Daily Press Briefing – April 12, 2016

MR TONER: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome
to the State Department. Just very quickly, one brief thing. Oh, I’ll wait for – sorry,
I didn’t give a full two minutes. Please, sir. Have a seat, Justin.
QUESTION: Thank you. Please. MR TONER: (Laughter.) Quickly at the top,
and then I’ll get to your questions. And this will go out right after the briefing,
but just a notice to the press that Secretary Kerry is going to deliver remarks at Miami
Dade Honors College. He’ll do that on – at 7:00 p.m. on April 14th, so Thursday at the
Miami Freedom Tower in Miami, Florida. Secretary Kerry’s remarks will congratulate the MDC
Honors College students on their academic accomplishments and leadership contributions
and reflect on the future challenges and opportunities that they will face. And during this special
ceremony, MDC’s Honors College students will receive their honors medallions in recognition
of the completion of their course of work. And that will, of course, be open to the press.
And that is all I have at the top, just in time for Matt’s arrival.
QUESTION: Yes. MR TONER: Sorry, it was a quick two minutes.
I apologize. QUESTION: Sorry. No, no, no, it wasn’t you.
I had to run back to my desk. MR TONER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: But I’m here. So I don’t really have anything huge to begin with.
MR TONER: Okay. QUESTION: But I do want to ask you – last
week, there were – this. Last week, there were reports that the U.S. was considering
withdrawing some of its troops from the mission in the Sinai. And I asked about it here, and
you said they were completely false. You said – I said, “So these reports and chatter
are wrong?” And you said, “Yes.” You said, “We remain fully committed to our
Multinational Force and Observers mission and the maintenance of the peace treaty between
Israel and Egypt. So no change in policy, no change in our force structure or whatever.”
Well, this morning the Pentagon says that, in fact, you are talking about withdrawing
some of your troops from the force and having drones or unmanned surveillance take their
place. So I’m not blaming you personally, but what gives here? I mean, why can’t we
get a straight answer out of this building? MR TONER: Sure. Well, first of all, we’re
not planning to withdraw from the Sinai. QUESTION: No, but that wasn’t the question.
MR TONER: Right. No, no, no, I agree, or I – just laying that out. There was a story
last week that you brought up based on leaked information. Admittedly, I did not have the
full picture at the time, so I take that hit. But as you note, the Pentagon did speak to
this earlier today. There is a modernization, I guess, effort – that’s how I would put
it – or a restructuring effort that is going to take place with regard to the Multinational
Force and Observers in the Sinai. And again, the Pentagon spoke to this earlier today.
QUESTION: Well, was it being considered last Friday when I asked the question? I mean,
my issue here – I realize this is a Pentagon thing, it’s not a State Department thing
necessarily, although it is kind of a State Department thing —
MR TONER: It is. QUESTION: — because it results from a treaty
that was negotiated by this building. And how can we expect to get – I mean —
MR TONER: It’s a legitimate – look, I am —
QUESTION: Again, I don’t want to make this about you —
MR TONER: As I said, I — QUESTION: — because you obviously have —
MR TONER: No, no, no, but I take the hit, Matt, because that’s my job to get up here
and to give you accurate information. QUESTION: Yeah, but I don’t want – I don’t
want it to be about you and what — MR TONER: Yeah. No, I understand what you’re
saying. QUESTION: — specifically you. I want it to
be about this building and this government, through any administration, actually telling
the truth. What – I mean, I really don’t understand. I mean, did the Pentagon just
decide over the weekend that it was going to do this? I don’t think so.
MR TONER: No, of course not. That said, and there is – I can’t really talk about the
timeline, but the timeline for notification and for looking at this process – and again,
DOD is the experts on this – had not yet been decided when that story did leak out.
So it caught — QUESTION: Yeah, but apparently —
MR TONER: — folks by surprise. QUESTION: — Secretary Carter has sent letters
telling the Egyptians and the Israelis about this idea.
MR TONER: In the interim, yes, he did. QUESTION: So that was done over the weekend?
Or — MR TONER: It was done over the last couple
of days, is my understanding. QUESTION: So it hadn’t been done on Friday?
MR TONER: Yes, that’s correct. QUESTION: The letters had not been sent?
MR TONER: That is correct, yes. QUESTION: Can I ask a related question on
this? QUESTION: So – well, hold on a second.
