Transcript

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken Hold Press Conference With Qatar Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of State for Defense Affairs Dr. Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani

Sept. 7, 2021

DEFENSE MINISTER AL ATTIYAH:  (Via interpreter) As-salamu alaikum.  First off, I would like to welcome His Excellency Secretary Blinken and His Excellency Secretary Austin.  We always, when we meet our colleagues from the United States of America, we discuss about - we discuss our relations and how to improve them.  Today we spoke about Afghanistan and the humanitarian work, Afghanistan and the evacuation, the technical aspects. Of course, the technical side is rather complex.  I will leave that to my colleague and brother Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman.  The floor is yours.

FOREIGN MINISTER AL THANI:  (Via interpreter) Thank you, first of all.  I share my brother Dr. Khalid Al Attiyah, deputy prime minister and minister of state for defense, in welcoming our colleague, His Excellency Antony Blinken and His Excellency Lloyd Austin.  Of course, the state of Qatar and the United States of America have strategic partnership for decades, and this is distinguishable by the fact that it always continues and improves. 

Today we discussed a few items on our agenda of mutual interest and how to continue our work and our consultation, taking into account the latest developments on the humanitarian level and the technical level.  We alluded to the evacuation of foreign nationals and Afghanis and to help them to evacuate Kabul.  We stressed on the importance of keeping humanitarian corridors open and the freedom of movement from Afghanistan to be secured, and we urge the Taliban to work with us to expedite this process.  We also talked about the airport, the Kabul airport and the operations there, and the support the state of Qatar is providing in this regard. 

And we also discussed other issues, including the Palestinian question.  We emphasized the importance of continued support, humanitarian support for our Palestinian brothers, and the importance of working together to reach a peaceful solution based on the Arab peace initiative and the two-state solution, which the state of Qatar always emphasizes.

We have also discussed the mutual bilateral relations and the strategic interest of both countries as a basis of discussing different issues of mutual interest and how to develop our partnership and raise it to higher levels.  I thank you, Your Excellency Secretary Blinken and Secretary Austin, for coming here to Doha, and we thank you for all your support and the contributions that you've provided us regarding consolidating peace and stability in the region.  And we confirm the partnership of our state of
Qatar with you and our continued work to consolidate this partnership.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Let me start, first of all, by saying thank you to his highness the emir for his wonderful hospitality and very good meeting last night.  And to Their Excellencies the Foreign Minister Al Thani and Defense Minister Al Attiyah, thank you as well for hosting us today and for the very good conversation and dialogue that we've had.

Secretary Austin and I are very pleased and, indeed, honored to be here to express first and foremost our deep gratitude to the Qatari people.  Many countries have stepped up to help the evacuation and relocation efforts in Afghan - in Afghanistan, but no country has done more than Qatar.  More than
58,000 people have transited through Doha - Americans at risk, Afghans at risk, citizens of allied and partner nations.  Qatar was the first stop on a journey to a more peaceful and hopeful future for so many people.  You welcomed them with compassion and with generosity.  When problems arose,
Qatar worked hand in hand with us to address them.  The men, women, and children who transited through here will not forget what you did at a pivotal moment in their lives.  Neither will we.

I want to mention just a few examples of the substantial support - the truly remarkable support - that Qatar has provided.  In addition to saying yes to tens of thousands of people transiting through here, you provided lifesaving medical support, including field medical tents and access to Al Wakrah Hospital, for the exclusive use of evacuees.  You served 10,000 meals three times a day at Al Udeid.  You've established a coordination cell at Camp As Sayliyah to help organize all of the NGOs sending more supplies.  And you provided 20 Qatari Airways flights to fly thousands of people to the United
States and Germany, and you've offered 20 more.  All told, this has been a remarkable outpouring of support under incredibly challenging circumstances and a powerful testament to the world of Qatar's generosity and statesmanship.

