September 22, 2021

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Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Dean Thompson, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Peninsula Affairs, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Daniel Benaim, and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Dereck Hogan On the Secretary’s Upcoming Travel to Qatar and Germany

23 min read

Dean Thompson, Acting Assistant SecretaryBureau of South and Central Asian Affairs

Daniel Benaim, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Peninsula AffairsBureau of Near Eastern Affairs

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Dereck Hogan

Via Teleconference

MR PRICE:  (In progress) European and Eurasian Affairs Dereck Hogan, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern and – for Near Eastern Affairs Daniel Benaim.  This briefing, as I said before, is on Secretary Blinken’s travel so we ask that you please limit your questions to that topic.  As a reminder, this call is on the record, and its contents are embargoed until the completion of the call.  And you can enter the question queue at any time by dialing 1 and then 0.  So with that, I will turn it over to Acting Assistant Secretary Thompson.  Please, go ahead.

MR THOMPSON:  Thanks, Ned, and thank you all for being here today to talk about the upcoming travel by Secretary Blinken to Qatar and Germany which will underscore our enduring partnerships with these countries as well as our deep gratitude for their support for our ongoing efforts on Afghanistan.  I was really fortunate to experience the strength of these relationships myself after working with taskforce colleagues on the historic evacuation and relocation effort over the past few weeks as well as my experience leading the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs in the lead up to the events of these weeks.  We owe just a tremendous debt of gratitude to both countries.  I’ll provide a quick preview of the trip, and then my colleagues and I will be happy to take your questions.

So at the outset, the Secretary will depart for Doha, Qatar on September 5.  The Secretary will meet with senior Qatari officials during his trip to Doha to express gratitude to Qatar for the role they have played in helping to evacuate thousands of people safely from Afghanistan.  Qatar has been at the forefront of our efforts.  It was the first country to take flights from Afghanistan and is the largest site in the world for hosting people in transit from Afghanistan.  More than 55,000 people have passed through Qatar so far helping us repatriate hundreds of U.S. citizens and facilitate the safe travel of thousands of third country nationals and at-risk Afghans, including many women and girls and members of ethnic and religious minority groups.  These incredible efforts with Qatar on the largest airlift in history also speaks to the strength of the U.S.-Qatar relationship and the importance of that relationship in promoting regional stability.

The Secretary will next depart for Ramstein, Germany on September 8th.  In Ramstein, the Secretary will meet with German Foreign Minister Maas to reaffirm the strong alliance between the United States and Germany.  He will also convey the United States gratitude for Germany’s partnership on Afghanistan over the past 20 years and especially on the massive effort over the past couple of weeks to transit people out of Afghanistan to safety.  The Secretary will also cohost a contact group ministerial on Afghanistan with Foreign Minister Maas to coordinate efforts on issues of overlapping interest including our support of safe travel and humanitarian aid.  The Secretary will visit the temporary transit location set up at Ramstein Air Base which is one of the transit hubs we’ve established at U.S. or joint bases in Europe.

These locations in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Kosovo have capacity to process at least 28,000 people on a rolling basis.  We appreciate the assistance and cooperation from our partners and working so quickly with the United States to set up these temporary locations for Afghans in need and other evacuees.  We worked around the clock to maximize evacuations to bring as many people out of harm’s way as possible.  This was all only possible due to the incredible partnership and cooperation that we’ve received.  Germany, Italy, and Spain’s armed forces bravely served alongside U.S. troops and other NATO Allies during the war in Afghanistan and are now continuing to support the Afghan people by collaborating with our ongoing efforts to evacuate Afghans at risk.  President Biden and Secretary Blinken personally expressed our gratitude for continuous support as friends and allies, and for assisting in the temporary transit of Afghans to safety.

We’re also grateful to the government and people of Kosovo for allowing the United States to temporarily house at-risk Afghans at Camp Bondsteel while their cases are processed for relocation to the United States or in other locations.  Kosovans, many once refugees themselves, know all too well that the trauma and uncertainty our Afghan partners now face.  They also know what it means when a stranger offers to shelter and protect them in a time of need.

Before I turn it over to your questions, I wanted to emphasize a set of meetings at each stop that is particularly important – of particular importance to the Secretary, and that is his meetings with embassy staff.  Our colleagues have worked tirelessly in very challenging conditions to support the Afghanistan evacuation and relocation efforts.  While we acknowledge there is much work to be done and that the work ahead of us will be more difficult – would – will be more difficult without embassy personnel in Kabul, the Secretary is tremendously proud of what’s been managed to be accomplished together, and he is looking forward to thanking the teams in person.

So I’ll stop there, and my colleagues and I are happy to take your questions.

MR PRICE:  Great.  Thank you very much.  I believe the process to ask a question is to dial 1 and then 0 to put yourself in the queue.  We’ll start with the line of Jennifer Hansler.

