I wanted to raise something yesterday that the Secretary said in his address to students, in which he spoke about the Taliban as terrorists in Afghanistan, at a time when a team from the US is in negotiations with these — with the Taliban. I’ve looked on the terrorist list; I don’t see them as a terrorist, listed as a terrorist organisation. So has something changed here in which the Secretary believes that they are terrorists? And then what does it say about the US negotiating with terrorists, something that it’s said before that it would never do?
Palladino: We — right now, as you point out, we are in the process — meeting with the empowered Taliban negotiation led by Mullah Baradar, and that’s taking place in Doha, and that’s being led by Special Representative Khalilzad. And that’s going on right now, and he — we have several agencies that are part of that from the United States Government. These discussions are ongoing, and what they’re focusing on are the four interconnected issues that are going to compose any future agreement, and those four are counterterrorism, troop withdrawal, intra-Afghan dialogue, and a ceasefire.
Q: So — no, well, I’m — I mean, are they terrorists? Or did he misspeak?
Palladino: I — the Secretary’s words speak for themselves, and I’m not going to go beyond that. I would say we are very focused on bringing better results to what’s going on in that part of the world, and that’s where our focus currently is. And we’ll stay focused on that.
Q: So I assume then that he’s — that, well, he didn’t misspeak, because you’re not saying that he misspoke. And also he says in the transcript that he can travel there in a couple of weeks and help move it along a little bit. Is he planning on meeting with the Taliban?
Palladino: I have no travel to announce today. Talks are ongoing. More work needs to be done. We’re focused on this. We have private diplomatic conversations that are occurring, and we want to give all the parties time to work out these issues. And so, we’ll see, and if we have anything more to announce I’ll be sure to let you know.
Q: On Afghanistan again. As you said, these new talks have been going on for a week now. How would you characterize them? Are there important progress being made? And how long do you think you can continue doing these talks without the Afghan Government being included? Did you set a deadline when you think the intra-Afghan dialogue should start?
Palladino: No deadlines to announce now. And these are — and I don’t really want to go into much more detail. These talks are ongoing. Special Representative Khalilzad is engaging on this on a daily basis right now, and progress is being made. So I’ll leave it at that. More work to be done, obviously, but we’ll stay focused on that.
Q: When his trip was announced, it said that we was going to be out there through the end of February. It’s now — we’re now in March. So is it — it’s open-ended — his trip?
Palladino: You’re — I don’t have the media note in front of me, but it sounds like his trip’s been extended. I don’t want to read into that, but some — listen, when we travel, we have a notion quite often of what’s going to take place when we travel. Many of you have been on trips. You know that what we think we’re going to do sometimes changes and sometimes changes right at the last minute. And so I wouldn’t go so far as to say open-ended, but this is the nature of diplomacy. Opportunities present themselves; we change course, we correct, etc.
Q: Sorry, thank you. I have two questions on South Asia, India and Pakistan. What is U.S. assessment of the situation between the two countries now? And also, can you give us a sense or describe in detail what efforts the Secretary himself made in calming the situation? He spoke to the two leaders in the India, Pakistan earlier this week.
Palladino: Right, right. Our position — the position of the US is we continue to urge both sides to continue to take steps to de-escalate the situation, and that includes through direct communication. And we believe strongly that further military activity will exacerbate the situation. So we reiterate our call for Pakistan to abide by its United Nations Security Council commitments to deny terrorists sanctuary and to block their access to funds.
Regarding your second question – this happened in Hanoi last week, actually – Secretary Pompeo led diplomatic engagement directly, and that played an essential role in de-escalating the tensions between the two sides. He spoke with leaders in both countries, and that included the Indian Minister of External Affairs Swaraj, National Security Advisor Doval, and Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi.
Q: So has he made any further calls since coming here after that?
Palladino: He hasn’t. But what I can say is we’ve been in continuous – high-level contact has continued. That’s with both governments via our embassies in New Delhi and Islamabad, as well as with the Indian and Pakistani embassies here in Washington. That has been sustained, that’s been ongoing, and – sometimes we do public diplomacy and sometimes there’s a time for private diplomacy, and there’s a lot of private diplomacy that’s going on right now.
Q: One quick thing. India has found use of F-16 by Pakistan. State Department and the U.S. embassy in Islamabad said it is looking for more information on that. Is there potential misuse of F-16 by Pakistan, and what information you are seeking from?
Palladino: So we’ve seen those reports and we’re following that issue very closely. I can’t confirm anything, but as a matter of policy, we don’t publicly comment on the contents of bilateral agreements that we have in this regard involving US defense technologies nor the communications that we have with other countries about that. So we’re taking a look and we’re going to continue to take a look, and I’m going to leave it at that.
Edited excerpts from the transcript of a briefing by US State Department Deputy Spokesperson, Robert Palladino in Washington DC, March 5