MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Just outside the main gates to the White House - this is just outside the West Wing - we are about to cross through this gate. I'm going to bring you with me.
(SOUNDBITE OF GATE CLOSING)
KELLY: We're here to meet the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, who - it is fair to say - is having a busy week.
(SOUNDBITE OF GATE CLOSING)
KELLY: I had been asking for a while for a sit-down with the national security adviser to talk about the war in Ukraine. But then, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decided to pay a visit to Taiwan, and a U.S. drone strike took out al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul. So we are going to try to get to all three of those today.
Jake Sullivan, good to see you. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
JAKE SULLIVAN: Thanks for having me.
KELLY: Let's dive in on Taiwan. Is everybody here at the White House breathing a sigh of relief that Pelosi has left and World War III has not broken out yet?
SULLIVAN: Well, the Chinese have announced that they are going to conduct a series of military activities around Taiwan over the course of the next few days, and that will raise tensions across the strait. And so what we are hopeful for is that the PRC acts responsibly and avoids the kind of escalation that could lead to a mistake or miscalculation in the air or on the seas. That is the message that we're sending to China. That's the message we're also coordinating with our friends in Taiwan.
KELLY: How risky a situation does that create?
SULLIVAN: Look, whenever a military engages in a series of activities to include the possibility of missile tests, of live-fire exercises, of fighter jets buzzing around the skies, the possibility of some kind of incident is real. And we believe that what China is doing here is not responsible. We believe that it is escalating tensions unnecessarily. And this is particularly so because what the speaker did in visiting Taiwan is not unprecedented. It is not threatening to China. What we don't want to see is China trying to twist this into a crisis or use this as a pretext to take the kind of military activity that will ultimately destabilize the Taiwan Strait.
KELLY: Setting aside this particular visit - big picture - may I invite you to clarify what U.S. policy on Taiwan is? Specifically, will the U.S. get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that? Because President Biden says that is the commitment that's been made.
SULLIVAN: Well, our policy has not changed. It is rooted in the One China policy, informed by the Three Joint Communiques, the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances.
KELLY: But - forgive me - you all keep saying the policy hasn't changed, even as President Biden commits to a policy that would represent a significant policy change.
SULLIVAN: Well, the president himself has said the policy has not changed. The president is the commander in chief. He's the guy who sets the policy. And he has said it has not changed, and we have communicated that very directly. He has said that publicly, on the record. And to the question of the kind of military contingency you're talking about, it is the entire object and purpose of our approach to ensure that that never happens, that it never comes to that. And that is what we are going to keep working to ensure.
KELLY: We move to Afghanistan and the drone strike on Zawahiri. There's a picture beginning to come together of what unfolded - that U.S. intelligence was tracking his family, and that enabled the tracking of Zawahiri himself. This was a CIA drone?
SULLIVAN: So I'm not going to get into the specifics of the branch of our - or the agency of our government engagements...
KELLY: Administration officials have said that on background. I didn't know if you would put it on the record.
SULLIVAN: All I will say is that our counterterrorism professionals and our intelligence professionals played a central role in carrying out this successful operation at the president's direction, and he credited them in the public remarks he made for their incredible skill and capacity in pulling this thing off.
KELLY: Where did the drone fly in from?
SULLIVAN: Again, I'm not going to get into those kinds of operational details. I think it's important that we be able to preserve the space to continue to operate effectively to demonstrate, as the president promised the American people a year ago, that we would maintain the ability to take out terrorists even without thousands of American forces on the ground. We did that once. We're prepared to do it again.
KELLY: The White House released a picture of President Biden in the Situation Room on July 1, I believe, and he was being briefed by - it looked like you. You could see Bill Burns, the CIA director, briefing him. Was there any dissent around that table, anybody who thought this was a bad idea?
SULLIVAN: No. There was unanimous support among his senior national security team to take this action at the point in time when the intelligence community briefed the president that they had high confidence that this was Zawahiri and that they could do it in a way that they felt would not result in civilian casualties.
KELLY: To step back, the U.S., of course, went into Afghanistan in the first place to take out al-Qaida leadership after 9/11 and then fought for 20 years to keep al-Qaida from reestablishing a base there, and now Zawahiri and his family turn up in the middle of downtown Kabul. I mean, what does that say about what the U.S. achieved over two decades in Afghanistan?
