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08/04/2021 06:42 PM EDT
Ned Price, Department Spokesperson
2:03 p.m. EST
MR PRICE: Good afternoon. I’ve actually come emptyhanded today, don’t have anything at the top, and I see we’re also empty in front, so I don’t know what to do. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: All right. Well —
MR PRICE: Please.
QUESTION: Well, okay. Well, here we are. (Laughter.) It is a struggle to be allowed here, so let’s start with yesterday news, actually. So there is a tweet from the British foreign minister talking about Iran yesterday and what happened with the tanker. He said that he was in consultation with Secretary Blinken and they’re looking for a joint action. So can you just give us some – like, a background or – exactly of what the joint action could be? Are we talking about sanctions? Are we talking about some kind of other alternatives? What does it mean when they said that they’re going to take some steps towards securing the maritime shipment in the Gulf of Oman?
MR PRICE: Sure. You mentioned a statement from UK Foreign Secretary Raab. Let me also add that Secretary Blinken had an opportunity today to speak to his British counterpart, Foreign Secretary Raab. And they spoke about ongoing efforts to forge a coordinated response to Iran’s attack on the Mercer Street, which we have said was a commercial vessel peacefully transiting international waters. The Secretary reiterated his condolences. Of course, the UK lost one of its nationals in this Iranian attack along with the death of the Romanian captain who was also killed in this despicable attack.
When it comes to the response – and Secretary Blinken spoke to this from this podium on Monday – we are coordinating very closely with, as I just said, our British allies, with our Romanian partners as well, and the broader international community. We are in close consultations with them about the diplomatic next steps. We welcome coordination as well with our international partners to protect maritime security and freedom of navigation against those threats posed by Iran. I can say that we also do support the UK’s call for a UN Security Council action against Iran in condemning the Mercer Street attack that, again, resulted in the death of a British citizen and a Romanian citizen.
QUESTION: Right, so you want to give us any idea of exactly what is this coordinated action?
MR PRICE: Those consultations are ongoing. I wouldn’t want to get ahead of where we are. The nature of coordination is that we want to ensure that we’re coordinated and that we are acting in concert with our closest allies and partners on this.
QUESTION: One more question on the Middle East before Matt starts.
QUESTION: No, no.
QUESTION: Thank you. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I was late. I —
MR PRICE: He has forfeited his prerogative.
QUESTION: I will wait my turn.
QUESTION: Okay, good. So today is the first anniversary of the bombing of the port in Beirut. We saw the video that President Biden released this morning. As you know, till now, there’s no accountability for anybody who was responsible for this. Is the U.S. pushing it? Because my understanding, there was some team of the FBI who were investigating as well what happened. Does – the U.S. pushing for accountability? What exactly are you calling for in addition to what the President said this morning in terms of donation to the Lebanese people?
MR PRICE: Well, let me make a couple points. Of course, it is the one-year anniversary of this tragic explosion in the Port of Beirut that killed hundreds of innocent Lebanese citizens. As you know, the International Support Group for Lebanon met earlier this week on the eve of the anniversary. Those members expressed their solidarity, as do we, with the families of the victims and with those whose lives and livelihoods have been affected by it. In addition to those killed, thousands more were injured and thousands more from there, their livelihoods were impacted by this.
The International Support Group did indeed urge authorities to swiftly complete the investigation into the port explosion so that the truth may be known and justice may be rendered. The ISG observed with deep concern the broader context in which this anniversary takes place. Of course, that includes the worsening economic crisis that has affected nearly all elements of Lebanese society, its people, its institutions, its services. And the ISG did call upon Lebanese authorities as a matter of national responsibility, as has the United States in this context and previously, to urgently take every possible step to improve lives for the Lebanese people. And in this case, that means putting aside their political, their personal, their partisan differences for the good and for the benefit of the Lebanese people.
A year has now passed without a government in Lebanon. Of course, there is now a designation of a new prime minister, but Lebanon’s leaders do need to, without delay, support the formation of an empowered new government, a new government that is empowered to take on the reforms that are long overdue.
Now this was August 3rd. That was earlier this week. Of course, today is in fact the one-year anniversary, and I imagine you saw – had an opportunity to see the words from President Biden, who took part in today’s —
MR PRICE: — humanitarian assistance conference. And specifically, the President announced that we are providing nearly $100 million in additional humanitarian assistance for Lebanon. That is on top of an already significant sum of more than 550 million – I think the exact sum is 560 million in humanitarian aid that the United States has provided to the Lebanese people over the past two years. This humanitarian assistance will benefit vulnerable populations in Lebanon. That includes those who have been so devastated by the political impasse and the resulting economic crisis as well as Syrian refugees and the Lebanese communities who are so graciously hosting them.
