Ambassador Alice Wells
Alice Wells, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs U.S Institute of Peace has said that I really want to congratulate the government of Afghanistan on the Second Kabul Process Conference. And I also want to thank, of course, the Afghan, the U.S. and the NATO forces for continuing to ensure the safety of the conference and all that they do, of course, to ensure the safety of Afghanistan.I believe that the Second Kabul Process Conference was really a landmark event. President Ghani endorsed a dignified path to a political settlement, and put forward a vision of reconciliation that was both credible and detailed. This was a true pan-Afghan overture to the Taliban with President Ghani’s partners in the National Unity Government, including Dr. Abdullah and Foreign Minister Rabbani participating, along with members of civil society including women.

The conference was attended by 25 countries, the UN and EU, and a Joint Declaration adopted by consensus showed the strong international support for a vision of peace shared across Afghan society.

It’s now up to the Taliban leaders to respond to this serious offer. This is a peace offer that the United States supports and is prepared to facilitate, but we cannot substitute for the direct negotiations that are required between the Afghan government and the Taliban leadership.

Today in my remarks I want to outline this inter-Afghan peace that was offered by the National Unity Government, the U.S. role in a peace process, the Taliban’s stated grievances, Pakistan’s role, and the benefits of peace. But I’ll do it briefly because I’m looking forward to the questions and answers.

I assume that all of you have reviewed President Ghani’s remarks. I was struck by the President’s description of peace as both a national and religious responsibility. He made clear that there are no preconditions to negotiations while underscoring that the rights of all citizens, especially Afghan women, must be safeguarded.

He discussed the political framework for talks that produce a ceasefire, the Taliban’s registration as a political party, and participation in an electoral process. He noted the important signals that were sent by the Hezbi Islami deal, Hekmatyar’s return to the political mainstream, the prisoner releases, the delisting, and the demobilization. He discussed the legal framework for peace, which would include a constitutional review through legal mechanisms as well as legal processes for prisoner releases and sanctions release. He suggested methods for reaching peace, such as official recognition of the Afghan government, respect for rule of law, further efforts for government reform and balanced development, the return of Afghan refugees, programs for social development including for refugees and former insurgents, and security measures for all citizens, particularly the reconciling Taliban. And underscoring the need for a dignified process, I think President Ghani also talked about very important elements — an office for the Taliban, a path towards travel documents, being allowed to travel freely, help in the removal of sanctions, access to the media, repatriation for their families.

When it comes to the United States, our conditions-based South Asia Strategy ensures the Taliban cannot win on the battlefield. But it recognizes that a resolution to the conflict will be through a negotiated political settlement.

The recent Taliban letter to the people of the United States I believe misses the point. For eight years the United States has been prepared to support a peace process, but we cannot be a substitute again for the Afghan people and the Afghan government in a negotiation with the Taliban. The Taliban was at war with the Afghan people long before U.S. military operations began in 2001.

Now obviously, the United States has a direct interest in the resolution of this conflict, and the Taliban have frequently stated the need for all foreign troops to depart Afghanistan as a precondition for negotiations. We are in Afghanistan as a guest of a sovereign Afghan government that’s recognized by the United Nations and international community. With our presence enshrined in the Strategic Partnership Agreement, and a Bilateral Security Agreement which were approved by a traditional Loya Jirga, we’ll continue our mission so long as a sovereign, independent Afghan government agrees to host us and work with us.

For those Taliban who have grievances, the legitimate path to resolving their concerns is going to be through negotiation. The Afghanistan of 2018 is not the Afghanistan of 2002. The institutional capacity, governance and security are greater. A technocratic, political and economic leadership is emerging.

While the Taliban are part of the social fabric of Afghanistan, they do not speak for all of the Afghan people, and consistently we see that only a small percentage of the population claim sympathy for them.

The United States does not have any hidden agenda or motives in Afghanistan. We acted in self-defense to bring justice to those who plotted the September 11, 2001 attack. Let us not forget that it was the Taliban who repeatedly refused to hand over Osama bin Laden. And to this day, the Taliban retain relations with al-Qaida and a host of other terrorist organizations.

We will remain in Afghanistan as long as it takes to keep it from becoming a terrorist safe haven. We will help the Afghan peopleSecure their country, and we envision Afghanistan to have friendly, state-to-state relations with all of its neighbors.We are not in Afghanistan to acquire its natural resources, to impose our own form of government, to prevent the free practice of Islam, or to destabilize the region.

