Transcript of Press Conference with the U.S. Department of State’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Alice Wells

Opening Remarks by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Alice Wells

Assalom aleikum, good afternoon.   

It’s a real pleasure to be back in Tajikistan.  About 28 years ago, after my husband and I helped open the first U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe.  It’s amazing to see how far Tajikistan has come.  I’m struck by what is a constant as well.  And, the constant is the beauty of your country and the hospitality of your people.  So, thank you again for the warm welcome.

Over the past two days, I’ve had valuable conversations with a number of senior Tajik government officials – to include the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Defense, Internal Affairs, and Energy, as well as the Chairman of the State Committee for National Security and the Commander of the Border Forces.  I expressed appreciation for our strong cooperation, and we discussed avenues for strengthening and expanding the relations between our two countries.  

In my meetings today, I also discussed a number of areas where the United States and the government of Tajikistan enjoy successful and deep cooperation, particularly in countering violent extremism and terrorism.  Multiple attacks over the past two years in Tajikistan, including by the Islamic State, demonstrate that the threat of terrorism is not confined by borders and requires continued international efforts to combat it.  

We understand that across the border in Afghanistan, ISIS remains a threat.  In response, U.S. forces in Afghanistan continue to carry out a military campaign that is decimating Dash [Islamic State].  We want to ensure that Dash can never again pose a threat to Tajikistan or to any country in the region.

My message to the government has been that the United States is committed to assisting the government of Tajikistan in meeting the long-term challenge of border security.  

The U.S. government has provided more than $200 million to strengthen security along the Tajik-Afghan border since 2002.  Our assistance has trained thousands of border guard, law enforcement, and security personnel, and contributed to the renovation of ten border outposts.    

Over the past three years alone, the U.S. Department of Defense, has obligated approximately $46 million to strengthen Tajikistan’s borders.  

But beyond cooperation on terrorism, the United States supports the sovereignty of Tajikistan – and all of the Central Asian countries – by promoting stability and economic development.  The C5+1 group – the partnership between the Central Asian republics and the United States – has provided an important framework through which we identify approaches to solving shared issues among the countries of Central Asia.  We are proud of the achievements of our may joint programs, and we expect this element of our cooperation to grow.  

And let me just add a few details about my trip.    

Yesterday, I visited the Panj border guard detachment, which is just one of the many border posts where the U.S. government has provided modern communications equipment, border sensors, vehicles, and night vision goggles to help brave Tajik border guards better defend against terrorists and drug trafficking.  I was inspired by their courage and thanked them for their role in fighting these global threats.  

I also visited a hospital in Khatlon where a USAID program has improved child and maternal health for over 300,000 people and reduced hospital pediatric deaths by 39%.  Public health, especially child health is something we must always work to improve, and I am heartened by seeing the positive results of these programs.  

I’m proud that last year, the United States provided about $50 million in economic assistance – part of the $1.9 billion that we’ve provided in assistance in our bilateral relations.  

I also just came from a very good conversation with civil society representatives about human rights and rule of law in Tajikistan.  We believe that a free and open society is essential for Tajikistan’s development, and it’s maintained by freedom of speech and belief, free and fair elections, transparent and accountable enforcement of laws, and an independent media.  

In my meetings today, I emphasized the importance of an independent media, including full accreditation for Radio Ozodi employees.  It’s important that the Tajik people have access to independent media outlets such as Asia-Plus, Akhbor, and Radio Ozodi.  

Finally, I want to emphasize, again, my gratitude for the warm reception that I received from my many Tajik hosts over the past two days.  I am certain our discussions will lead to an even stronger relationship between the United States and Tajikistan, and between the American and Tajik people.  

Thank you, I look forward to your questions.  

Question 1 [Russia Today]:  I would like to know your opinion regarding the situation after the killing of Qassem Solaimani, and how it may affect the security of Central Asia?

