US State Dept Press Briefing, June 22, 2022

State Department spokesman, Ned Price, fielded questions on a host of issues at his press briefing by phone on June 22, 2022

MR PRICE: Thanks very much, and thanks very much, everyone, for joining today as we do today’s briefing by phone.  …With that, we will turn now to questions. We can start with the line of Matt Lee, please.

QUESTION: Yeah, okay. …. The SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, has just sent a series of really blistering letters – one to Congress, one to Secretary Blinken, and one to Administrator Power, and one to the legal counsels of both State and USAID – accusing State and USAID of illegally withholding information related to the withdrawal from Afghanistan and current assistance, any kind of assistance, to the country. And obviously, this takes on more relevance, given the earthquake that just happened this morning. But what’s your response to this? Are you guys cooperating with SIGAR as you have, or have you decided that you don’t need to do that anymore? Thanks.

MR PRICE:  ……..In terms of your question on SIGAR, Matt, what I can tell you is that, as you know, SIGAR published a report last month regarding the collapse of the ANDSF and the factors that led to its demise. Our view is that the report does not reflect the consensus view of the State Department or of the U.S. Government, for that matter. Many parts of the U.S. Government, including the State Department, have unique insights into developments in Afghanistan last year that were not captured in the report. And we don’t concur with many aspects of the report. We refer you to the many statements that the State Department has made over the past year on Afghanistan regarding our assessments.

But the fact is, Matt, that SIGAR did not request input from the State Department for – in the process of drafting this report, nor did they afford us an opportunity to review the draft before it was finalized, as had been a regular process for other reports. If we have any additional reaction to letters that were – and responses that were given today, we’ll be sure to pass those along.

We’ll go to the line of Jennifer Hansler, please. Do we have – yes, we hear you now.

QUESTION: …. Are you aware of any U.S. citizens who are victims of this earthquake in Afghanistan? I know there is some concern about particularly the American hostage Mark Frerichs and – given his – where his whereabouts might be. Do you have any update on his status? …

MR PRICE: Thanks very much. So first, on the earthquake in Afghanistan, you probably just saw the statement that emanated from Secretary Blinken. Secretary Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, other senior officials, have put out statements today expressing our deep sorrow and our deep sympathy for those who perished in today’s devastating earthquake in Afghanistan as well as to the loved ones of the victims. The people of Afghanistan have undergone extraordinary hardship, and this tragedy only compounds that on top of an already dire humanitarian situation. Our humanitarian partners are responding already, including by sending medical teams to help people affected by the earthquake. As you heard from the Secretary and from the National Security Advisor, we’re assessing other potential response options as well.

We stand with the people of Afghanistan. We’re working with the international community to serve Afghans and to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis and suffering in Afghanistan, which has long predated the earthquake today, but of course which was compounded by the earthquake today.

In terms of potential American victims, there’s not anything I’m in a position to offer at the moment. Of course, the scale of the – of this tragedy is just enormous, so we will work very closely with posts around the world to determine if any Americans were implicated in today’s earthquake. But I’m not aware of any such reports just yet……..

Let’s go to Francesco Fontemaggi. Do we have Francesco?

QUESTION: Okay. Hi. Thank you. I wanted to follow up on Afghanistan. Has the U.S. Government been in touch with the Taliban to coordinate this humanitarian aid or assistance? Are you planning to coordinate with them or even to go through the Taliban power to bring this assistance to the Afghan people? I know this has been redlined for now, going through the Taliban. But is this something that you can do for this occurrence? Thank you.

MR PRICE:  Thank you. And Francesco, before I go there, let me just say, most importantly, thank you. I know this is likely your last briefing as the AFP’s State Department correspondent. I want to thank you for the tremendous time we’ve had working together collegially in your role with AFP and your role with the Correspondents’ Association. We’ll very much miss your presence in the briefing room, your presence in the bullpen, your presence on the S plane, your presence on our travel around the world. But I wish you all the best as you head to your next adventure in what probably are considered greener pastures in Paris. So bon voyage, and looking forward to staying in touch.

In terms of Afghanistan, I am not aware of any request for assistance that the United States Government has received from the Taliban. But we have been in touch with our humanitarian partners. As I mentioned before, our humanitarian partners are already in the process of responding. They’re sending medical teams to help those who are affected by the disaster. As you know, the United States has been a humanitarian leader for the people of Afghanistan. We’ve provided $720 million in humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan and support to Afghan refugees in the region through multilateral organizations and NGOs since mid-August of last year.

Just earlier this week, Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West – he was in Geneva actually yesterday, where he met with humanitarian partners who are providing critical aid to the people of Afghanistan. We’ll continue to support their role in serving Afghans to alleviate the humanitarian crisis and suffering, and our commitment to the Afghan people is unwavering.

I imagine the humanitarian response to the earthquake will be a topic of conversation between U.S. officials and Taliban officials in the coming days, certainly going forward. But I am not aware that any such conversations have taken place just yet as we are focusing our efforts and our discussions on our humanitarian partners in the first instance. …….

Let’s go to Alex Raufoglu.

QUESTION: Thank you so much, Ned. Two questions here. Russia’s Lavrov apparently will travel to Indonesia to take part in the G20 ministerial on July the 7th. He even is thinking to have bilats with Chinese, Brazilian, South African, Mexican colleagues, according to his spox, Zakharova. Is it your position that there is no place for Russia’s participation in the G20 summit? And if so, any steps you’re planning to take to prevent this from happening?