MR TONER: Let him finish and I’ll get to you.
QUESTION: I just want to make — MR TONER: Yeah, that’s okay.
QUESTION: So although the letters had not been sent on Friday when you said that this
was — MR TONER: I don’t think it was Friday, by
the way. I think it was earlier in the week. QUESTION: Sorry.
MR TONER: But maybe you were right. QUESTION: It was April – no, it was the
6th. MR TONER: Okay, that’s fine.
QUESTION: Whatever day the 6th was. MR TONER: So there has been some time that
passed. It’s been about a week. QUESTION: Yeah. But this is not —
MR TONER: But – yeah. QUESTION: This idea or this possible change
in force posture has been being considered for more than a week, right? I mean, it just
didn’t pop into someone’s mind on April 7th.
MR TONER: Of course not. Of course not. But as these processes go, there was a back and
forth, there was a discussion, there’s been looking at how to do this and how to handle
it. QUESTION: I just don’t want you to be in
the position like you were with the — MR TONER: Understood.
QUESTION: — with the — MR TONER: Your point is taken.
QUESTION: — where spokespeople get up and say —
MR TONER: No, no, your point is taken, Matt. QUESTION: All right.
MR TONER: Your point is taken. Ros. QUESTION: Okay.
QUESTION: Okay, let’s take a look at the fact that this treaty was negotiated 37 years
ago, and now for the first time, because of the rise of ISIL and because of the attacks
on Egyptian forces, the U.S. military is telling us that now a substantial change in the way
that it complies with the terms of that agreement are being changed for the safety of U.S. forces.
Did the U.S. Government ever consider that preserving an essential treaty such as the
one between Egypt and Israel could be threatened by some non-state actor, one that has proven
to be extremely dangerous, and possibly endanger the very future of the peace treaty between
Egypt and Israel? MR TONER: So a couple of points on your – the
premise of your question, Ros. First of all, this was not done in response to any real
or perceived threat by ISIL forces on the ground in the Sinai. This is part of an ongoing
effort – again, my understanding, our understanding – to look at how to modernize the MFO, including
utilization of technology, including greater efficiencies of operations, but to look at
how to change its posture on the ground in order to do its job more effectively. Whether
and how significant a force reduction that will entail I can’t speak to at this point
in time, but what I can say is in no way does it speak to a lessening in our commitment
to the objective of the MFO mission. It doesn’t in any way signal a plan to withdraw from
the Sinai. We are fully committed to the MFO mission and the maintenance of the peace treaty
between Egypt and Israel. QUESTION: Well, the timing of this – but
the timing of this modernization is quite curious, because on September 15th a number
of U.S. forces, four or five people, were injured as part of an attack allegedly carried
out by ISIL fighters. The U.S. has been using drone technology for the better part of 15
years now. It seems rather curious that the U.S. would seriously consider not only moving
personnel out of the area, but possibly reducing the number of personnel on the Sinai after
– after all of this time of using this technology. So is it not true that the U.S. is very much
concerned that its forces are a target now by ISIL and that they’re taking advantage
of the precarious security situation on the Sinai, and that’s why this is happening?
MR TONER: Again, I would refer you to DOD. They spoke to this already today. This is
about modernizing our force structure on the ground in the Sinai. It’s not about responding
to, as I said, the threat of ISIL on the ground. There have been – I think there’s been
one direct attack that we have determined against MFO forces on the ground that wounded,
actually, several personnel in the MFO. There have been other attacks, but we believe that
those have been actually targeting Egyptian forces. But in no way is this a lessening
of our commitment. And it also – this is part of – I mean,
we’re in constant consultation – and I spoke about this with Matt just now via the
letters – but we’re in constant consultation with Egypt, with Israel, about when we look
at how to restructure, how to re-posture ourselves on the ground in the Sinai. These are not
– these are part of ongoing consultations. QUESTION: But it’s rather curious that the
U.S. would consider changing the way that it deploys its 900 or so officers and enlisted
personnel as part of this protection force when Egyptian forces have been attacked and
the U.S. has not before now thought, oh, let’s offer this technology to support our Egyptian
allies as they try to secure the area, particularly as they’re not dealing just with ISIL but
they’re also trying to deal with Hamas fighters who have been infiltrating Egypt to carry
out their own work. The timing is rather curious, Mark.
