Secretary Antony J. Blinken Remarks on Afghanistan at a Press Availability

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Good afternoon.  Good to see everyone.  I’d like to give you an update on the ongoing efforts across the State Department regarding Afghanistan, and then happy to take questions after that.

So earlier this week, a few hours after the military mission in Afghanistan ended and a new diplomatic mission began, I laid out some of the main elements of our plan for this next chapter.

Here’s where we are as of today.

First, our new team in Doha is up and running.

Second, we’re in constant contact with Americans who remain in Afghanistan and may still wish to leave.  We’ve assigned case management teams to each remaining American citizen who has expressed an interest in leaving.  As you know, starting in March, we sent 19 separate notices to American citizens in Afghanistan encouraging and then urging them to leave.  Most of the remaining American citizens are dual nationals whose home is Afghanistan and whose extended families live there.  So it’s no surprise that deciding whether or not to leave the place they call home is a wrenching decision.

We’re also in touch with others working to help at-risk people leave Afghanistan.  That includes our foreign partners, news organizations, and private foundations.  There are a lot of extremely complex logistical issues to address and coordinate.  We’re working through them as quickly and as methodically as we possibly can.

Let me say a few words also about those Afghans who applied for – or may be eligible for – Special Immigrant Visas.  There have been questions about the backlog of SIV applicants and why more of these men and women weren’t already out of Afghanistan by the time the evacuation operation began.  So let me give you a little bit more context on this.

When we took office, we inherited a backlog of more than 17,000 SIV applicants.  The program was basically in a dead stall.  There had not been a single interview of an SIV applicant in Kabul in the nine months prior to us taking office going back to March of 2020.  COVID-19, of course, was a major impediment.  As you may know, the process for approving a Special Immigrant Visa is not a simple one.  There are 14 steps laid out in a statute passed by Congress – these are congressional requirements.  They involve multiple departments and agencies, not just the State Department.  The most time-consuming steps often aren’t handled by this Department.

But we were determined to fix this.  Within two weeks of taking office, we restarted the SIV interview process in Kabul.  On February 4th, one of the very first executive orders issued by President Biden directed us to complete a review of the entire SIV program to identify causes of undue delay to find ways to process SIV applications more quickly and effectively.  I directed additional resources – significant additional resources to the program, including adding 50 people to the team in Washington to process applications.  We also sent more SIV adjudicators to our embassy in Kabul, doubling the resources at our embassy in Kabul working on SIV cases.  And all of this was in the springtime.  When our embassy went on ordered departure in April and many embassy personnel returned to the United States, we sent more consular officers to Kabul to work on processing SIV applications.

As a result of these and other steps including working with Congress, by May we had reduced the average processing time for Special Immigrant Visas by more than a year.  Even in the midst of a COVID surge in June, we continued to issue visas.  And we went from issuing about 100 Special Immigrant Visas every week in March to more than 1,000 every week in August.

In July, some of you will remember, we launched Operation Allies Refuge with relocation flights to bring Afghans eligible for SIVs, as well as their family members, to the United States.  And of course we negotiated third-country sites to host SIV candidates as we processed their applications.

We continue to process as many SIV applications as possible.  We’re exploring alternative ways to process applications, so applicants don’t have to wait in Afghanistan until we’re finished but instead if they can go – get there, get to a third country for additional processing before coming to the United States.

We’ve also now learned from hard experience that the SIV process was not designed to be done in an evacuation emergency.  There are lessons here that we need to learn, we will learn, even as our work continues – ways to make the program run more efficiently, more effectively.

One final note on the SIVs.  I want to thank the many veterans of the war in Afghanistan who are working individually or through veteran service organizations to help Afghans who helped them.  State Department officials conferred with veterans’ groups throughout the evacuation operation.  I just spoke with several of them, along with Denis McDonough, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, who are using their voices, their networks, their resources to do all they can to help their friends and comrades.  We will partner with them on how to help SIV candidates in Afghanistan; they have ideas that we’ll be incorporating into the planning and work that we’re doing.  We have a relocation task force that is up and running right now, and the information, the ideas that we’re getting from the veterans community are being put into that process.  And simply put, I shared our gratitude to them for their incredibly important and passionate advocacy.