Response 1 [Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary (PDAS) Alice Wells]:  General Solaimani was actively developing plans to attack Americans, and General Solaimani and his Quds force have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and Coalition service members, and the wounding of thousands more.  I don’t need to tell you about General Solaimani’s role in fostering and promoting proxy forces that undermine the sovereignty and independence of states around the region, but certainly this strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.  And as President Trump and Secretary Pompeo have made clear, the United States is going to continue to take all necessary actions to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world.  De-escalation is our principle goal, and we hope that this step that the United States has taken will demonstrate the consequences of any future Iranian efforts to destabilize our friends and partners in the region, as well as to deter their constant attempts to attack American forces, diplomats, and partners in the region.  

Question 2 [Asia-Plus]:  A couple days ago, news came that Iran got out of the nuclear deal.  What kind of consequences may it cause?  

Response 2 [PDAS Wells]:  President Trump and the Trump Administration have been clear about the deficiencies of the JCPOA [Iran Nuclear Deal], which never put any constraint on Iran’s malign behavior.  And what we saw in the wake of JCPOA’s adoption and Iran’s receipt of hundreds of millions of dollars of frozen assets is that the regime chose to use those monies to further revolution abroad – not to better the welfare of the Iranian people, not to benefit the economy or stabilize the economy of Iran, where we have seen recent, constant demonstrations against the regime for the economic disparities, for the inequalities that exist in that country.  And so, it was with concern over the fact that Iran was dedicated to the export of revolution and the promotion of violence overseas that the Trump Administration took its actions to break with the JCPOA in the first place.  

Question 3 [Reuters]:  To what extent can the Trump Administration and the citizens of the U.S. feel secure considering Washington and Iran are on the cusp of war, or are already practically in armed conflict, what is expected now, for instance will Trump, or namely citizens in Detroit or Chicago feel secure?  

Response 3 [PDAS Wells]:  We’re not on the eve of a possible war – we shouldn’t be.  The goal of the U.S. actions is to de-escalate the violence that Iran has been waging in the region.  You simply can’t ignore Iranian actions.  Look what Iran has undertaken in Syria, look at what Iran has undertaken in Lebanon, in Yemen, in Afghanistan, again on your border, through which Iranian created instability poses a direct threat to Tajikistan.  So the object of American actions are to reimpose deterrence and to ensure that Iran understands that there are consequences for the actions it has taken either directly through its IRGC and Quds forces, or through its proxies that they fomented throughout the region.  And, I can assure you that Iranians, Iranian-Americans all enjoy the rights of those that reside, live, work, travel, or study in the United States, which is not the same as what the Iranian people are not receiving in their own country.  

Question 4 [Asia-Plus]:  By the end of fall 2018, the American government signed a peace agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and after that the Russian Foreign Ministry was worrying about this.  And he said, Russian FM Lavrov set his tour across Central Asia.  I would like to know, would you be having this same tour across Central Asia?

Response 4 [PDAS Wells]:  No, no peace agreement has been signed with the Taliban.  What is clear is that President Trump and the Trump Administration believes that the only durable solution for stability in Afghanistan is ultimately a politically negotiated settlement.  And, the Trump Administration, through the appointment of Special Envoy Ambassador Khalilzad, has been pursuing whether that’s possible.  To date, we’ve not yet seen the Taliban take the actions such as a significant reduction in violence that would provide an environment where a political framework could move forward, which results in Afghans sitting across the table from one another.  My message to the government of Tajikistan is that the United States is committed to ensuring that Afghanistan cannot be used as a platform for terrorism against Tajikistan, against the region, against the United States and its allies.  And, that commitment is firm.  And so, even as we explore peace, the intensity of our military campaign against the Taliban has not diminished.  

Question 5 [BBC]:  You said that in your meeting with Tajik authorities, the topic of accreditation for journalists of Radio Ozodi came up.  Can you say what the response of the Tajikistan authorities was?  And my second question is whether in your meeting with Tajik officials, did the topic of the fate of political prisoners come up or not?  

Response 5 [PDAS Wells]:  As a general rule, we don’t discuss the private diplomatic conversations that we have with government officials, but what I can say, obviously, is that we have a comprehensive dialogue with the government of Tajikistan.  When I met with the Minister of Foreign Affairs…we’re looking forward to your annual bilateral consultations, which will take place in Washington in March.  The full range of issues are always discussed, including human rights, media freedom, as well as the geopolitical cooperation that exists between our two countries.  And, as we do with every country of the world, we publish an annual human rights report, a religious freedom report.  These issues are of great interest and concern to us.  