We remain the largest donor of humanitarian support for Lebanon anywhere and we have a – we appreciate and – all of those other countries that have stepped up. We continue to reiterate our calls for the international community to do the same.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Yeah, Said.
QUESTION: What —
QUESTION: Yeah, staying on Lebanon.
QUESTION: Wait, I want to go back to Iran, but on Lebanon very quickly. Are you making that $100 million contingent upon anything? And do they have – let’s say, to push forward the investigation, have you – let’s say, a year later – have you, on your own, sort of determined who may be – who is complicit in this explosion?
MR PRICE: So this is humanitarian assistance.
MR PRICE: And humanitarian assistance is for the good —
MR PRICE: — and for the benefit of the people of Lebanon. The people of Lebanon have nothing to do with this political impasse. In fact, the people of Lebanon are the ones who have been devastated by this political impasse. Just to give you a bit more granularity, the funding includes 56 million from our Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, and more than $41 million from USAID and its Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance. And it will provide access to education and health services, food assistance, support for protection services and rehabilitation of water and sanitation services as well, among other forms of assistance.
QUESTION: You mentioned, Ned, a little bit earlier the broader context in which this anniversary is taking place and the meeting that happened today and the U.S. pledge. Does that broader context include the rockets being fired into Israel from Lebanon, like the three that happened this morning? And whether it does or not, do you have anything to say about that?
MR PRICE: Well, when it comes to the rocket attacks, we absolutely condemn the rocket attacks from armed groups based in Lebanon that were fired into Israel. As the President has said, as Secretary Blinken has said, that Israel has the right to defend itself against such attacks. We will remain engaged with Israeli partners, with Lebanese officials, and other partners in the region in an effort to de-escalate the situation.
QUESTION: Do you not see at all a pattern here, meaning in Lebanon, in the Gulf, in Afghanistan, where you guys are offering money, negotiations, the prospect of sanctions relief, and the response to that is more aggression? Do you see any pattern at all in this?
MR PRICE: I do see a pattern. I see a pattern of the United States maintaining its humanitarian leadership. We are not going to apologize for providing another $100 million to the people of Lebanon – the people of Lebanon who have been so devastated by the intransigence of their political leaders.
We’ve talked about this broader context. We talked about it yesterday. But if you’re suggesting a connection between our humanitarian leadership and these attacks, that is not one that we see.
QUESTION: In this logjam of government formation, do you – is anyone more complicit than other – is there any particular group or any particular party?
MR PRICE: Well, we have been – Secretary Blinken, you may recall, issued a pretty stark statement and he was very direct. And rather than take aim at specific leaders, this is a collective failure on the part of those who call themselves leaders in Lebanese society. A leader at this point, a true leader, should be in a position and should see the need to show that flexibility, to show that leadership, putting the interests of his or her people first. We have not seen Lebanese officials do that. For over a year it has been without a government in Lebanon. It is time for that to change. It is time for Lebanese officials to do the right thing.
QUESTION: On the —
QUESTION: Ned, who is responsible for providing or distributing the humanitarian aids to the Lebanese people and the refugees?
MR PRICE: As we do around the world, the State Department and USAID, we work with humanitarian partners who are on the ground, who are vetted, who are effective when it comes to distributing this kind of – this aid.
QUESTION: You’re not providing them to government or to the official institutions?
MR PRICE: It’s our humanitarian partners who are implementing partners in most of these cases.
QUESTION: On Lebanon. Credible reports say that between October 2019 and now, $20 billion were withdrawn from the Lebanese banks and deposited in European banks. Why not exposing the people who did that? You are offering now humanitarian aid. Why not exposing the people if you are not going to sanction them? And you supported also the European legal framework for a sanctions regime. Do you have a list of names of people that could be sanctioned?
MR PRICE: Well, we are looking at a number of tools at our disposal to help the people of Lebanon. We’ve spoken of a couple of them already today – humanitarian assistance, using the power of our voice to call for Lebanon’s leaders to do the right thing, but of course there are other means to hold those accountable who are responsible for this. Some of our closest allies have enacted sanctions. Sanctions are a tool that are also available to us. In all cases, however, we don’t preview sanctions actions before they are implemented, typically for the very simple reason that previewing them would make them less effective.
So I’m not in a position to do that today, but we are continuing to look at everything that we might be able to do to provide that much-needed humanitarian relief, stability, security, and, over the longer run, prosperity for the people of Lebanon, something they have been denied for far too long.
QUESTION: And do you have any comments on the (inaudible) security forces attacking the demonstrators today?
MR PRICE: Peaceful – we support the right of peaceful demonstration around the world. That includes in Lebanon. It includes elsewhere in the Middle East, as we have noted recently in the case of Iran. You’ve heard us make that point the world over.