Helping these Afghans is more than a priority for us – it is a deeply held commitment, and it’s an ongoing one.  We’re going to do everything we can to keep it in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

Third, our diplomacy with allies and partners continues to intensify.

That diplomacy has already produced a statement signed by more than 100 countries and a UN Security Council resolution that makes clear the international community’s expectations of a Taliban-led government, including freedom of travel; making good on its commitments on counterterrorism; upholding the basic rights of Afghans, including women and minorities; and forming an inclusive government and rejecting reprisals.

In a couple of days on Sunday, I’ll be traveling to Doha, where I’ll meet with Qatari leaders to express our deep gratitude for all that they’re doing to support the evacuation effort.  I’ll also have a chance to meet with Afghans, including our locally employed staff from Embassy Kabul, who are now safely in Doha preparing for their journey to the United States.  And I’ll convey our pride and thanks to the diplomats, troops, and other U.S. Government employees in Doha who are doing truly heroic work around the clock to keep this process moving forward as quickly and humanely as possible.

From there, we’re heading to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where – again – I’ll have a chance to meet with Afghans awaiting processing and the Americans who are staffing that effort.  I’ll also meet with Foreign Minister Maas of Germany, and we’ll hold a ministerial meeting on Afghanistan, with him live and then virtually with other partners that will include more than 20 countries that all have a stake in helping to relocate and resettle Afghans and in holding the Taliban to their commitments.

Fourth, we continue to maintain channels of communication with the Taliban on issues that are important to us, starting with the commitment to let people leave Afghanistan should they choose to do so.

Fifth, we’re working closely with our partners Qatar and Turkey to help get the airport in Kabul up and running as quickly as possible.

Sixth, on the humanitarian front, the U.S. Treasury Department has issued specific licenses to allow U.S. government agencies, contractors, and grant recipients to continue to provide critical and lifesaving humanitarian aid to the people of Afghanistan, despite sanctions on the Taliban.  Consistent with our sanctions, this aid will not flow through the government, but rather through independent organizations.

Seventh, we’ve heard from many private companies, NGOs, foundations looking to help welcome Afghans arriving in the United States.  Some have already made very, very significant pledges.  That’s terrific; it’s also not surprising.  That’s what we do.  The United States stands for – stands apart from many for our global leadership in private philanthropy, and welcoming immigrants and refugees into our communities, that’s part of our DNA.  We’re issuing a call to action to other companies and organizations that want to help Afghans starting new lives in the United States.  We will help you find a way to make an impact.

Last night, I had a chance to go out to the Dulles Expo Center – some of you may have visited – where I saw the incredible operation that we – together with DHS, DOD, HHS, USAID – are running to welcome new Afghan arrivals when they first touch down in the United States.  Many thousands of people have fled fear and desperation and now hope for a better life and future here with us.  And our people made that happen.

Earlier today, I had a chance to meet with our team from Embassy Kabul, back home in the United States.  I spoke with employees across the Department at an all-hands town hall.  These past few weeks have been very intense.  They’ve demanded a lot from a lot of people here at the department – people who rose to the challenge and continue to give their all.  I talked to colleagues, consular officers, who were on the line shoulder-to-shoulder with the Marines, including those who lost their lives, literally pulling people into the airport and into safety and ultimately on to freedom.  And again, we talk a lot about the numbers and we throw a lot of statistics around, but each one of those was a mother, a father, a son, a daughter, a parent, a grandparent, and I have remarkable pride in what our people did, what our service members did, what our other colleagues across the government did to help.

And as I said the other day, particularly for those who gave their lives in this effort, some of us – maybe the most exceptional among us – are called upon to do a life’s work, a life’s service, in a short period of time.  And those 13 did a life’s work of service in a very short period of time.  And what I told our own colleagues here today who were part of that effort, no matter what they do going forward in the, I hope, many, many years that they will continue to serve, they too have already done a life’s work of service in a very, very short period of time.

We’re not stopping our work to help Americans and at-risk Afghans in Afghanistan.  We’re going to do everything we can moving forward to continue this mission and also to learn from it.  We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to the American people, to reflect on what we did, how we did it, what worked, what didn’t, what we can do better.  We’ll deliver on that, too.