Pakistan has an important role to play in a peace process and in stabilizing Afghanistan. We believe that Pakistan can help change and shape the calculus of the Taliban. We’re engaged with Pakistan on how we can work together, as well as address Pakistan’s legitimate concerns through a negotiated process. Pakistani officials have long expressed concerns ranging from border management to refugees to terrorism that emanate from ungoverned spaces in Afghanistan. These are issues that need to be addressed during the course of a reconciliation process.

We’ve not yet seen decisive or sustained changes in Pakistan’s behavior, and as a result we suspended our military assistance. But we’re not walking away from Pakistan. This relationship is important to us, and we’re continuing our intensive dialogue through both our military and our civilian channels to discuss how we can better work together. Just yesterday the Deputy Secretary Sullivan and I met with Foreign Secretary Janjua.

In conclusion, for those Taliban who seek a peaceful, prosperous and just society, now is the time to step up and chart with the government of Afghanistan a new way forward. The majority of Afghan people refuse to return to the oppression and isolation of Taliban rule.

Today nearly 40 percent of Afghans are under the age of 14. The next generation of Afghan leaders are building trade routes, they’re establishing business networks, they’re studying abroad at top global universities, and they’re connecting with the rest of the world through the internet and social media. Afghans are wealthier, healthier, living longer, and are more educated than at any time in recent decades. The Afghan people want peace, but not at the cost of their own dignity and advancement. The Afghan people want to maintain the constitutional legal system, representative democracy and strong ties to the rest of the world. Ultimately, the United States wants a peaceful Afghanistan that is part of a stable region with strong connections to the international community and the global economy.

So the question I pose to the Taliban is how will you rejoin this Afghanistan, this new Afghanistan? And what positive role are you willing to play to secure its future? Because the best way to determine the answer to these tough questions is at the negotiating table with the Afghan government.

She said I think there’s opportunity for peace in Afghanistan generated by President Ghani’s vision that he laid out. And again, I want to underscore this is the most specific, the most forward-leaning, I think the most thoughtful proposal put forward as to how the Afghanistan government envisions a reconciliation process. And I would stress the word reconciliation. The fact that President Ghani also put on the table the prospect of constitutional amendments through the legal, through the process that is provided for in the constitution suggests a greater accommodation and a willingness to arrive at a dignified settlement with the Taliban.

She said I think, unfortunately, we see a continued insistence by the Taliban to equate negotiations or exploratory talks with the government with recognition of a government that they see as imposed. And I think that’s a fundamental mistake and something that all of us, all of the countries who engage the Taliban needs to focus on.

The government of Afghanistan does not recognize the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan as the Taliban like to call themselves. The Taliban don’t recognize the government of Afghanistan. But at the end of a process is where you achieve that mutual understanding. The Taliban have imposed a precondition that I think has made it impossible so far for them to take up what have been sincere offers from the government of Afghanistan. But I see with this proposal, I think we’re seeing signs that the Taliban is assessing and analyzing the proposal, and we certainly believe now is the time for the Taliban to put forward its vision of a road map to peace.

Kabul process is part of that commitment to a negotiated political settlement. It’s easier in a way to document military effort. You know, sorties that are undertaken, expansion of armed forces, you know, increased ability to undertake attacks against the Taliban and limit their ability on the battlefield. Diplomacy tends to be a little bit more subtle and a little bit more quiet, but the Kabul process was a public manifestation of the commitment to a negotiated political settlement.

She said I think it’s clear that the Resolute Support Mission is in Afghanistan as a result of the war and of the continued presence of multiple terrorist organizations, which is why we have the additional 3500 troops that are dedicated to counterterrorism operations. You know, if the war goes away and the terrorist groups are defeated obviously the question of presence can be taken up and will be taken up.

But what I would underscore is that this is not an occupying force. This is not a force that has been imposed on the Afghan government. This is a presence, an international presence and a United States presence that has come at the invitation of the government and that has been affirmed in the traditional way by the Afghan people.

She said we have been disturbed by some countries’ justification of the Taliban as a fighting force against ISIS Khorasan. And the only way to defeat ISIS Khorasan is also to defeat the Taliban. To strengthen the government of Afghanistan, to defeat the Taliban and the ecosystem that the Taliban provides to other terrorist organizations, and of course to aggressively go after ISIS Khorasan as we have.

