big assumption – assuming the Taliban live up to their commitments, that will effect the pace of our withdrawal, after the initial stage, which is the drop to 8,600. So that is very explicit and prominent in the agreement. The agreement also calls for the Taliban, as we’ve said, to enter into these negotiations where the one topic that we’ve identified because it’s in our interest is reaching a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire. The other agenda items are for Afghans to decide and determine. Of course, as [Senior Administration Official One] said, we’ll use our voice to the be an advocate for things such as women’s rights. But it’s up to the Afghans to determine that agenda about how – and to determine a roadmap. That’s what we’re calling it – a roadmap for the future of their country.
MODERATOR: But I do think it was important point that you made, that the withdrawal – and DOD will be speaking to this, to your colleagues I’m sure – that the withdrawal timeline is related to counterterrorism, not political outcomes. Okay.
QUESTION: But will it start immediately?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Oh, yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Could you clarify that one more time? You said that the timeline is related to military —
MODERATOR: Counterterrorism, right.
QUESTION: Counterterrorism and not related to whether or not the Afghans themselves come up with an agreement?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: So the timeline is determined by our judgment explicitly if the Afghans are meeting their – or I’m sorry – if the Taliban are meeting their commitments in the agreement, okay. The core trait, if you will, is action on CT for drawdown. But the agreement also calls on them to enter into negotiations, be serious about those negotiations, including pushing for the comprehensive and permanent ceasefire. So our obligation – I can’t use the word obligation – our commitment to act on the drawdown is tied to Taliban action on their commitments in the agreement, which include in detail these CT commitments, because that was our priority concern, but as well their engagement in these negotiations.
QUESTION: But it is not dependent, I’m hearing —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: On an outcome.
QUESTION: — on an outcome?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Right. Explicitly. It’s not explicitly dependent on an outcome.
QUESTION: On a permanent peace agreement.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: And there’s a reason. There’s a reason why. Look at the past week in Kabul, okay. So we are going to push for an outcome as quickly as possible. We have mobilized the entire international community to push with us, to push the parties for peace. It’s not going to be easy. We all recognize that. But there’s also a strong desire among Afghans to get out of this conflict, which is the reason we’re doing this in the first place, because everybody recognized that it’s a military stalemate and a political solution is the only way forward.
So there’s flexibility in how we interpret Taliban action on the commitments.
QUESTION: Can you get into specifics about those counterterrorism commitments? Do they include joint counterterrorism operations with the U.S.? Is there going to be intel sharing? And then —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: No, there’s not – I don’t know where that came from.
MODERATOR: I think there were – I haven’t seen it yet, but they put a letter out.
QUESTION: There was a letter.
QUESTION: They put a letter out.
QUESTION: So Liz Cheney’s nightmare.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, but I don’t know where she got – I genuinely don’t know where she got that. No, we are not entering into a cooperative partnership with the Taliban. That said, those of you who follow this —
QUESTION: But you are opening a lemonade stand?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: — Nangarhar last year, Nangarhar province in northeastern Afghanistan, where there was a large ISIS presence, there was an effective deconfliction, right. The Taliban were taking it to ISIS with their ground forces; we and Afghan forces were using our airpower. We were trying not to get into – it wasn’t a – we weren’t cooperating. We were trying not to get in each other’s ways against a common enemy.
During this reduction in violence that we have been experiencing, this understanding over the past week, both sides agreed to continue operations against ISIS. So I would consider them as parallel efforts, ideally not bumping into one another, which achieves everybody’s objective. But there’s no cooperation.
QUESTION: And quickly, is there an explicit timetable for the negotiations to start?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yes.
QUESTION: How many days?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Right. Ideally – it says March 10th in the agreement, but as the [Senior Administration Official One] said, we’re realistic. This is Afghanistan and nothing happens on schedule. Yeah.
MODERATOR: But I think you made me think of a good point, Jennifer, which is for all of you on Saturday, when this stuff is released, it’s really important to pay equal attention to what’s released – the joint declaration that’s released out of Kabul as much as it is what’s released in Doha, because obviously, essentially, the spirit of the joint declaration is that the Afghanistan – the Government of Afghanistan is understanding and in line and agreement with the goals that we’ve set out in the agreement with the Taliban.
QUESTION: I think – I think you answered my question a little bit, but just to clarify, because [Senior Administration Official One] said a couple times if it – if the negotiations fail, we’re not bound to our withdrawal and we’re not bound to our agreements. We’ve heard that from the Secretary as well. That what is the metric for considering a success or a failure coming out of these talks? Where is that bar and who is determining whether or not what happens in Oslo is enough of a success or there’s enough progress to keep in this or if you want to get out?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, I don’t mean to give you, like, a bureaucratic answer, but it is genuinely hard to predict how this is going to unfold, given the complexity of the situation and the various positions of the parties. Ideally, what would happen is that they would come to an early conclusion on an approach, right. They need to identify the many, many different – difficult types of issues. For example, security forces, how are they – how do they begin consolidation; reconciliation, how do they do that; sort of what their governance structure should be. So they don’t have to actually agree to all those things, but they have to identify what are the things they have to tackle to set up a political roadmap for the country, and maybe put some timeline against it. So that would be an initial agreement, and then they would subsequently execute.