It's not a coincidence that we've transferred our Afghanistan diplomatic operations to Doha.  As we carry forward our diplomacy here, we know that Qatar will be our partner, because this is not the first time that Qatar has stepped up to help in Afghanistan.  For years, at our request, you facilitated diplomacy between the Taliban and the Afghan Government to try to bring the conflict to a peaceful resolution.  Now, in addition to being by our side, dealing with the significant human needs that come from ending a war, you also continue to keep working to keep open a pathway from Afghanistan to the rest of the world.  And in particular, we appreciate the diplomacy that Qatar and Turkey are conducting to help get the airport in
Kabul up and running again.

On a related note, let me briefly address the topic of charter flights, which has been on people's minds.  Many thousands of U.S. citizens, permanent residents, at-risk Afghans who we successfully evacuated and relocated from Kabul have left aboard charter flights.  Now others are working to arrange more such flights.  We're working around the clock with NGOs, with members of Congress and advocacy groups, providing any and all information and doing all we can to clear any roadblocks that they've identified to make sure that charter flights carrying Americans or others to whom we have a special responsibility can depart Afghanistan safely. Without personnel on the ground, we can't verify the accuracy of manifests, the identities of passengers, flight plans, or aviation security protocols. So this is a challenge, but one we are determined to work through.  We're conducting a great deal of diplomacy on this as we speak.

We've also been engaged with the Taliban on this topic, including in recent hours.  They've said that they will let people with travel documents freely depart.  We will hold them to that.  So will dozens of other countries.  The international community is watching to see if the Taliban will live up to their commitments.

There will certainly be more work to do together in the days to come.  Our two countries will continue to closely coordinate, as we have for the past several weeks, to keep the relocation effort moving forward as smoothly and as swiftly as possible.  This is a complex operation, as complex as any in recent memory, but I've got every confidence we'll succeed at it because the partnership between Qatar and the United States has never been stronger. And our countries will continue, as we've heard, on a wide-ranging list of issues, a wide-ranging dialogue and close cooperation, including on trade, investment, defense, counterterrorism, human rights, cultural exchange, humanitarian aid.  The United States welcomes the al-Ula Accords and supports continued efforts to bring our partners in the region closer together.

The strongest relationship that we have and that we and Qatar have built through this evacuation and relocation effort I know is going to pay continued dividends across these and so many other key areas in the months and years ahead.  What Qatar has done here for Americans, for Afghans, for citizens of many other countries will be remembered for a long, long time. And so, on behalf of the American people, thank you.

SECRETARY AUSTIN:  Thank you and let me add that I'm glad to be here with my friend and colleague, Secretary Blinken.  And let me say thanks to my counterparts from Qatar for hosting us here today.  It is our great privilege to visit and to express our gratitude.

As Secretary Blinken said, Qatar's support for Operation Allies Refuge was indispensable to the safe transit of Americans and U.S. personnel, allies and partners, and Afghans at special risk.  At a critical and historic moment, Qatar went above and beyond, and your generosity helped to save thousands of lives.  I'm deeply proud that the U.S. military, together with our partners, completed the largest airlift in history, evacuating more than 124,000 people to safety.  But we could not have accomplished that without
Qatar's support, so again, thank you to the emir and to our colleagues for your help and for your friendship.

In fact, we're here today because our work together as partners and friends continues, not only with Operation Allies Refuge but on many shared priorities.  The United States is grateful that Qatar continues to host American troops to make sure that our forces are well-positioned to support a range of critical missions in the region.

But our relationship goes deeper than just defense concerns.  We're working with our regional partners toward some important shared objectives: to wind down conflicts, to provide humanitarian aid to civilians in need, to de-escalate tensions, and to encourage dialogue.  We think that's the right way to ensure regional security and stability, and we know that Qatar stands with us in advancing peace and security.  And you've provided humanitarian aid from Yemen to Gaza and worked to facilitate Afghan peace negotiations.

