Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

Aug. 19, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: OK, afternoon. As I highlighted this morning, Secretary Austin welcomed His Excellency Dr. Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of State for Defense Affairs for the state of Qatar. The meeting just wrapped up about 15, 20 minutes ago. We'll have a readout for you a little bit later. 

But as the Secretary said right at the top -- and, you know, we had some coverage of that -- our focus continues to be on the situation in Kabul, and the -- and that was a key element of the discussions today. I'll echo the Secretary's words and thank the government and Qatar for their longstanding support for the United States mission in Afghanistan, including their ongoing support for the safety of American citizens and personnel and obviously the -- the degree to which they have -- they have hosted U.S. military forces in the -- in the past.

Our relationship with Qatar is built on longstanding support and friendship, and I know the Secretary was deeply honored to meet with the Minister today. And again, we'll have a readout of that and I think we still owe you a readout from the call with his Bahraini counterpart as well.

And with that, we'll go to questions. Lita?

Q: So we were talking this morning about you hadn't heard any reports of -- I believe you were saying U.S. citizens attempting to get to the airport and either being stopped or whatever, but there is massive reports and footage of people being stopped, of people being unable to get through the gates. 

Can you give us a much clearer idea of who's stopping them? And -- and are you certain that the Taliban isn't stopping U.S. citizens? Are they just targeting Afghans?

MR. KIRBY: I am not certain it's not happening, Lita. I -- we haven't received any reporting here that -- that indicated that American citizens specifically were being stopped or harassed -- I want to be careful here because that's the reporting that -- that -- that we had this morning. I'm not aware of any additional reporting that would contradict that.

That said, we -- we obviously don't have perfect visibility into what is going on outside the airport. So I can't say definitively that they aren't stopping and/or harassing people with U.S. passports or visas. Obviously, we don't want to see that happen, we don't want to see anybody hurt or harassed, period.

And the -- in our communications with the Taliban, they have indicated that people with the proper credentials will be allowed through. So it's -- it's a very fluid situation, and as I said, we -- we can't attest to having perfect visibility into everything that's going on. And we obviously don't want to see any violence and we don't want to see anybody hurt.

Q: Just the other part of this obviously is with the numbers that we're hearing from -- from everyone -- from the White House, from here -- about the potential maximum number of people who might need to be evacuated, if you count the Americans, the Afghans and their families, it's a pretty large number. I mean, we're talking, you know, 70, 80,000 people.

Is it a given, do you think, at this point based on what you're seeing for processing and other roadblocks that are preventing huge numbers of people getting onto the airport, is it a foregone conclusion that you -- that the U.S. will simply not be able to get out the number of Afghans that want to get out?

MR. KIRBY: We are working very hard to open the aperture and the -- we have the capacity. We're working hard to open up the aperture for the capability to -- to move as many people as we can, as fast as we can. I don't believe that we're in a position now to say that anything is a foregone conclusion, with respect to who we are able to get out and at -- and at what -- and at what numbers, Lita.

As I said -- as we said this morning, you know, we -- we've opened up additional gates, more consular officers are now on the ground, under the direction of Ambassador John Bass. The Secretary yesterday dispatched additional U.S. troops to the gates to assist the consular officers and we remain in frequent communication with the Taliban about -- about the -- their facilitation of free passage and the credentialing that goes along with that.

So what I can tell you -- I -- I couldn't -- certainly, it would be difficult for me at this point, on the 18th (19th) of August, to -- to be perfectly predictive about where we're going to be a week or 10 days from now. I can tell you that the entire department is wholly and aggressively committed to -- to -- to being able to facilitate the movement of as many people as possible, as fast as possible.

And as we said earlier today in the briefing, the -- one thing we know is not going to be a limiting factor is -- is aircraft.

Ms. Meghann?

Q: I have -- not an Afghanistan question. Five service members died of COVID-19 in the past week, which is more than any month during the pandemic. Has the Secretary considered moving up his request to President Biden to make the vaccines mandatory?