QUESTION:  The ministerial that Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Maas are hosting, are you expecting any sort of statement to come out of that, any resolution on recognition of a Taliban-led government, for example?  What do you expect the ministerial to accomplish?  Thank you.

MR THOMPSON:  Thanks, Jennifer.  Great question.  I don’t have an answer for you on whether there will be a statement out of it or not yet, but I do expect that it will discuss many of the same themes that you’ve seen coming out of the discussions and statements of the last couple of weeks focusing on the Taliban’s commitments and our expectations of them as they begin their effort to govern Afghanistan.

Primarily I would say focused on issues related to freedom of movement, counterterrorism, and the commitments to uphold basic human rights throughout the country, among other areas.  Over.

MR PRICE:  We’ll go to the line of Andrea Mitchell.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  What you have you seen so far, Mr. Secretary, in terms of them living up to their commitments?  Can you say there have been some horrific reports that we’re all getting from people we know and from others who are reporting from various provinces, but do you have any metric so far on whether freedom of movement is being allowed, on whether human rights are being abused, and whether there is cooperation on counterterrorism that would justify if it continues, taking steps towards any kind of sanction relief and recognition?  Thank you very much.

MR THOMPSON:  Yeah, thanks for the question.  Something we’re looking at very, very carefully, very closely.  I think it’s too early to make a firm judgment.  Any reports that we receive of violations of basic human rights and particularly reports about restrictions on women, girls, anything of that nature is of great concern and something we would definitely continue to raise.  At the same time, I would note that there was cooperation with the Taliban in order to affect the huge operation of the last few weeks, and so I think as we’ve said, the Taliban has made some good statements – or some positive statements is a better way to say it – but their actions are what is going to matter.  And so we’re going to continue to really assess that.  And I think even more broadly than that is they’re not just the actions of any one individual but corporately their ability to ensure that across the country they live up to their commitments that they’ve made.  Over.

MR PRICE:  We’ll go to Will Mauldin.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks so much for having this.  And I wanted to ask – I understand that Secretaries Blinken and Austin aren’t planning to meet with Taliban leaders on this trip, but wondering what the Taliban presence in Doha is like these days, how they interact with the U.S. or other nations there.  And then also, sorry, I was patched in late for the top of the call, but I was wondering if the issue of the U.S. using that air base in Qatar for reconnaissance in Afghanistan will be on the agenda when the Secretary’s there.  Thank you.

MR THOMPSON:  Thanks, Will.  I don’t have anything to update with regard to the base and anything related to our over-the-horizon efforts.  The President and others have spoken to those, I think, somewhat extensively.  If Dan wants to raise anything else when I’m done, that would be fine.

I think with regard to the question about the Taliban presence, the Secretary just noted and has noted in a couple of interactions that we’ve set up an office to look after our Kabul-related interests, Afghanistan-related interests out of the embassy in Doha.  They’re going to be continuing to engage on political developments in the country, engaging with the Taliban in an effort to ensure our messaging with them is clear.  We will continue our efforts to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base for external operations, so we will – through that mechanism and as well as through Ambassador Khalilzad and SRAR – be following through with them on our expectations on all those fronts.

With regard to what their presence is going to look – it looks like in Doha and is going to look like, I understand members of the political commission, some members are still there.  But we’ll have to sort of assess what that looks like as they go forward.

I – Dan, I don’t know if you have anything else to add on the other piece.

MR BENAIM:  No, that’s well said.  Nothing further here.

MR THOMPSON:  Over.

MR PRICE:  We’ll go to Shaun Tandon.

QUESTION:  Thanks.  Thanks for doing this call.  If I could follow up on the question of how to deal with the Taliban, to what extent – I mean, do you think that there will be some scope in the future for higher-level engagement of the Taliban?  Do you see that as something that could come later?

And could I ask you about the countries that are going to participate in the ministerial?  Is – are these mostly U.S. allies?  Do you see the same message coming from other countries in the world?  For example, the Chinese, the Pakistanis, the Russians – do you think they’re on the same page in terms of how to deal with a Taliban government?  Thanks.

MR THOMPSON:  Thanks, Shaun.  On the scope of high-level engagement with the Taliban, I would put that sort of in the recognition category of to be considered or to be determined as we see what happens with their efforts to govern, as they build their governing structure in the country.  First and foremost, we’re interested in ensuring that they are going to live up to their commitments and that they are going to allow for the basic rights that they have talked about and the freedom of movement that they have promised and their commitments on counterterrorism.  So I wouldn’t want to get ahead of too much else on that front at this stage.

I have to apologize.  I do not have the list of countries in front of me.  I think it’s safe to say it’s partners and allies.  (Inaudible) Ned or Dereck, if you guys have that.