And secondly, Lavrov is also planning to go to Azerbaijan tomorrow to discuss the Karabakh issue. President Aliyev says that the Minsk Group is, quote/unquote, “dead.” Is that your position as well? Is Minsk Group alive, in your opinion, because the U.S. is the – one of the co-chairs? Thanks so much.

MR PRICE: Thanks very much, Alex. So, when it comes to the G20, it’s an important forum for world and global economic issues. Secretary Blinken will attend to ensure that our interests are represented. We’ll have more details on that travel in the coming days.

But we also have to be clear that Russia’s war on Ukraine has caused global economic instability, and the United States has no intention, as a result, of reducing pressure on the Kremlin until and unless Russia’s aggression against Ukraine comes to a halt. We have reiterated to the Indonesian presidency that the G20 must be relevant to helping Ukraine deal with and recover from the invasion, and I’m confident that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine will be high on the agenda when G20 partners come together in Bali next month. During that set of days, we’ll also have an opportunity to engage with allies as well as partners, and I know that Russia’s aggression will be a primary conversation for us as well.

When it comes to the meetings that Foreign Minister Lavrov will have in Bali at the G20 ministerial, I would leave that to the Russians to describe. For us, we are much less concerned about whom he meets with and much more concerned with the messages that are imparted during those meetings. And what we have emphasized over the course of the weeks since February 24th is that every responsible country around the world has an obligation to make very clear to the Russian Federation that its aggression against Ukraine, its peaceful neighbor, cannot be tolerated and will be met – and has been met – with steep costs and consequences for Russia. That’s the message that we’ll continue to convey; that’s the message we expect every responsible country around the world to convey as well…….

Let’s go to Christiane Jacke.

QUESTION: Hi, hello, thanks for taking my question. ….. It’s about Russia complaining that the U.S. is not allowing flights to bring Russian diplomats home to Russia that are supposed to leave the country. Is that correct? Can you say anything about that complaint from Moscow? Are there threats with consequences if you are not allowing a Russian plane to enter the U.S.? Thank you very much.

MR PRICE: Thanks very much. There’s not much I can say because this is the subject of ongoing diplomatic conversation, but what I can say is that the Russian statements do not accurately reflect the current state of play. Of course, we have an interest in an embassy, a U.S. embassy in Moscow, that is functioning. We have an interest, too, in preserving the ability of the Russian Federation to have a functioning embassy here in Washington. I say that – and we’ve made this point before – because we believe that lines of communication and we believe that dialogue is especially important during times of tension, but vitally important during times of conflict and even crisis like the one we’re in now.

So, we have engaged with the Russian Federation consistently in recent months to try to get to a better place in terms of our embassy staffing in Moscow to seek to preserve that diplomatic channel that our embassies afford, but there’s just not anything I’m in a position to say now on this specific issue.

We will conclude with the line of Pearl Matibe.

QUESTION:  Thanks for taking my question. So, Ned, mine has to do with U.S. relations with African countries right now on the back of the meeting that Secretary Blinken had with Foreign Minister Tall Sall. Could you maybe give me a sense of the mood of the meeting? How did that go in general? And then on Monday, President Zelenskyy had a closed-door address that he was addressing the African Union, but only four African presidents listened in. I wanted to find out if you could probably share any reaction to that on the back of the meetings that you have been having. Thanks very much, Ned. Anything that you can give us a sense of would be great.

MR PRICE: Thanks very much, Pearl. So let me start with the second element of your question first, and I alluded to the fact that everywhere we have travelled, and virtually with every foreign counterpart with whom we’ve interacted in recent weeks and recent months, the challenge of food insecurity has been very high on that agenda. And in many ways, nowhere is it higher than on the continent of Africa, and especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Secretary has had an opportunity to speak to a number of his African counterparts. You mentioned Tall Sall. He’s had an opportunity to meet with AU Commission Chairperson Faki. He’s had an opportunity to speak with his South African counterpart. He’s had a number of engagements that have either centered on this challenge of food insecurity or featured it prominently.

And our message has been consistent that we recognize the challenge that President Putin’s war – unprovoked war against Ukraine is causing when it comes to food insecurity. We realize that President Putin’s aggression is compounding what had already been a challenge owing to COVID and the implications of the pandemic, but also to the longer-term implications of climate change. But now that we have a third C, this time in the form of conflict, the issue of food insecurity is even more significant and severe because of the implications that this war is having on those who are hungry or otherwise food insecure around the world.

We are doing a number of things to address that. We have put forward billions of dollars in financial assistance. We are working with international financial institutions, international lending institutions to try to address this challenge. We’re working with other countries to mitigate the global fertilizer challenge. We announced a $500 million investment to increase domestic fertilizer production as part of that. We have an initiative that we’ve spoken to our African counterparts about called Feed the Future. It’s an important initiative that looks at longer-term agricultural capacity and resilience and seeks to ensure that we are in a stronger position going forward.

And we are keeping the issue high on the agenda. And Pearl, you’ve probably heard me mention that the Secretary will be traveling to Berlin tomorrow, where on Friday he’ll take part in a food security ministerial hosted by his German counterpart. And then of course, the President will address this when he’s in Europe for the G7 and other functions in the coming days as well.

So that’s not to say that is the totality of our engagement with our African partners, but it is certainly an important one. It’s an important one because of the devastating implications that President Putin’s war are having on populations around the world, including in Africa and certainly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

With that, I want to thank everyone for tuning in. We will be on travel for the next several days, but we’ll have an opportunity, I am sure, to be in touch from the road, and then we’ll see you back from the department next week. Thanks very much, everyone.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:04 p.m.)