MR. KIRBY: Obviously we're deeply concerned by the trends and the numbers, and our thoughts and prayers go out to the loved ones and family members of those who have lost their lives to this pandemic, not just here in -- in the department but across the country as the Delta surge continues to claim more victims.

And as you know, we are, as I mentioned the other day, assembling additional medical teams to help in areas in the country where -- where that request is -- is needed. We talked about Louisiana as a first stop. The Secretary -- nothing has changed about the Secretary's intention to -- to seek a waiver from the President, to seek that waiver by mid-September, unless FDA approval -- FDA licensure is -- is granted. And if that happens before the middle of next month, the Secretary will move under his own authority at that point to -- to mandate that vaccine or vaccines, whichever -- whether it's more than one or not. That -- that -- that is still -- that is still the operative policy in the department.

Q: So this doesn’t rise to the level of reconsidering that timeline?

MR. KIRBY: But we are also working just as hard as ever to -- to still put shots in arms under a -- this voluntary regimen. But we are still -- we are still seeking a mid-September or FDA approval -- FDA licensure-first policy. That's -- that's where we are now.

Q: Are you seeing an uptick in people getting the vaccine since the announcement by the Secretary?

MR. KIRBY: You know, Jim, I'll check - I'll have to take that question. I don't know -- I don't know if -- if -- I don't know. I -- so let- - let me not guess on that. 

Terese?

Q: Yes, I just wanted to confirm the numbers from earlier today. I believe it was stated that there were 7,000 evacuated. What is the time frame for that? Was that within 24 hours or was that since August 14?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, the 7,000 number was since the 14th of August. 

Q: OK. And then total, I believe I also had 12,000. What was that number?

MR. KIRBY: What the General was referring to there was if you go back to the end of July, the 29th of July, when we began the process of moving special immigrant visa applicants and their families out of the country as well as diplomats, other American citizens and other individuals from allied and partner nations. I mean if you go all the way back to 29 July, we moved 12,000 people out of Afghanistan. 

But if you're just counting it from the 14th of August when this noncombatant evacuation started, it's about 7,000. And the number over the last 24-hours, as far as I know, now it's been a few hours since we briefed so I don't have additional numbers here for you now, but as far as I know that hasn't changed. And I think -- and we said it was 2,000 over the last 24-hours.

Q: Is that 24-hours 3:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m.?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Jeff.

Q: Today properly credentialed Afghans were told by the State Department to go to the east gate of Kabul Airport. The Taliban would not let them in. What steps can the Defense Department take to make sure that Afghans get through at the east gate.

MR. KIRBY: Jeff, we are, as you know, in touch with Taliban leaders outside the airport. And we have repeatedly communicated to them what the proper credentials are, what they look like, their validity and to the degree that it's not working as it's supposed to. I can assure you that our military commanders, in this case Admiral Vasely who is predominantly managing this communication, will continue to take that up.

Q: If I could follow up, the -- what I'm hearing a lot of is people have the appropriate credentials, the Taliban simply aren't letting them into the airport. Are there more steps the Defense Department could take, for example, escorting consular officials at these Taliban checkpoints to make sure that people can get through?

MR. KIRBY: Jeff, right now, the presence is -- our presence is designed to maintain the safety and security of the airport. And that's what we're focused on. We are mindful that the checkpoints there can be -- can be obstacles to entry for people that -- people that need entry and are qualified for entry. So we're going it continue to work this with our communications with the Taliban in the hopes that we can clear up any stumbling blocks to that -- to that processing. 

And, as I said earlier today, we do have indications that it is working. Now I caveat that by observing that I can't guarantee that it's working in every case. So I have -- I have nothing to say that what you're -- the examples and the cases you're bringing up aren't happening. I certainly have to allow for that. But we do have indications that people are getting through -- people that are properly credentialed. 

So, to the degree that it's not working in every case, to the degree that we have more work to do to free up that log jam, I can assure you that we'll -- we'll stay at that, that we'll make that a priority.

Q: Do you have indications that Americans are getting through, right? Do you have indications that Afghans are as well?

