January 17, 2018
Ambassador Wells: Hi. Thank you again for being here so early in the morning.
I wanted to have a chance to discuss my consultations yesterday where I was able to stress, really, the continued importance to the United States of our bilateral relationship with Pakistan. I look at the 70 years of cooperation as a time when we often, Pakistan and the United States, have really written some of the great chapters of history together. We are very invested in Pakistan’s economic success. We’re Pakistan’s largest export destination with $6 billion in bilateral trade. We’ve achieved, I think, phenomenal accomplishments working with Pakistan in the area of energy cooperation, adding over 3,000 megawatts of energy, again, as part of this broader strategy to help Pakistan succeed economically.
As I look at the span of our cooperation with Pakistan, we have sought to and I think achieved really important contributions in the improvements that Pakistan has made to its people in health, education and infrastructure. And whether it’s the 1300 schools that we’ve helped to build or refurbish, or the over 2000 kilometers of roadway, really tangible improvements that are perhaps today most concentrated when you look at the FATA, where we are by far the largest donor in assisting Pakistan in what is a critical effort to help the internally displaced Pakistanis return to their homes as part of what has been a substantial and very important victory against terrorism, an important victory by the Pakistani government and seizing back its territory and sovereignty of this important part of the country.
And not to forget the fact that we have worked very closely together over the last 40 years as Pakistan has truly taken on the incredible challenge of being the good neighbor to the millions of Afghan refugees who have sought shelter here. And through that effort, we have been the largest donor through UNHCR, working both here and in the region to assist people who are outside of the country, but also to assist people as they seek to return in a dignified way back to their homeland.
And as Pakistan you took on the fight against al-Qaeda, against TTP, against ISIS. We have been there with Pakistan. Since 2002 we’ve provided more than $14 billion in Coalition Support Funds. These are funds that were deeply in our interest to provide because this is a joint fight against terrorism, and we recognize the valor and determination that the Pakistani forces brought in rooting out terrorists that were targeting the Pakistani state and the Pakistani people.
Of course there’s been the Foreign Military Financing Program which has also been substantial, in the billions of dollars, again for a joint fight. And with this assistance, we believe that the United States has really demonstrated a commitment to the relationship with Pakistan and to Pakistan’s future as a democratic and a prosperous state.
Today we really are looking to see a similar commitment in the next phase of our partnership of bringing peace and stability to the region. The same dedication, the same energy in combating terrorists who are attacking Pakistan’s neighbors. Essentially, we don’t see good terrorists and bad terrorists. Terrorists undermine regional security, they undermine prosperity, they hurt Pakistan’s international image in ways that have both political and economic ramifications. And inaction against these terrorist groups really feeds into the instability next door in Afghanistan. It helps perpetuate some of the cross-border terrorism and attacks that we see. The same kinds of attacks have made it hard for refugees to return to their homes. It contributes to increased domestic radicalization. And it means that there are fewer resources, frankly, for education, health, infrastructure that Pakistanis are seeking.
So my message in my very professional and constructive meetings yesterday was that we are seeking to deny any terrorist’s ability to use terrorism, including groups like the Taliban and Haqqani Network. We oppose the use of terrorist proxies by any country, against any country anywhere, because we don’t see that terrorism has a place in the international rules-based order.
At the same time, we absolutely oppose any effort to foment separatism inside of Pakistan, including in Baluchistan. We do not support Baluchi separatism. Concerns about human rights are addressed and must be addressed peacefully.
The South Asia Strategy that the President announced in August is really an opportunity for the United States and Pakistan to work together and we think that relationship is critical because Pakistan is an important country. You’re soon to be the fifth largest country, a population of over 200 million growing middle class and entrepreneurial class, and we look at Pakistani-Americans and the role they play in America and we look at the ties that we’ve developed through extensive educational exchange programs, including a 22,000-person alumni network that we have here in Pakistan. And these are the relationships we want to build, because we want to see Pakistan as a leader in facilitating a negotiated political settlement that will help stabilize Afghanistan.
