Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

Aug. 17, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby; Major General Hank Taylor, Deputy Director of the Joint Staff For Regional Operations, J-35

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: OK, good morning, everybody. We want to give you an update this morning on our operations in Afghanistan at the Hamid Karzai International Airport, and I'm going to ask General Taylor to come back up here. I think I botched his title yesterday: Deputy Director of the Joint Staff for regional operations, J-35, so I got that wrong yesterday and I apologize for that. But before that I -- before I ask the -- the general to give you an update, there's a couple of other things that I do want to -- to get out there.

First on Haiti: In support of the U.S. Agency for International Development, their -- their Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance, U.S. Southern Command is working to assess damage, develop common operational pictures and provide lifesaving support for the people of Haiti. They stood up a joint task force, Joint Task Force Haiti, which will be led by Rear Admiral Keith Davids, who is the Special Operations commander south there at SOUTHCOM. He's going to be currently operating, or is currently operating from Homestead Air Reserve Base. The JTF is now -- the forward elements of it, the headquarters elements of the joint task force will be moving to Haiti today.

We are also flying eight helicopters to Haiti later this morning to help with, again, providing a picture overhead. The U. -- USS Arlington, a Navy amphibious ship, will be getting underway today as well, and will have on -- embarked on it two MH-60 helicopters. It also will have on board a surgical team and a landing craft mechanic -- mechanized to be able to move things ashore. The U.S. Naval ship Burlington is also going to be used to provide aerial footage and assist with our -- our overall assessment. Two P-8 Poseidon maritime reconnaissance aircraft which are currently operating out of El Salvador will also be sent to the -- the region to provide aerial coverage and assist, again, in our assessment. 

And that's where we are right now, is getting a -- a -- a clear picture of what the situation looks like on the ground. And the assessment team on the ground will continue to look -- look at the area and to report back to SOUTHCOM so that we can best coordinate and integrate USAID and -- and other -- and other agency assistance to the people of Haiti.

There are also two U.S. Coast Guard cutters on station in southern Haiti. There are seven additional cutters now moving forward. There will also be one U.S. Coast Guard fixed-wing aircraft operating out of Guantanamo Bay, again, to help us provide aerial visibility on -- on the -- on what things look like on the ground. And we do expect that field hospitals, four field hospitals from US Southern Command will be set up in southern Haiti by later this week.

So the U.S. military continues to provide unique air, medical, logistical and engineering capabilities in support of USAID and their led -- and their -- their Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance. They are leading this effort. We are supporting them to help save lives and alleviate human suffering in these critical early stages of a disaster relief operation. So we'll have more to say in -- in coming hours and days on that, but I wanted to give you an update on Haiti.

Another update on -- on COVID response efforts in -- in response to the latest surge, and at the request of FEMA, the Department of Defense is identifying five medical assistance teams to support efforts around the nation. These teams will be comprised of about 20 medical personnel, including doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists. Now currently, the department will provide a medical assistance team -- one of these medical assistance teams to a hospital in Lafayette, Louisiana. We expect that there could be additional requests from other states for -- for other teams, and so that's why we're -- we're being prepared to stand up five teams. But one of them will be dedicated to going to Lafayette, Louisiana, again, at the request of FEMA and the state of Louisiana. So we're continuing to lean forward to help our fellow Americans deal with this latest surge in -- in the pandemic, and again, as we have more information and more things to report to you, we certainly will.

So with that, I'm going to turn it over to General Taylor and...

Q: Just for clarification on the -- on the -- on the teams. They're all military personnel that are on these teams?

MR. KIRBY: These are -- these are -- these are military medical assistance teams, yeah.

MR. KIRBY: OK. General, if it's OK, if I can leave all my stuff on the podium I'll -- I'll turn it over to you.

MAJOR GENERAL HANK TAYLOR: Good morning. Nice to see you again.

Thank you, Mr. Kirby, for the opportunity again to give you an operations update of current operations in Afghanistan. My goal is to provide you with details from my last time in here to ensure that you have as much information as possible. 