MR TONER: Again, all I can say, Ros, is that as we look at our force structure on the ground
– and the Department of Defense is – are the ones who really should speak to this in
greater detail – but we constantly look at how to modernize them, how to achieve greater
efficiencies, and how to better use technology on the ground. Whether and how that means
or what that means in terms of the number of troops we need on the ground is a matter
for DOD to decide, and indeed the whole MFO. I mean, we’re just one contingent within
the MFO. QUESTION: Well, I can’t imagine, though,
that the Pentagon is the only one having conversations —
MR TONER: Of course not. QUESTION: — with their Egyptian and Israeli
counterparts. MR TONER: Of course not.
QUESTION: What conversations have been had between this building, the Egyptian defense
ministry and foreign ministry, as well as the Egyptian counterparts, about this decision?
This is a rather sizeable change in something that has been going on for nearly four decades.
MR TONER: Well, again, I’m not going to read out in detail what our consultations
have been with either Egypt or Israel as we’ve looked at this restructuring. All I can say
is that it’s part of ongoing discussions that we have, consultations that we have on
the ground, and I think the end goal is to create a force on the ground in the Sinai
that is more nimble, more able to carry out its tasks. And again, it’s in no way meant
to diminish our commitment to our treaty obligations. Please, sir.
QUESTION: So, accepting the premise of your response, why was the threat posed by ISIL
not a factor in deciding how to modernize the force?
MR TONER: Why was – I’m sorry. QUESTION: The threat posed by the Islamic
State and jihadist groups in Sinai. You argue that you’re simply modernizing it in order
to conduct the same mission as before: monitoring the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
MR TONER: Yep. Right. QUESTION: So why —
MR TONER: Oh, why was it not – I’m sorry. Why was it not considered?
QUESTION: Why did you not take into account the increased threat by non-state actors?
MR TONER: Well, I can say that in recent period – and again, there has been, as Ros just
detailed – there have been some attacks by ISIL forces in Sinai. We have provided
the MFO with some additional force protection, as well as communication, medical, and other
support. I just – timing aside, I think this is more of a comprehensive look at how
to restructure the force going forward. Of course, we take in all – we take into consideration
all factors on the ground, including the security, but with the clear understanding that we’ve
got a mandate with the MFO to fulfil, and so we’re not going to diminish the capability
to do that. QUESTION: What is the building’s message
to those Israelis and Egyptians living in Sinai, near the Sinai, having counted on the
presence of U.S. forces to not just maintain the peace between the two countries, but also
to deal with Hamas, with – dealing with ISIL and others —
MR TONER: That will — QUESTION: — that the movement of people away
from where they have traditionally been stationed is going to maintain their security?
MR TONER: The message is that we remain fully committed to the MFO mission, the maintenance
of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. We’re going to support the MFO and its ongoing
efforts to carry out its mission to verify the treaty, and we’re going to do that in
a smart, modernized way. So this isn’t a matter of simply putting more troops on the
ground or more boots on the ground or throwing more money at it. This is an attempt to, I
think, modernize and look at how to make the force that is there more agile.
Please, sir. We done with – we moving on, or you on Sinai?
QUESTION: I just want to talk about Iraq. MR TONER: Great. Happy to talk about Iraq.
QUESTION: So there’s a KRG delegation here in the United States. Before they get here,
the KRG spokesperson said they are here at the request of the United States. I was wondering
if the United States has actually invited them to be here. And they are here, obviously,
from what they say, requesting for more financial help for the Peshmerga forces, especially
when it comes to the liberation of Mosul. That’s my first question.
The second question: I think it was last Friday when Secretary Kerry was in Baghdad, and it
was notably – he didn’t go to Erbil. So the decision not to go to Erbil by Secretary
Kerry – how much this decision has to do with the refusal of President Barzani to step
down from presidency? MR TONER: Well, a couple things. First of
all, on the KRG delegation, there is a delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani,
who’s in – rather, scheduled to be in Washington. I think they arrived yesterday.
They’re scheduled to be here till the 15th. They’re going to meet with Administration
officials to discuss the economic crisis facing the Iraqi Kurdistan Region as well as humanitarian
assistance and, of course, overall U.S. support for the fight against Daesh.