So let me stop there and take questions.
Media: Thank you very much. I would like to understand more. You said we don’t see good terrorists and bad terrorists. You don’t see here in Pakistan? What’s your policy?
Ambassador Wells: Our policy is that they’re neither, you can’t have good terrorists and bad terrorists. Terrorism is not —
Media: You think there are some good terrorists and bad terrorists in Pakistan.
Ambassador Wells: No. We are against countries trying to distinguish between some terrorist proxy groups serve a valid purpose and some must be destroyed. To the contrary, all terrorist forces need to be fought against. It’s not the legitimate way to prosecute claims.
Media: You have praised Pakistan’s role against terrorism and extremism, but at the same time, it looks, the statements emanating from Washington from various levels assert that Pakistan is not doing enough. That Pakistan is not trying to weed out these terrorist extremists from its own side, so it seems to be very contradictory.
Ambassador Wells: We’re distinguishing between the extraordinary fight that Pakistan has undertaken to defeat the terrorist groups that are aimed at the Pakistani state and people, and so taking on
Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and JUA. We’d like to see the same focus and dedication in rooting out other terrorist groups who are using Pakistani soil to attack neighbors.
So again we have respect for what Pakistan has accomplished in taking back the FATA in particular. We’ve been a strong partner in that effort. And we’d like to find a way to partner with Pakistan in helping to stabilize Afghanistan and bringing regional stability.
Media: You said the U.S. is facilitating Pakistan as the biggest donor in housing. There are more than millions of refugees still residing in Pakistan, different parts across the length and breadth of Pakistan. [Accidentally] I belong to [Heber Patumka] and our society has been literally, you know, one can say it may [inaudible] because we’re damaged by the [inaudible] living there since ’80s. You know, two generations, they have grown up in Pakistan. And when there were allegations from the U.S. government that there are people, you know, they cross border, they do activities across the border, they come back to Pakistan. Whenever we interact with Pakistani officials they say that we want to get rid of these [inaudible] who are living here. They are calling these their own places. And our perception is that whosoever comes, whosoever crosses border they have, you know, a very good environment, good people who house them.
So when we interact with the responsible [inaudible], they now say that they want those refugees to go back to their countries. Is the U.S. willing to facilitate us in shifting back those refugees who lives here, back to their own places? And there is peace, there is a unity government in Afghanistan. What’s your take on it? That is the U.S. willing to facilitate? [Inaudible]?
Ambassador Wells: First, I think we express admiration for the hospitality that has been extended by Pakistan to the millions of refugees over the last 40 years. It has been an extraordinary act by Pakistan that has costs that are both financial and social, and we have tried to assist Pakistan as the lead international donor over the last 40 years in coping with what has been one of the saddest chapters or byproducts of the war in Afghanistan. So I think Pakistan, the government of Pakistan, the Pakistani people, deserve to be commended.
We support the return of refugees as Afghanistan is able to receive them and absorb them. We saw a large number of refugees depart for Afghanistan in 2016, for instance. Unfortunately, many of them actually never made it back to their home towns. They remain internally displaced inside of Afghanistan because of the security situation which then produces another round of returnees, or produces, it’s destabilizing inside of Afghanistan.
So we would like to see the dignified return of refugees which requires improved security, requires the international community working to assist Afghanistan in providing the kinds of, whether it’s jobs or housing that make it possible for the refugees to return. But as long as Afghanistan is at war, the question of the total return of refugees I don’t think is possible at that time. So instead, we’re working on those fronts, supporting Pakistan a it continues to host the refugee community and urging Pakistan to continue to be that host while working assiduously inside of Afghanistan to create the conditions for the refugees’ return.
Media: Welcome to Pakistan. My name is [Minisi]. I represent [inaudible] Television here.
I wanted to ask you that recently the U.S. has withheld American aid. I know that one of the demands is to slam down on the Haqqani Network. What else is there on that, you know, their demand caused by the United States, what Pakistan should do? What else are you looking for in terms of cooperation with Pakistan?