MR. KIRBY: Well, as I said I think to the first question, Lita’s, I mean, we -- we don't have any indication or knowledge that American citizens with U.S. passports or Visas -- U.S. passports are having any trouble. Again, I -- we're not -- we're not out there so I -- I can't give you 100 percent assurances that there aren't cases where it -- it's still becoming a problem. But we have not seen that in any kind of definitive way inside the airport.

Q: As part of the conversations that the Qatari’s today, did the secretary asked them to have some of their people help. I mean, the Qataris have been a -- have historically helped with negotiations or talks with the Taliban. So, are -- are -- did -- did the U.S. ask them to send diplomats that they have in Kabul to help at these checkpoints?

MR. KIRBY: There -- there wasn't -- it wasn't a specific ask to that level of detail, Court. And I'll -- I'll wait until we read out the meeting. But, clearly, the issue of Afghanistan came up, and, obviously, the secretary noted the unique and special role that the Qataris have played here in the negotiating process with the Taliban for such a long time. And -- and -- and their -- thanked them for their support, also observe that they have, you know, that they do have a unique position here.

Q: Did -- do you have any more details of sort of how these communications between the U.S. military and the Taliban are happening with Admiral Vasely? Basically is it -- is it person to person or phone, are they texting or WhatsApp? Like, I mean, the -- or how often? Like how many times a day they might be discussing? Like any sort of the color around how it's happening?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I don't honestly know whether it's phone or face to face. But I do know that the line of communication remains open and that Admiral Vasely exercises that line of communication as he sees fit. So, it -- again, I don't want to speak for the admiral because I'm not there with him but my understanding is that on a typical day there's -- there's more than one conversation.

Q: Direct conversation?

MR. KIRBY: Direct conversation. Yes, with -- with the -- their -- their self appointed designated commander there. I appreciate the interest in the color I just don't have that. I don't know how it's -- I don't know how it's actually transpiring. You -- but it's a fair question and let me -- let me run it up and see if -- if I can provide any additional detail on that. Eric.

Q: John, is it the Pentagon's intent to continue flowing force in until you meet the 6,000 number that you're authorized to? Or is there -- are you now feeling good enough about the security at the airport that you're going to hold some of those -- some of those people back?

MR. KIRBY: Right now we're at 5,200, Eric. It's really up to Admiral Vasely and General McKenzie to determine where they want to go. But we're not very far from the 6,000 that was authorized. Or that -- I shouldn't say authorized that -- that the secretary ordered in to be -- to be available to the commander.

So, I -- I don't know. We're, obviously at 52 (5,200) so that's pretty close and what I can tell you is that the -- the secretary will make available to General McKenzie and Admiral Vasely and General Donahue whatever resources they -- they think they need. And that is a discussion that is literally happening more than -- at least twice a day, if not more than that depending on the situation. So, I -- I couldn’t be predictive.

Q: And I asked in part because if the flow of forces is -- is diminishing then you can start reconfiguring those outbound flights to...

MR. KIRBY: That's right.

Q: ...carry out more people if indeed that's a limiting factor. If it's not a limiting factor...

MR. KIRBY: Yes.

Q: ...it's more at the gate so not enough people qualify of getting in.

MR. KIRBY: Yes.

Q: I mean, if you're -- obviously, these planes are not leaving at full capacity of what they could take. If you're, you know, 2,000 people a day and 20 flights, you know, you're a third capacity.

MR. KIRBY: Yes, look, yesterday there were additional forces flowing in and -- and some equipment. We are seeing that taper off significantly now. And as the general said earlier today, as we move forward here you'll -- there'll be -- there'll be less coming in and hopefully, more going out.

And the aircraft will be more and more configured for passengers instead of what they have been largely going in the last couple of days, passengers and equipment. We don't want to see any seats empty, Eric, but as I said earlier today, there's a lot -- there's lots of factors that -- that -- that get you at throughput and the aircraft availability isn't a limiting factor but there are, of course, other limiting factors, not all of which we control.

And, so, again, we'll have, you know, an update for you in the morning. We'll -- we'll -- we'll see how we do overnight but -- but your essential math is and physics is right, Eric. We are -- we are -- we're not flowing in more equipment, that has stopped.

