Good morning. Mr. President, Secretary-General, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, is a pleasure to be here today.
Before I continue, allow me to take this opportunity to express my condolences to the governments of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and to the families of the victims of the tragic bus accident in Kazakhstan that claimed the lives of over fifty Uzbek citizens yesterday.
On behalf of the United States, President Trump, and Secretary Tillerson, I would like to thank Foreign Minister Abdrakhmanov [ab-drahh-MAH-noff] for convening this Ministerial meeting on the exceedingly important topic of Afghanistan Security and Development. Thank you to the Government of Kazakhstan for its leadership and for promoting stronger ties between Afghanistan and its neighbors in Central Asia.
Additionally, I’d like to express appreciation to the governments of the Kyrgyz Republic, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan for their joint and individual efforts to draw the region closer together through our C5+1 partnership, as well as their deliberation on how the region might more closely engage Afghanistan, thus contributing to the region’s shared stability.
I would also like to thank Secretary-General Guterres and his UN team, especially the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), for their dedication and exceptional work. Secretary-General, your visit to the country in June, as well as this Council’s trip to Kabul last week, highlight the international community’s commitment to Afghanistan. I know that Ambassador Haley was impressed during her trip by the resilience of the Afghan people in the face of insurgent and extremist violence, as well as by the accountability of Afghanistan to take ownership of its challenges. The United States is heartened by the progress we are already seeing following the announcement of President Trump’s South Asia strategy.
Before we turn to its challenges, we must not forget that Afghanistan is a fundamentally different country today than it was 20 years ago; this should give the Taliban pause if they expect to roll back the progress that has been made. In Afghanistan today, millions of girls and boys attend school. The population has access to basic health services and 90 percent of the population has cell phone access. Citizens have dozens of independent radio and TV stations to turn to for information and entertainment – as well as hundreds of print media outlets. Such advancements instill confidence in the country’s commitment to continuing progress and increasing development.
Yet, despite this progress, the ongoing conflict continues to roil the country, causing severe political, security, humanitarian, and human rights challenges.
This year, the stakes are clear. The Government of Afghanistan must continue to reform, in order to foster better lives for Afghans of all ethnicities and for the long-term security and stability of the country. It is critical that preparations for parliamentary elections in 2018 and presidential elections in 2019 move forward on schedule, peacefully and democratically, and that the government continues to work towards its commitments to fight corruption and support inclusive governance.
Since announcing our strategy for South Asia last August, President Trump has underscored that the United States will continue to support the Afghan Government and its security forces in their fight against the Taliban, as well as in their efforts to combat al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist groups. The United States and our allies have suffered grave losses in this fight alongside our Afghan brothers and sisters. We will not allow Afghanistan to serve as a safe haven for terrorists as it did in advance of September 11, 2001.
The President has also made it abundantly clear that solving Afghanistan’s security and development challenges will depend on the commitment of Afghans themselves, alongside the steadfast support of Afghanistan’s regional and international partners. As we move ahead, we must continue to support the principle that an enduring peace for Afghanistan is one that is built, led, and ultimately maintained by the Afghan government and its people.
This Afghan-led and Afghan-owned approach, paired with firm international support for Afghan security forces, will make clear to the Taliban that victory cannot be won on the battlefield – a solution is and must be political. We have emphasized that our support is conditions based, not driven by timelines. Continued violence will only serve to perpetuate war, and in doing so, will hurt all Afghan people, including the Taliban. With a united international community standing firm, the Taliban will come to understand that the only way forward is to engage in a reconciliation process that ends in all parties working toward a tolerant, accountable, and united government of Afghanistan, set in a peaceful and successful nation.
A necessary outcome of any peace agreement must include an absolute commitment from the Taliban that they will cut ties to terrorism, cease violence, and accept the Afghan constitution – a constitution that includes the protection for the rights of women and minorities.
We must recognize the reality that, while the Afghan Government has been adamant about its interest in initiating peace talks with the Taliban, there has been no reciprocal interest on the part of the Taliban. That must change.
To achieve this end, we must work together to isolate the Taliban, eliminate their sources of revenue and equipment, and demonstrate with a united and unwavering commitment that the only place they can achieve their objectives will be at the negotiating table – not on the battlefield.
Unfortunately, the international community has thus far fallen short in providing that kind of unified support to the Afghan government. We have even seen certain countries pursue counterproductive strategies that provide support to the Taliban in the name of countering ISIS. This approach is misguided, or worse, pernicious.
The United States believes the two are not linked. We can – and must – fight ISIS in Afghanistan, while ensuring the Taliban is forced to the negotiating table. Working closely with our Afghan partners, we have made significant progress against ISIS in eastern Afghanistan. Together, we have maintained persistent pressure on ISIS, significantly reducing its territory and eliminating one-third of its fighters. Supporting the Taliban only serves to prolong the conflict and foster an unstable and insecure environment, one that ISIS exploits to threaten Afghanistan and the broader region.
Ultimately, to defeat ISIS in Afghanistan – and prevent the group’s spread across the region – each country at this table must be aligned in our strategy, and in our commitment to follow-through. Ineffective strategies that enable insurgent groups must cease – instead, we need to join together and provide unwavering support for the Afghan government.
We know that an important part of this unified approach is Pakistan. Pakistan has suffered greatly from the effects of terrorism, and thus the country can and should be an integral partner in our shared efforts to achieve peace and stability within the region. We seek to work cohesively and effectively with Pakistan, but cannot be successful if the status quo, one where terrorist organizations are given sanctuary inside the country’s borders, is allowed to continue. Stability and prosperity in Afghanistan will benefit Pakistan as well, since it will enable a return of refugees and remove the ability of ISIS and other terror groups to operate against Pakistan from outside the country. This is why Pakistan should join our efforts to bring a resolution to the conflict, also as spelled out in our South Asia strategy.
This strategy as I have outlined it today will prove successful with commitment and patience. As Afghans take ownership, as the international community isolates the Taliban, then peace, stability, and security will follow – as will development.
And, as Afghanistan stands taller through peace, it will naturally contribute to the larger regional economic and security environment, underpinning the long-term success of Central Asia. The United States shares with the countries of Central Asia a commitment to peace, stability, and prosperity. The only way we can achieve these shared goals is through a mutual understanding of the threats we confront and the opportunities we can cultivate together.
In closing, the United States welcomes this Council’s and the C5’s recognition that peace, progress, and development is ultimately attained through regional and international cooperation. We all have a stake in Afghanistan’s success. Increased stability, economic progress and regional integration will benefit every country represented in this room – and none more so than the countries in Afghanistan’s immediate neighborhood. But, it must start with the Taliban deciding to take their first steps toward peace. If we hold firm, and present a united front, we will come ever closer to the day when the promise of peace becomes a reality.