A number of evacuations occurred overnight, which I'll provide you more details here shortly. As we speak, we are continuing air operations, and air operations continued throughout the night. I'm tremendously proud of the Herculean effort we've seen by our U.S. military so far. The rapid insertion of Marines and soldiers and a number -- a number of enabling forces moving from both within the CENTCOM AOR and from the United States.

Yesterday, the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan started at about roughly 2,500, and by the end of today there will be more than approximately 4,000 troops on the ground in Kabul. Forces will continue to flow in and reinforce the State Department and DOD effort there. The operation is ongoing, and I'd like to give you a few more details on that operation.

HKIA remains secure. It is currently open for military flight operations, as well as limited commercial flight operations. Throughout the night, nine C-17s arrived, delivering equipment and approximately 1,000 troops. Additionally, seven C-17s departed. These flights lifted approximately 700 to 800 passengers, and we can confirm 165 of these passengers are American citizens. The rest are a mix of SIV applicants/third-country nationals. 

Responding to the situation at HKIA, our initial focus was to insert forces and equipment. As part of the force -- as part of this force concludes, the speed of evacuation will pick up. Right now, we're looking at one aircraft per hour in and out of HKIA. We predict that our best effort could look like 5,000 to 9,000 passengers departing per day, but we are mindful that a number of factors influence this effort, and circumstances could change. We will keep you updated. 

There are a number of unexpected challenges that can occur for personnel in a complex and dynamic security environment. We are confident we have taken the right steps to resume safe and orderly operations at the airport. We continue to prioritize the safety of military personnel and those who await evacuation from Afghanistan. With great effort and care, we proceed through each day of this work. You have likely seen the image floating around of Afghan families in a cargo plane. This speaks to the humanity of our troops in this mission, the skill and professionalism of our U.S. military.

The last point I'd like to make is about the assessed threat right now. We have had no hostile interactions, no attack and no threat by the Taliban. We remain vigilant. We also have not experienced any additional security incidents at HKIA. We retain the security of HKIA that enables the safe, orderly evacuation of Americans and Afghans. 

I want to reinforce that we are focused on the present mission -- to facilitate the safe evacuation of U.S. citizens, SIVs and Afghans at risk, to get these personnel out of Afghanistan as quickly and as safely as possible. That mission has not changed.

The mission is of historical significance and it is incumbent upon us to be resolute in the protection of American and Afghan lives. Thank you. 

Mr. Kirby?

MR. KIRBY: Thanks, General. OK, Bob?

Q: I have a narrow -- narrow question for the General and a broader question for you. If I could start with him, if you don't mind?

MR. KIRBY: Oh, sure, absolutely. I'll just leave.

(LAUGHTER)

Q: General, I think you said that you would wrap up to one aircraft departure per hour.

GEN. TAYLOR: That's the planning figure.

Q: And when would that -- my question is when -- when will you get there?

GEN. TAYLOR: We hope in that -- within the next 24 hours. And so as the -- the Commander on the ground continues to build the combat power there and flights are available, that is the goal.

Q: OK. If I may ask a question of you, John?

MR. KIRBY: Sure.

Q: The General mentioned there has been no hostile threats from the Taliban at the airport. I'm wondering does the U.S. have an arrangement with the Taliban to allow the evacuation airlifts to proceed until August 31st? 

And the second question is under what circumstance would the U.S. troops leave before August 31st?

MR. KIRBY: So on your first question, Bob, what I would tell you is coming out of General McKenzie's discussions with senior Taliban leaders in Doha, our commanders at the airport are in communication with Taliban commanders on the ground outside the airport.

And there have been discussions, there is communication between them and -- and us, and I would just let the results speak for themselves. I'm not going to get into the details of -- of how those discussions are progressing cause they -- there are interactions multiple times a day. And as I -- the General said, I think very well, there's been no hostile interactions from the Taliban to our operations at -- at the airport.

Q: So if -- the point of that would be to allow -- that the Taliban is -- is willing to allow it to proceed and they're -- they're -- they're cooperating in that regard?

MR. KIRBY: I would just let the results speak for themselves so far and we're not taking anything for granted.

Q: And -- and the -- prior to August 31st part of my questions? 