Ambassador Wells: I don’t like the word demands. I think what we’re looking for is how do we create a partnership moving forward. We know that we can work together. We know that we have a historic partnership and that we achieved great things, including in the fight against terrorism. So under the South Asia Strategy, we’re trying to find a way to help Pakistan address its legitimate security interests in a stable Afghanistan by working together to provide the incentives and to change the Taliban’s calculus about how they can best address their own grievances.
Our argument is that there’s a place for the Taliban at the negotiating table. That there is a place for the Taliban in Afghanistan’s future. But it can’t be achieved on the battlefield. It has to be achieved through political negotiations. And Pakistan can play, we believe, a very important role in helping to shape those expectations and actions of the Taliban.
Currently, the suspension of, and it is a suspension. It isn’t a cutting off. We prefer to work with Pakistan for all the reasons that I mentioned, what Pakistan brings to this battle and can bring to this battle.
Media: Just to clarify, what you’re looking for is Pakistan to use its influence to bring Taliban to the negotiating table and not really looking for, let’s say, the Taliban, the Pakistanis going after the Taliban or clamping down on the Haqqani Network or other terrorist groups that may attack Afghanistan.
Ambassador Wells: As I said, we do not believe that terrorist groups have a legitimate role to play. Terrorism is not a legitimate form of political expression. So there are no good terrorists, no bad terrorists. We want Pakistan to work with us as we’ve worked with Pakistan in the past, against al-Qaeda and against TTP, to work with us in preventing the Taliban and Haqqani Network and other terrorist groups who use Pakistan soil. And there are reasons we believe that this is manifestly in Pakistan’s strategic interest to have a stable Afghanistan next door, to help facilitate a peace process that will allow the return of refugees.
And so how do we get to the negotiating table after 16 years of violence? And here we believe Pakistan has an authoritative role to play in shaping expectations and actions of some of these organizations.
Media: Some take-aways from your meetings of yesterday? Would you like to talk about that? And second, would you like to comment on the news story that said that there were some meetings that were held in Istanbul between the [inaudible] government and the Taliban?
Ambassador Wells: The meetings yesterday were very professional, and we had a good exchange of views. I’ve seen the press reports that have come out, a wide range of topics covered about the bilateral relationship. Again, I have great respect for my colleagues, and I appreciated the chance to review the South Asia Strategy and what we hope to achieve under it.
I don’t have any direct knowledge of the Istanbul talks, but all I would say is that in general, we support dialogue between the parties. We support dialogue between the Afghan government and representatives of the Taliban. We believe that ultimately it’s not, victory is not going to be achieved on the battlefield, it’s going to be achieved at the negotiating table.
Media: My question, you must be aware that some Tweets created a lot of [inaudible] between the relations of Pakistan and U.S. After that [inaudible] in Pakistan, and some of the very important government officials including the Foreign Minister and the spokesperson of Pakistan, they are claiming that if the U.S. thinks that Pakistan is playing a double game, as claimed by Mr. McMaster and may other top U.S. officials, that Pakistan is playing a double game, while the U.S. intelligence is not sharing information with the Pakistan officials that Haqqani
Network or [inaudible] Taliban are hiding somewhere in Pakistan. This is the place. And while they are not sharing this information, why they are making public statements that Pakistan is playing a double game?
Ambassador Wells: I think that the —
Media: I want to say that why you are not wearing any evidence in support of your double game allegations.
Ambassador Wells: We have a longstanding dialogue with the government of Pakistan. This is not a new issue. We have been working on Afghanistan and discussing Afghanistan for the last 16 years and before that, of course, their close cooperation in the anti-Soviet effort.
So the dialogue continues. I think that what you’ve seen is frustration that we’ve not succeeded in being able to create a partnership that is effectively changing the calculus of those, you know, who are engaged on the battlefield to secure their commitment to a negotiated political settlement.