But Iran's support for terrorism and its willingness to supply increasingly lethal weapons to non-state group undermines the regional stability that we all seek.  So we're committed to working together to enhance regional defenses against destabilizing actions, including Iran's nuclear aspirations.  Our force posture here in Central - the Central Command area of responsibility helps us do that together, but, of course, we'd prefer diplomacy succeed in reducing these tensions.

And let me close by saying how glad I am to be here in person to underscore the importance of the U.S. relationship and friendship with Qatar.  The United States is committed to strengthening this partnership and throughout our network of alliances and partnerships.  Thank you very much.

MODERATOR:  (Via interpreter) Thank you, your excellencies.  We start the press conference.  The first question comes from Al Jazeera English.

QUESTION:  Mohammad Jamjoom with Al Jazeera English.  I have a question for Sheikh Mohammed and a question for Secretary Blinken.  Sheikh Mohammed, there's great concern over the looming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, so where do things stand today with regard to fully reopening Hamid Karzai International Airport and getting more aid in?  And how closely will the U.S. be working and to achieve that?

And Secretary Blinken, when it comes to the humanitarian effort, the WHO says that hundreds of medical facilities in Afghanistan are at risk of imminent closure because Western donors who finance them are barred from dealing with the new Taliban government.  So what's the U.S. going to do to try to ensure that humanitarian aid can be accessed in Afghanistan?

FOREIGN MINISTER AL THANI:  Well, regarding the status of Kabul airport, as I have mentioned a few days ago, we have already dispatched our teams there to provide technical assistance that's required to bring the airport and make it up and running again.  We have fixed a lot of the elements which are over there, and we are about to get everything operational very soon.  Right now, we didn't reach yet an agreement on the way how to manage or to run the airport, but yet we are continuing the humanitarian support and we are chartering almost on a daily basis flights with humanitarian aid and also receiving some flights from different countries with humanitarian aid in order to ensure that the humanitarian passage is open.

Our aim is to focus on helping people who want - especially foreign nationals - who want to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible, and also encouraging the UN agencies and the others, the other NGOs, to provide help and support to Afghanistan.  We have facilitated a few trips for UN officials to - trying to reach an understanding with Taliban in order not to interrupt their humanitarian operations in Afghanistan, and we hope in the next few days we can get to a level where the airport is up and running for passengers and for humanitarian aid as well.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  The United States has been the largest humanitarian assistance provider to Afghanistan.  The needs remain great, and in fact, the situation for so many Afghans is stark.  And we're determined with the international community to continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people, and we can and will do that working through partners, NGOs, the United Nations system, and do it in a way that's consistent with the sanctions that remain in place on Afghanistan. 

We've issued a license in recent days to make sure that some of this aid could be facilitated, and we're working very closely with the international community and with these various partners to ensure that assistance for the basic needs of the Afghan people, particularly when it comes to food, when it comes to medicine, can continue.  And going forward, as we continue to work closely with our partners, with the rest of the international community, we're going to make sure that we're taking the steps necessary to continue to support assistance to people who need it based on their needs.

MODERATOR:  (Via interpreter) Next question is to CNN.

QUESTION:  Sam Kiley, CNN.  Sheikh Mohammed, following the precipitous American withdrawal from Afghanistan, is America still considered a reliable ally?

And to Secretary Blinken, how many Americans are stuck in Afghanistan and how many SIV holders have you still got to get out?  Can we get some accuracy on those figures, please?

FOREIGN MINISTER AL THANI:  Well, of course, the U.S. is our most important ally.  It has been - this relationship and partnership has been there for decades.  It's demonstrated its - our reliance on this alliance between us and the United States in several occasions.  The U.S. has been a strong security partner to the state of Qatar, a strong economic partner, a strong partner in the education, in all the fields.  I don't think that there is any correlation between what's happened in Afghanistan and how the U.S. is looking at the region and the partnership with the region, especially with the Gulf region. 

