Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby and Army Major General William "Hank" Taylor Hold a Press Briefing

Aug. 30, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby and Army Major General William "Hank" Taylor Hold A Press Briefing

MAJOR GENERAL WILLIAM TAYLOR:  Good morning.

U.S. military operations in Afghanistan continue, with our primary focus on the safety and security of the troops who remain in Kabul.

On Sunday, U.S. military forces conducted an unmanned over-the-horizon air strike on a vehicle known to be an imminent ISIS-K threat.  This self-defense strike successfully hit the target near Kabul airport.  Significant secondary explosions from the targeted vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material.  We are aware of reports of civilian casualties, and we take these reports very seriously, and we are continuing to assess the situation.

Separately, at approximately 11:00 P.M. Eastern time last night, as many as five rockets were fired at the Kabul airport.  U.S. military forces successfully employed our force protection measures to thwart that attack.  U.S. forces retain the inherent right of self-defense, and are authorized to meet threats with a swift and forceful response.  Force protection is paramount in this phase of the operation.

Over the weekend and into today, evacuation operations continued.  Yesterday, 26 U.S. military aircraft, all C-17s, departed with approximately 1,200 evacuees.  In total, there were 28 flights out of Kabul airport in the last 24 hours, which included the remaining coalition departures.

As of today, more than 122,000, including 5,400 Americans, have been evacuated from Afghanistan.  U.S. military troops have shown tremendous bravery and compassion as they put themselves in harm's way to evacuate as many American citizens and Afghans as possible during this operation.

That work by U.S. service members continues across the globe at a number of intermediate staging bases and DOD installations.  In CENTCOM, more than 27,000 passengers await follow-on movement from six active locations.  In EUCOM, three active locations currently have more than 22,000 passengers, and today, 17 flights will transport about 3,700 passengers to both Dulles International Airport, with approximately 11 flights, and Philadelphia International Airport, with six flights.

In NORTHCOM, there are nearly 13,000 passengers that remain at five different U.S. installations.  These numbers are snapshot in time, and movement of personnel is very fluid.  We do not expect these passenger totals to match the total number of evacuees from Afghanistan, nor will they match the total Afghans arriving to the United States.

The mission of the evacuation operation was to help as many people as possible leave Afghanistan.  Some of these evacuees include -- included American citizens, third-country nationals or Afghans whose credentials permitted them to otherwise depart without processing at a military installation.  Military, civilian and contract personnel continue to work closely with both government and nongovernmental agencies to meet requirements and provide additional capabilities for families as they continue their transition.

While operations in Afghanistan will conclude soon, the DOD effort to support the interagency is ongoing.

Additionally, the Department of Defense continues to support humanitarian relief operations in response to national disasters here closer to home.  In Haiti, the U.S. military assets have flown 560 sorties, providing rapid logistical and airlift support, including delivery of more than 348,000 pounds of aid.

On the Gulf Coast with Hurricane Ida, NORTHCOM, as of this morning, in coordination with FEMA and our National Guard, has activated more than 5,200 personnel in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Alabama in response to the hurricane.  They bring a variety of assets, including high water vehicles, rotary lift, and other transportation capability to support recovery efforts.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is operational in New Orleans and is assessing the storm's impact.  DOD stands ready to assist as requested by FEMA.

Thank you.

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY:  Okay.  I don't have anything to add, so we will go to questions, Lita.

Q:  General, one quick follow-up and then a question.  The CRAMs, did they strike and hit all of the five rockets or did some land in areas where there are just no casualties?

GEN. TAYLOR:  So, we assessed -- the reporting from last night's rocket attack, we assessed that five rockets were in the air and went.  Three landed off the airfield, were no effect.  And CRAM was able to affect and thwart the attack of one, and the other rocket that landed with no effect to the mission or any danger to our personnel.

Q:  And then secondly, on evacuees, are -- does the U.S. and the U.S. military assess that the number of Americans still in the country are only the ones that no longer want to leave?  Are those who want to leave, are they largely out now?  And I understand that the evacuation of Afghans is largely complete also.  So are you now solely concentrating on just getting U.S. troops out and equipment?

GEN. TAYLOR:  So just to come back, total, you know, 122,000 were evacuated, approximately 5,400 Americans.  We continue to have the capability to evacuate and fly out those until the very end.  But as you talk about, active piece, we are continuing to work with Department of State on that and continue evacuation and military operations.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  I'd refer you to the State Department on the numbers of Americans that are still in contact with, that is something for them to speak to.

Tara?

Q:  Could you both speak to the continuing rocket threat to the final planes that are leaving and the role of the CRAM is playing?  Will the CRAM be left behind or is -- I mean, since it's so vital to protecting the planes as they're leaving, what will happen to the CRAMs after it goes?