I think you see in the statements of the government of Afghanistan a commitment to peace and to negotiations. You’ve had important gatherings over the last several weeks in Afghanistan. A press conference by the Higher Peace Council that underscores the government of Afghanistan’s willingness to negotiate with the Taliban. You’ve had a gathering of hundreds of [Wulala] members in late December who also reaffirmed their commitment to peace in the country. You have, President Ghani will be hosting a Kabul process gathering of the international community later in February to discuss Afghanistan’s vision for peace.
So this is I think an opportunity with the government of Afghanistan focused on how it can engage the Taliban constructively with the new U.S. South Asia Strategy recommitting us to the future of Afghanistan, to take advantage of our presence and our commitment to peace in Afghanistan and the Afghan government’s commitment to engage the Taliban to work together.
So that’s what we need to focus on, is how to move forward.
Media: One of the elements of your new South Asia policy is your [inaudible] towards India which causes a lot of worries in Islamabad. And Pakistanis think that now you are building a new friendship with India which is hostile to Pakistan, and that is creating a lot of problems.
Ambassador Wells: Our relations with India and Pakistan and Afghanistan stand on their own. Certainly we don’t pursue any relationship for the detriment of another. And we don’t see our partnership with India in a range of areas as being counter to Pakistan’s interests.
To the contrary, we see India through its development assistance, for instance, in Pakistan [sic] has helped to build roads and dams and schools or train civil servants, and that’s good, and that’s helpful in stabilizing the country.
We would never support Afghanistan being used as abase for any hostile act against Pakistan, and that’s why you see us actively targeting the TTP inside of Afghanistan, targeting JUA. We will fight terrorists who are fighting Pakistan.
Media: Pak-U.S. relations [inaudible] seem to be a roller coaster sort of ride. Sometimes U.S. sounding positive about it, yesterday meetings. But the start of 2018 was not good. On FATA generally, President Trump Tweet came and there was a lot of reaction in Pakistan. In particular [inaudible] diplomatic and media discussions. We have so many programs on those issues.
So I was just thinking that you mentioned that the U.S. has been an active partner in developing Pakistan roads and you know, lifting FATA infrastructure, social and other infrastructure. But many in Pakistan believes that U.S. eyes Pakistan through one prism that is peace in Afghanistan. All this dialogue process, all the aid. You have mentioned $14 billion of CSF reimbursement.
Why is it so that the relationship [inaudible] more than six, seven decades, but still sitting in 2018 we always discuss that these relations are, you know, there is no stability in these relationships. Can you [inaudible] that the strategic dialogue process is suspended? Is it on or is it — the [composite] dialogue process, it was initiated. Now at present is it suspended or it is functional?
Ambassador Wells: The Strategic dialogue, composite dialogue, was an Obama administration diplomatic architecture. And so this is a new administration. And what you’ve seen under the Trump administration is very intensive engagement. The visit here of Secretary Tillerson, the visit of Secretary Mattis, visits of General Votel. We are engaging with Pakistan at the highest levels regularly. And so I think the channels for dialogue are very open.
I think it would require like probably a PhD degree for us to understand sometimes the pathology of U.S.-Pakistan relations and we don’t have time for it this morning.
But one of the disappointments for me is that there’s the Coalition Support Fund, but there’s a substantial and sort of steady unwavering support for Pakistan’s development as a democratic and prosperous nation. Investments, $12 billion in investments over the years. And I wish that I could have more Pakistanis understand just how deeply invested we have been in your country.
Again, these are not loans. These are grants. This is, because we see the importance of Pakistan and we value Pakistan as a people and as a democracy. And the fact that you had a democratic change from a President, peaceful, it’s a wonderful accomplishment. And America has always stood by Pakistan as it has evolved as a democratic country.
So yes, we’re, this is a moment in the relationship of concern that we’ve not been able to forge an effective partnership against this other realm of terrorism. And this is, it was an important I think symbol and manifestation of frustration on our part because everything that we have provided to Pakistan, including Coalition Support Funds, have been deeply in our interest because we’re in the same fight together. And the fact that we’re now sending this signal reflects our unhappiness that we haven’t been able to create a new way forward in dealing with what is an issue of great concern to us, these terrorist forces who have been able to utilize Pakistani soil.