As to who invited whom, I can’t speak to that, but I know they’re scheduled to meet
with several Department of State officials, including Deputy Secretary Tony Blinken, Deputy
Assistant Secretary for Iraq Joseph Pennington, Special Envoy and Coordinator for International
Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein, and Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human
Rights Sarah Sewall – Sewall, rather. In answer to your second question about why
the Secretary didn’t travel to Erbil, all I can say is that he was on the ground in
Baghdad for a day. Obviously, there are security concerns always when he’s moving about in
Iraq. I don’t think it was mean to be – send any signal to the people of the region of
– Kurdistan Region, rather – Iraqi Kurdistan Region. We’ve been very supportive of their
efforts to combat Daesh. They have played an absolutely vital role, in fact, within
the overall Iraqi command and control structure in pushing Daesh out of key parts of the country.
And – sorry – Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk did remain in Iraq, and he also,
I believe, met with Iraqi Kurdistan Region officials as well over the last several days.
So we’re fully focused on the Kurdistan Region. We’re committed to helping them
as much as we can in providing what assistance we can.
QUESTION: So you’re saying it has nothing to do with the issue of presidency in the
Kurdistan Region? MR TONER: No.
QUESTION: Because last time he went to Erbil. MR TONER: I understand that. I think it was
more a matter of scheduling priorities or scheduling demands.
QUESTION: And just one more — MR TONER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: One last thing on the — MR TONER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: — KRG delegation. MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: Do you have news – financial support of the Kurdistan Region or – I mean, they
met with the Secretary in Baghdad and now they are here with a request of more financial
help from the U.S. Is there any new humanitarian or military or financial assistance to the
KRG — MR TONER: I mean, I don’t have anything
to announce beyond the 155 million that Secretary Kerry announced when he was on the ground
in Baghdad, which is obviously going towards humanitarian assistance for displaced conflict-affected
areas. And that’s on top of, I think, nearly 800 million since the start of Fiscal Year
2014. But of course, we’re always looking at ways we can provide more support.
QUESTION: Thank you. MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: On a different topic, South China Sea.
MR TONER: Sure. Okay. QUESTION: So Manila is to restart a military
airport, to revamping, South China Sea on the illegally occupied island, Zhongye Island.
So what is the U.S. point of view on this? What kind of stand do you hold?
MR TONER: Well, I’d refer you to the Government of Philippines to talk about their activities.
I mean, overall our position regarding the South China Sea hasn’t changed.
QUESTION: But Mark, Manila once announced a suspension to the construction, but now
you see they restart the construction. So do you think they are playing the hypocrite?
What’s your point of view? MR TONER: Look, I’m not going to characterize
their actions, beyond saying that our position regarding the South China Sea is very well
known. We don’t want to see construction activities on disputed features. We don’t
want to see any kind of militarization of outposts. What we want to see, frankly, is
a de-escalation of tensions and refraining from provocative actions – excuse me. With
regard to Philippines specific plans or proposals for – in the South China Sea, I’d just
have to refer you to them. QUESTION: But one last thing, that this surely
— QUESTION: But why? But why, Mark? You – when
the Chinese do things that you say are provocative and unilateral in terms of construction on
disputed areas, you tell them that – you say it’s bad and they should stop and you
call on them not to do it. Why won’t you do that in the same vein for the Philippines?
MR TONER: For one thing, I don’t have specific details about what they’re planning to do
or not do on the islands, and we’d have to wait to get more details about that.
QUESTION: Well, but I mean, you said – the other day when you were asked about this lighthouse
that was going up on – a Chinese lighthouse was going up —
MR TONER: And I said we’ll have to certainly wait and see what it looks like.
QUESTION: Yeah. But you said they shouldn’t do it.
MR TONER: Well, I also – I think in response to her second question, I did say our policy
has not changed. QUESTION: So the Philippines should not go
ahead with any plan it has to build an airstrip on —
MR TONER: That’s not – that specific policy is not exclusive to —
QUESTION: China. MR TONER: — to China.