MR. KIRBY: Oh, I'm sorry, yeah. Right now, as the General made clear, the mission runs through August 31st. The Commander in Chief made it very clear that we were to complete this drawdown by August 31st and that -- which now includes the drawdown of American citizens -- you know, the pulling out of American citizens and drawdown of our embassy personnel. 

So that's what we're focused on, that's the timeline we're on, and as the Secretary made clear to -- to leaders, even as recently as this morning, time is of the essence and we all -- we all share a -- a -- a sense of urgency here. But right now, the mission runs to the 31st of August and I won't begin to speculate what -- what happens after that.

Courtney?

Q: Do those discussions with the Taliban include talk about allowing Americans or Afghans through some of these Taliban checkpoints or even potentially expanding the perimeter around the airport so more people can get there safely? 

That's one of the things that we're hearing, is that people can't get through these Taliban checkpoints and they can't even get to the airport to leave.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, again, without going into the details of communications of which I'm not a part, as I said, there is -- there is -- there are interactions down at the -- at the local level. And as the General said, we are processing American citizens to -- to get out.

So again, Court, without speaking to the sausage making of communications here, thus far -- and it's early on -- the results are speaking for themselves and I think that's probably where I'd like to leave it.

Q: And then one for General Taylor. Can you just -- on the numbers -- so this is now 700 to 800 that have gotten out. So is that now a total of somewhere in the neighborhood of 14 to 1,500 total people have been taken out since August 14th, when this began?

GEN. TAYLOR: Yes, rough -- rough numbers, yeah, to include the -- the SIVs.

Q: And can you say just from an operational perspective is there -- is there talk of expanding the perimeter around the airport?

GEN. TAYLOR: Right now, the airfield, like I said earlier, is secure. And the -- the Commander on the ground has the -- the ability to continue to flow flights in and out. So I would say the airfield's secure right now to allow us to do that mission.

MR. KIRBY: Barb?

Q: Just to clarify a couple of things on what you said about these talks with the Taliban, to make sure I get it. It is U.S. military personnel that are talking to Taliban commanders?

MR. KIRBY: Our commanders in the operation have had communication with -- with -- with Taliban leaders.

Q: And is this why or could you explain -- apparently you put the 82nd Airborne Headquarters element in there. Is that ... 

MR. KIRBY: You're talking about General Donahue and his staff.

Q: Could you walk us through a little bit of that?

MR. KIRBY: Sure. A couple of things there, Barb. Number one, this is what the 82nd Airborne does really well, and as the Global Response Force, their -- their job is to be ready to assist in a very expeditious manner. And the task of securing and operating an airfield is actually a unique task that the 82nd can do, and General Donahue has experience in that. So -- so that's one reason.

Number two, Rear Admiral Vasely, who has been commanding on the ground, also has a spate of other duties he has to attend to, to include liaison with the State Department, our allies and partners that are also on the ground there in Kabul, the Turkish support element. There -- there's a lot of things to do, so we felt like this division of labor made the most sense, given the urgency of time and what we're trying to accomplish in the next couple of weeks.

Q: So the 82nd -- I'm sorry, just to make sure -- 82nd is in command at the airport and the General, you mentioned, is the one talking to the Taliban?

MR. KIRBY: I -- I'm not going to talk about specific conversations, Barb, or who's having what. Our commanders -- in fact, I -- I don't even -- Admiral Vasely has been there throughout this thing, and I -- I don't know exactly -- I mean, the General knows when General Donahue is getting there -- but just suffice it to say that our commanders there at the airport are charged with securing that airport and keeping it secure and to doing what is required to keep it secure and to get operations back up and running and be -- to be sustained, and -- and they will and should have whatever interactions they believe that are necessary to accomplish that mission.

I'm not in a position now and I -- and I won't begin to get into a position where I'm detailing every single conversation or what the details of that are. I think, as I said to Courtney, the best judge of how we're doing is how we're doing and the -- and -- and the results that we're achieving, and I think I'd leave it at that.

Q: John?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah? Let me get to Helene and then I'll come to you, Tom. Go ahead, Helene.

