DOHA: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an exclusive interview to TOLO news Head Lotfullah Najafizada says, “My hope and, beyond hope, expectation is that the future government of Afghanistan will uphold those basic rights. And if it does, then that’s a government that we can work with. If it doesn’t, we won’t.” Blinken also takes questions on whether the U.S. knew or helped former President Ashraf Ghani flee, whether he was an obstacle to peace, why ending the American war turned out with the Taliban takeover, why no one saw it coming, Afghans feeling abandoned, journalists been beaten and arrested, women protesters, Taliban committments to ending terrorist links, and whether there’s any contact with the resistance in Panjshir.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, two decades, trillions of dollars, thousands of lives. Was it how it should have been ended?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I think that’s the question I’m sure that we’ll be asking and answering for some time to come. But there are a few important things here. First, we have to start with why we went to Afghanistan in the first place, and that was after 9/11 to deal with those who attacked us on 9/11, and to make sure to the best of our ability that they could never do so again from Afghanistan. And that effort was largely successful. Usama bin Ladin was brought to justice a decade ago. And al-Qaida, as an organization with a capacity to attack us or anyone else from Afghanistan, was greatly degraded. And so on the terms that we set for ourselves after 9/11, we achieved what we set out to achieve.
At the same time, as you said, 20 years, a trillion or more dollars, many lives lost, but also many lives changed. We’re going to look at all of that in the days, weeks, and months ahead. I’m sure that it will be the subject of ongoing conversation and ongoing debate.
QUESTION: Right. Why did it turn out this way then – the return of the Taliban and Taliban military takeover?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I think, again, that’s a question that goes back many, many years. We’ve seen the Taliban over many years continuing to try to assert its authority over different parts of Afghanistan. Even in the last six or seven years, the government’s control over Afghanistan went from about 60 percent of the population to 40 percent. So this has been —
QUESTION: But in the last hundred days, it was very dramatic. How come nobody could see it happening?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I think an important question is what happened with the collapse of the Afghan security forces and the collapse of the government. I have to say, the – so many Afghans in the security forces acted with incredible courage and bravery, and tremendous sacrifice – so many lost. But as an institution, it collapsed, and the government, worse – the government fled ultimately. All of that happened in a very, very short period of time, and that had a profound impact.
QUESTION: But you could not even evacuate – but you could not even evacuate Americans from Afghanistan, all of them. And a lot of Afghans, particularly ANDSF, they might feel that they were abandoned, they were let down by their U.S. counterparts.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: The evacuation effort was extraordinary, and overall almost 125,000 people were evacuated in a very short period of time under incredibly difficult conditions, including the threat posed by ISIS-K, the situation at the airport itself. And when it came to American citizens in Afghanistan, we evacuated nearly 6,000, virtually all of those who had identified themselves to us as American citizens and who wished to leave. There remain a small number who apparently still wish to leave, and we are absolutely committed to helping them do so, along with other Afghans who worked with us over the years who may be at risk, and I should add this, because it’s very important: The Taliban —
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Did you help President Ghani flee the country?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: No. In fact, I was on the phone —
QUESTION: Did you know about it?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: No. I was on the phone with President Ghani the night before he fled the country, and in our —
QUESTION: Did you —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: — let me finish, please – in our conversation, we were talking about work that was being done in Doha on a transfer of power. And in the absence of that succeeding, what he told me in that conversation the night before he fled is that, as he put it, he was prepared to fight to the death. In less than 24 hours, he’d left Afghanistan. So no, I certainly didn’t know about it, and we certainly did nothing to facilitate it.
QUESTION: And he took millions of dollars in cash with him, your taxpayers’ money and Afghans’ money. Do you know about that?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: That, I don’t know. What I do know is that he left the country, and again, in a very short period of time. The security forces as an institution collapsed and so did the government.
QUESTION: Was he part of the challenge when it comes to peace process in the past couple of years? Was he an obstacle to peace?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, I’m not interested at this point in looking backward. There’ll be plenty of time to do an accounting of the last 20 years, because what – what’s happened in the last few months is the accumulation of things that have happened over 20 years.
QUESTION: I’m looking at the future. Now that we’re left with a full Taliban control, will you recognize the Taliban government?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: The Taliban says it seeks international legitimacy and international support. And that will depend entirely on what it does, not just on what it says. And the trajectory of its relationship with us and with the rest of the world will depend on its actions. Now, the Taliban has made a series of commitments, publicly and privately, including with regard to freedom of travel, with regard to combatting terrorism and not allowing Afghanistan to be used a launching point for terrorism directed at us or at anyone else, including as well upholding the basic rights of the Afghan people, to include women and girls and minorities, to have some inclusivity in government, to avoid reprisals. And these are very important commitments.
The international community has also set clear expectations of the Taliban-led government. More than 100 countries signed onto a statement that we initiated on those very commitments. The United Nations Security Council has made clear its expectations. And so for us – and not just for us, for many countries around the world – the nature of the relationship with the government going forward will depend on the actions it takes.
QUESTION: We see some actions already in the past three weeks. Journalists are beaten, arrested today 14 actually. Women protesters on the streets are beaten, separating classrooms based on gender, shutting down local media, raiding people’s houses, even destroying murals on Kabul walls. What else do you want to see? Planning for another 9/11?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We will see by its actions whether it corrects course on any of these incidents of abusive conduct. That is going to be very important, whether there are clear policies, whether those policies are, in fact, carried out by people. But we have an enduring commitment to the Afghan people, and so do many countries around the world. And we are working together and looking for ways to ensure that commitment, diplomatically, politically, economically, through assistance. All of those things remain very much at our disposal, and all of those things we’re using in coordination with other countries to continue to support people throughout Afghanistan.
QUESTION: The U.S.-Taliban Doha deal – is it still in place?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: The —
QUESTION: The U.S.-Taliban —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, the question I think – one of the important questions is: Is the Taliban going to make good on its commitments, including in that agreement on counterterrorism? We ultimately made good on the fundamental part of the agreement that involved us, which was the removal of U.S. forces. That was something that was negotiated and agreed by the previous administration with the Taliban. We’ve made good on that commitment. The Taliban has an enduring commitment, among other things, to make sure that Afghanistan is not used as a launching pad for terrorism. We’re looking very much to see that it makes good on that commitment, even as we take the necessary steps to ensure that we can see and deal with any reemergence of terrorism.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, is the U.S. Government in contact with those who are fighting in Panjshir and other places against Taliban?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Our focus right now is on working with the international community to set clear expectations for the government that emerges in Afghanistan, and to communicate those expectations to the government and – or the government-to-be – and to work on that basis.
QUESTION: As closing, Mr. Secretary, what America should learn from Afghanistan, or invading Afghanistan, or the past two decades of involvement, in brief?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: It’s a profound question, an important question, one that we’re going to have the time and the place to think about, to reflect on. What I’m focused on right now, even as I’m doing some of that reflection, is on the way forward, is in showing that we can continue to support the Afghan people and uphold the expectations of the international community. That’s my focus.
QUESTION: And you think democracy was not made for Afghans, for Afghanistan (inaudible)?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: No, I think – I think that people around the world, including in Afghanistan, all have basic desires and aspirations, hopes, including to live freely. I don’t think that’s unique to us or to anyone else. I think that’s a basic human aspiration. And much of that is reflected in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights that should apply to the people of Afghanistan, as it applies to anyone else. And my hope and, beyond hope, expectation is that the future government of Afghanistan will uphold those basic rights. And if it does, then that’s a government that we can work with. If it doesn’t, we won’t.
QUESTION: Thank you for your time. Thank you for doing this.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. Good to be with you.