Briefing by Acting A/S for South and Central Asian Affairs and Acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Alice G. Wells

Special Briefing

Office of the Spokesperson
Press Correspondents Room
Washington, DC
October 27, 2017

MS NAUERT: Hi, everybody. Good morning. How’s everyone?


MS NAUERT: I see some new faces here. I’d like to introduce you to Ambassador Alice Wells, who’s our acting assistant secretary for SCA. Ambassador Wells just returned; she’s a little tired this morning, so go easy on her, as our traveling team is. She just returned from the Secretary’s travels to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, and would like to provide some of her insights for all of you on the trip. This will be, my understanding, on the record, correct? On the record. We have to be in and out in 30 minutes. So since many of you are new to her, she’s new to you, if you could please identify your names and also the publication or the outlet you work for.

AMBASSADOR WELLS: I’ll do some topline points on each country and then open up to questions and answer. In Afghanistan, the Secretary was able to consult with both President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah on the South Asia strategy, and he made some key points. I mean, first he reinforced the long-term commitment to Afghanistan’s security and to eliminating the safe havens and the external support that’s contributed to the insurgency’s resilience. He talked with President Ghani about how the Afghan Government can better facilitate a reconciliation process, since we all recognize that the region is going to be – the security of the region is going to improve with a stable Afghanistan.

As part of the Afghanistan Government’s steps, we heard President Ghani talk about reinforcing the inclusivity of the government and the importance of timely and credible elections. And so this was a very collaborative conversation about how we can assist Afghanistan as it prepares itself over the longer term for political negotiation.

The Secretary welcomed the Kabul compact, which is 200 metrics, reform metrics, on economics, governance, reconciliation, and security. It’s an Afghanistan initiative which we have welcomed and we’re working closely with the government on, with President Ghani again reiterating the importance he perceives of being able to move quickly on these key areas, including counter – or anti-corruption.

And then finally, the Secretary underscored the critical role that the region has to place in – has to play in bringing peace to Afghanistan. I mean, Afghanistan literally I think has to be stitched back into the region. And whether that’s through trade, through energy ties, through infrastructure, all of the neighbors have a role to play.

On Pakistan, it was an extremely candid conversation with the prime minister and the civilian and military leadership team. The Secretary I think underscored that the strategy is an opportunity; it’s an opportunity since Pakistan, with the exception of Afghanistan, has the most to benefit from a stable and peaceful country next door. The Secretary noted that at several critical junctures over the last 70 years, we have worked very closely with Pakistan, and the Coleman hostage is an example of what we can do when we’re all pushing in the same direction.

But under the strategy, we’ve laid out some very specific expectations of how Pakistan can help create the conditions that will help bring the Taliban to the table. And I think the longstanding relationships with the militant and terrorist organizations – our concern is that they threaten Pakistan’s stability. We saw – you see already the spillover of the sectarianism that has been building in Pakistan over the last several decades. We believe that the Taliban leadership and the Haqqani Network still retain an ability to plan, to recuperate, and to reside with their families in Pakistan. The Quetta and Peshawar leadership councils of the Taliban have their names for a reason. And what we saw in 2014 was we saw Pakistan make a strategic decision to defeat the terrorist groups that were targeting the Government of Pakistan. And with great loss of life, great courage, great vision about what needed to be done, Pakistan has fought that battle and now has regained control and sovereignty over the FATA territories. We’d like to see the same strategic commitment brought against other militant groups, whether they’re – that are operating or have used Pakistan’s territory, whether they are directed against India or directed against Afghanistan.

Finally, the Secretary welcomed General Bajwa’s trip to Kabul, the commitment to ensure that neither country’s territory or soil would be used against another, and we very much look forward to the implementation of the commitments that were made between the Afghan and Pakistani leadership.

And again, all of this is about Pakistan’s sovereign choice. This is not about America giving dictation. We’ve described our strategy, we’ve described a very important role for Pakistan, who we see as a very important country in the region, but it’s up to them whether or not they want to work with us on this strategy. And if they don’t, as the Secretary said, we’ll adjust accordingly.