So it’s serious. I don’t want to underestimate the serious conversation, it’s a serious discussion. But we come to this discussion with a lot of history. And a lot of history that indicates that we can work together. We can find a [inaudible]. So how do we do that?
Media: If you had to prioritize, what do you think the U.S. administration would prefer to happen first? Decrease in the violence in Afghanistan, or the Taliban on the negotiating table?
Ambassador Wells: I think that they’re interrelated. When you, to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table I think signals a commitment by the parties to reducing violence and to engaging with one another.
What I would say about the process of reconciliation and negotiations is that the United States and the international community have never set preconditions for negotiation. Instead what we’ve said is at the end of the process, at the end of the process there should be a break with terrorism. At the end of the process there should be support for the constitution. At the end of the process there needs to be a cessation of violence.
So we’ve been very flexible in how a negotiation or under what circumstances a negotiation could take place. We’re very supportive of the government of Afghanistan’s efforts. We believe any peace process has to be the government of Afghanistan’s owned and led, and we stand to partner with them in these efforts.
Media: I visited Afghanistan many times recently, especially 15 days ago. We met many top government officials in Kabul, and they confirmed that all those Taliban groups who are supporting the peace process, or who are interested in participating the negotiations. Their fighting force is running Daesh. And on the other side I also met some parliamentarians including Mr. [Karzai], how is openly making allegations that the U.S. forces are supporting Daesh in Afghanistan. And certainly from President Ghani, he’s contradicting that claim.
But there is a realization in Afghanistan that fencing of Pakistan-U.S. border is must so that Pakistan can tell U.S. or other people who makes allegations that now we have a proper border and we will not allow anyone to cross the border.
So what is your stand on fencing the border with Pakistan [inaudible]?
Ambassador Wells: First on ISIS, I categorically reject any allegation of U.S. support for ISIS. It’s absurd. It angers me because more U.S. personnel died last year fighting ISIS in Afghanistan than Taliban, and if you look at our efforts which has included more than 1400 operations against ISIS, our ability to shrink ISIS’ presence in Nangarhar from nine districts to three to five. You know, the fight continues and ISIS is a serious threat. One that I think we’re very united with Pakistan on the need to confront. But the U.S. is dedicated to rooting out and destroying ISIS, and we cannot allow the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, let those elements, the remnants, [inaudible] elsewhere internationally. So it really is an obligation of the international community to confront ISIS everywhere, including in Afghanistan, which we are doing.
On fencing, I think we strongly support efforts at border management and believe that they need to be negotiated and worked on between the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. That our greatest successes, including with the support of Resolute Support forces or with the support of the United States, or when you have coordinated hammer and anvil operations as we saw, for instance, I believe in January 2017, the Khyber-3 operation. I may have the name wrong.
But the parties on both sides of the border were aligned. And then you can effectively squeeze.
Uncoordinated efforts I think foster misapprehensions and sometimes distrust. So we would strongly urge the government of Afghanistan and Pakistan to work together on managing the border. Because obviously, I think we’ve all appreciated over the years the porous nature of the border and how that has been exploited.
Media: One of the things that Pakistani leadership has said, the military and the political leadership has said, that they don’t have that kind of influence over the Taliban that they once did. I know that your administration expects them to bring them to the negotiating table. How do you expect them to do it when they have categorically said they don’t have [inaudible]?
Ambassador Wells: No one’s asking Pakistan to lead the Taliban to the negotiating table. I think what we’re looking for a partnership with Pakistan is in changing the calculus of the Taliban. And the Taliban to now have declined, have rejected out of hand, negotiations with the government of Afghanistan. And the government of Afghanistan is the legitimate body, the legitimately recognized body by us, by your government, by the United Nations, by everybody in the region. And so to this day the Taliban have not been willing to take that very initial step in recognizing that this is the counterpart that they have to sit down with at the negotiating table.
