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Afghanistan, COVID-19, Maritime Exercises Among Topics Covered at Pentagon Briefing

March 23, 2021 | BY Jim Garamone , DOD News

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby gave reporters a whirlwind tour of issues facing the Defense Department citing a maritime exercise in the Arabian Sea, issues in Afghanistan, COVID-19 vaccinations and housing migrant children in DOD facilities.

Kirby, who just returned after accompanying Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III to Japan, South Korea, India and Afghanistan, spoke during his regular Tuesday briefing.

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He noted that U.S. service members have put more than 5 million COVID-19 vaccinations in Americans' arms. These include those working at Federal Emergency Management Agency sites and U.S. National Guard state sites. Active-duty personnel have given more than a million vaccinations in support of FEMA Support Mission assignments. "We're very proud to do our part to support the President's vaccination goals," he said.

He announced that the United States, Japan, Belgium and France just completed an exercise in the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman. "The multilateral surface, air and subsurface training was led by the French Marine Nationale's Charles de Gaulle Carrier Strike Group and included the USS Makin Island, USS Port Royal and aircraft from the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and the U.S. Air Force," Kirby said. 

The forces exercised the ability to operate aircraft from different partner nation ships, hunted "enemy" submarines and provided a layered defense against air and surface threats. They also conducted long-range maritime strikes against simulated adversarial forces. 

"Such partnerships are the linchpin of global security and stability, and in these partnerships, we believe are an asymmetric advantage that the United States has," Kirby said.

A helicopter flies over the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle.
Multinational Exercise
A French NH90 helicopter flies over the French navy nuclear-powered aircraft carrier FS Charles De Gaulle in late February. The aircraft carrier was the heart of a just-concluded multinational exercise in the Arabian Sea.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Will Hardy
VIRIN: 210228-N-RG171-0120C

Reporters asked Kirby several times about the timeline for troop decisions on forces in Afghanistan. "I'm not going to get ahead of any decision-making process by the commander-in-chief," he said several times. 

Soon after taking office Biden launched an effort to look at the situation in Afghanistan. That study is ongoing.

Kirby told reporters that one of the reasons Secretary Austin went to Afghanistan to meet with Afghan and U.S. leaders was to listen to them, their concerns and see the situation for himself. Under the U.S. agreement with the Taliban, foreign troops must leave the country by May 1 if the Taliban meets certain conditions. There are currently almost 10,000 foreign troops in the country with about 2,500 being American. 

He said that if the president decides to withdraw, Austin is confident that Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, and Army Gen. Austin Miller, the commander of NATO's Resolute Support Mission and U.S. Forces — Afghanistan, "will get it done in a safe, orderly and effective way."

Two men talk as they walk down a street in Kabul.
Afghanistan Visit
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III walks with the commander of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission and U.S. Forces – Afghanistan, Army Gen. Scott Miller, at Resolute Support Headquarters, Kabul, Afghanistan, March 21, 2021.
Photo By: Lisa Ferdinando, DOD
VIRIN: 210321-D-BN624-1081C

Kirby emphasized that no decision has been made yet. Austin was in Kabul not to deliver a message to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, but to listen and learn. "It will inform his participation in the review that's ongoing," Kirby said. "And it will certainly inform the advice, whatever advice that might be, that he'll give to President Biden."

Kirby restated the goal: "We all want to see a responsible end to this war that is sustainable, and it's based on a negotiated political settlement. That's what we're all driving to."

Finally, the press secretary said the DOD has received a request for assistance from the Department of Health and Human Services, to temporarily house unaccompanied migrant children. HHS has specifically asked for use of facilities at Joint Base, San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, and Fort Bliss, Texas. The department has just received the request. "We'll analyze it and evaluate it just like we would any other request for assistance," he said.