From our perspective, that there was a war for 20 years and this war has ended, and we hope that there is a better prospect for the future in Afghanistan.  As a facilitator and mediator in this process, we have the support the day after the withdrawal of the U.S. forces, supporting it by building a strong, coherent country, inclusive - that have an inclusive government that has the basic rights for the Afghan people.  So I think we are sharing the same objective for Afghanistan to have a better future, and we will continue this partnership throughout the region and beyond that region, working together hand-in-hand with the U.S.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  And just to add on to my friend's comments, I think one mistake that is often made is to somehow equate our engagement in anything we're working on with the number of American boots we have on the ground in uniform.  We have a much broader definition of what engagement means, and it covers the vast array of issues, including many issues that we're working on together with Qatar, be they security, be they economic, be they people-to-people ties, be they education, working on climate change, dealing with COVID-19.  And in all of those areas and more, I would suggest that our engagement is deeper than it's ever been.  And that's also evidenced by the wide-ranging conversations we've had here today with our friends and partners on Afghanistan but also on many, many other issues.

With regard to American citizens in Afghanistan, a few things here.  First, just to step back for a minute, going back to March of this year, we issued 19 separate messages to Americans registered with the embassy encouraging them and then urging them to leave Afghanistan given the security situation.
Again, that goes back to March.  By the time the evacuation commenced in August, we believe there were somewhere in the vicinity of 6,000 American citizens in Afghanistan, and virtually all of them were evacuated in those couple of weeks that we were working out of Kabul International Airport. 

But it's not surprising that despite the situation, despite the long encouragement of people to leave, that some people did not or could not make a decision to do so, in part because this is such an incredibly wrenching decision, because for these people, they are for the most part people who've been in Afghanistan for years, decades, possibly even generations.  For them, Afghanistan is home; their extended families are there, and making that decision is extraordinarily hard.

So at this point we believe the number of those who have American citizenship, many of them dual-nationals, who remain in Afghanistan is somewhere around a hundred.  We're in direct contact with virtually all of them.  We have case management teams assigned to them to make sure that those who want to leave can, in fact, do so. 

And as my colleagues have said, we're holding the Taliban to the commitments that they've made to ensure the free passage and safe travel for anyone who wants to leave Afghanistan, starting with any American citizens who wish to do so; Afghans who worked for us, including the Special Immigrant Visa applicants or visa holders; other Afghans at risk.  And the entire international community is looking to the Taliban to uphold that commitment, a commitment that's now been enshrined in terms of an expectation from the international community in a United Nations Security Council resolution as well as in a declaration signed by more than a hundred countries around the world.

With regard to the Special Immigrant Visa applicants or visa holders, as you know, first we had a program that we inherited that was, unfortunately, in a stall.  About 17,000 people were in the pipeline at the beginning of this past year, and we worked very aggressively to start to move the program forward again.  Interviews for visas had not taken place in Kabul going back to March of 2020.  We restarted them in February.  President Biden issued an executive order - one of the first executive orders he issued - in early February calling for an immediate re-examination of the program to see how it could be made faster and more effective. 

And we instituted a series of changes to do just that throughout the spring, including quadrupling the number of staff working on Special Immigrant Visas.  In Washington, I assigned an additional 50 people to that effort, doubling the staff working on it in Kabul.  And despite COVID, including a spike in COVID that really put a dent in operations in the June and early July period, we went from issuing about a hundred visas a week to nearly a thousand a week by August.  And we cut the time in processing the applications for SIVs in half.

Nonetheless, the program was never designed for an emergency evacuation.  It includes 14 steps required by Congress that we have to work through with many, many other agencies.  And so despite our efforts to move as fast as we could and to make it more efficient, as I said, once we hit an emergency evacuation system - situation, the program was not designed for that.