QUESTION: Okay. QUESTION: But Mark, the Philippines actually
unilaterally initiated the arbitration case. So now Manila has this kind of action. Does
this fully prove this arbitration case is a political provocation under the cloak of
law? MR TONER: Not at all. I mean, look, we have
called on all claimants to clarify their claims in accordance with international law. That’s
what we believe is the best route and the most peaceful route, frankly, to resolve any
claims or disputes over the South China Sea. And that includes, as you note, rules-based
mechanisms like international arbitration, which is what they are pursuing. So we believe
that case should move forward in accordance with international law.
QUESTION: So what is – what is the message behind the inconsistency of Philippines’
words and action? MR TONER: I mean, I don’t have any more
detail to provide. Frankly, I would again have to refer you to the Philippine Government
to speak for itself in terms of what its actions are, what its motivations are behind its actions.
All I can say is what our policy, and that hasn’t changed. We want to see rules-based
– or adherence to rules-based mechanisms to resolve claims regarding South China Sea.
Thanks. Please, sir.
QUESTION: Yeah, follow-up. Same topic. MR TONER: You and then you, please.
QUESTION: Kind of separate. MR TONER: Yeah, sure. Okay.
QUESTION: So the Chinese foreign ministry criticized the G7 foreign ministers’ statement
on the South China Sea and the East China Sea, saying that the G7 should focus on global
economic governance and members should stop making irresponsible remarks. Do you have
a response to that? MR TONER: I really don’t. I’ll let the
G7 statement speak for itself. We certainly signed it and agreed to it, but I’m not
going to get into an argument back and forth over whether it was valid or not. We believe
it was. Please.
QUESTION: Do you think that the strong reaction from China is indication that the continued
focus on this issue is having an effect of pressuring the Chinese on the topic?
MR TONER: Hard to say. There are – as you well know, there’s a lot of sensitivities
about South China Sea and about territorial claims surrounding it. Again, what I think
it speaks to is the need for peaceful, diplomatic, legal mechanisms to resolve these issues to
the point where we’re not seeing, as we just discussed, reclamation projects, construction
projects, any kind of thing that’s going to lead to escalated tensions and provocations.
Please. QUESTION: I just wanted to follow up —
MR TONER: Yes. QUESTION: — on Matt’s point. Last week
when China finished building the lighthouse, you immediately expressed your objection.
So when it comes to Philippine, are you trying to turn a blind eye to Philippines’ action
in South China Sea? MR TONER: I think what I said – and I have
– as I said, we’ve seen the reports stating that China will begin operating a lighthouse
on Subi Reef – and again, I just haven’t seen nor do I have any greater detail on what,
frankly, the Philippine Government is proposing to do. So all I can say is revert back to
what our stance is, our position is regarding any kind of attempt to construct new facilities
or in any way develop the South China Sea islands. So I’ll stop there.
QUESTION: So you wouldn’t condone Philippines’ action in South China Sea if it’s confirmed
true? MR TONER: We don’t – again, not – without
singling out the Philippines, I think broadly, yes, we don’t want to see any kind of development
on any of the islands that will further escalate tensions.
QUESTION: Are you concerned if China take any counteraction to go against Philippines
— MR TONER: Well, again, I mean, we’re certainly
concerned, and that’s one of the reasons why we always speak to our concerns about
these kinds of actions is that we don’t want to see – as they often do set off an
escalation of tension. That’s the last thing we want to see.
QUESTION: Also on China, Kenyan authorities have deported 37 Taiwanese citizens to China
on Tuesday, and the Taiwanese Government said the Kenyan police used force and tear gas
to send them onto a plane. Do you have any comment on that?
MR TONER: Excuse me. I’m aware of the reports. We’re looking into it. I don’t have any
further details. You’re talking about the – excuse me – the 37 Taiwanese citizens
who were – yes – sent back to China by the Kenyan authorities? Again, we’ve just
seen reports so far. We’re trying to get more details about it.
QUESTION: I suppose this is included in that, but the Taiwanese are also saying that one
of the citizens is a joint Taiwanese-U.S. citizen. Are you aware of that?
MR TONER: Also aware of that report. We just don’t have a Privacy Act – due to privacy
considerations, we can’t speak to that right now. Again, as we get more details, we’ll
obviously share them with you. QUESTION: Just one more. The Kenyan Government
cited one-China policy as the basis of this deportation action. Is it consistent with
your interpretation of the one-China policy in this regard?