MR. KIRBY:  We certainly assess, as the general said, that there is still an active threat in various ways that we have to be prepared for.  And what I will tell you without getting into specific systems and their availability, which I think you can understand why we wouldn't, we continue to have and will maintain the capability to protect ourselves and defend ourselves as we continue to complete the retrograde.  And I think that's probably the best place to put it. Jen?

Q:  Just one follow-up, please, if I may.

A number of us have gotten reports from either American citizens or vulnerable Afghans that are still on the ground and can't get through the gates anymore.  They got -- getting notices that the evacuation is over.  What happens next for those that are left behind?  Will there be any sort of military operation to help get them out of the country?

MR. KIRBY:  I think you heard Secretary Blinken talk about this, that for -- for Americans and -- and other individuals that -- that want to be able to leave Afghanistan after our withdrawal is complete, that the State Department is going to continue to work across many different levers to facilitate that transportation.  I -- and as I say -- I say -- as I said earlier, right now, we do not anticipate a military role in that effort.  Jen?

Q:  John, General Taylor, you just said that one rocket landed with no effect to the mission.  You mean it landed inside the airport perimeter but it did not affect the mission?

MR. KIRBY:  It landed inside the perimeter and -- and had no effect whatsoever.

Q:  And these ISIS-K fighters or planners that you have targeted with drone strikes in the last few days, are any of them -- were they released from the Bagram prison or from Pul-e-Charkhi prison?  Were they known combatants who were inside those prisons?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't think we have that information.

Q:  And lastly, if 5,800 Americans were left in Afghanistan when you pulled out of Bagram at the end of July, why did the U.S. military not begin evacuations of Americans before pulling out of the country?

MR. KIRBY:  Jen, we've talked about this quite some -- quite some time ago and I'm happy to revisit it.  We were already baked into the retrograde plan way back in the spring with the possibility for non-combatant evacuations and -- and helping people get out.

And we were in constant conversations with the Ghani government, as well as our colleagues across the interagency about what that would look like and -- and -- and when would be the right time to do that.  And in anticipation of it, well before the provincial capitals started toppling there towards the middle of August, Secretary Austin pre-positioned forces closer into the region, in -- to the degree of taking a -- an entire Marine battalion off of the USS Iwo Jima and moving them in -- short of Kuwait so that they would be ready.

So this was something that we had been planning for and preparing for.  The timing of these things is always very delicate, as you might -- as you might imagine.

Q:  But you were essentially stopped by the State Department from beginning those evacuations?

MR. KIRBY:  I -- I -- I wouldn't say that and I don't think it's important right now to get into internal deliberations.  We were obviously still in close contact with the Ghani government, which was still -- you know, he was still the president of -- of -- of the country, and you -- you know, you -- you have to have -- you have to be able to have those conversations too because our expectation was that the Ghani government would stay in place.  Nobody could've imagined how quickly that government would've literally just dissipated almost overnight.  There was simply no way to predict that.

Idrees?

Q:  Can I ask a couple of questions on -- on -- on the gates?  Are any of the gates still open and are any of the gates under Taliban control at this time?

MR. KIRBY:  I think it's -- right now, as we get into the -- the -- the -- this has always been a dangerous operation but we're in a particularly dangerous time right now, Idrees.  I think you can understand that we're not going to be detailing the status of any particular gate right now.

As the general said, we still have the ability and the capability to conduct evacuation operations even while we are completing and working to complete the retrograde of U.S. forces.

Q:  A quick follow up -- you've now had two incidents, one on Thursday and one on Sunday, where there may have been civilian casualties or reports of it.  Beyond investigating it, do you have any indications that those reports may be accurate?

MR. KIRBY:  We are in -- not in a position to dispute it right now, Idrees, and as the general said, we're assessing and we're investigating.  Look, make no mistake, no military on the face of the Earth works harder to avoid civilian casualties than the United States military and nobody wants to see innocent life taken.  We take it very, very seriously.

And -- and when we know that we have caused innocent life to be lost in the conduct of our operations, we're transparent about it.  We're investigating this.  I'm not going to get ahead of it but if we have some, you know, verifiable information that we did, in fact, take innocent life here, then -- then we will -- we'll be transparent about that too.

Nobody wants to see that happen.  But you know what else we didn't want to see happen?  We didn't want to see happen what we believe to be a very real, a very specific and a very imminent threat to the Hamid Karzai International Airport and to our troops operating at that airport, as well as civilians around it and in it, and that was another thing that we were very, very concerned about.

Over here. David?

Q:  The president had said that the likelihood of an attack within the next 24 to 36 hours was highly likely.  He'd been told that by his military commanders.  Then after that, there was the -- the strike on this -- this vehicle.

After that strike, is the -- is it -- is another attack still considered highly likely?

MR. KIRBY:  We are operating under the assumption that we need to be prepared for future potential threats.  And as the general detailed for you in his opening statement, there was, in fact, after we took this airstrike against this vehicle, there were rocket attacks -- indirect rocket attacks on the airport.  So the threat stream is still real, it's still active, and in many cases, it's still specific and we're taking it very seriously and we will right up until the end.