On India, there – this was an extremely friendly, very wide-ranging dialogue on how we can partner together on the strategic relationship that we think is going to define the rest of the 21st century. And if you saw the Secretary’s speech at CSIS, it was about the next 100 years in this very important relationship. So there was both the bilateral component to the visit, but also about how two countries with shared values – a respect for democracy, transparency, freedom of navigation, for economic development – how we can inculcate these values in the broader Indo-Pacific region, working with important partners like Japan and Australia. And I would just note, I thought the visit to Gandhi Smriti was very moving, and again, really was a touchstone for what unites – that this relationship is very much one built on values.

The Secretary laid out a lot of ambitions for the relationship. We want to build on the June visit by Prime Minister Modi with the President, and just say, “How do we take this relationship to the next level?” Obviously, we’d like to deepen the military-to-military cooperation that has moved very quickly; over the last decade we’ve gone from zero in defense sales to 15 billion in defense sales. There are important defense agreements that we can move forward on that will make it easier for us to share classified data and that will facilitate sales like the F-16 or the F-18 and will help create a defense technology partnership, which is what India is seeking, but which will also create jobs for Americans at home.

We’d like to expand the bilateral trade and investment dimension of the relationship. We have about 115 billion in trade, 40 billion in bilateral investment. This week we have two important meetings going on, the Trade Policy Forum and the commercial dialogue, done by both Commerce and USTR. But we see this as a two-way street. Later this month the Indian firm Mahindra is opening an auto plant in Michigan. We’ve seen purchases of Boeing aircraft, all of which produce, again, thousands of jobs for American citizens. And then later in November we’ll have the Global Entrepreneurship Summit headed by Ivanka Trump, which is going to bring together 1,300 entrepreneurs and investors and I think really demonstrate the entrepreneurial spirit of the relationship.

Finally, of course, the Secretary focused on how we can promote regional stability. In the South Asia strategy, we’ve given an important role to India on helping to stabilize Afghanistan economically and to build its human resource capacity. Since 2001, India has invested $2 billion in Afghanistan. They’ve pledged another 1 billion by 2020. And if you look at their projects, which are in like 31 provinces – they’re dams, drinking water, infrastructure; it’s training for government officials, for students – all of these projects have been very well received. They’re constructive, and I think it’s demonstrated that India is an important and valuable partner. At the same time, of course, we’ve made it clear to everyone that we would never tolerate anyone’s soil being used against the other. Finally, on the fight against terrorism, building on the joint designation we did of Harakat ul-Mujahidin during Prime Minister Modi’s visit, we’re looking forward to working with the India – with the Indians on identifying additional designations that we should pursue together.

So a very comprehensive, very deep visit. The Secretary had a chance to meet with some of the key business leaders, representatives of U.S. firms. This is a dynamic relationship with really the – we haven’t seen – begun to see the potential yet, so a lot of excitement driving that visit. I’ll leave it at that.

MS NAUERT: Okay. If you could just tell Alice your name and your outlet, please.

QUESTION: Okay. I’m Lalit Jha with PTI, Press Trust of India. The Japanese foreign minister has said he’s proposing a strategic dialogue between India, U.S., Japan, and Australia. What is the U.S. view on that? Have they reached out to you?

And in India, was the Rohingya issue – did it come up during the talks with the Indians?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: The quadrilateral that the Japanese foreign minister discussed would be building on what has been a very productive trilateral that we have with India and Japan, and if you look at the largest military exercise that we do, Malabar, Japan is a part of that exercise. As we explore ways to deepen and try to inculcate some of the values – freedom of navigation, maritime security, humanitarian assistance, disaster response, transparency – obviously, Australia would be a natural partner in that effort as well. We’re looking at a working-level quadrilateral meeting in the near term, but again, I think the idea is how do we bring together countries that share these same values to reinforce these values in the global architecture.