MR PRICE:  The – we’ll be able to provide a list closer to the travel and we’ll get that to you, Shaun.  Don’t worry.

MR THOMPSON:  Yeah.  And then on the – I’m sorry, Shaun, I lost the train on your – the second half of your question.

MR PRICE:  Shaun, are you still there?

QUESTION:  Hear me?

MR PRICE:  Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Yeah, sorry about that.  Just wanted to see whether you think that there is – that all the world is on the same page in terms of how to deal with the Taliban.  I would say Western countries may be, but do you think, say, the Chinese, the Pakistanis, the Russians – is there any engagement there in making sure they’re on the same page with whether to recognize a Taliban government?  Thanks.

MR THOMPSON:  Yeah, thanks.  Sorry, good question, and I think – if you look at the statements that have been made, you look at the UN Security Council resolution, we are seeing broad support.  We continue to engage broadly across the international community on this and just last week had over a hundred countries sign on to a statement regarding freedom of movement, and we will continue to engage with all of our contacts, partners, allies across the board.  Everyone who we think we could have a shared interest in with respect to the situation on the ground there, we definitely will continue to press for us to try to speak with as unified voice as possible.  Over.

MR PRICE:   We’ll take a couple final questions.  Rosiland Jordan.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks for doing the call.  Will there be any in-depth discussions on efforts to reopen HKIA?  And is the U.S. prepared to provide financial support to the Qataris, to the Turks, to any other government that is going to try to get that airport re-established?  Thanks.

MR THOMPSON:  Yeah, thanks, Rosiland.  It’s a great question because the – obviously the HKIA reopening is fundamentally important to the – to this underlying question of freedom of movement.  And we’re very grateful to the countries that have been involved in looking at options to stand that up, to include the Qataris and Turkey, like you noted.

I think it’s a little early to discuss whether or not we’d be offering any sort of financial support.  I think we need to see what they find on the ground and how things are shaping up with regard to the situation there.  That said, we’re certainly very interested in seeing if the airport can be reopened and flights can be re-established.  That will be important for much of what needs to happen with respect to Afghanistan.  Not least amongst it would be continued humanitarian assistance, but also the movement of people that do still want to leave.  Over.

MR PRICE:  Take a final question from Christiane Jacke.

QUESTION:  Yeah, hello.  Thank you for taking my question. Can you hear me?

MR THOMPSON:  Yes.

MR PRICE:  Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Brilliant.  Thank you.  I just have a quick question on the German part of the trip. As I understand, there are about 17,000 Afghans right now in Germany waiting for transit.  You have any timeline for when they will be flown out of Germany?  Is there any messaging that will – that the Secretary brings – will bring to Germany on that?  And also just a quick follow-up on a colleague’s question concerning the Taliban:  Just to clarify, so is the Secretary planning to direct talks to Taliban representatives while being in Doha?

MR HOGAN:  I can take the question on Germany and the bases there.  Yeah, so that number is about right, between seventeen, nineteen thousand.  And again, this is out of 30,000 who have, who have transited through Germany, and so it’s really on average about four-day processing time, a four-day processing time to get people resettled either in the United States or other countries.  And so we do see that number moving down, but, of course, you also have the inflow issue as well.  So we’re working through that issue, but we do see that the average is roughly four days for Afghans in Germany to be moved forward.

MR THOMPSON:  Yeah, and on the second question, there’s currently no plans to do any meetings with the Taliban in Doha.  This is very much focused on our relationship with Qatar, thanking them for the incredible support that they’ve given, as well as on the German side.  That’ll be a fundamental message throughout the trip.  But also, a chance to see the operations there, our new unit there, and to thank the folks that have been so critical to making the processing of all these folks to the United States and to other onward points happen over the last couple weeks.  Over.

MR PRICE:  Well, thank you to our speakers.  Thank you to Dean, thank you to Dereck, thank you to Dan.  And thanks, everyone, for tuning in, and we will talk to you soon.

More from: Dean Thompson, Acting Assistant SecretaryBureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, Daniel Benaim, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Peninsula AffairsBureau of Near Eastern Affairs, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Dereck Hogan