So over the last year you’ve seen more than a thousand combatants removed, leaders removed from the battlefield. Additional assets have been brought in as a result of our success in Syria and Iraq, so we’re more aggressively able to go after the ISIS Khorasan presence which is small but has been persistent. And obviously, it’s a concern to neighboring countries.

She said I think we see a tendency to exaggerate the ISIS Khorasan threat as a pretext, almost, to justify hedging behavior. So I think we have to be alert to that, and keep the focus on strengthening the Government of National Unity and its capacity both to continue military operations, but also its capacity to make peace.

We haven’t seen the sustained and decisive steps that we would like to see Pakistan take. We have seen some positive measures adopted over the last couple of months, but believe that Pakistan really can play a much more important and critical role in shaping Taliban behavior or incentives for undertaking negotiations.

Pakistan has an important role to play. It has interests that it also wants to ensure are met during the course of the stabilization of Afghanistan which we take seriously. So the dialogue that we have with Pakistan, whether it’s through military channels or through civilian channels, seeks to address these core concerns.

She said I hope that the Taliban deliberate carefully over their response. I mean obviously this is a significant package. It’s been recognized as a significant package by the international community. At the UN yesterday we saw during the course of the debate over the UNAMA presence, UN Ambassador Yamamoto underscoring now that the onus is on the Taliban to respond. So I think it’s worthwhile for the Taliban to think carefully about how they take up what is this very serious offer.

She said  I think we need to have a strong and unified and inclusive Afghan government to be able to undertake a difficult process of peace. So we continue to encourage President Ghani and his government to take steps to maintain that inclusivity, to continue to advance a reform agenda that addresses what have been some of the underlying grievances that have been raised by the Afghan people of the need for reform, economic growth, of security reform, of support for conciliation. And we certainly support the efforts of the High Peace Council to make this not just a government discussion of peace, but again, a pan-Afghan discussion.

Obviously, there are going to be tremendous concerns raised by a real peace process for Afghans who have come of age, who have become increasingly urbanized, who are increasingly linked to the international community. The prospect of a return of the Taliban to political life in whatever form can be very unsettling. And so those issues have to be addressed. We saw some of that concern even with the return of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. What does that represent for modern Afghanistan and modern Afghans?

So this has to be a national dialogue, and Afghans have to chart a course themselves.

And I do, I’m sorry, I do believe elections play a critical role, obviously. There has to be transparent and timely and credible elections. The quality of the elections is really going to speak to the Afghan people about the seriousness of the government’s intent, and so we are working with the UN and with our international partners to support the Independent Election Commission to ensure for instance that voter registration, which is about to kick off, you know, is done in a comprehensive manner. That the polling center base voter registration, which we see as a critical reform in this round of the elections is successful. And that we also work with the government, Minister of Interior to, through Resolute Support Mission, to provide whatever security assets we can to ensure that the process goes smoothly.

What struck me about polls of Afghan society is the decreasing support for the Taliban that we’ve seen since the polling began. With only five percent of Afghans expressing, you know, sympathy or support for the Taliban, and I think if you include empathy in there you get up to 15 or 18 percent. I’m forgetting the exact numbers. Andrew, you may remember them.

Again, it reflects, the Taliban may be a part of the social fabric of Afghanistan as has been said. They’re very much a minority part of the social fabric of Afghanistan, and we need to keep that in mind. You know, as these negotiations go on, that this is not the dominance force in Afghanistan. They don’t speak for the majority of Afghans’ aspirations. And so while I think President Ghani said there will need to be compromise on both sides, there will also need to be, I think, respect for what the Afghans have achieved over the last 17 years in social development, political advancement, rights of its citizens. And President Ghani very much underscored the need to protect the rights of all citizens, to not lose that aspect of Afghanistan’s accomplishments, and we’re certainly very supportive of this.

When it comes to the Moscow Process, which I think is what you were referring to, the Russia-driven architecture for advancing peace, what struck us is that we are very supportive of all structures that are Afghan owned and Afghan led. And they can be either multiple structures — the International Contact Group, Kabul Process, Quads, the Shanghai Organization, you know, and endless trilats and bilats that are all trying to reinforce messages of peace. But our criteria is that they be Afghan owned and led. And the Moscow process has not been. So for that reason, we have not participated in the Moscow Process.