But over the last 24-hours, there was a flow in of some additional personnel and they're coming in smaller numbers now as you might expect. And so the focus on aircraft now will be much more about capacity out and we’ll -- we'll just have to see how well we can work that throughput.

Understanding that, again, we don't -- we can't control every piece of the movement of people and that that's going to change from -- probably change from day-to-day. Yes, Oren.

Q: Can you give us an update, there were 1,000 joint airmen and soldiers who were supposed to put a cutter to help with -- with essentially the processing of visas. Are they part of who's gone into Kabul to help with that now? Or are they still in cutter and...

MR. KIRBY: My understanding is they're -- they're -- they're still there. They're -- they're -- they were, yes, they were there. They were mostly medical, some electrical engineers, military police. My understanding is that they are still there and they have not -- they have not moved out.

Q: In Qatar? 

MR. KIRBY: Yes, in Qatar. 

Q: And at the actual gates is it -- is it troops who are doing the processing or is it State has come to the gates that has -- the troops have secured to do the processing?

MR. KIRBY: Hang on just a second I want to take a note on your last question just to make sure that I'm right about that. OK on the processing, it's a team effort. That -- and that's why the State Department flew in with Ambassador Bass some additional consular officers and -- to augment the ones that were already on the ground to help with the processing at the gates.

And the -- the Marines and soldiers that are with them are -- are also helping them process. So, it's a -- it's very much a team effort.

Q: At the end of the day how do you -- how do you measure success of this? Is it we've got all the Americans? We've gotten out all the Americans and Afghan SIVs? Or we got everyone who wants to get out? What is success here?

MR. KIRBY: Success is moving as many people out of Afghanistan who want to go and who we can get to go as fast as possible. That's -- that's going to be success. Yes.

Q: Hey, John. Can you give us an update on after these like the 2,000 in the last 24 hours after they’re were flown to a third country site, for now, the processing and how long is it before they're -- they're moving on to the U.S. at this point?

And then secondly, given that we're 13 days out from the 31st is the secretary developing options or plans to present to the president as to how the military could continue operating in Afghanistan after the 31st?

MR. KIRBY: So right now we're very focused on the mission at hand, which is to get this done by the 31st. And I know of no alternative concepts of operations that have been presented to the president for decision at this point. We're focused on doing as much as we can, as fast as we can. And trying to get this accomplished by the end of the month. If that changes -- if in coming days there needs to be a reconsideration of that, the Pentagon and military leadership will be a part of that discussion, but that's what we're focused on right now. 

And as for your first question, I don't know exactly what the processing time is, that's -- I can try to find out for you, but I would suspect that it varies by flow of aircraft and by case load, but I just don't know. I don't -- my understanding is it's not very long, they're not staying at the weigh stations for very long before they're able to come back home. 

Q: At this point are they still all going to Fort Lee, or is Fort Bliss now going to be one of the through points? 

MR. KIRBY: So, in many cases the SIVs that are coming in -- and again, I would really -- I don't want to speak too much about this process, because it doesn't belong to us. But in many cases, as I've seen in the last few days very few are going to Fort Lee, that they are far enough along in the process and State has done enough of the work that they're actually being met at Dulles by nongovernmental organizations and helping -- and getting them relocated within the United States without having to go to Fort Lee. 

There's a small number at Fort Lee right now. I don't have the -- Fort Bliss and Fort McCoy are prepared to receive now, if they need to, about -- right now they're prepared for about a couple of thousand per base, and that capacity will build out over time, obviously. 

And we've talked about this, that ideally between these three bases we want to be able to have the capacity, the capacity, of up to 22,000 individuals. That doesn't mean that we'll have to reach that. 

As I said, right now many of them are not even going through Fort Lee. But we want to be able to have the capacity for those that are not far enough along in the SIV process who need extra processing time, but we're still working to build out the capacity at the other two bases. 

Yes?

Let me go to the phones here. Tony Capaccio. 

Q: Hi, Jim. Two quick questions. Yesterday Milley said that this is going to be the second largest NEO operation ever conducted by the U.S., what was the first? 

MR. KIRBY: Yes ... 

