Biden’s national security adviser on Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, killing of al-Qaida’s leader

President Biden on Monday announced a U.S. operation that killed Ayman al-Zawahri, the 71-year-old leader of al-Qaida who was an integral part of the 9/11 attacks. It came as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, escalating tensions with China. Jake Sullivan, assistant to the president and his national security adviser, joins Judy Woodruff from the White House to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to Jake Sullivan, assistant to President Biden and national security adviser.

    I spoke with him about al-Qaida and other international issues in a wide-ranging interview late today, beginning with Speaker Pelosi's controversial trip to Taiwan.

    Jake Sullivan, thank you very much for joining us. So much to ask you about.

    Let's start with Taiwan.

    There are a number of China experts who are looking at Speaker Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, and they're saying, it's not only provocative, but it's dangerous. Do you think it is dangerous?

  • Jake Sullivan, U.S. National Security Adviser:

    Well, first, Judy, thanks for having me.

    Speaker Pelosi's decision to go to Taiwan was, of course, a decision she had every right to make. And, in fact, a speaker of the House has previously traveled to Taiwan without incident. And members of Congress travel to Taiwan all of the time. It doesn't signal a change in U.S. policy. It doesn't threaten China in any way.

    So, for China to turn around and try to turn this into some kind of crisis or use it as a pretext to take aggressive action around Taiwan, that's on China.

    Now, from the United States' perspective, what we intend to do is indicate to China and to the world we're not looking to escalate. But we will, of course, continue to assert our right to defend our interests, to support Taiwan's self-defense and to continue to operate as we have operated in the Western Pacific for decades.

    That's how we're approaching it. We hope that China will, in fact, take an approach that demonstrates restraint, rather than overreaction.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But this is a moment, Jake Sullivan, when tensions are higher than normal. The Chinese are already saying they see it as a provocation. They have announced stepped-up military drills in the area, military training exercises.

    How is the U.S. going to respond to that?

  • Jake Sullivan:

    Well, first, we have indicated over the course of the past couple of days what we expected China would do, to include live-fire drills, potentially to include things like missile launches and scrambling of aircraft and so forth.

    And frankly, over the last 24 hours, what we have seen has been exactly in line with what we predicted. Our position is very clear in all of this. We are not looking to escalate. But we are going to continue to demonstrate that the United States will not be deterred from operating as we have operated, meaning that we will continue to assert freedom of navigation, we will continue to take steps to support Taiwan's self-defense.

    So, one of the key things that we will do, in the face of stepped-up military activity by China, is show that this is not going to alter the United States' approach, which is consistent with the way that we have approached this issue for quite some time. We believe that shows resolve, it shows clarity, and it shows the kind of commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific that President Biden has spoken about since the beginning of his administration.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But do you believe the prospects for — at least for miscalculation are now higher, given what the Chinese are doing and reaction and given the fact that a U.S. carrier group is now in the neighborhood?

  • Jake Sullivan:

    Well, from our perspective, one of the critical things that we have to see in the hours and days ahead is open lines of communication.

    We have means of communicating directly to the People's Republic of China, and we have done so. Just as one example, our ambassador in Beijing, Nick Burns, a very seasoned diplomat, has had the opportunity to sit down with Chinese officials just in the last hours to hear their perspective and to be very straightforward and clear in sharing ours.

    In doing so, we seek to avoid miscalculation or mistake or any form of escalation. But we also seek to establish very clearly that we are going to continue to operate as we have operated. We think that is the best and most responsible way to deal with the situation we confront ourselves — we find ourselves confronted with here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The other factor that's been pointed out, Jake Sullivan, is that President Xi of China under increasing pressure right now to look strong, with the Party Congress coming, and, frankly, Democrats in the United States under pressure to look strong.

    How much of a factor is all that?

  • Jake Sullivan:

    Well, I can't speak to President Xi and what his calculus is.

    I can speak to what President Biden's calculus is. From President Biden's perspective, we are in a significant strategic competition with China, but competition does not and should not mean conflict. And, for that, as we were just talking about, it requires us being able to manage the relationship between the U.S. and China effectively in times of calm and in times of elevated tension.

    We're going to be steady. We're going to be resolute. We're going to communicate closely with our allies and partners. And we are going to communicate directly to Beijing. That is how we are going to defend America's national security interests and our values. That is the only thing President Biden is thinking about. And that is how he has directed us to operate in the days ahead.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let me turn you now to the U.S. strike on Ayman al-Zawahri, the leader of al-Qaida, inside Kabul just in the last 24 to 48 hours.

    The Taliban is responding by saying what the U.S. did is a violation of the Doha Agreement, which the U.S. signed before it left Afghanistan. Is it?

  • Jake Sullivan:

    There is a violation of the Doha Agreement, and it's a violation by the Taliban.

    At least some senior members of the Haqqani Network affiliated with the Taliban were aware that Ayman al-Zawahri was in Kabul. And allowing him to be based there, in our view, is a violation of the commitments they made.