SULLIVAN: Well, it actually - the record, when it comes to our disruption of the al-Qaida network and its capacity to threaten America and Americans, is a record of significant success. Our ability to ensure over the course of decades that the kinds of complex plots that led to the embassy bombings in Nairobi and in Tanzania in 1998, that led to the USS Cole in 2000, and then, of course, to 9/11 in 2001 - that we have not seen those kind of plots over the course of the past two decades be carried out against the U.S. homeland, that is a record of significant success. What the president...
KELLY: Although, if you and I had been sitting here in 2001 - late 2001 - and I had told you that in 2022, the Taliban would be running Afghanistan again and Ayman al-Zawahiri would be living in Kabul, would you believe me?
SULLIVAN: Well, what I would tell you is that Ayman al-Zawahiri became the emir of al-Qaida in 2011, when Osama bin Laden was taken off the battlefield. That was more than a decade ago. For a decade, American men and women fought and died in Afghanistan, and Zawahiri was alive and running al-Qaida. Joe Biden took the United States out of Afghanistan so that, in the year 2022, not one American soldier died in Afghanistan. And Ayman al-Zawahiri is dead. I would call that a pretty effective policy.
KELLY: Is there a scenario in which the Taliban didn't know - didn't know he was there?
SULLIVAN: We believe that senior members of the Haqqani network, who are now part of the Taliban entity running the government in Kabul - that they knew. We also believe that there were other senior Taliban officials who did not know. And in fact, you know, we will now watch to see the extent to which this raises questions within the organization of the Taliban about the wisdom of having Zawahiri come back into Kabul.
KELLY: Oh, interesting. So you're watching for possible fractures or divisions in the Taliban or other extremists.
SULLIVAN: Yeah. I don't want to go so far as to say fracture, but, you know, certainly, this is going to raise some eyebrows, we believe, within the leadership.
KELLY: Ukraine - it says something about the kind of week you're having, that that is the third item I need to ask you about as the national security adviser. The first grain ship to depart Ukraine since Russia invaded arrived in Turkish waters. It's been cleared to go on to Lebanon. How encouraged should we be?
SULLIVAN: Well, we should be encouraged because it does mean that the possibility of substantial amounts of wheat and corn and other grains getting out of Afghani - out of Afghanistan - out of Ukraine is a real possibility. But we should also be cautious because there is every reason to believe the Russians are going to make this as difficult as possible and that they are going to continue to find ways to disrupt the flow of grain to the world market. And so we think that the international community has to maintain a substantial amount of pressure on Moscow not to enforce a blockade, not to throw up obstacles to the flow of that grain because it is so important to feed the world, to keep prices down and to ensure that there's not hunger and famine in Africa, in Southeast Asia and in other places.
KELLY: The relationship between the U.S. and Ukraine - is there deep mistrust between the White House and President Zelenskyy? Are you concerned about Ukraine's leadership? I'm asking because Tom Friedman of The New York Times, who tends to be well-sourced, wrote about that in his column this week. It's caused a lot of commentary. Is it true?
SULLIVAN: I mean, you just have to listen to President Biden when he talks about President Zelenskyy. He openly admires President Zelenskyy. He admires his courage, his bravery, his skill. They have incredibly constructive and effective communication. And then, at all levels of the government, we are deeply engaged. And so this is a very strong partnership.
KELLY: So you're not concerned about Ukraine's leadership, for the record?
SULLIVAN: For the record, I believe that Ukraine's leadership is leading a country in an incredibly effective and brave way against the onslaught of an invading neighbor, defying all expectations about what they would be able to hold together and stand up against, and it's been an incredibly impressive thing to watch.
KELLY: Last question - we're about to come up to the six-month anniversary of the Russian invasion. Six months from now - so February 2023 - where would you put the chances that there's still active war in Ukraine, that there's any kind of off-ramp away from what constantly seems to get described now as this grinding conflict? That's the word you always hear - grinding conflict headed toward a stalemate.
SULLIVAN: I'm not going to make predictions about six months from now because I think most of us wouldn't have predicted we'd be where we are today six months ago. We did accurately predict that Russia would invade, but how exactly that invasion would unfold is subject to so many variables. And that's true for the six months that lie ahead of us.
What I will say is this - Russia could end this war tomorrow if they simply withdrew from the territory that they have tried to conquer by force, which is against every precept of international law. And so Putin could end this thing very rapidly. Our job, as the United States, is to put Ukraine in the best possible position on the battlefield so that it will end up in the best possible position at the negotiating table. When can we get serious negotiations going? That is an open question because, at the moment, it does not seem the Russians are serious about the kind of diplomacy that actually could bring about an end to this conflict.
KELLY: That is national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Thank you very much for your time today.
SULLIVAN: Thanks for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.