Q: It was a volcano - Mount (Inaudible), or something? 

MR. KIRBY: I don't know, I'll find out for you. 

Q: Size and scope. OK, second question, what are the sortie generation assumptions for getting 5,000 and 9,000 people out per day. C-17s as you know, carry about 110 paratroopers. Obviously there's supplementing, they can put more on there. You want to avoid the horrible situation for Monday with the 800 people on a C-17. What are the assumptions for sorties, and humanely putting a number of people on those aircraft? 

MR. KIRBY: So, Tony, where that maximum capacity -- and I want to stress that it's capacity could come from is if you fully outfit a C-17 just for passengers, you can get 300 onboard. And if you can fly -- you know, 20 to 40 sorties per day, you can get to that high a number. And that was sort of the planning assumptions that went into this. 

And that doesn't mean that we're going to fly that many sorties per day, and it doesn't mean that we'll be able to fill that many seats per day. Again, there's many points along the process that go to throughput -- to how many can you get out per day? What we want to make sure is that airlift isn't a limiting factor. And as you and I speak now, it is not, and it is our intention to not let it become a limiting factor, understanding that there are other things. 

So, I know we're fixated on this 5,000 to 7,000 capacity number. I think we ought to separate that from something, say 5,000 to 9,000 as a goal on any given day. The goal, to Oren’s question, is really as many as we can, as fast as we can. And everyday we'll update you as -- how we're doing on that. 

But this number 5,000 to 9,000, it really -- it just gets to capacity. How many can you put on a C-17 that is fitted just for passengers? And how many C-17 sorties can you fly in a given day if the weather is great, and the airfield maintains its security and there's no other issues? That's where that comes from. 

Gordon. 

Q: We understand the capacity, capacity, capacity issue on this side, but can you help us where the difference between the capacity as you guys see it that the State Department can provide currently? I know they’re ramping up and what you guys can provide currently -- because I still don't have a -- it seemed like a big difference between what they're able to do, you guys use the word throughput and what they'll be able to do and what you guys are able to do. 

MR. KIRBY: I'm not really sure I understand the question. 

Q: Between what they can do to provide people for you guys to fly out and what you guys are able to do. So you guys have this big capacity, but we still don't -- it seems like State is having trouble providing processed people to fly out. And they're still ramping up their capability. But what’s still, I think some of us is struggling with is what's the difference between those two capabilities from the State Department and DoD? 

MR. KIRBY: It's not -- it's not one versus the other, Gordon. I mean, as I said earlier this truly is a team effort, and we have troops at these gates with consular officers to help them with the processing and it's going to change everyday. 

Obviously, at some point you want to see the numbers go down because you're pushing many more people through. But it's going to change everyday, and our goal would be able to move as many thousands as we can on any given day. And that's what we're focused on. 

So, I would ask you not to look at this as State Department capacity versus DoD capacity, it's United States capacity -- it truly is a team effort, and we're working hand-in-glove with the State Department to try to help move as many people through those gates as possible, and get them on to -- on to planes. And again, we'll -- we had a -- we got 2,000 out over the last 24 hours. And we'd sure like to see that number go north. 

Q: OK, and my second question is off of Tara’s as a follow up -- so the three sites in the U.S. that you've identified, obviously Fort Lee, Fort McCoy or whatever it is, and Bliss, but what about the overseas bases and the need for capacity for those places? Others have reported about Qatar and Kuwait, is that -- is there still a demand signal for those countries and bases in those countries to take a lot of people? 

MR. KIRBY: We are still working with nations in Europe and in the region to help us with the outflow. Certainly as -- at the very least, as intermediate staging bases or -- or way stations for either further processing and determination about final destination. But there are nations in the region and across Europe that we are -- are still talking to. 

I don't have any announcements to make. There are regional way stations that we're taking advantage of right now. 

Yes.

Q: Following up my question this morning on other countries using the airport since the U.S. controls it, do you have any information on -- on how many other countries have flown people out and are waiting to? And what kind of -- by the way, what kind of commercial flights are getting in? You said there are a few. 