The Lebanese people have a right to have their voices be heard, to take part in peaceful demonstrations in an effort to do what we are all, frankly, trying to do, and that is to hold to account the Lebanese leadership to the commitment to the responsibility that they have as purported leaders. That is what the Lebanese people are doing. Violence should never be used against peaceful demonstrators.
The point you were making before about corruption is also relevant here. It is mismanagement, it’s intransigence, it is also corruption that has taken such a toll on the people of Lebanon. It’s understandable that the Lebanese people would have frustrations. They, just like people everywhere, should be allowed to show that frustration peacefully.
QUESTION: Can I go to Afghanistan?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: It seems that the Taliban are now targeting government officials and the acting defense minister yesterday. I wonder, has the U.S. had any direct diplomatic contacts with the Taliban since then? What’s your messaging? And also how concerned are you about China’s recent meeting with the Taliban?
MR PRICE: Well, let me spend a moment on the attack yesterday. We unequivocally condemn the targeted attack on Afghan Defense Minister Bismillah Mohammadi. Although the minister wasn’t present, reports do indicate that eight people were killed in the attack and many more were injured. The Taliban have claimed responsibility for this shameful act. The Taliban must stop this ongoing violence. They must stop it.
Taliban leaders continue to say one thing – namely, that they support a negotiated solution to the conflict – but as I’ve said in recent days, as others have said, those words ring hollow when they continue these types of actions, these types of attacks, including against provincial centers, when they use car bombs, VBIEDs in urban centers, putting civilian populations at risk. These acts inevitably kill civilians, as we saw in this very case, and they must stop. They must stop targeted killings and they must prevent Taliban fighters from engaging in the types of horrific acts, including these attacks, that result in the loss of innocent Afghan lives and the displacement of the civilian population.
We’ve made this point before, but if you look back at the history of Afghanistan over the past 40 years, over the past 50 years, we know that a continuation down this path will lead to only more bloodshed. The people of Afghanistan have suffered enough. In fact, I was just looking at a report emerging from Kabul of the Afghan people, very loudly, condemning what they are seeing take place in their provincial capitals, in their urban centers, in their country. It’s past time to end this decades-long cycle of violence. This is not a cycle of violence that started in March. It’s not a cycle of violence that started in 2021. It’s not even a cycle of violence that, in some ways, started in 2001. This is a cycle of violence that has gone on for far too long, and we are doing all that we can, galvanizing the international community, to collectively do all that we can to put an end to it.
And the point we’ve made on that front, it bears repeating, and that’s that the international community won’t recognize a group, a future Afghan government, that seizes power through violence and shows little or no regard for human life. It would be a grave mistake for the Taliban to expect even a de minimis level of international support if they were to seek to do just that. They can only expect condemnation.
I saw Ambassador Khalilzad was making a very similar point, and he made the point – obviously someone who has worked on this issue for decades now – made the point that the Taliban admit that in the 1990s, they didn’t understand the – what international legitimacy or international support would mean. That is something that we’re seeking to make very clear now. If the goal is a just and durable solution, I think everyone can agree that they want a durable solution, including the Taliban. A solution cannot be durable if it is not just, because a just solution is not one that would accrue that international legitimacy; it is not one that would accrue the type of international support that has been necessary for this government in Afghanistan for the past 20 years.
QUESTION: But they have had meetings with the Chinese recently. I mean, they do have —
MR PRICE: Well, they – and of course we are supporting the intra-Afghan dialogue. We’ve made the case that only through diplomacy can we – can the parties achieve this just and durable solution. When it comes to the PRC, again, this is one of those areas where we do have an alignment of interests. It is in no one’s interest to see an Afghanistan that lacks security, that lacks stability, that lacks prosperity, that is ravaged by violence. It’s not in the interests of the people of Afghanistan. It’s not in the interests of the United States. It’s not in the interests of the government in Beijing. And so the fact that the PRC recognizes that, the fact that they have issued statements that are very much in line with what we have been saying – in fact, if you look at the extended troika earlier this year – and the extended troika, of course, includes Russia, China, Pakistan – issued a statement: “We reiterate that there is no military solution in Afghanistan and a negotiated political settlement through an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process is the only way forward for lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan.” That emanated with Beijing’s signature on it. That is precisely what we believe. We are united in this.
So we have been consistently making the point that the international community – this is not a task for the United States alone. This is not a task for any one country alone. This is a task for the international community, and we welcome efforts to support diplomacy that culminates in a just and durable political solution.
QUESTION: Just to follow up on Michele’s question, and we talked about this a little bit the other day with Andrea. So as the Taliban continues to conduct these attacks, the U.S. embassy this morning warned of potential war crimes related to reports of execution or disappearance of ANDSF who surrendered. At what point would the United States withhold support for the peace process? Can you just acknowledge whether it is unconditioned by the behavior of the Taliban? I know you guys want to give it more time because there are meetings and everyone hopes that this works. But if you could just speak to whether and how this is conditioned on some modicum of respect for the spirit of the agreement that was struck in 2020 with the Trump administration, that would be helpful.