QUESTION: David Brunnstrom from Reuters. Just to follow up on that —

AMBASSADOR WELLS: I didn’t finish the Rohingya. The Rohingya issue was raised. We of course share India’s concern over the potentially destabilizing consequences of a large exodus of Rohingya into Bangladesh, but also the need to ensure that the government in Burma stands up responsibly for its commitment to protecting the citizens of the – within Rakhine State.

QUESTION: David Brunnstrom from Reuters. To follow up what you were saying about the quad, exactly where is that at the moment?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: About the what?

QUESTION: The quadrilateral, where is that at the moment? Was there discussion on that in Delhi? And obviously, in the past, China has reacted quite negatively to this concept and considers it a part of a plan to sort of surround it. And how do you respond to Chinese concerns about such a cooperative arrangement?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: Well, I think it’s hard to see a meeting of diplomats from four countries as a plan to contain China. I think it’s a natural expression and convergence of interests between democratic countries in the Indo-Pacific region and it’s a natural stepping stone from the very productive trilateral conversations, exercises, and cooperation that we’ve seen between India, Japan, and the United States. As – I think that the – countries that share values have an opportunity to provide alternatives to countries in the region who are seeking needed investment in their infrastructure and in their economic development, and so making sure that we coordinate our initiatives and provide these countries with alternatives that don’t include predatory financing or unsustainable debt, that would certainly be on the agenda.

I feel like he’s been holding up his hand for a very long time.

QUESTION: Dion Nissenbaum with The Wall Street Journal. I want to ask you a little bit about the Pakistan trip. If you could talk a little bit about – I assume you can’t get into specifics of what the specific asks are for Pakistan, but is there a timeline by which you would like to see them take some concrete steps before the U.S. decides to counter? And where is State on the idea of shutting down the Doha channel and the Taliban office that’s there?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: I think it’s important, and the Secretary stressed the importance of Pakistan moving quickly to demonstrate good faith and efforts to use its influence to create the conditions that will get the Taliban to the negotiating table. These are things that are seen and felt and measurable, and so we look forward over the next weeks and months to see the practical steps that Pakistan takes out of its own self-interest and ensuring that its own country is not destabilized by some of the actions of the groups that have been able to use its territory.

On the Taliban political commission, the point of a political commission is to negotiate, and so we would like to see the Taliban political commission be empowered to negotiate. The President’s South Asia strategy is predicated on a negotiated political settlement that is sustainable. That obviously requires a partner in the Taliban, and we’re looking to see those moderate elements of the Taliban be empowered to undertake this kind of dialogue. To date, the Taliban political commission has not been empowered, and so we will be looking very closely at their activities to make certain that their activities don’t range beyond what they’re actually supposed to do in Doha.

QUESTION: So months for Pakistan to take some concrete steps?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: I can’t give you an explicit timetable, but I think that we’re moving very quickly ourselves on our own strategy and in reinforcing on the military side our ability to demonstrate to the Taliban that they cannot win this war. And we’re going to make equally rapid progress on the diplomatic side or have equally-high expectations on the diplomatic side of responsiveness.

QUESTION: If I could piggybank – piggyback off of that.

MODERATOR: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Sorry. I’m Kylie with CBS. Thank you for doing this. In terms of the Doha office, so I hear you saying that the U.S. is not encouraging the closure of that office. And also, Tillerson mentioned the office when he spoke with reporters earlier this week. Does the U.S. have any communication, lines of communication open, with that office at this time?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: I think that, again, the Taliban political commission office, in a perfect world, would be negotiating with the Government of Afghanistan. I mean, that’s why they’re there, and that’s why they’ve been given the space in Doha to have that ability to engage with the Government of Afghanistan. We’ve not seen that level of engagement.

First and foremost, any peace settlement has to be between the people of Afghanistan. The countries of the region, and I would include us in that category, have an important role to play as well; but first and foremost, we need to see Afghans talking to Afghans, and we also need to, I believe to see improvements in Afghanistan and Pakistan relations given Pakistan’s importance historically in being a place where members of the Taliban and Haqqani Network have been able to retreat.