MR. KIRBY: Right. There are. I don't -- I couldn't give you a list of all nations that are flying out. Are you talking about...

Q: Yes. 

MR. KIRBY: ... other nations' military flights or other nations' commercial flights? 

Q: I mean, we're not the only ones evacuating, so I was thinking...

MR. KIRBY: Of course not. 

Q: ... if we're running this many flights, have there -- are there actually twice as many flights leaving the airport every day, accounting -- which, are other countries doing this kind of -- the same kind of thing? And the U.S. must -- if the U.S. is manning the gates, it must be also opening the gates for those people to get in. 

MR. KIRBY: Other nations are...

Q: Is there any information you gave us on this?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have a -- I don't have a list of -- I'm not going to be able to answer your question. But, yes, other nations are flying in and out of the airport. Commercial airlines still have the ability to -- to use the airport and they -- they are obviously moving to get their people out as well. And we have -- and we have offered to help on U.S. military aircraft. I don't have a breakdown on that for you. 

Q: Can we get that info? 

MR. KIRBY: I will ask but I'm not going to assure you that that -- that that information exists. I just don't know. So we'll take that as a question and see if we can help with that. 

Q: And a follow-up, completely off this subject, is, at least when we came in here, there's a guy sitting outside the Capitol with a bomb -- a bomb in his truck. And as...

(CROSSTALK)

Q: I'm sorry? 

Q: He’s just been arrested. 

Q: There was some cryptic remarks that suggested he might have some kind of military link -- Ray Roseberry. Has the police been in contact with you at all, or the FBI or do you have any information on him? 

MR. KIRBY: No. I'm not aware of any request for additional information about the individual here to the department. And I'm not aware of any outreach by law enforcement in this particular incident. 

Q: And aware of whether he has a military record? 

MR. KIRBY: I have no idea. 

Jeff. 

Q: I understand that right now there is a delicate balance going on with the Taliban and an attempt to persuade them to let people through these checkpoints. Does the Defense Department have any options if diplomacy fails? 

MR. KIRBY: Jeff, as you know, the Pentagon prides itself on providing options, options that we feel can be achieved, and options that risks can be appropriately mitigated. I am not going to speculate about anything moving forward. I can just, again, reassure you -- or assure you that the mission assigned is about safety and security at the airport and operations -- air operations at the airport. That is what we are trying to manage so that we can help move as many people out as possible. 

I'll take out one more here. Sam LaGrone, USNI. 

Q: Hey, John, I've got two real quick. Number one, what is the name of the NEO operation? I understand the SIV has this particular designation, what are you calling the NEO, Operation what? 

MR. KIRBY: I don't believe it has a name, Sam. 

Q: OK. My second question is the Brits, the Spanish, the Canadians, the French, looks like the Finns, all have separate individual operations that are going on in Afghanistan right now and that require, you know, some coordination with the Taliban either to get outside the wire. Are you all talking to the Taliban individually, collectively? I mean, this seems like a real, you know, opportunity for a coalition effort for the intake of folks. How is that working out? 

MR. KIRBY: I can't speak for other nations and the communication they're having with the Taliban. What I can say, again, is that Admiral Vasely, as the commander of U.S. Forces Forward in Afghanistan, is having direct communication with -- with his designated Taliban representative outside the airport. Those conversations are happening usually several times a day to effect as smooth as possible movement through the checkpoints as possible. 

I know of no effort to -- to combine these conversations -- these conversations with respect to some sort of coalition effort. It wouldn't surprise you that -- that, just like us, other nations are equally working hard to get their -- their fellow citizens and the Afghans, who they believe they have a responsibility to, to get them -- to get them out to and get them out safely. 

OK. Got to go. Yes, last one. 

Q: Follow-up on that. So you are talking about, you know, speaking with other nations on basing on these way points to get people out. The list of countries that were just stated on other people getting, you know, their people out, has there been any conversation or consideration that this should be coordinated through NATO? Aside from the Finns, all those countries were NATO countries. 

MR. KIRBY: I'm not aware of those kinds of discussions. I don't have anything to -- to speak on that right now. 

Thanks, everybody.