MR PRICE: Well, I’d start by saying a couple of things. Number one, this is a process – the intra-Afghan dialogue is a process that has been ongoing for less than a year. It started on September 12th. Now, of course, a day of this type of violence – a week, a month of this type of violence – is far too long, so we are not content with the pace, but it is also a process that has only been underway for less than a year and we are continuing to support that.
I would hesitate to establish conditions under which we would change our approach. The last thing – what we want to do is support diplomacy. What we don’t want to do is to provide any actor a roadmap for impunity, the extent to which they could go that would require a drastic change in course. I think what is true – and this is not just our opinion, this is the considered judgment of the international community – is that only a diplomatic solution can bring about the opposite of what we’re seeing now. If what we’re seeing now is violence and bloodshed, only that diplomatic solution can bring about an outcome that is just and durable and that affords all Afghans the level of safety, the level of security, the level of stability that has been denied to them for decades and decades now.
QUESTION: But arguably they might think that they – they might hear the message as that they actually do have impunity now because they’re able to carry out these attacks and the international community is still engaging with them.
MR PRICE: They absolutely don’t, for a couple reasons. Number one, it is a simple fact that the Afghan Security Forces are numerically far superior to the Taliban. It’s a simple fact. They have over 300,000 troops. They have an air force. They have special forces. They have heavy equipment. They – the Taliban, in contrast, have less than 100,000 forces.
What’s also important is that the United States continues to support Afghan Security Forces, and we are committed to supporting them well into the future. In fact, President Biden in his most recent budget request has put forward an ask of $3.3 billion to support Afghan Security Forces.
So what we’re seeing is – I think it is a question of leadership, both political and military, for Afghanistan’s leaders – uniting them and motivating the forces they have, the forces that are fighting for the outcome that I think collectively we want to see: a stable and secure Afghanistan, pushing back on what the Taliban is doing.
All the while, the diplomacy is ongoing. We are supporting that diplomacy. That’s the focus of this building, just as our colleagues across the river have been focused on the security assistance side. So – go ahead.
QUESTION: And – sorry —
QUESTION: Ned, I hate to say this, but this is getting to the point of intellectual dishonesty. You say if the goal is a just and durable solution. There is no evidence whatsoever that the Taliban’s goal is a just and durable solution, none. In fact, as Missy just pointed out, the embassy tweeted this morning that the Taliban are putting landmines in civilian homes and hiding behind families while attacking the ANDSF, which, if confirmed, would constitute – could constitute a war crime. You just acknowledged that the Taliban claimed responsibility for trying to blow up the defense minister. With all due respect to your wishful thinking, a bunch of guys sitting around in a suite in a luxury hotel in Doha talking about peace doesn’t – that doesn’t mean anything on the ground. So when are you just going – why don’t you just stop this facade? Because it’s insane. It’s ridiculous.
MR PRICE: Matt, the Taliban have every interest in a durable – in a —
QUESTION: No, they don’t. They have shown – give me one example of any interest – other than what’s taking place in Doha – of the Taliban’s interest in a just and durable peace.
MR PRICE: I think it is in no – it is in – it is in —
QUESTION: You yourself called what they were doing yesterday atrocities.
MR PRICE: It is in no one’s interest – not the people of Afghanistan, not the Government of Afghanistan, not the Taliban, not Afghanistan’s neighbors – for there to be 40 years of continuing conflict and civil war.
QUESTION: Well, it’s apparently in someone’s interest, because that’s what’s been going on. And I’ll stop, and I bring this up virtually every day, but it’s just – it’s getting to the point of just, like, I don’t understand how you can get up there and say every day that we think that they want a just and durable solution, a peaceful solution —
MR PRICE: Our point – our point is that – our point is that —
QUESTION: — and that they want international recognition when they have done absolutely nothing to suggest that they do.
MR PRICE: Our point – our point is that we are supporting a just and durable solution. It is self-evident that the Taliban seek a durable solution. It is not in their interest to attempt to wrest power by force —
MR PRICE: — and only to be displaced down the road after some —
QUESTION: So you’re going to – so you’re saying – so you’re going to invade again?
MR PRICE: Some period of conflict. It is not about invasion, Matt. This is a country that has been wracked by competing forces.
QUESTION: As we all know. But this is – this line that you guys keep saying is just – it’s just, it – nobody believes it except for – I’m – I doubt that you actually believe it, but whatever. It’s your job. You have to get up there and say it every day. But I – I just – you have to acknowledge at some point that the Taliban has shown no interest in a just and durable solution that – or international recognition, apart from the fact that a bunch of – a couple guys, a dozen or so, are negotiating – quote/unquote negotiating – in Doha, isn’t that correct?
MR PRICE: And —