Q: Thank you, Kirby. This is for General Taylor. I understand that we are -- the -- the Marines are there and our troops are there and they're under orders, we don't want them getting into a combat situation with the Taliban. So you do have a little bit of a balance that you have to strike between getting this orderly evacuation out of the airport but at the same time we know that there are reports on the ground from your SIV applicants that a lot of them are getting beat up on the way to the airport. They're getting beat up outside of the airport.

How do you manage then and I know this is a bit of what Courtney and Barbara are both asking you. But how do you manage to strike that balance between we're not here to get in to a fight, we just want to get our people out. But you've got to get your people to where they can get out.

GEN. TAYLOR: Sure. So as we look at the military task and requirements of securing the airfield, that's what we are absolutely focused on doing to ensure that part of this whole mission is being able to be completed. I’d really, on the outside as we talk about on the outside of the airfield and through Kabul and that process there. I'd really have to push that over to the Department of State because our mission right now is that securing of the airfield to allow those that come onto the airfield to quickly be put on aircraft and evacuated.

MR. KIRBY: Tom?

Q: John, I want to get back to the numbers of Afghans and others trying to get out. If you look at the SIV people, special immigrant visa and their families, there are estimates of 70,000 to 88,000 and then you add the P2 people who are trying to get out to a third country and then maybe hundreds if not thousands beyond that. So all told, the total universe we're talking about is probably 100,000 people trying to get out of Afghanistan. 

Given that, are you confident with your planning that by the 31st you can get all those people out? Or is that uncertain?

MR. KIRBY: What we're confident is that we're going to maximize capacity to the -- to the degree that we can. And that at max capacity, as the General said, given what could be more than two dozen sorties per day you could -- you could get to 5,000 to 9,000 people out per day. Our focus is on, again, making sure that the environment, the conditions are set to be able to do that. 

As I said the other day, airlift is not going to be a limiting factor. But it also is going to require and has required constant liaison with our State Department colleagues who are obviously in charge of administering the Special Immigrant Visa process and the other priority visas that you mentioned. So we're working hand in glove with them on the manifest. Who's being processed, when they're being processed and making sure that they're ready and able to get on flights out of that. 

So it's a -- it's a complex inner-agency effort here, Tom. What I can tell you -- I can't guarantee a certain number by a certain day. I wouldn't do that. As the General rightly said, weather can play a factor. In fact, weather has played a factor today. So what we -- what we think is at max capacity 5,000 to 9,000 per day. Couple of dozen sorties maybe even more per day conditions permitting.

But we are -- it has to be done in close concert with our State Department colleagues. And so we'll do as much as we can for as long as we can. 

Q: And you talk about the 31st and mission coming to an end, that's an arbitrary date set by the White House. The White House could -- the President could, I know this is a question for the White House, extend that deadline into September as long as the airport is secure, isn't that right?

MR. KIRBY: The mission that we've been given, Tom, is to conduct this drawdown by the 31st of August.

Q: But if the airport’s secure you could continue into September couldn't you?

MR. KIRBY: That is -- that's a decision that the President, Commander in Chief, would have to make. Our mission right now, we have to talk about what we're doing now, Tom, and what our focus is. And that's on getting this completed by the 31st of August. 

Ok, Jen.

Q: John, can I follow-up on the agreement with the Taliban. Do you have an agreement with the Taliban that they will allow for safe passage to the airport for SIVs? Number one. And there also are reports that you are having to negotiate now with former Gitmo detainees. One of the leaders in Qatar is a well known Gitmo detainee who was released in 2014. Are you finding yourself having to negotiate with former Gitmo --

MR. KIRBY: I know of no negotiations with former Guantanamo Bay detainees, Jen. On your first question, I think I would just, again, leave it to what I've been saying. There are interactions at the airport by our commanders with Taliban leaders out in town. As I said, they are charged with making sure this is a safe and secure environment. And we trust them to have the interactions they feel they need to have to ensure that in every aspect across the whole spectrum of what this mission requires of them that they can do it safely and efficiently and in an orderly manner. And I'm not going to go beyond that. 