MR TONER: Again, I think we need to see more details and more – yeah, more details behind
what the Kenyan Government’s – or what motivated the Kenyan Government, what its
actions were trying to do, what it was trying to accomplish here, in order to make any kind
of judgment about what they did. Please, sir.
QUESTION: Are you considering taking any measures against the referendum in Darfur to discredit
it or to influence the government in Sudan? MR TONER: Hold one moment, please. You’re
talking about – well, I mean, we – I put out a statement last night, obviously, condemning
some of the recent attacks by the Sudanese People’s – or Sudan People’s Liberation
Army, the SPLA, which destroyed a declared opposition cantonment site in Wau County in
South Sudan. And we’ve made clear both to President Kiir and opposition leader Machar
that neither we nor the international community will accept any kind of return to war, and
that the responsibility for implementing the agreement rests on the shoulders of both parties
to the conflict. QUESTION: I was asking about —
QUESTION: He was asking about — MR TONER: Wait.
QUESTION: — the referendum. MR TONER: I apologize. Oh, Darfur. I apologize.
I thought you were talking about South Sudan. I’m sorry.
QUESTION: North Sudan. MR TONER: Yeah. No, I have no – I have nothing
to say about — QUESTION: You issued a statement, but are
you going to take any measures to discredit it or to pressure the Government of Sudan
or with the African Union or any — MR TONER: But the statement I issued – I
apologize, I was confused. I was speaking about South Sudan. We haven’t – I don’t
know what you’re talking about in Darfur. No visibility on that, sorry, sorry. Like
a lot of issues today I seem to be surprised up here about. Appreciate that.
QUESTION: Don’t do be too harsh on yourself, Mark.
MR TONER: Thank you. Thank you, Matt. QUESTION: You’re only as good as the briefing
book. QUESTION: On India, Defense Secretary Carter’s
visit to India. The two countries decided to increase their defense relationship, including
letting the other country’s military base and facilities be available to the militaries
of other countries. MR TONER: You’re talking about Secretary
Carter? QUESTION: Yes, Secretary Carter.
MR TONER: Well, obviously refer you to DOD on specifics about his visit. Our defense
cooperation with India, as you know, is strong. It’s a leading pillar of our broad relationship.
We support, obviously, India’s rise as a capable actor in the region, and part of that
is deepening our defense cooperation. QUESTION: The agreements that the two countries
have decided to sign, was the State Department consulted on those?
MR TONER: Was consulted? Of course, we were. Yeah. I mean, we would be – as we would
in any kind of interagency discussion. QUESTION: How you think this – will this
have any implications on China? MR TONER: I mean, how so specifically? Just
in terms of — QUESTION: Because the U.S. military can go
and use Indian facilities; same the Indian military can come here and use the U.S. facilities.
Would that have any implications on U.S. relations with China?
MR TONER: Look, I mean, I’m not going to conjecture. All I’ll say is that we support
positive, peaceful, stable relations with all countries in the region, and that includes
India and China. There’s no zero-sum game here.
Please. Hey, Nike. QUESTION: Can I ask South Sudan?
MR TONER: There you go. QUESTION: Right. Now you just mentioned SPLA.
Just — MR TONER: That’s right. I just spoke to
it already. I’m already ahead of myself. That’s how impressive I am today. (Laughter.)
Sorry, go ahead, Nike. I’m sorry. QUESTION: Right. Yesterday you put out a statement
condemning the recent attacks by SPLA. MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: Now the opposition leader, Riek Machar, is arriving Juba next Monday. He’s
supposed to arrive there to swear in as the first vice president. Are you concerned that
recent attacks by SPLA will heighten the tensions prior to his arrival?
MR TONER: So this is going to sound familiar, but of course, as I just said, we did condemn
recent attacks by the SPLA. We’ve expressed concerns about opposition forces and associated
groups that have been attacking recently government forces in the area as well. And as I said,
we’ve made clear to both President Kiir and to opposition leader Machar that we won’t
accept a return to conflict, to war, and that the responsibility for implementing the agreement
rests on the shoulders of both parties to the conflict, and both sides need to avoid
exacerbating tensions and should return for Machar’s safe – rather, should prepare
for Machar’s safe return in a safe and orderly fashion.
QUESTION: Well, can you — MR TONER: Please, sir.
QUESTION: — be a little bit more specific about what you mean by saying we can’t – we
won’t accept a return to conflict or war? What does that mean?
