New US president to review Taliban peace deal

Nominee says Biden to keep Jerusalem embassy but seek Palestinian state

By: AFP      Published: 11:34 AM, 20 Jan, 2021
New US president to review Taliban peace deal

President-elect Joe Biden's pick for his top diplomat said Tuesday he would undertake a review of a peace deal with Afghanistan's Taliban and believed the United States needed means to prevent any resurgence of terrorism.

Outgoing president Donald Trump's administration signed a deal on February 29 last year with the Taliban to end America's longest war but controversially kept some annexes classified.

"We want to end this so-called forever war. We want to bring our forces home. We want to retain some capacity to deal with any resurgence of terrorism, which is what brought us there in the first place," Antony Blinken, Biden's nominee for secretary of state, told his Senate confirmation hearing.

"We have to look carefully at what has actually been negotiated. I haven't been privy to it yet."

In the accord signed in Doha, the United States said it would withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by May 2021 and the Taliban pledged not to allow extremists to operate from Afghanistan, although the group continued attacks on government forces.

The removal of Al-Qaeda was the original reason for the US invasion following the September 11, 2001 attacks.

But the agreement came with annexes that remain classified, leading to criticism in the United States that there were secret understandings with the Taliban.

On its way out, the Trump administration said Friday it had reduced troop levels to just 2,500, the lowest in decades.

Biden was an early advocate of ending the war in Afghanistan but his aides have more recently spoken of the need for a small force to counter outbreaks of violence -- a stance unlikely to be stomached by the Taliban.

Under questioning from Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a fellow Democrat, Blinken promised to consider the rights of women and girls whose freedoms were severely curtailed during the Taliban's 1996-2001 regime.

"I don't believe that any outcome that they might achieve," Blinken said of nascent talks between the Taliban and Afghan government, "is sustainable without protecting the gains that have been made by women and girls in Afghanistan over the last 20 years."

"I would acknowledge to you that I don't think that's going to be easy, but we will work on it."

Palestinian state

President-elect Joe Biden will not reverse Donald Trump's landmark recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital but will seek a state for the Palestinians, Antony Blinken, his nominee for secretary of state, said Tuesday.

Asked at his confirmation hearing by Senator Ted Cruz if the United States will continue its stance on Jerusalem and maintain its embassy, Blinken said without hesitation, "Yes and yes."

Trump in 2017 bucked international consensus and recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital, despite Palestinians' claims to the holy city as part of their campaign for a separate state.

Blinken indicated that Biden would try harder to pursue a separate Palestinian state but acknowledged the difficulties.

"The only way to ensure Israel's future as a Jewish, democratic state and to give the Palestinians a state to which they are entitled is through the so-called two-state solution," Blinken said.

But he added: "I think realistically it's hard to see near-term prospects for moving forward on that."

"What would be important is to make sure that neither party takes steps that make the already difficult process even more challenging," he said.

Shortly after his remarks, a watchdog said that Israel had issued tenders for 2,500 new settler homes.

Outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo disputed that Israeli settlements on Palestinian land were illegal and visited one such site on a November trip to the West Bank.

The Trump administration had voiced general support for a Palestinian state but said it should be demilitarized and not have its capital inside Jerusalem.

The Palestinian leadership boycotted Trump, saying the Jerusalem move as well as his ending of aid for Palestinian refugees showed his bias.

In a drive led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump instead focused Middle East efforts on winning Arab recognition of Israel with four nations agreeing to normalize ties since September.

Blinken also said he opposed campaigns to pressure Israel through boycotts, putting him at odds with some in the left wing of his Democratic Party.

Firm on China, Iran

President-elect Joe Biden's cabinet nominees promised Tuesday that the United States would stay tough on China but vowed a new era of international cooperation after Donald Trump's divisive "America First" approach.

A day before Biden becomes the 46th president, Blinken, his choice for secretary of state, indicated that the new administration will revive agreements with Iran and Russia but described both countries as threats.

"Not one of the big challenges we face can be met by one country acting alone -- even one as powerful as the US," Blinken, a mild-mannered longtime aide to Biden, told his Senate confirmation hearing.

"We can revitalize our core alliances –- force multipliers of our influence around the world. Together, we are far better positioned to counter threats posed by Russia, Iran, and North Korea and to stand up for democracy and human rights."

Blinken distanced himself from the outgoing president's needling of allies and denunciations of multilateralism but said that Trump "was right in taking a tougher approach to China."

"I disagree very much with the way he went about it in a number of areas, but the basic principle was the right one."

Blinken backed the determination Tuesday by the outgoing secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, that China was committing genocide against Uighurs and other mostly Muslim people.

He promised to keep looking at ways to block the import of Chinese products that involve forced labor and preventing the export of technology that could "further their repression."

Retired general Lloyd Austin, the nominee to be defense secretary, told his hearing that the rising Asian power "constitutes a significant and long-term security threat to the United States and to our allies and partners."

"I believe that because of its ascent and the scope and scale of its military modernization, China is the top priority," he said.

Blinken has previously spoken of finding limited areas for cooperation with China, such as climate change.

But the tough talk came as the Trump administration hailed its campaign against China as a signature achievement.

In a farewell address, Trump said that he "rallied the nations of the world to stand up to China like never before."

- Return to diplomacy -

The stepson of a Holocaust survivor who found refuge in the US, Blinken, 58, is known for his even temper and passion on humanitarian causes.

He faced friendly questioning even from most Republicans, indicating he is likely to win quick confirmation in the Senate, where his Democratic Party will gain control Wednesday.

A deputy secretary of state in Barack Obama's presidency, Blinken promised to return to diplomacy including on Iran, where Trump walked out of a nuclear accord and slapped on punishing sanctions.

Biden "believes that if Iran comes back into compliance, we would too," Blinken said.

"But we would use that as a platform with our allies and partners, who would once again be on the same side with us, to seek a longer and stronger agreement," he said.

European powers remain committed to the 2015 accord, under which Iran drastically scaled down its nuclear work -- steps it reversed in protest over Trump's sanctions.

An expanded agreement could address Iran's "destabilizing activities" in the region as well as its missiles, Blinken said.

"Having said that, I think we're a long way from there," Blinken said.

Blinken said that Biden would also move quickly to extend the New START treaty on nuclear reduction, the last remaining arms pact with Russia, which expires on February 5.

The Trump administration had unsuccessfully sought to expand New START to bring in China, which has a fast-growing military that remains significantly smaller than those of Russia and the United States.

Blinken did not say for how long Biden would seek an extension. Russian President Vladimir Putin has proposed a one-year timeframe but negotiations collapsed as the Trump team insisted that Moscow not develop weapons in the interim.

- Shift on Yemen -

In another shift, Blinken said that he would immediately review Pompeo's designation of Yemen's Huthi rebels as a terrorist group.

"At least on its surface, it seems to achieve nothing particularly practical in advancing the efforts against the Huthis and to bring them back to the negotiating table while making it even more difficult than it already is to provide humanitarian assistance to people who desperately need it," Blinken said.

Pompeo issued the designation that took effect Tuesday despite wide warnings from aid groups that they need to deal with the Iranian-aligned rebels, who effectively control much of Yemen.

Blinken said that Saudi Arabia, a close ally of Trump, bore much of the responsibility for what the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.