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Rex Tillerson Outlines Potential Diplomatic Strategy In Afghanistan


The White House has billed its new Afghanistan strategy as a regional approach. That means getting Pakistan to do more to fight terrorism and getting India and other players to help with Afghanistan's economy and to move towards an eventual peace deal. Those challenges fall to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's department. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Tillerson made a rare appearance in the State Department's briefing room this afternoon to talk about his role in the new U.S. strategy.


REX TILLERSON: This entire effort is intended to put pressure on the Taliban, to have the Taliban understand, you will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you. And so at some point, we have to come to the negotiating table and find a way to bring this to an end.

KELEMEN: And Secretary Tillerson says the Trump administration plans to lean on Pakistan to shut down terrorist safe havens and deliver the Taliban to eventual peace talks. He says U.S. aid to Pakistan will be dependent on this.


TILLERSON: Pakistan and the U.S. historically had very good relationships. But over the last few years, there's been a real erosion in the confidence between our two governments. There's been an erosion in trust because we have witnessed terrorist organizations being given safe haven inside of Pakistan to plan to carry out attacks against U.S. servicemen, U.S. officials, disrupting peace efforts inside of Afghanistan.

KELEMEN: Tillerson says he gave Pakistan's government a heads up in a phone call yesterday before President Trump's speech. But the Trump administration has been slow to fill key diplomatic posts to reinforce those messages. Tillerson says he's still deciding on a new special envoy for the region, a job Dan Feldman held during the Obama administration.

DAN FELDMAN: It doesn't have to be structured exactly like that. But there does have to be some sort of empowered State Department role. And I haven't seen that reflected in anything that the president said.

KELEMEN: And diplomats will be key, Feldman argues, to promote peace negotiations and to work with the Afghan government.

FELDMAN: You need them to engage with the region, not just Pakistan and India. But there are very core concerns here for engaging with China and Russia and the Gulf and others in the region. And you obviously need it to continue to engage with our long-term military and diplomatic partners in NATO and elsewhere.

KELEMEN: Secretary Tillerson says he's been reaching out to all those players and counting on many of them to help share the burden. President Trump has made clear his focus is on security, not telling Afghans how to govern themselves.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists.

KELEMEN: Still, this requires careful diplomacy, says a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ronald Neumann.

RONALD NEUMANN: You have to be able to both fight and talk. And you have to be able to prove that you're willing to do both for a long time. That's been lacking in our policy. I think we're now maybe correcting that.

KELEMEN: Neumann, who's now the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, was in Afghanistan earlier this summer and saw some positive signs that the government is beginning to crack down on corruption and improving its military and civil service. As for U.S. policy, he sees this as a slow and steady change that won't turn things around overnight. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.