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    According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Surface Transportation Security Inspector Operations Plan (TSA's plan), surface transportation security inspectors—known as surface inspectors—are to enter key details for program activities in the Performance and Results Information System (PARIS)—TSA's system of record for all surface inspector activities. In December 2017, GAO reported that TSA was unable to fully account for surface inspector time spent assisting with non-surface transportation modes, including aviation, due to data limitations in PARIS, and recommended TSA address these limitations. Since GAO's report, TSA updated PARIS to better track surface inspector activities in non-surface transportation modes. Transportation Security Administration Surface Inspectors Assess Security of a Bus System TSA's plan outlines steps to align work plan activities with risk assessment findings. However, TSA cannot comprehensively ensure surface inspectors are targeting program resources to high-risk modes and locations because it does not consistently collect information on entity mode or location in PARIS. According to officials, TSA plans to update PARIS and program guidance to require inspectors to include this information in the system by the end of fiscal year 2020. TSA's plan outlines performance measures for the surface inspector program, but does not establish quantifiable performance targets for all activities. Targets indicate how well an agency aspires to perform and could include, for example, entity scores on TSA security assessments, among others. By developing targets, TSA would be better positioned to assess the surface inspector program's progress in achieving its objective of increasing security among surface transportation entities. Surface transportation—freight and passenger rail, mass transit, highway, maritime and pipeline systems—is vulnerable to global terrorism and other threats. TSA is the federal agency primarily responsible for securing surface transportation systems. The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 requires TSA to submit a plan to guide its Surface Transportation Security Inspectors Program. The Act includes a provision for GAO to review TSA's plan. This report examines the extent to which TSA's plan and its implementation: (1) address known data limitations related to tracking surface inspector activities among non-surface modes, (2) align surface operations with risk assessments, and how, if at all, TSA ensures inspectors prioritize activities in high-risk modes and locations, and (3) establish performance targets for the surface inspector program. GAO reviewed TSA's June 2019 plan and analyzed data on inspector activities for fiscal years 2017 through 2019. GAO interviewed officials in headquarters and a non-generalizable sample of 7 field offices selected based on geographical location and the presence of high-risk urban areas. GAO recommends that TSA establish quantifiable performance targets for the surface inspector program's activity-level performance measures. DHS concurred with our recommendation. For more information, contact Triana McNeil at (202) 512-8777 or McNeilT@gao.gov.
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  • Post-Government Employment Restrictions: DOD Could Further Enhance Its Compliance Efforts Related to Former Employees Working for Defense Contractors
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Situations in which senior and acquisition officials leave the Department of Defense (DOD) and go to work for defense contractors can lead to conflicts of interest and affect public confidence in the government. There are federal laws that place limitations on the employment of former DOD officials. The 14 major defense contractors GAO reviewed hired about 1,700 recent former DOD senior civilian and military officials, such as a general or admiral, or former acquisition officials (see table). 2019 Employment of Former Department of Defense (DOD) Personnel by the 14 Contractors GAO Reviewed Category of former DOD personnel potentially subject to post-government employment restrictions Number of personnel who left DOD service from 2014 through 2019 Number employed in 2019 by the 14 contractors GAO reviewed Military and civilian senior or acquisition officials 100,660 1,718 All other military and civilian employees 1,397,222 35,314 Total 1,497,882 37,032 Source: GAO analysis of DOD and Internal Revenue Service data. | GAO-21-104311 GAO found that DOD has improved certain practices to help ensure compliance with post-government employment (PGE) restrictions, including: processes for issuing and maintaining ethics opinion letters (written opinions DOD provides to its former officials seeking private sector employment), and training to increase DOD employee awareness about and understanding of PGE restrictions. In 2011, DOD modified its acquisition regulations to require that contractors—when submitting proposals in response to DOD contract solicitations—represent their employees' compliance with several PGE restrictions. DOD has not considered incorporating a recent restriction on lobbying activities into that regulation. DOD officials noted that the restriction was not identified for potential regulatory action when it was enacted, and they have not considered doing so. Instead, DOD has issued guidance to defense personnel informing them of their responsibilities. However, without assessing whether to update the regulation to require that contractors represent their employees' compliance with the lobbying provision, DOD may be missing an opportunity to create a shared sense of accountability between the employees and the contractors who hire them, and a means of ensuring that DOD does not do business with companies whose employees violate the lobbying restriction with their employers' knowledge. The 14 defense contractors GAO reviewed reported that they use various methods to comply with PGE restrictions. GAO found that the specific practices differed by type of contractor. Contractors that develop and produce weapon systems reported having more practices in place to promote compliance with PGE restrictions than did contractors that generally provide commercial products and services. Why GAO Did This Study Each year, civilian and military personnel leave DOD and go to work for contractors that do business with DOD. These individuals are potentially covered by laws restricting their new employment activities. The laws—some of which include penalties for violations—seek in part to protect against conflicts of interest and to promote public trust in the integrity of the government's decision-making processes, which facilitate the award of contracts worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually. The conference report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 included a provision for GAO to update its 2008 report on major defense contractors' recent employment of former DOD officials. This report (1) identifies the extent to which major defense contractors employed potentially covered ex-DOD officials in 2019, and (2) examines practices DOD and contractors use related to contractors hiring former DOD officials. GAO reviewed and surveyed 14 selected defense contractors with obligations above a certain dollar threshold. GAO also reviewed DOD documentation, and interviewed agency officials and contractor representatives.
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