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Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South And Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells

MS ORTAGUS: So this entire briefing will be on the record. Alice just came back. She’s got a readout of her trip. We, obviously, have another trip coming up, so we’ll try to get as many questions in after she finishes her opening statements.

Go ahead.

AMBASSADOR WELLS: Great. It was a long trip, so I apologize for the long sort of framing remarks, but then look forward to answering your questions. So my first stop was in Sri Lanka. I was joined by Lisa Curtis, the deputy assistant to the President, from the NSC. And as you know, Sri Lanka occupies some very important real estate in the Indo-Pacific region, and it’s a country of increasing strategic importance in the Indian Ocean region. And we had productive meetings with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was elected last November, and his brother Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, as well as the foreign minister, representatives of the opposition, as well as leaders of the Tamil National Alliance and civil society. And I would say the election itself was noteworthy. Sri Lanka is Asia’s oldest democracy. The election was contested, it was fair, and it delivered a clear mandate to President Rajapaksa.

In our meeting with the president, Lisa Curtis and I conveyed a letter from President Trump emphasizing the value that we place on continued engagement with Sri Lanka that’s pursuing the path of reform and reconciliation, and we really welcomed the president’s statement that he wants to be president for all Sri Lankans.

We have compelling shared interests that include countering violent extremism, strengthening maritime security, preventing narcotics smuggling, promoting investment and economic growth as part of a free and open Indo-Pacific. And ultimately, the quality of our partnership will reflect our success in strengthening shared values, including on the critical issue of healing the wounds of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

From Sri Lanka we went to New Delhi for the Raisina Dialogue. The success of this annual conference reflects India’s prominent role on the world’s stage and at the heart of the Indo-Pacific region. In addition to joining Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger’s meetings with the Indian national security advisor and foreign minister, we met broadly with the Ministry of External Affairs, the prime minister’s office, and the NSC, as well as engaged opposition in civil society.

I think it’s clear that India’s broadening strategic horizons over the past two decades have resulted in a shift away from a passive foreign policy into one that more vigorously advances Indian interests. Nowhere is that more true than in the Indo-Pacific region. Whether it’s in our growing maritime and naval cooperation, the Quad, India’s Act East Policy, there’s virtually no daylight in our approaches to the Indo-Pacific. Deputy National Security Advisor Pottinger’s remarks at Raisina endorsing an Indo-Pacific region stretching from California to Kilimanjaro only further reinforced the strategic convergence.

My official meetings also focused on how to build on the diplomatic and defense gains achieved during the 2+2 ministerial dialogue last December. With continued progress on defense cooperation, peacekeeping operations, space, counterterrorism, trade, people-to-people initiatives, and more, I would highlight that the quality and frequency of our naval cooperation, especially information sharing, has reached unprecedented levels. We also remain focused on achieving a trade deal that promotes fair and reciprocal trade, and my colleagues from USTR are in Delhi now to continue this progress.

The visit also offered an opportunity to hear more regarding developments with India’s Citizenship Amendment Act, which is undergoing I would say a vigorous democratic scrutiny, whether it’s in the streets, by the political opposition, media, and the courts. We continue to underscore the importance of the principle of equal protection under the law.

On Jammu and Kashmir, I was pleased to see some incremental steps, including the partial return of internet service in Kashmir. And the visit by our ambassador and other foreign diplomats to Jammu and Kashmir is something that I know was extensively covered in the press. We see this as a useful step. We also continue to urge the government to permit regular access by our diplomats, and to move swiftly to release those political leaders detained without charge.

From New Delhi, I traveled to Islamabad where I held meetings with government, military, civil society, and business leaders. At the top of the agenda was understanding how we can grow our bilateral relationship commensurate with the cooperation that we are achieving in promoting peace in Afghanistan and regional stability.

We appreciate the steps Pakistan has taken to advance the Afghan peace process, and Pakistan has important leverage to promote lasting security and stability in Afghanistan.

I welcomed efforts by Pakistan to meet its counterterrorism financing obligations under FATF, the Financial Action Task Force. We strongly encourage Pakistan to work with FATF and the international community to fully satisfy its action plan commitments. Completion of the FATF action plan is critical to Pakistan’s economic reform efforts, including its IMF program, as well as for demonstrating sustained and irreversible action against all militant groups based in Pakistan without distinction.

We’ve seen obvious progress in our relations with Pakistan, from the high-level engagement such as the President’s warm and constructive meeting with Prime Minister Khan at Davos to the restoration of the International Military Education and Training programs.

I had extensive conversations on how we can bolster our economic partnership where the U.S. is Pakistan’s largest export market, largest trade partner, and historically one of its most significant investors. There are obvious synergies in energy and agriculture, and opening Pakistan’s markets to American investments creates jobs and wealth without sacrificing standards or fueling corruption.

We’re looking forward to welcoming 10 Pakistani buyer delegations to the U.S. and five regional trade shows in 2020, which will build deeper relationships between U.S. and Pakistani firms. Prime Minister Khan’s economic reform efforts contributed to the World Bank identifying it as one of the top 10 reformers globally in 2019.

