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British ambassador on Russian ‘malign activity’ in Afghanistan

The United States has no greater ally in Afghanistan than the United Kingdom, and the British-American partnership is critical to U.S. foreign policy around the world. The new British ambassador to the U.S., Karen Pierce, joins Nick Schifrin to discuss intelligence reports of Russian bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the coronavirus pandemic and Israeli annexation of the West Bank.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We look now at how the U.S. relationship with one of our closest allies is complicated by current events.

    Nick Schifrin spoke late today with the new British ambassador to Washington.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Dame Karen Pierce was named British ambassador to Kabul from 2015 to 2016, and then U.N. representative in 2018. She was named U.K. ambassador to Washington earlier this year.

    And she joins me now.

    Ambassador Pierce, thank you very much. Welcome to the "NewsHour."

    I know you can't comment on specific intelligence reports, but we're reporting today that, according to former military and intelligence officials, there's a belief that Russian military intelligence was providing financial incentives to the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers.

    How concerned is the British government about Russian support to the Taliban?

  • Amb. Karen Pierce:

    Well, you're right, Nick, we never comment on intelligence matters.

    But irrespective of this particular report, I think there has been a pattern of Russian malign activity around the world in recent years. And Britain, together with our international partners, we want to push back on that malign activity, while making clear to Russia that we would like a more productive relationship.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You were ambassador in Kabul a few years ago.

    More recently, the outgoing general in Kabul said that Russia was providing weapons and political support to the Taliban about two years ago.

    Do you believe that support increased in the last two years?

  • Amb. Karen Pierce:

    Certainly, while I was in Afghanistan, we did see a hardening of the Russian position, and Russia became less cooperative than she had been previously.

    But I also think it's also worth thinking that the only thing Russia liked less than NATO being in Afghanistan is NATO not being in Afghanistan, because NATO provides security and stability for Russia as well. And I think that all needs factoring into Russian assessments.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The core of NATO-U.S.-Western deterrence to Russia in Europe has been tens of thousands of American troops in Germany.

    And President Trump wants to reduce the number of those troops by about 30 percent, and he announced that without having consulted Germany or NATO officials. So, does the fact that that consultation didn't happen, does that erode the transatlantic alliance?

  • Amb. Karen Pierce:

    I think NATO and the transatlantic alliance is so interwoven and so interdependent that it doesn't depend on one single event or one single decision.

    I think we have to remember NATO is the most successful military alliance in history. As we go into the numbers, my understanding is that Defense Secretary Esper is talking to the president about options for troop numbers in Germany.

    But, as I say, one single decision doesn't undermine the fact that NATO has been extraordinarily successful since it was first founded.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On coronavirus, as you know, cases in certain U.S. states are spiking. There are concerns here about people respecting social distancing ahead of the July 4 weekend.

    July 4 also happens to be the day when the U.K. will open pubs. With all due respect, Britons are not necessarily known for social distancing after a few pints.

    So, are you worried at all that the opening up that the government has announced for later this week will increase cases in the U.K.?

  • Amb. Karen Pierce:

    Well, the prime minister and scientists and other ministers are calling for people to be vigilant.

    We're calling July the 4th our version of Independence Day, because people can start to come out of lockdown. As you say, they can go to the pubs. They can do more to enjoy themselves. But it has to be done on a responsible basis.

    And social distancing rules will be relaxed to a meter, rather than two meters. But that is dependent on taking other measures, like mask wearing and staying alert, so that we don't get a resurgence of cases.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The European Union is on the verge of extending a ban on American tourists from traveling to the bloc. Will the U.K. make the same decision?

  • Amb. Karen Pierce:

    Well, our decisions are separate and independent from the European Union's.

    Our transport secretary, who is called Grant Shapps, he made a statement in Parliament saying that the restrictions would be relaxed for a number of countries shortly. He is looking at which countries might fall into that list.

    A lot depends on the trajectory, the expected trajectory of the virus in those countries. But we hope to be able to announce that list shortly. I'm afraid I haven't seen it, so I don't know who's on it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The trajectory in the U.S., though, is not in the right direction. Are there ongoing conversations between U.S. and British officials about respective travel bans?

  • Amb. Karen Pierce:

    There's a lot of conversations going on about COVID handling in general.

    They don't just cover travel. They cover medical, science. A whole range of talks go on. And we take part in some other groups that the U.S. is in, trying to manage all these issues across Europe and the United States.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Ambassador, in the time I have left, one last topic.

    This week, Israel might annex parts of the occupied West Bank. Do you oppose the administration's green light, effectively, in the Trump peace plan to annexation? And will you impose penalties if that annexation goes forward?

  • Amb. Karen Pierce:

    Well, Boris Johnson, our prime minister, said in the House of Commons that we did oppose unilateral annexation by Israel.

    As to what will happen if Israel goes ahead and annexes, I don't want to speculate. But I think our opposition to unilateral annexation has been laid out loud and clear.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ambassador Pierce, thank you very much.

  • Amb. Karen Pierce:

    Thanks very much.

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