Question 6 [BBC]:  Did you discuss the fate of political prisoners in Tajikistan with Tajik authorities?

Response 6 [PDAS Wells]:  I would just refer back to my original answer.  We have a broad discussion with the government of Tajikistan.  We discussed the broad range of human rights issues.  

Question 7 [Russia Today]:  Do the special forces of the USA have some information on Gulmurod Halimov, the Ex-Commander of the Tajik OMON, commander of armed forces of ISIS – two years ago, Russia said that they bombed him and was killed, but the USA never announced, if you have information on whether he was killed or whether he is alive.  Is there any changes in your information?  And the second question – does assistance from America to Tajik special forces continue, and in what form will it be expressed, military-technical assistance, training, or something else?  

Response 7 [PDAS Wells]:  I don’t have any new information on the status of General Halimov, but what I would underscore, and what I underscored in my meetings with officials today is our commitment to destroying Dash [Islamic State].  And, as you’ve seen over the past year, efforts in Afghanistan have yielded significant progress, with Dash virtually eliminated from Nangarhar province, substantially reduced in Kunar, and the battle continues.  At same time, as part of the, in order to ensure that Tajikistan’s stability is guaranteed, we provide the border security assistance as well as the economic support that helps address some of the root causes, potentially, of radicalization.  That support for Tajikistan has been long-standing.  I’m pleased again that we’ve provided almost $1.9 billion dollars in assistance.  We are committed to partnering with Tajikistan into the future, and we discussed the array of programs.  And, during my visit I was able, by visiting the medical clinic, by visiting the American Center where I met with alumni of our education exchange programs and our English language programs.  I wanted to demonstrate the comprehensive nature of our assistance to Tajikistan in Tajikistan’s development.  

Question 8 [Vechyorka Newspaper]:  In the case of any forceful reaction of Iranian toward American citizens, either to forces abroad or in the US, what kind of response does the Trump Administration envision, and have they already considered this?  

Response 8 [PDAS Wells]:  I think President Trump and Secretary Pompeo have been very clear that the American government is committed to protecting its people, its personnel, its facilities globally and at home.  

Question 9 [Reuters]: Continuation of the last question, if a theater of war occurs in Iraq or in Iran itself, will tomahawks will fly out into Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, or in Tajikistan, because we are all located in proximity.  

Response 9 [PDAS Wells]:  I again disagree with your premise that a war is going to take place.  I think the American actions have demonstrated the consequences of Iranian actions.  And, that Iran’s asymmetric use of force, its support for proxies, its malign activity in other countries that undermine those countries’ independence, sovereignty, freedom of action will be met with a response.  

Question 10 [BBC]:  Before the situation in the region worsened, the Secretary of State of your country was going to travel to Central Asia, and this trip was cancelled.  Is it known when this trip of Secretary Pompeo to Central Asia will happen?  

Response 10 [PDAS Wells]:  I can’t confirm, but the Secretary is looking to reschedule his trip to the region, and we hope also to be able to reschedule a meeting of the Central Asian C5+1 gathering, which will be an important affirmation of that regional platform, and will be the second time within a year that the Secretary would have the opportunity to confer with Central Asian leaders as a regional grouping.  I think the growth of the C5 has been a significant development, even as Tajikistan is looking ahead to celebrating its 30 years of independence, the countries of the region increasingly have the interest, the confidence, the openness in the relations with one another to be able to also pursue regional objectives.  And, we’re happy to support those activities, including through projects like the Central Asia Regional electricity market, through initiatives to support counterterrorism, for instance to support those countries that are courageously taking up the challenge of bringing back foreign terrorist fighters.  There’s a range of common interests among the Central Asian states such as harmonization of tariffs and adopting policies that will increase attractiveness to foreign direct investment.  So, this is a platform that we think will be very productive both for Tajikistan and the region.  

I want to thank all of you for coming today, and I look forward, hopefully, to having my next trip to Tajikistan take place sooner than what was last time.