MR TONER: Well, I’m just – look, I mean, we’ve seen this happen too many times with
South Sudan — QUESTION: Well, what are you going – yeah,
what are you going to do? MR TONER: I mean, there’s a number of possibly
– of actions that we could take. But we’re also – well, I mean, there’s – again,
I’m not going to preview anything that we’re not ready to announce. But I think what we
can – what we’re trying to very clearly state is that this is going on too long, that
we’re at a juncture here where it looks like they’re sliding back into conflict,
and that both sides bear responsibility to put this thing back on track.
Please. QUESTION: Afghanistan?
MR TONER: Afghanistan. QUESTION: The Taliban had announced that they
are going to launch a spring offensive and promised large-scale attacks. Is the State
Department considering stepping up its assistance to the Afghan Government, and if so, how?
MR TONER: So we – that announcement obviously came as no surprise. We always see the announcement
of the spring fighting season. We are preparing, as we have been, to assist the government
in defending against the Taliban. We have – working through both U.S. and coalition
forces, we have been working with Afghan forces on the ground to improve their capability,
their ability to fight and push back. They have the primary responsibility now since
2007 – ’15, rather. And we’re going to continue those efforts.
I don’t have anything specific in terms of increased assistance. I mean, we are working
closely with President Ghani and Afghan security forces to ensure that they, as I said, have
the training necessary and the equipment necessary to preserve the gains that they’ve made
over the last 14 years. And of course, NATO’s got its Resolute Support Mission on the ground
there that’s going to continue. As we’ve often stated, the goal here is to support
and build up the capacity for Afghan forces to provide for the security of the country.
And recognizing the ongoing security challenges, the decision was made, of course, to maintain
a level of troops, to keep the 5,500 American troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016 in order
to continue to carry out that essential mission on the ground. And that includes counterterrorism
operations against remnants of al-Qaida and, of course, ISIL and other terrorist groups
in the region, but also, as I said, just continuing to build up the capacity for Afghan security
forces to provide security for the country. Yes.
QUESTION: The Taliban also said that they were going to try and avoid civilian casualties
and hitting infrastructure. What do you make of that?
MR TONER: Well, I’ll just say that all of this – this announcement, this pledge to,
again, begin the spring fighting season – it just underscores the need for the start of
a peace process, and a peace process that’s Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. That was a central
message of the Secretary when he visited there this past week. It just underscores also that
this conflict is not going to be resolved on the battlefield.
QUESTION: But how serious the peace process is? Hasn’t it met a dead end because Taliban
have now announced for the offensive? MR TONER: Well, I mean, it has – it has
not proceeded as quickly as I think many would have liked. Again, without being able to – I’m
not – I would refer you to the Taliban, frankly, to talk about – but they have undergone
some leadership changes and have been unresponsive to this effort to get these peace talks going.
That only underscores, frankly, the urgency going forward.
QUESTION: So are you giving them — QUESTION: Did you just refer us to the Taliban?
MR TONER: I did. You’re welcome to. I’m sure the BBC has spoken to them many times.
QUESTION: Yeah. QUESTION: Are you giving them a benefit of
doubt to the Taliban – new Taliban leadership on —
MR TONER: Not at all. I’m just saying the ball is in their respective court. The Government
of Afghanistan has said it would be ready to hold these peace talks.
QUESTION: If there’s – if there’s need, are you willing to reinforce more troops inside
Afghanistan based on how — MR TONER: I don’t have anything to announce,
certainly, other than the President’s decision to maintain current – the current levels
through 2016. Please.
QUESTION: On North Korea, it’s being reported that North Korea’s is preparing for a possible
mobile ballistic missile launch that could hit portions of the U.S. Can you confirm that
or do you have a response? MR TONER: I don’t – I mean, not specifically
to that allegation or that threat out there. I mean, we’ve seen, obviously, North Korea
continue to take actions, irresponsible actions, in pursuit of – or rather, just in an effort
to destabilize the region. None of these actions are particularly helpful, only escalate tensions
further. But I don’t have anything in response to that particular threat.
Are we good? QUESTION: Wait, I got a couple —
MR TONER: Oh. Yes, sir. QUESTION: They’re far-flung, but they’ll
be very quick. MR TONER: Far-flung.