QUESTION: And you don’t want to comment on lines of communication open between the U.S. and that office now?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: I think the Taliban understand very clearly what our strategy is. There are multiple track two efforts that have been underway for the last seven years. There’s no confusion in the Taliban mind, I believe, on what U.S. strategy and emphasis is, and the emphasis is on getting the Taliban to speak with the Government of Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Nike Ching with the Voice of America. So does United States has the Chinese-led AIIB, Asia Infrastructure and Investment Bank, in mind when Secretary Tillerson was talking about having an alternative financing mechanism in South Asia?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: As Secretary of Defense Mattis said, I think it was two weeks ago, there are many belts and many roads. And so what does the U.S. have to offer? What does the U.S., Japan, Australia, other countries, India, other countries that share the values of transparency, sustainable debt, responsible development – what do we have to offer. So this is not to counter something; it is a positive vision of what important democracies in the Indo-Pacific region should be doing and how we can work better together.

The example that I always like to give is the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s $680 million project in Nepal, 130 million of which is funded by the Government of Nepal, the rest by MCC, which is building energy transmission lines to India along with roads that’s going to allow Nepal, over the course of the next seven years to actually be an energy exporter, but building connectivity between India and Nepal in a very responsible fashion, increasing regional connectivity. How do we work with one another, the countries of the region, to make sure that our development projects are mutually reinforcing, and how do we build on connectivity so that there is an alternative and very sustainable initiative that can address legitimate development needs of these countries?

QUESTION: Josh Lederman with AP. I was wondering if you could elaborate on the moderate elements of the Taliban and what we know about them that could be part of the government. I think it’s fairly jarring for people to remember when we went into Afghanistan 16 years ago to get rid of the Taliban. So are we talking about elements that seem willing to give up violence and bombings against Americans, et cetera? Are we talking about elements that are willing to treat women appropriately, and what do we know about that?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: We’ve always defined the post conditions that we’re looking for. So Taliban who are willing to renounce violence, renounce terrorism, and affirm the constitution. Those are the – that’s the end state. And so we need those Taliban who are prepared to work with the Government of Afghanistan and the region to reach that end state to come forward. And that’s both, I think, us having a consistent message to the Taliban about expectations, and by us I mean the region, and it’s also about the Government of Afghanistan presenting an attractive and inclusive government where legitimate grievances that have motivated insurgency over time are addressed.

QUESTION: Hi guys. Dave Clark, AFP. What kind of message does it send to the Taliban and to the people of Afghanistan that the president of Afghanistan had to drive to Bagram to meet the Secretary of State? Would it not have been more helpful to the Government of Afghanistan if the Secretary had been able to travel to Kabul and to meet him in the presidential palace?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: I really think this has been blown out of proportion. The meeting took place at an Afghanistan base. This is their base where we happen to have people present. As you saw, the Secretary that day went not only to Afghanistan, he also went to Baghdad. And so this was a very efficient and effective way for him to meet the Afghan leadership and conduct what was a brutal schedule during this very long trip. So we are grateful for the leadership in meeting with the Secretary at Bagram, and the meeting was extremely productive and very valuable in, I think, advancing the South Asia strategy.

QUESTION: But the Afghan leader felt the need to photoshop the picture to make it look less like a military facility.

AMBASSADOR WELLS: I really think this is a blip. I mean, what the Afghan people have responded to overwhelmingly positive fashion – and this is both in polling and in the articles that you see – is they’re welcoming of the strategy, they’re welcoming of the long-term American commitment that we’re prepared to stand with them until the Taliban agree to participate in a negotiated political settlement. So I would say that the reaction to the strategy has been overwhelmingly positive in Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Conor Finnegan with ABC News. I just wanted to go back to Pakistan and that line from the Secretary that if Pakistan doesn’t cooperate we’ll adjust our plans accordingly. Can you elaborate on that? Does that mean unilateral action on the part of the U.S. in terms of drone strikes or something like that, or does it mean more pressure on Pakistan, economic sanctions, things like that?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: I don’t want to define specifically what are going to be the reactions, but I think what we laid out in, again, a very candid and – conversation, was just what are our objectives, how do we see Pakistan and the United States partnering together? Historically we have been able to work with Pakistan. We have been able to accomplish great things together, including most recently what has been the arrest of most of the al-Qaida leadership working with the Pakistani authorities. But we have very specific asks of Pakistan to use the influence that it has – and you can debate how much influence they have, but I don’t think you’d debate the fact that there is influence – to use that influence to encourage the Taliban to come to the negotiating table.