She said We look forward to participating in the Tashkent Conference which is coming under the aegis of the Kabul Process where again, we will have I think 21 countries gathering in Tashkent on March 25th to I think really reaffirm what came out of Kabul and to provide a regional dimension of support for the vision laid out by President Ghani.

On India’s role. India, we’ve seen over the last several years play a responsible role in the economic development of Afghanistan and the reconstruction of Afghanistan, and that role has been appreciated by the government of Afghanistan. When I was in Kabul for the Kabul process, we had a trilateral meeting of the U.S., India and Afghanistan to review how we can better work together on these important development trade and investment priorities. But that does not imply that we would support or think that there’s any manipulation of Afghanistan so that it can be used against Pakistan. We firmly support Pakistan’s territorial integrity. We do not support the Baloch insurgents or the use of, or the threat of irredentism against Pakistan. And certainly our message is that any group threatening any country in the region has to be opposed. And most recently I think you’ve seen the rewards for justice for the three Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan leaders that was just put out yesterday.

So we oppose groups that are targeting Pakistan, we oppose, of course, groups that are targeting Afghanistan.

In terms of what it means for, again, the Taliban to come back, come into power or to play a role in the political process, I can’t prejudge, I think that’s the negotiation, how is this going to, how is this process going to move forward. And certainly I think today is a very different Afghanistan than 2002. This is an Afghanistan that is living 20 years, Afghans are living 20 years longer, they’re connected to the international community, cell phones are ubiquitous, the economy has grown in ways that were unimaginable in 2002. So the Taliban are going to have to demonstrate their own ability to absorb and accept this new and modern Afghanistan. And that has to be part of the compromise, I believe, of a negotiation process.

She said I think what is the disposition of the Taliban, and we have not seem them reject the proposal, which I agree with [Anjir] is in itself a positive sign, and I would underscore our hope and expectation that the Taliban leadership will analyze the proposal seriously and carefully, given the support it has engendered in the international community and the praise that President Ghani has earned for being so forward-leaning and creative in putting this forward.

You asked whether the Taliban is a monolithic institution. They sort of have to prove that, don’t they? If they can come to a peace process representing their entire organization, that’s the best demonstration of how monolithic they are.

We of course welcome, commanders see the reality of the battlefield and grow disenchanted with the ideology that is being put forward by the Taliban. I think encouraging them to leave and to make their own peace earlier is always an option and has not been ruled out by this reconciliation offer.

So if the Taliban are a monolithic organization, I would encourage them to, as one, accept the offer that has been put on the table to engage.

On the Taliban’s invitation to President Trump, again, I would just repeat what I’ve said before. The United States can be supportive of, we can facilitate, we can encourage, we can work with our international partners to reinforce, we can do many things for this peace process and in this peace process and with this peace process, but we cannot be the Afghan people. And there has to be a resolution that takes place. This has to be a conversation between the government, between the Taliban, but also with Afghan society. So the question of Afghan civil society, it’s very important that there be a transparency in negotiations that take place. That all facets of what is a very diverse society understand and feel comfortable with the peace process. Women who have been one of the biggest and greatest beneficiaries of the last 17 years also have confidence that their rights are not going to, their advancement is not going to be taken away. We’ve seen some of that already start with the actions of the High Peace Council. And I would imagine that in the event you do ultimately get to a serious peace process, there is going to be a need, I think, for the Taliban to demonstrate what they said has happened. The Taliban say they have evolved as an organization, demonstrate it. You know, demonstrate that you have different views on girls and women. Let schools operate in the areas where you are controlling the population. Start new schools in areas where you have a presence. Show by your actions that you are part of this new Afghanistan.

So I think there’s going to be many opportunities for exchanges to take place, and there will need to be many opportunities for Afghan people to have confidence in a peace process as it moves forward.

And in terms of the Taliban becoming a political party, and I don’t want to prejudge what a negotiation might look like, but President Ghani specifically raised the possibility of the Taliban becoming a political party, participating in elections. So again, we, as President Trump said when he announced his South Asia Strategy in August, we’re not going to stand in the way of what Afghans can negotiate among themselves. We’ll be very supportive of that process.

She said we need to not reduce any of the pressure on the Taliban to come, military pressure on the Taliban, as we seek to get them to come through what has been an open door for political negotiations.