QUESTION: One: Yesterday you seemed to leave open the door to the idea of supporting a
UN resolution that the Palestinians have — MR TONER: Did I?
QUESTION: — are showing around New York. You said – in response to one question,
you said, “We might take it to…[the] Security Council.” Did you mean to leave that impression?
MR TONER: I can firmly shut that door. QUESTION: Okay.
MR TONER: No, look, I mean, I – that was, I think, the second day in a row I’d gotten
that question. Nothing’s been thus far formally introduced or circulated at the Security Council
— QUESTION: No, no, I understand that.
MR TONER: No, no, I get it, right. QUESTION: Is the Administration open to the
idea of such a resolution that would condemn settlement activity or is that something you
think should be left out of the Security Council? MR TONER: I’m going to say that our position
hasn’t changed in terms of action on this issue at the UN Security Council.
QUESTION: Which means that you’re opposed to it?
MR TONER: Opposed to it. QUESTION: Yeah, okay. Then I had – I asked
you about – but it got – then we got sidetracked onto the situation – the case in the UAE
yesterday, so I don’t know if you actually —
MR TONER: Yeah. QUESTION: — registered the taken question
about these Palestinian human rights activists who are coming to town next week.
MR TONER: Let me – yeah. QUESTION: Anyway, if you could, because it
kind of got lost in the — MR TONER: No, I agree. I apologize for that.
QUESTION: One’s from Gaza, one’s from the West Bank. I’m just wondering if —
MR TONER: I thought we took – I know we took the question.
QUESTION: Okay. And then if you could get the – an answer —
MR TONER: But I will get you an answer for that, of course.
QUESTION: — as to whether they have any meetings here with people. They haven’t been here
in a while. MR TONER: Absolutely.
QUESTION: And then lastly, two – these are the —
MR TONER: Those aren’t that far-flung, by the way. Those are pretty —
QUESTION: Well, no, no, no. These are the far-flung ones.
MR TONER: Okay. QUESTION: I’m just wondering if you guys
have any thoughts, any comments about the situation in Brazil politically, and also
— MR TONER: I think – yeah, sure. Go ahead.
QUESTION: — whether you have any kind of a position on the Egyptian decision to return
– to give these two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.
MR TONER: On the Egyptian decision, I’m going to take that question. I just don’t
have any details about that. On the Brazilian question – and I think
we’ve said this – I’d obviously refer you to Brazilian authorities. But we believe
Brazil’s democracy is mature, it’s strong enough to ensure that its current political
challenges are met and get resolved in a way that allows Brazil to prosper.
QUESTION: All right. And would you say the same thing about South Africa?
MR TONER: Yes. I mean — QUESTION: Because they’re having their own
— MR TONER: I’m aware of the —
QUESTION: Do you think that their democracy —
MR TONER: I’m aware of their own – yeah, I mean —
QUESTION: Do you think their democracy is mature enough? What’s the maturity – the
age of maturity for democracy these days? MR TONER: It’s like a wine. Look, I mean,
South Africa has some pretty significant challenges in terms of its political growth, but it also
has democratic institutions in place that we believe can work to resolve these kinds
of issues. And again, these are tests for any political system, including our own, when
these kinds of allegations or investigations or issues come to the fore. It’s – I don’t
think anyone can say unequivocally that their democracy is superior or more mature than
any other, but I think it speaks to the strength of anyone’s democracy that they can weather
these, that they have the processes and the institutions in place to weather them.
So yes on both counts. QUESTION: Okay. You do – you do go – U.S.
officials from all administrations, secretaries of state, go around talking about how the
United States is a mature democracy and the oldest democracy, so —
MR TONER: But we also make no claims as to whether our ambassador – our ambassador
– our democracy is superior than others. QUESTION: All right.
QUESTION: Iceland’s had an elected parliament for a thousand years and they just lost a
prime minister. (Laughter.) MR TONER: There you go.
QUESTION: Last one, quick one. MR TONER: Of course, I’m so sorry. Yeah,
please. QUESTION: A top State Department official
is being cited as saying that the numbers for ISIS are the lowest that they’ve ever
been since the U.S. started monitoring them in 2014. Can you confirm that that’s the
case, and do you have any numbers for what those might be?
MR TONER: I do not, so let’s talk about this offline. Thanks, yeah.

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