Q: And, John, why are we not hearing from Defense Secretary Austin and General Mark Milley?

MR. KIRBY: The Chairman and the Secretary are, as I think you would understand, extremely busy in communication with commanders on the ground, with General McKenzie, with the interagency and I have every expectation that at the appropriate time you'll hear from both of them. 

Nia?

Q: Drilling down on the statement of no hostile attacks from the Taliban, who does that cover? Does that cover Afghan civilians and U.S. military? And is that limited to the airport or is there also monitoring of Taliban attacks outside of the airport?

MR. KIRBY: Mission is about the airport. As the General said, there's been no hostile interactions with the Taliban on either our people or on operations. 

Q: And can you confirm, so there is no tracking of what the Taliban is doing --

MR. KIRBY: Our focus is on security and the operation of the airport. I mean I haven't gone to anybody on the phone and I need to do that. Or I get in big trouble. 

Megan? OK, Megan maybe not be there. Tom --

Q: Hold on, I think I'm back.

MR. KIRBY: OK, you are. 

Q: Yes, unmute. So, is there an estimate of how many people are still currently at the airport? And does that include people -- not just Americans and SIVs but people who kind of bum rushed the airport a couple days ago and how is that situation being handled? And is there a hope for them to get out as well?

GEN. TAYLOR: So right now, at the airport, we continue to process in American citizens that have shown up. As we look at -- I think I heard the second question of those that bum rushed the airfield. The airfield is secure, as I said earlier those folks that were there on the southern part are no longer inside the airfield. And there is nobody no longer in there. And as you saw we were able to get those -- some passengers out the day before. But right now I don't have the number of those waiting for flight right now but I'll be able to get that later on.

MR. KIRBY: Let me go to another one on the phone here. Paul Shinkman from U.S. News.

Q: Yes, hi, John, two questions. Is the U.S. aware of any remaining visage of the 300,000 Afghan security forces that it trained that are still operational? And if so is the U.S. supporting them in any way? And then secondly, has the Secretary or any other senior official at the Pentagon spoken with any of their Afghan counterparts or I suppose at this point people who are former Afghan counterparts since Sunday?

MR. KIRBY: I know of no high-level communications here from the Pentagon with Afghan counterparts over the last couple of days. And I'll let the general take the question about the ANDSF.

GEN. TAYLOR: We do know that commanders are on the ground are continuing to communicate with -- ANDSF. And specifically on the airfield we do have approximately 500 to 600 ANDSF that are assisting us with that security. 

MR. KIRBY: Ok, back in the room. Carla?

Q: Thank you, John. I’ll start with you and then I have a question for the General as well. What advice, John, do you have for the Afghans who assisted the U.S. and now can't get to the airport or are in Kandahar and can't even get to Kabul and they feel left behind. What's the advice the Pentagon is giving them?

MR. KIRBY: What I’d tell you is largely speaking, we know we have an obligation to help these individuals and their families who helped up so much over the last 20 years. And we have been focused on this for quite some time. 

There is a process by which they can apply for these visas. And the State Department has now opened up the umbrella for other what they call P1 and P2 opportunities. So I'm not -- I'm not an expert on that process, Carla, but there is -- there is a -- there is a process to follow and I'd highly encourage if they aren't already in the system to get themselves into the system. 

And I understand -- if I think I understand the second gist of your question is, you know, are we going to be able to physically move someone from somewhere else in the country into the airport. 

And right now our focus is on the airport itself and making sure that it stays safe and secure and that operations, air operations, which have resumed can sustain themselves going forward. And there's an awful lot that has to be done in that. 

So, I'm -- again, sacred obligation we take very seriously. There is a process. And I would highly encourage them if they're not already in that to consult with State Department officials to get themselves enrolled in that and then what we'll do, as we've said from the beginning, is help get them out of Kabul. 

And we are also working very hard here locally to help get them, if they need, temporary lodging here in the United States while they complete that processing to do that. And you saw just yesterday now we were able to announce two additional U.S. military installations that will be rapidly increasing their capacity over the next days and weeks to help build out to a maximum, right now, of approximately 22,000 capacity if we need it. 