So we believe that there’s much that Pakistan can do to shape —
Media: Are you surprised?
Ambassador Wells: I think these are longstanding conversations between us and the government of Pakistan, but you can appreciate —
Media: Do you agree to this assertion by some analysts that the U.S. wants to stay in [inaudible] for a very long period of time to pursue its future objectives. And the U.S. doesn’t want to end the war in Afghanistan.
Ambassador Wells: I’m always struck by that conspiracy theory, because you had two very, very different American Presidents tell you otherwise. President Obama said we’re leaving. And he told you when we were leaving. And he drew down troops at a rate unseen in modern history. And what did we see happen? Did the Taliban say let’s negotiate our way back into power? No. The Taliban accelerated their fighting because they still maintained the idea that they could rule from the center and rule Afghanistan.
Then you had President Trump come in and tell you in a nationally televised address that he wanted to leave Afghanistan. He campaigned on it. He fought for it. He had six months of policy discussions. And ultimately he, like President Obama, concluded that our national security interests require us to leave an Afghanistan that’s stabilized and that’s at peace.
So I think that the beautify of the South Asia Strategy for the region is that we’re committed to Afghanistan’s long term stability. We’re committed to not allowing the Taliban to win. And that is the calculus we believe should change how the Taliban approaches this conflict. But if they can’t win this war, we can stop them from winning and we can stop them from making gains. You know, how do they achieve their own legitimate interests? All the parties here have legitimate interests, but they need to be brokered at a negotiating table, and that’s our commitment under this strategy.
Media: You [inaudible]  years of military action in Afghanistan. Have you done your own assessment? Will the U.S. forces stand today in Afghanistan? Are you winning the war in Afghanistan? There is, you know, some sort of set of responsibilities, [inaudible]. Because there are reports that still 43 percent of Afghan area is not under the control of the Ghani administration, and they are confined to Kabul. So there’s some sort of reinforcement, understanding [inaudible]. WE have made a lot of gains in North Baluchistan in the [inaudible] Operation has been successfully completed. What about on the other side of the bar?
Ambassador Wells: I think what this administration concluded is that the initiative of drawing down troops against a time line had failed and that it was destabilizing and it did allow the Taliban to expand its influence.
I would be careful with those statistics. While the Taliban may control 40-some percent of territory, in terms of population it’s more like 10 or 11 percent. And by no means does the Taliban represent a majority of the Afghanistan people.
I think if you look at the Asia Foundation’s annual survey, only five percent evince any sympathy for a Taliban or Taliban goals. I mean there’s quite a national consensus in Afghanistan against what the Taliban stand for.
That said, they are part of Afghanistan’s social fabric and part of their political fabric, and our belief is that there is a role for them at a negotiating table, for moderate Taliban who are prepared to participate in this political process.
It’s a very different war today. You know, the Taliban National Forces are fighting and dying for their country. American forces have been there in a train, advise and assist capacity. Under President Trump’s strategy we’re prepared to increase some of our authorities, increase their ability to be more proactive or aggressive in going after targeting the Taliban. But ultimately it’s the Afghans themselves who are fighting for their country and we’re supporting that battle.
Media: Well coming back to Pakistan, and you congratulated us for continuation of the democratic process. However, we are in a state right now where the ruling party says, and the perception that it’s created is that the military is trying to scuttle the democratic process.
How concerned is the U.S. about the continuation of the democratic process in Pakistan?
Ambassador Wells: I think we’re looking ahead to elections that are going to be held in Pakistan, democratic processes are ongoing and we urge that disputes that take place be resolved through democratic means.
So we support the judicial process and running its full course. So I think we’re seeing institutions function and we support the functioning of democratic institutions.
Media: Can you just name the important Pakistani officials you met in your visit? I just want to know the names.
Ambassador Wells: I had a range of consultations yesterday with the MEA and the Finance Ministry and others.
Thank you very much. I appreciate it.