    So, the United States took direct and decisive action, at the direction of President Biden, to remove Zawahri from the battlefield and to send a clear message to other terrorists and to the Taliban that the United States will not rest, will not allow for safe haven, will not allow anyone to use Afghanistan as a launching pad for terrorist attacks against the United States or against American interests anywhere.

    We demonstrated that with this strike, and we will continue to stay vigilant in the period ahead.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You said just now, and you have said I think several times today, that the administration believes that senior Haqqani leaders knew that Zawahri was in Kabul, but perhaps the Taliban didn't.

    My question is, what's the distinction here in that knowledge? Do you have evidence that there is a distinction, because Siraj Haqqani, as you know, is the interior minister for the Taliban?

  • Jake Sullivan:

    Yes, I have not distinguished between the Haqqani Network and the Taliban, per se, because you're totally correct that they all operate within the same governing authority, a government, of course, that we do not at this point recognize. So they're all part of a single entity at this time.

    But we think that it is certainly possible that some senior leaders in that entity were not aware and others were, and that that is one of the things that is unfolding in Kabul right now, as the Haqqanis have to explain themselves to others in the Taliban for why they had brought Zawahri into Kabul.

    From our perspective, we're not dwelling on those specifics. We're focused on the fact that the Taliban, as an organization, is responsible for upholding its commitments. And we will hold them accountable for doing so. And it is not merely their word, but their actions that we are going to judge.

    And we will take action, decisive action, if we need to, to defend our interests. That's exactly what we did this past weekend.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So while all this was going on, the attack on and the killing of al-Zawahri, you have a very real humanitarian crisis going on in Afghanistan, with half the population being food-insecure. We're told they're living below the poverty level.

    We see pictures regularly of children who are severely malnourished. Is the Biden administration prepared to look actively at ways to support the people of Afghanistan, even as the Taliban continues as it is?

  • Jake Sullivan:

    Well, Judy, we're not just prepared to do that. We are doing that and have been.

    We are the largest humanitarian donor to Afghanistan and, in fact, have supplied a significant amount of resources to avert the worst consequences that some experts had predicted last year would come from the humanitarian disaster. There are people suffering all over Afghanistan.

    But what we have been able to do is, to a certain extent, stabilize the floor of being able to provide lifesaving food, medicine and other humanitarian necessities to people all across Afghanistan, including people in areas that we could not previously reach because they were on the other side of the battle lines with the Taliban during the war.

    We have obviously got a long way to go to get the Afghan people all that they deserve, in terms of security, in terms of their basic level of prosperity. And we will keep working at that day by day with the rest of the international community.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two other quick things I want to ask you, Jake Sullivan. One has to do with Ukraine.

    It's been reported that President Biden and you and others have implored the Chinese not to provide weapons to the Russians while this war with Ukraine is going on. Do you know for a fact that the Chinese have not given Russia weapons?

  • Jake Sullivan:

    One can never know something like that for an absolute fact.

    But we have seen no indications to date that the Chinese government has in fact supplied the Russian government with weapons to be used on the battlefield in Ukraine, that, since the conversation that President Biden had with President Xi some months ago, those kinds of transactions have not moved forward.

    But, of course, that's something we need to be constantly vigilant about. And we are watching that daily.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, I want to ask you about Saudi Arabia.

    The president, of course, was there just a matter of weeks ago. It was reported at the time when he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that the Saudis agreed to increase oil production this summer that would alleviate oil prices. We know there are OPEC meetings coming up.

    Are you — how confident are you that we are going to see an increase in production?

  • Jake Sullivan:

    Well, first, I will just say, because it's directly relevant today, one of the other things that President Biden discussed with the crown prince was extending the truce in Yemen, which had been the worst conflict, producing the worst humanitarian disaster in the world.

    Today, there was an agreement to extend that truce another two months, extending the longest period outside of conflict in that country in seven years. So, that is a major accomplishment coming out of the president's meetings in Saudi Arabia.

    But directly to your point about energy, let's see what happens tomorrow. Obviously, OPEC-Plus has to make its own decisions about whether or not they will increase production. We have confidence that they will make a decision that is in line with the world's energy needs. And I will leave it to them to lay out exactly what they intend when they meet tomorrow.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you do believe they will do that, or you're — is that what you're saying?

  • Jake Sullivan:

    I'm saying that what I believe is that they will follow through on their commitment to address adequate energy supply. The shape of that, what that looks like, I'm going to leave it to them to talk through.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jake Sullivan, President Biden's national security adviser, thank you very much.

  • Jake Sullivan:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tonight, an administration official tells the "PBS NewsHour" that U.S. Ambassador to Beijing Nicholas Burns, who Mr. Sullivan just mentioned, was in fact summoned by Beijing's Foreign Ministry to object to Speaker Pelosi's visit.

Listen to this Segment