Q: OK. And then secondly, I had asked about this yesterday, but the investigation into the civilian casualties, can the U.S. Defense Department confirm the number of civilian causalities that happened when that C-17 took off? What are the total number of casualties that you're tracking at the airport? You mentioned the two -- the two --

MR. KIRBY: Well we know that -- we know that there were two security incidents in which two armed individuals with hostile intent were engaged by troops and killed. I don't have a firm number of additional casualties that we know have been reported, at least in press reporting, you know, and certainly by this incident with the C-17 which took off, as you saw, as taxiing with people running alongside it and even attached themselves to the aircraft. 

What I can tell you is the Air Force is taking a look at this and I think you'll hear more from the Air Force later today about that. And I think I really need to leave it at that right now.

Q: Would you say at least four?

MR. KIRBY: I can't Carla. I am -- I'm not in a position to give you a specific number. But again, I think you'll hear more from the Air Force later today about this.

Q: Does that include about the report that there was an Afghan civilian, his remains were found on a landing --

MR. KIRBY: I think you're going to hear more from the Air Force about this today Court.

A couple more. Louis?

Q: John, a couple of clarifications. General Donahue from the 82nd Airborne is headed to Kabul to become the overall commander of this particular mission. What happens to Admiral Vasely? And then another question.

GEN. TAYLOR: Admiral Vasely maintains the position as commander for the entire mission as USFOR-A Forward. As you know, elements of the 82nd Airborne Division have already been flowing in. And to do the actual mission of security of HKIA. So the -- General Donahue and a piece of his staff will go forward and work specifically on the security mission of HKIA.

Q: And then Admiral Vasely remains --

GEN. TAYLOR: That's right. As the overall commander as USFOR-A headquarters forward obviously under General McKenzie as the CENTCOM commander.

Q: If I could follow-up on something you said earlier, you said there were 700 AND -- Afghan security forces at the -- at the airport. Has a commitment been made to them that they will also be evacuated afterwards and once this mission is complete?

GEN. TAYLOR: And that -- I know that our commitment to ensure that the security there at HKIA is increased by having those members of the ANDSF with us at this time.

MR. KIRBY: I mean Louis I think -- I think that would be -- that would have to -- that would be a decision by those individuals if they wanted to and to apply for, you know, a visa and to pursue that approach. That it would -- you know -- it would be up to those Afghans to make that decision for themselves.

OK, take one --

Q: Can I have a quick follow-up?

MR. KIRBY: OK.

Q: You mentioned -- you have mentioned that the department -- the administration thinks there could be thousands of Americans still in Kabul and in Afghanistan possibly. And that you're prepared to evacuate them if they can get to the airport, et cetera. But that there are thousands of Americans. 

With that estimate in mind is the administration confident that all Americans are essentially free of Taliban control? Do you have anything that indicates the Taliban are going after any of these Americans?

MR. KIRBY: Well there's a lot there, Barb. I can only tell you what we know and that there hasn't been any hostile interactions by the Taliban to our people or to our operations. Part of our operations include helping evacuate American citizens. And that process continues. The General gave you an update, 165 or so just in the last 24 hours.

I can't speak to the locations or whereabouts of every single American throughout the country and their desires to stay or to go. That's just something we're not equipped to do here. Again, you got to understand the limited, tailored mission that we're trying to conduct right now. 

I'll take one more then we’ve got to let the general get back to his day. And I forgot to get to Tom Squitieri. So Tom I'll give it to you.

Q: Hi, thanks John. Good morning. Just to follow-up on the security at the airport. The Turks were supposed to be in charge of security there. What's the role that they and other foreign militias are -- not militias, foreign militaries may be doing to help? Thank you. 

GEN. TAYLOR: Yes, good question. And the Turks remain absolutely linked in to the security mission with USFOR-A. So they're -- they are continuing to assist in the security and the running of HKIA. 

MR. KIRBY: OK, thanks, everybody. We're going to have to call it a day. We will be able to brief you again later this afternoon. It probably won't be on camera, but we will do another on-the-record briefing this afternoon, so we'll see you then. Bye-bye.