So that’s sort of the approach. What we want to see is progress by all parties, right, so the non-Talib Afghans as well the Taliban to seriously start working this out. And again, our expectation is that it won’t be easy, but possibly they can move more quickly on just identifying the – selecting the universe of tasks that they have to tackle.
QUESTION: And who is —
MODERATOR: Nick, go ahead. Sorry, we have just a couple minutes left. So —
QUESTION: One on the RIV and one on the peace —
MODERATOR: The “RIV,” come on. It’s a new acronym, buddy. You’ve got to use it.
QUESTION: The “RIV.” Oh, sorry. One on the RIV and one on the peace talks. On RIV, the military has told me that attacks are down about 60 to 70 percent and there has been deconfliction between Scotty Miller and the Taliban. Can you provide any details on maybe what some of those conversations have been like? And then on the peace deal, to what Matt was getting to and what Jessica was getting to, it’s clear obviously that you’re saying that conditions are in the deal.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah.
QUESTION: Is there also numbers attached to those conditions and a timeline attached to those conditions for a U.S. withdrawal?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: So there are very specific actions that the Taliban have agreed to take with regard to CT. So we will be able to measure those. We’ve set up a monitoring and verification process, which will include our military and other asset presence on the ground to feed back into us, as well as all the assets we have back here in Washington. So we will be the ones who look at what the Taliban do and determine whether or not they’re meeting their commitments, and that, again, will determine the pace of drawdown subsequent to the first initial phase of 8,600.
QUESTION: So just let me make sure I understand. So in that agreement there’s no dates and there’s no numbers of withdrawal associated with those conditions that we’re going to judge?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Let me try it another way. There is an initial drawdown, where there is a date and there is a number, right. Although General Miller hates talking about the number, he likes to talk about capabilities, okay? There is also an aspirational timeline for a withdrawal. That is entirely conditions-based and it will depend on their performance as we judge their performance.
QUESTION: What’s the timeline? Do you mind?
MODERATOR: You’ll see Saturday.
QUESTION: And, sorry, on the RIV?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, let me just tell you that the timeline is based on sort of a rational assessment in a perfect world, what would – how can you successfully and safely begin moving troops out. But it’s not a perfect world so we’ll see what happens.
MODERATOR: The operative word is —
QUESTION: But the dates will be public? Just to —
MODERATOR: Uh-uh. The operative word is “aspirational.”
QUESTION: Yeah, two questions. One, news reports say that Iran is providing the Taliban with MANPADS and trying to undermine the agreement with the U.S. Are you taking this into consideration? Are they accurate? And second, who will be attending this signing ceremony in Doha from the international community, from the Arab world or NATO or European partners or allies?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Sure. I’m glad you brought that point up, because it allow me to make a broader point, if you’ll indulge me. What’s helpful about this foreign policy challenge is that most governments in the world, even those we don’t get along with very well, have the same objectives in Afghanistan. Nobody wants to see the return of the Taliban Islamic Emirate. Nobody wants to see Afghanistan be a base for terrorists to thrive and attack others, including in the region. Nobody wants to see a vacuum, either a security or a political vacuum that creates more instability, more refugees, more vulnerabilities, right. Most want to see the gains of the past 18, 19 years preserved. Most would like to see Afghanistan become a productive country – a productive country in terms of being able to take care of its own people so that it’s not so reliant on international assistance and that it’s playing a stable role in the difficult neighborhood.
So based on those sort of core common interests, which apply to Iran, we have been able to mobilize, like, U.S.-European group support for what we’re doing; we have a U.S.-Russia-China group which Pakistan joined, mobilizing support for what we’re doing. So that’s been very positive, and we want to keep that going.
On the issue of Iran, historically speaking, since 9/11, Afghanistan had really not been an arena for U.S.-Iranian tensions. We would like to restore that status quo ante. We’ve also made very clear to the Taliban – very clear to the Taliban – that this is not going to work if the kinds of threats you’ve identified take place. They have that message 100 percent.
MODERATOR: I’m really sorry, the Secretary is pinging you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Oh.
MODERATOR: You’ve got to go.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Okay.
MODERATOR: Sorry, guys.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Sorry.
QUESTION: How many —
MODERATOR: I can try to – I can try to answer some questions.
QUESTION: Are we going to see the document?
MODERATOR: You really – you’ve got to go.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you so much.
MODERATOR: I held [Senior Administration Official Two] for about 10 minutes and the front office is freaking out at me.
QUESTION: [Moderator], can you answer a logistical question?
MODERATOR: Yeah, I will try – do you – wait. Just wait two seconds. Do you guys feel like you still need more? Because we leave tomorrow.