So saying an enemy of an enemy is a friend, and hedging by employing the Taliban and legitimizing the Taliban as a military force, postpones I think the day when we can actually get to a negotiating table and achieve reconciliation in Afghanistan. And until we achieve reconciliation, you’re going to have a petri dish of terrorist groups operating who all derive some succor from Taliban and the criminal networks and the drug networks and the other networks that exist to support and underwrite this new terrorist enterprise.

So we have to be clear eyed about our priorities. And I want to again, underscore that the United States and the Resolute Support Mission take very seriously the presence of any ISIS Khorasan in Afghanistan. They’re very much in the cross-hairs at present. You’re seeing intensified battle operations against them, and I think you’re going to continue to see their presence shrunk as we’ve succeeded in doing in Nangarhar, for instance, where they used to operate in about nine districts and are now down to three to five. Many of these areas are quite remote.

Again, we can’t dilute our focus by trying to prioritize ISIS over what has to be our objective of bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.

she said I think that the role of China is potentially quite important. We have overlapping interests with China in Afghanistan. We both want to see a stable and secure Afghanistan that does not tolerate and is able to prevent the presence of terrorists. We have quite good diplomatic engagement with the Chinese in the past. We have undertaken quadrilateral meetings with them. That mechanism remains possible for use in the future. And our consultations are quite close. You saw when the Presidents met, the statement that was issued also includes Afghanistan as an area where we seek to work together. So China is very much an important part of the geopolitical puzzle.

On Pakistan, David, we haven’t seen the sustained and decisive steps that are necessary, so that conversation with the Pakistanis continues. We’ve calibrated I think our relationship with Pakistan in a very different way than other administrations. We’ve gone much further in underscoring the importance and the centrality of this issue to our ability to expand relations with Pakistan. You see an intensive dialogue by General Votel with his counterparts, by the Secretary and Secretary Mattis, and that will continue. But the actions that we’d like to see have not yet transpired and I don’t, we would certainly like to see steps taken that make it harder for the Taliban to plan for a spring offensive, to disrupt their ability to meet and to lay out this operational plan for the next year.

She said I think that the United States is in Afghanistan at the invitation of the Afghan government, and it was quite significant that the Afghan government took this decision to the people, to a Loya Jirga. The United States is not there as an occupier, is not there against the will of the Afghan people.

She said I came to, I visited Afghanistan immediately after the South Asia Strategy and the sense of relief among the Afghans with whom I spoke that America had recommitted to Afghanistan and was prepared to partner with Afghanistan as they go through what will have to be an extended process of both strengthening their own institutions, you know, conducting a military effort as well as embracing a reconciliation strategy. So my sense is that we have strong support from the Afghans. So as we calibrate to our presence in Afghanistan, it’s very much in conjunction with and at the invitation of the Afghan people.

Looking ahead, we have an important opportunity in Tashkent to further underscore to the Taliban the sense of unity that I feel, a real strong sense of unity among not just the regional partners, but the international partners, the Gulf, that President Ghani has stepped up in a way that the international community has requested; had asked to have more insight into his thinking on the way forward. So Tashkent will be an opportunity to reaffirm support for the Ghani Initiative, to reaffirm support for the Afghan people, to underscore the role of the region in stitching Afghanistan back into Central Asia and through trade routes, energy connections.

She said I was quite struck when President Ghani visited Tashkent and said Afghanistan is a Central Asian state, because certainly we would like to see Afghanistan develop and strengthen its ties as it seeks to establish an economy that will ultimately be able to reduce the role of the donor community in supporting the budget.

So there is, I think that the Afghan people and the international community have sort of thrown down the gauntlet, and now again, the responsibility is on the Taliban. How do they want to, what Afghanistan do they want to see? And do they want 17 more years of war? Or do they want to find a way to really ease what has been the enormous suffering of the Afghan people.

She said We can’t lose sight of, despite the best of intentions on our part, war always causes suffering. The Taliban have been indifferent to the Afghan people. We see that in their targeting of civilians, their use of civilians as shields to their effort. There is an enormous cost that Afghanistan has borne.

And it’s time for this conflict to end. There’s a way to end this conflict. There’s a will to end this conflict. There’s international support to end this conflict. It’s the Taliban who are the stumbling block to peace.