One last item of note is what was announced earlier today, that Secretary Pompeo will travel to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan February 1-3, following his stops in Europe. The Secretary looks forward to traveling to Central Asia to discuss important economic, security, and religious freedom issues. He’ll also reaffirm our commitment to the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of the countries of Central Asia.

So let me stop here and take your questions.

MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead, Matt.

QUESTION: Can I – thanks. I know this isn’t your portfolio necessarily – I’m going to ask about North Korea. No. (Laughter.) I’m kidding.

MS ORTAGUS: You didn’t have a —

QUESTION: But can you, if at all possible, let us – tell us what your understanding of where current things are with the Afghanistan peace deal?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: I mean, the only thing I can note is that Ambassador Khalilzad and his team are in Doha. They are encouraging the Taliban to make a commitment to a reduction in force[1] that would allow Afghans to sit at a negotiating table. And so that process continues.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay.

QUESTION: May I ask a quick follow-up?

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Sorry. Do you give any credence to the reports of more Taliban violence coming out of Afghanistan? There have been some reports even just overnight that the Taliban militants are killing civilians and other members of the ANSF. Have you seen those reports? Do you – can you confirm —

AMBASSADOR WELLS: I have, and the violence continues. It obviously underscores why there needs to be a peace process and why the Afghan people seek peace. It also underscores the violence and the Taliban’s lack of inhibition in attacking civilians.

QUESTION: The reason I ask if because, of course, as we know, President Trump said he would not allow some of the negotiations to go forward if the violence continued, and that sort of spelled doom for the prospect of a peace process.

AMBASSADOR WELLS: And that’s why there has to be the focus on the reduction in violence that the Afghan people can see and feel and appreciate.

MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Pakistan and China is certainly upset with your comments on CPEC and Pakistan. Anything you want to say after the whole chaos over there?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: Well, as you’ve heard, Secretary Pompeo addressed more broadly we have concerns over One Belt One Road, and the fact that projects under One Belt One Road often don’t adhere to international standards – sustainability, labor environment. And the argument that I was making in Pakistan is that there are opportunities and should be opportunities for American investment, American energy firms, and manufacturers are interested in the Pakistani market. You have Exxon-Mobil, Excelerate, Cargill, Honeywell, all pursuing major new investments. You have Uber creating 80,000 jobs for Pakistani youth.

And so, as we do globally, we argue in Pakistan that – that there – you should adhere to the “buyer beware.” That Pakistan is a buyer, these are not – this is not grant assistance from China, it’s loans, often not with concessional financing. And Pakistan should beware of the terms, to make sure that they’re getting the most for their money, that brings the greatest economic prosperity.

QUESTION: So you are not negating what exactly they’re saying? They are actually agitating on that?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: What —

QUESTION: They are kind of agitating on it – like, foreign officers saying they are – it’s meddling in their local affairs or the country affairs.

MS ORTAGUS: You’re saying the Chinese are saying that?

QUESTION: They’re endorsing it.

MS ORTAGUS: I don’t think – what’s the – so what’s the question?

QUESTION: Would it be meddling in local affairs, the government affairs, or Pakistan’s affairs?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: Oh, of course not. This is Pakistan’s sovereign right to decide what investment it seeks and on what terms. And a friend of Pakistan, we certainly urge that they take on investment projects that create wealth, generate employment, and are sustainable, and think we have great options for the Pakistani market.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador.

MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Do you think the IMF’s funding could get affected if Pakistan does not meet the FATF regulations or the rules?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: I mean, obviously, if Pakistan were not to meet FATF obligations or were to fail and be blacklisted, that would be devastating for Pakistan’s economic reform program and for its ability to attract investors. We’ve been pleased to see progress by Pakistan towards fulfilling FATF obligations. There is a meeting underway currently in Beijing where Pakistan is presenting its actions to the task force. And so I defer to that task force to make its evaluation. But the more evidence of Pakistan’s seriousness in both documenting its economy and in shrinking the space for militants to be able to take advantage of Pakistan’s either banking system or territory, the more confidence that the international community and business community will have in working with Pakistan.

QUESTION: Because Pakistan’s foreign minister was in town last week, and he urged that now United States should step up to help Pakistan, get it out of the gray list.

AMBASSADOR WELLS: Well, FATF is a technical process. There has been an action plan that was presented to Pakistan. It’s a question of fulfilling the requirements that have been spelled out and that are asked of all countries in the international system. So it’s not a political process, but we certainly support and stand ready to assist Pakistan as it implements these obligations.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Conor.

QUESTION: Ambassador Wells, back here. Two questions, if I could. The first one: Has there been any progress since the decision to withhold certain economic assistance to Afghanistan? Have you seen constructive steps from the Ghani administration? Are you considering other funds be withheld to send a message, if not?

And then secondly, it’s been, I guess, nearly four months now since the national elections. Are you concerned that there’s not been a clear outcome, and at what point would you call for maybe a recount or a new election?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: Corruption is – fighting corruption is a key element of all of our programs in Afghanistan. We try to ensure that U.S. taxpayer dollars are spent appropriately and with the desired effect. We are constantly looking for ways to enhance the effectiveness of donor dollars.