Now, as to the number of SIV applicants who have gotten out of Afghanistan, those that remain, we're working on getting numbers right now.  So many of the people who have left remain in transit, moving from the so-called lily pad countries toward the United States.  In our effort to get as many people out as fast as we can while we had the airport functioning, we focused on doing just that, and we're doing accountings on the back end as people arrive in the United States. 

So my expectation is we will have a breakdown of the numbers of people who left Afghanistan, including not just American citizens but green card holders, SIV applicants, SIV visa holders, Afghans at risk, those eligible for P-1 and P-2 visas - all of that will be forthcoming in the days and weeks ahead as we're able to break down the numbers.  But I can say this: Of the 125,000 people or so who were evacuated from Afghanistan, the overwhelming majority were Afghans and Afghans at risk in one way or another, and so some significant number of that will almost certainly wind up being SIVs, SIV applicants, those eligible for the SIV program.  And when we have a full accounting, we'll make it available.

MR PRICE:  Our first question goes to Christina Ruffini, CBS.

QUESTION:  Good afternoon, gentlemen.  Secretary Blinken, regarding the charter flights, aid groups and members of Congress say the Taliban is essentially holding these flights hostage and not allowing them to leave in order to get more out of the American Government.  Is that accurate?  Are you aware of American citizens trying to evacuate on these flights?  Is the
State Department at all hindering the overall effort to get charters in or out of Afghanistan?  And what channel was used for discussion with the Taliban on this issue, and what did you tell them to do?

And Sheikh Mohammed, as the Secretary mentioned, more than 58,000 people have evacuated through your country, but many of them don't have paperwork, visas for onward countries, et cetera.  How - has the U.S. presented a concrete plan on how to process these individuals?  And how long do you expect some of these undocumented evacuees to remain in your country?

And Secretary Austin, knowing what we know now, do you consider the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan a success?  Thank you, gentlemen.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  So, as noted, we are working around the clock to help U.S. citizens, to help lawful permanent residents, to help at-risk Afghans to whom we have a special commitment depart Afghanistan if they so choose.  And we've successfully done that already, and we're in continuous contact with American citizens who remain in Afghanistan.  For weeks now we've been working very closely with Qatar, with Turkey, to see to it that the Kabul airport could get up and running again to civilian air travel as soon as possible, and we're also working to facilitate overland passage for those who wish to depart.

When it comes to charters - and I addressed this a short while ago – we facilitated safe evacuation and relocation of thousands of these individuals, first aboard the charter flights that left from Hamid Karzai
International Airport under the well-known difficult and dangerous conditions that we were operating.  Now, of course, we don't have personnel on the ground in Afghanistan, whether it's in Kabul or whether it's up north in Mazer-e-Sharif.  We don't have the means to verify the accuracy of manifests, the identity of passengers onboard these planes, aviation security protocols, or where they plan to land, among other issues.  And these raise real concerns, but we are working through each and every one in close coordination with the various initiatives and charter flights that are seeking to evacuate people.  But I just want to emphasize that there are a lot of issues to work through.

We continue to engage.  We're engaging as we speak to resolve these issues and, indeed, to hold the Taliban to its pledge to let people with travel documents, including American citizens, freely depart Afghanistan.  And we've reiterated this point directly to the Taliban in recent hours.  As with any commitment the Taliban makes, we're focused on what they do, not just on what they say.  But this, of course, is not just us; it's the entire international community.

On these charter flights, as I mentioned, one of the challenges has been that, as we understand it, there are groups of people who are grouped together, some of whom have the appropriate travel documents - an American passport, a green card, a visa - and others do not.  And it's my understanding that the Taliban has not denied exit to anyone holding a valid document, but they have said that those without valid documents at this point can't leave.  But because all of these people are grouped together, that's meant that flights have not been allowed to go.  We've been able to identify a relatively small number of Americans who we believe are seeking to depart from Mazar-e-Sharif with their families. 