And with that, I’m happy to take any questions.  Thank you.

MR PRICE:  Humeyra.

QUESTION:  Hello, Mr. Secretary.  Thank you for being here today.  I want to ask you two questions.  One is about the headlines of the day, and the other one is a wider issue you just mentioned.

The first one is we have reporting today that Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar will lead a new Afghan government set to be announced soon.  I would really like your reaction to this.  What does the U.S. Government think about this new specific government?  And I know that you have mentioned certain criteria and principles, but I really would be super keen to get your take on this specific government.

And the second one is I would like to ask you about accountability.  And you just said – you just talked about reflecting upon what happened, what went wrong.  And this is not to in any way diminish the work of this department and anybody else, I mean, as a person, but you and others in this administration have said there will be a time and place for that kind of accountability.  National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan specifically referred to it as a hot wash.  So where is the State Department in that process, and is this going to be in a format of a formal investigation?  What is that going to look like?  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  So with regard to the government, we’ve seen different reports of a government in formation.  I have not seen anything final or dispositive of what that government looks like, who’s in it, who’s not.  So I’m going to reserve comment and judgment until we see that.  That may be coming up in the hours ahead, in the days ahead, but I haven’t seen anything final.

But I’d say two things about it.  First, as we’ve said and as countries around the world have said, there is an expectation that any government that emerges now will have some real inclusivity and that it will have non-Talibs in it who are representative of different communities and different interests in Afghanistan.  So we’ll see what, in fact, emerges.

But I have to tell you that as important as what the government looks like is, more important still is what any government does.  And that’s what we’re – that’s what we’re really looking at.  We’re looking at what actions, what policies any new Afghan government pursues.  That’s what matters the most.

So the expectation is to see inclusivity in government, but ultimately the expectation is to see a government that makes good on commitments that the Taliban have made, particularly when it comes to freedom of travel; when it comes to not allowing Afghanistan to be used as a launching ground for terrorism directed at us or any of our allies and partners; when it comes to upholding the basic rights of the Afghan people, including women and minorities; when it comes to not engaging in reprisals.  These are the things that we’re looking at – and again, not just us, many countries around the world.

Second part of the question:  We are committed to looking at everything we’ve done from day one through the present and to draw lessons from it.  I think that there also needs to be, including across the State Department, a look back at the entire 20 years to understand the entire course of this war and engagement with Afghanistan and to ask the right questions and to learn the right lessons from that.  So we’ll have more, I’m sure, in the days and weeks ahead about what process we’re going to be engaged in, but we are committed to doing that.

MR PRICE:  Margaret.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much, Ned.

Mr. Secretary, a State Department official said the other day that the majority of Afghans who are Special Immigrant Visa recipients were left in Afghanistan.  I’m wondering if you have a specific number on that.  When you said today that one option would be a third country for processing to cut through the bureaucracy, are U.S. taxpayers giving money to do that?  How does that work?  Is that just a theory on paper, or are things actually in process to get them out right now?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  First of all, Margaret, good to see you.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Welcome back.  A few things on this.

So, I think as you know, we have evacuated roughly 124,000 people.  Many remain at the so-called lily pads as they’re being processed and then moved, in many cases on to the United States, or in some cases to other places.  And given the premium that we put on getting people out as quickly and as safely as possible – but now the premium on once they’re out and either at a lily pad or in some cases already in the United States – then really digging into exactly which categories they may fit into.  Were they locally employed staff?  Were they SIVs, Afghans at risk, potential P-1 or P-2 parolees, et cetera?  All of that work now is what we’re doing.

So I can’t give you specific numbers.  What I can tell you is this:  Of the roughly 124,000 people who’ve been evacuated, the vast majority – the vast majority, 75, 80 percent – are Afghans at risk.  And of those, some significant number will be SIVs, either people who already hold an SIV visa or those who are actually in the pipeline.  Some number will be potential P-1 or P-2 refugees or – and some other number will be Afghans at risk, prominent in one way or another, who may not fit into any of those categories.  We’re working through all of those numbers now, and again, I think we’ll have more to say on that in the days and weeks ahead as we actually work through them.