And so when Secretary Pompeo outlined areas of shortcoming, it reflected our concern about what continues to be endemic corruption in Afghanistan. I am pleased that in one area that the Secretary underscored, we did see progress by the Government of Afghanistan, and $60 million in assistance was able to move forward.[2] And we certainly, again, encourage that the government as well as other implementers or recipients of assistance do everything possible to ensure that what are declining levels of economic assistance be put to maximum effect of the – Afghanistan has to transition to become self-reliant and to develop a private sector.

With regard to elections, I think it’s very important that the contestants in the election are adhering to the process. The Independent Election Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission are working according to the electoral law. They’re processing the electoral complaints. The Electoral Complaint Commission has identified voting centers where they want to recount the ballots. That process is proceeding. And so our message is that it’s better to get it right than better to finish – than to finish it quickly. And so we are supporting the electoral institutions of Afghanistan.

MS ORTAGUS: Anybody else?

QUESTION: What was the one area that you said you saw some progress and it freed up 60 million?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: Yeah, we will get you the specific. I don’t recall the program offhand, but (staff) can provide that to you.

QUESTION: Is there anything big or some – or that you would like to – anything you would like to highlight about the trip upcoming in either Kazakhstan or other than what you just said there? Is there – in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan? Is there any kind of deliverable that we should be expecting or looking for?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: I think the Secretary’s visit is important because it comes in the context of the administration’s Central Asia strategy, which will shortly be rolled out, which has important support, again, for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence of the Central Asian states. He’ll be hosting a meeting of the C5, so all of the foreign ministers of Central Asia, which will be the second time he’s done so in the year, underscoring the importance we attach to also developing a regional identity among the Central Asian states at a time when we’re working very closely with them to enhance regional connectivity and to help stitch Afghanistan back into the region.

And so there’s been important progress in enhancing trade and investment and support for Afghanistan at the same time that there’s been important developments in the modernization of the region thanks to the opening of Uzbekistan with the passing of President Karimov and President Mirziyoyev’s different stance towards regional integration.

QUESTION: But my understanding has been in the past that the C5, when it gets together, are generally talking about intra-C5 opening up of trade and security, counterterrorism, that kind of thing. Is there also going to be —

AMBASSADOR WELLS: And also —

QUESTION: Well, right. But also with Afghanistan. But is there anything U.S. – that’s less intra-C5 and Afghanistan, and more C5-U.S.?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: Well, I think counterterrorism cooperation. We’ve seen Central Asia become the leading – they’re the leading countries in reintegrating foreign terrorist fighters. Kazakhstan brought back 600 fighters and family members, Uzbekistan over a hundred, Tajikistan also close to a hundred. And it’s these countries that are actually going to be teaching us lessons from that reintegration process. So CT will be an important part. Regional economic connectivity will be another. And then economic modernization, including a new project to enhance – to create a regional electricity market.

QUESTION: Are you going on the trip?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: I am.

QUESTION: Who came up with California to Kilimanjaro?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: I think it’s witty.

MS ORTAGUS: I like the line.

AMBASSADOR WELLS: It used to be Bollywood to Hollywood, and now – (laughter). No, but what it —

MS ORTAGUS: I want to claim credit for it.

AMBASSADOR WELLS: But what it does signify – but thank you for noticing it, because what it does – (laughter). Because what it does signify —

QUESTION: Except you have to spell California with a K. (Laughter.)

AMBASSADOR WELLS: No, but it signifies a definitional change, because originally when we spoke about the Indo-Pacific, we did do Hollywood to Bollywood and put the border at the – on the western border of India. And now where we’ve aligned our definition of Indo-Pacific to match that of Japan and India and Australia, and so the Quad members all have a common vision, at least geographically, of the Indo-Pacific region.

QUESTION: And so they define the Indo-Pacific as going to East Africa?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: Mm-hmm.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay, we’ll be —

QUESTION: Can I ask one more question? Sorry, I just popped in late. Sorry.

MS ORTAGUS: Sure, go ahead.

QUESTION: I know I missed a little bit at the beginning, but with regard to the American soldiers who have already been killed this year in Afghanistan, how has that specifically impacted the peace talks?

MS ORTAGUS: I think she already answered that, so we’ll send you to the transcript.

Francesco.

QUESTION: I was just wondering if you could switch off the record to update us on the U.S.-Taliban talks in Doha, even off the record.

MS ORTAGUS: No, but thanks for trying. No. But I’m going to check on [Senior Administration Official] and see if he’s one time, and we’ll be back in just a few minutes.

QUESTION: I think I found the 60 million, by the way.

AMBASSADOR WELLS: Did you?

QUESTION: Is it national procurement authority? It was withheld because of concerns about transparency in accounting and managing finances?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: Yes, yes.

MS ORTAGUS: Thank you.

AMBASSADOR WELLS: Thank you. (Laughter.) You’re hired. You’re hired. (Laughter.)

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  1. violence 
  2. The $60M refers to incentive funding under the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF). Additional information available upon request. 

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