And we can work together. I think over the last four years Pakistan – Pakistani officials and the Taliban both thought the United States was withdrawing. They were hedging against a chaotic departure. They were hedging against an uncertain security environment. What the South Asia strategy gives them, I believe, is certainty that we’re there, we’re not going to let the Taliban win, that we’re prepared to invest the resources that will be, at a minimum, a stalemate but a stalemate increasingly in the government’s favor. And so how do they use that to negotiate their legitimate needs at a negotiating table rather than rely on elements, on proxy elements.

And so I think there’s a real opportunity here for Pakistan to secure its strategic interests working with us.

MS NAUERT: The ambassador is going to have to head out, so we’ll just do one more question. Actually, we’ll do two. We’ll do Gardiner and (inaudible).

QUESTION: Alice, the Secretary has also said that this is not a blank check, that it’s condition-based. And we’ve never – and you say and he has said that we’re giving reassurance that we’re going to be there, we’re going to stay. On the other hand, he’s sort of saying that that’s not necessarily the case if conditions are not sort of met, and we’ve never really heard what the other side of that is. Like what happens – what are the conditions where that promise of staying will not sort of come true, where it’s not a blank check? Well, that sort of suggests that if something happens then we’re not going to stay, doesn’t it?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: The Secretary said there were conditions on both sides. We’ve made specific asks of the Pakistanis. We’ve made specific asks of the Afghans. And we have a real partner in this strategy with the Government of Afghanistan. President Ghani and his team themselves put forward the initiative of the Kabul compact and of these very specific reform initiatives. We’re meeting regularly to evaluate those reform initiatives.

We – the President, when he says that the United States doesn’t want to engage in nation building, we don’t want to create and sustain a donor economy in Afghanistan. We want Afghanistan to move to develop a private sector economy, to focus on how to tap into the extractive sector, which has been valued at a trillion dollars, to – which obviously is going to be – and rely on and have a relationship with the security situation in the country.

So when we say that it’s conditions-based in Afghanistan, I think what you see very clearly in Afghanistan is that we have a partner there and we’re working on those conditions together, and I think with already initial signs of success – when you see the firing or the retirement of 150 senior generals whose performance was not up to standard, when you see the prosecutions – the counterterror, the anti-corruption prosecutions that are taking place under the new judicial center. So we – I think we have a high level of confidence that President Ghani is our partner in moving reform forward.

MS NAUERT: And the final question.

QUESTION: My name is Kenichi from NHK. Regarding the U.S.-Japan-India-Australia Quadrilateral Working-Level Meeting, you said the near future. But do you have any date already set? And also may I ask which level you are referring to?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: I think I’m working level. (Laughter.) So I’d point the finger at me. I don’t mean to hedge on your question; I’ve just come back from travel. I don’t know if the specific date and time has been set yet, but certainly the expectation is that we would like to move forward with, at my level, a discussion between the four countries.

MS NAUERT: Thank —

QUESTION: Was there any meeting in Delhi on that?


QUESTION: Was there any quad meeting in Delhi?

MS NAUERT: Was there a quad meeting in Delhi?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: Mm-hmm, yeah – no.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Thanks, everybody. Thank you so much. Hope this was helpful.

QUESTION: Thanks you. Thanks for doing this.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS NAUERT: We tried to provide you as much information as possible this week.

QUESTION: Thank you.

AMBASSADOR WELLS: Thank you. Have a great weekend.