But the bottom line is the overwhelming majority of people who came out of Afghanistan were Afghans at risk in one way or another, including a significant number of SIVs.

QUESTION:  But for those who remain that you were talking about and potentially bringing to a third country for processing, what does that look like?  What are you doing right now to get those SIVs who were left behind?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So a few things on that.  There are a lot of things happening from the political to the practical to enable us to continue to bring people out of Afghanistan who wish to leave, including, of course, any remaining American citizens who want to leave; including SIVs; including Afghans at risk, including also third-country nationals who may be there.  The political I’ve already touched on, which is to say working from the commitments that the Taliban has made, we have worked intensely across the international community to set a very clear international expectation of what the world is looking for from the Taliban when it comes to freedom of travel, now enshrined in, among other things, the UN Security Council resolution.

That, by the way, is significant in a number of ways, one of which is that, as you know, the Taliban, among other things, is seeking sanctions relief – UN sanctions.  It is seeking the ability for its leaders to travel freely, which, again, under UN sanctions they currently cannot do absent an exemption.  And if a Taliban-led government is in violation of this latest Security Council resolution on freedom of travel, it’ll be – it’s pretty hard to see how they would get, for example, that kind of relief.  That’s just one example.

So that’s the – that’s part of the political piece.  And we’re in very, very active coordination with like-minded countries around the world so that we’re all – we continue to work together and use the leverage and influence we have to hold the Taliban to the commitments it’s made.

The practical, though, is also very important – making sure that there is the ability for people to travel, as a practical matter – the airport in Kabul where a tremendous amount of work was done in the last days of the military evacuation operation to make sure that we got and then shared with other countries the very detailed information necessary for how to get the civilian airport up and running once we left, including even bringing the American contractors back who’d been running the airport for 20 years.  And we’ve shared a tremendous amount of very detailed information, and some of our partner countries are now working to make that real.

Second, looking – and I’m not going to go into detail here – but looking at different ways of being able to travel out of Afghanistan across land.  And again, some of that will be – will be self-evident – as well as making sure that we have very clear and precise plans to help people, as necessary, use those routes outside of Afghanistan.

So all of that is being put into place as we speak.

MR PRICE:  Alex?

QUESTION:   Thank you, Mr. Secretary.   It’s been four days since you stood here and talked about the 100 to 200 Americans who remain.  In those four days, has that number changed at all?  Has any – have any more people managed to get out, and if so, how?  And you talk a lot about the conversations that are being had around how to get more people out, whether it’s Afghans or Americans.  Has that been more solidified, and is there any sense that the Taliban may renege on their – on their decision to allow those people out?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yeah.  Thanks, Alex.  So a couple of things on this.  As I mentioned, we are in very regular contact with a relatively small number of American citizens who remain in Afghanistan and who’ve indicated that they’re interested in leaving.  And we have dedicated teams assigned to each of these American citizens to be in constant contact with them.  We’re providing them with very tailored, very specific guidance.  Let me just say that for their protection and also to protect the viability of the – of our tactics, I’m not going to go into any details beyond that for now, just to say that we’re in very active contact.

And again, people need to understand the position so many of this relatively small group of people are in.  As I said, throughout these – for many months, going back many months – going back to March, we issued 19 different notices to those registered with the – with the embassy, as I said, encouraging them and then urging them to leave Afghanistan.  And then when the evacuation actually began a few weeks ago, there was an intense hour-by-hour effort to be in contact with those who nonetheless remained.

And as I’ve talked about before, I think in the course of those two weeks with this small group of people, 55,000 phone calls initiated, something like 30,000 emails, 6,000 Americans we were able to evacuate.  But part of the reason that some small number remain is that for this particular group, as I said, these are almost exclusively people who’ve been living in Afghanistan for years, for decades, in some cases for all their lives, and Afghanistan is home.  And so it’s especially wrenching for them to make the decision about whether to leave or not.  And in a number of cases, we were in contact with people who told us at first that they didn’t want to leave, then decided that they did, or some who said yes they did, and have now decided that they don’t.

My only point here is that we are in very direct, active contact with this group, and there’s absolutely no deadline on this work.  We’re going to be in very close touch, and as they desire to leave, we’re going to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to help them do exactly that.

MR PRICE:  Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you all.