We have been assured, again, that all American citizens and Afghan citizens with valid travel documents will be allowed to leave.  And again, we intend to hold the Taliban to that.  They've upheld that commitment in at least one instance in the last 24 hours with a family that was able to leave through an overland route, and we are not aware of anyone being held on an aircraft or any hostage-like situation in Mazar-e-Sharif.  So we have to work through the different requirements, and that's exactly what we're doing.

FOREIGN MINISTER AL THANI:  Thank you.  Regarding your question about how we are dealing with the undocumented evacuees, of course, we have coordinated efforts in advance and ahead of time between Qatar and the U.S. to start receiving the evacuees at transit points at the beginning.  And given the nature and also the timing of the evacuation, there were some undocumented evacuees who landed here in Doha, but the process is being done for them, and it was done in a very good coordination and cooperation between our people here in Doha and the U.S. officials who are represented here to deal with the evacuation process. 

Actually, the number of people who have been evacuated through Doha is around 58,000, yet most of them has already reached their destinations, and right now we have approximately around 4,000 who are already in the process to be also transferred to a third country.  But the entire framework has been agreed between Qatar and the U.S. in advance before this evacuation started, and we were expecting some challenges to that would come up given the nature of and also the emergency of that evacuation.

SECRETARY AUSTIN:  So what happened in the post-drawdown is something that I think will be studied very carefully in the weeks and months ahead, and I won't try to diagram that here.  What I will tell you is that I'm absolutely proud of the tremendous work that our brave servicemen and women did as we evacuated 124,000 people from the Kabul airport in a very short period of time under some very, very dangerous and difficult circumstances.  I'd also say that no operation is ever perfect.  There are lessons to be learned. And what we'll do is what we always do in the military, is conduct an after-action review, take a look at ourselves, take a look at what we did, what could have been done better.

MR PRICE:  (Inaudible.)

QUESTION:  Secretary Austin, over the past few weeks, the U.S. was unable to see emerging threats from the Taliban in Afghanistan, even with ground forces and a 20-year presence.  More recently, we've heard from General Milley that he believes that there are emergent threats coming from Afghanistan such as terrorism threats, ones that could pose a threat to the United States.  And so my question is:  Now, with no troops and no ground-based intelligence in Afghanistan, how will the U.S. be able to conduct and stop - conduct operations and stop terrorism threats with only over-the-horizon capabilities?

And Sheikh Mohammed, I'd like to follow up on something you said earlier. You mentioned that you anticipate flights coming out of Hamid Karzai International Airport within days.  Could you give us a sense of what specifically you expect to see in the coming days?  And when can we expect to see commercial flights coming out of that airport?  Thank you.

SECRETARY AUSTIN:  Well, there's no question that it will be more difficult to identify and engage threats that emanate from the region, but we're committed to making sure that threats are not allowed to develop and create significant challenges for us in the homeland.  We already have robust capabilities in the region.  We look to improve them on a daily basis and we're going to continue to do that. 

And I would just say, Nancy, that we've come a long way in the last 20 years in terms of the development of our capabilities.  And I would further say that there isn't a scrap of earth that we can't reach out and touch when we need to.  We've demonstrated that time and time again.  And again, our job is to make sure we stay vigilant and continue to develop capabilities.

FOREIGN MINISTER AL THANI:  Well, regarding our expectations on Hamid Karzai Airport, actually, now what has been fixed is already making the airport capable to receive charter flights and we are starting the humanitarian aid flights as a test and as a pilot for that.  But also we have highlighted earlier that there are certain standards need to be met, especially from security perspective, security point of view toward to board passengers on those flights.  Those need an agreement with Taliban, which is still in negotiation.

Regarding the airport to be opened to commercial international flights, we believe that given the current status of the airport, it will be able to receive them for maybe during a limited time in the day but will need an upgrade in some of the equipment which will make it more capable to run as an international standard airport.  But I always highlight on the importance of the security measures.  If we can get the security measures in place and agree on them with Taliban, then things will be easier and we can achieve these goals as soon as possible.