Q:  You didn't specifically answer the question about whether the Taliban -- you said you weren't going to talk about it, who was at what gate, but are the Taliban on the airport?

MR. KIRBY:  Not -- not to my knowledge they aren't, no.

Yeah?

Q:  Thank you.  I have a -- a few today, sorry.  You mentioned 122,000 have been evacuated.  How many of those are SIVs and their families?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't have a good breakdown of how many in the 122,000 are SIVs and their families.  That's really a better question for the State Department.  We know that roughly 5,400 of the 122,000 are American citizens, and -- and the -- the vast majority, of course, are Afghan, and I just don't have a breakdown of that.

Q:  Well, our reporting is saying that they're about 7,000 of the 88,000.  So that leave -- leaves more than 80,000 SIVs and their family members left behind.  Does the Pentagon see that as a success, leaving 80,000 people, SIVs who worked alongside our troops, behind?

MR. KIRBY:  Carla, I can't verify that number that -- the math you just gave me and I can't tell you what the breakdown is right now between the -- the -- the more than 100 and what, 12,000, maybe more, Afghans that we were able to evacuate in the course of less than a couple of weeks?  I can't give you the breakdown right now, I just -- I honestly can't.

And what I will tell you is that obviously we wanted to get as many people out as -- as we could, and in the course of a very short order of time, 122,000 -- the largest airlift that the U.S. military has conducted, got 122,000 people to safety.

Now, there will be a time when this is complete that the State Department can do the math and -- and -- and figure this out but I -- I think we're all focused right now on continuing the mission that the general described us doing and making sure that right up until the end, that we can get people out safely, including evacuees.

Q:  And then, secondly, we have sources that say Marines guarding the airport allowed relatives and extended family members of Kabul embassy local staff despite having -- not having documentation, but meanwhile spouses and children of Afghans who hold American citizenship and legal permanent residence status were turned away in some cases.

Have you heard this as well?  And can you confirm those reports?

MR. KIRBY:  I have not heard those reports, and I cannot verify them.

I will tell you that, without speaking to these reports, the Marines and the soldiers that have for the last couple of weeks been helping consular officers man these gates and help process people in have been -- did heroic work.  And they had to make decisions in real time about trying to help people get out.

And the numbers speak for themselves.  122,000-plus is -- that is -- that is significant.  And a lot of live were saved and a lot of lives are now in a better place, and they're going to have opportunities they couldn't've had before thanks to the work that these troops did, in concert with their State Department colleagues, at these very dangerous gates.

Q:  And one more if I may on -- not on Afghanistan.

Beijing has come out with a new South China Sea policy, which forces people to self-identify while approaching their self-claimed maritime territory.  This policy reportedly goes into effect on Wednesday.  Does DOD plan on following that policy?

MR. KIRBY:  I haven't seen this report, Carla, so I'm not going to take it from the podium right now.  What I will do is take the question back and we'll try to get you a better answer.  But you're hitting me up with a statement from the Chinese that I have not seen, and I'm not going to speculate at this time.

Nazira?

Q:  Thank you, John.

There is a question that many Afghan asked me to -- want me to ask you.  They said why President Biden not warning the Taliban that if any of U.S. citizens or Afghan allies are hurt, are killed, or after their departure from Afghanistan their leadership will be targeted just like ISIS was targeted recently?

MR. KIRBY:  Nazira, I -- thanks for the question.

I -- I think the president has been very clear that -- what our expectations are once this retrograde, is complete with respect to the safety and security of American citizens.  I mean, I think we've been very clear about that.  And -- and as you heard Secretary Blinken say, we're going to continue to pursue a variety of means to help those Americans who want to get out after we are gone get out.

Yeah, Tom?

Q:  You talked about flights heading to Dulles and Philly.  Can you give us a sense of how many people are on those flights and the breakdown of Afghans and U.S.?

GEN. TAYLOR:  I can't give you the -- you know, by manifest, you know?

So what we think is of today's 17 flights, 3,700, the majority of those are Afghans.

Now, as a priority at these lily pads that are done -- or immediately to get the American citizens there first and then, you know, other green card holders and those piece.  But the majority of those flights today, of those 17, are -- are Afghans.

Q:  So I understand that congressional people are being briefed that you're starting to destroy munitions as well as equipment.  Can you give us a sense of that effort?

GEN. TAYLOR:  At -- at Kabul?

Yeah.  You know, what I -- what I'd go back to is this:  You know, commanders on the ground retain that authority and the capability to remove or destroy equipment and weapons to ensure that those don't fall into the hands of anybody else.

Q:  Well, can we -- are we going to get an accounting of what has been destroyed, let's say Black Hawks or other equipment?

MR. KIRBY:  I think when the time is right we'll be able to -- to try to help better flesh that out.  Time's not right for that right now, Tom.

Barb?

Q:  Two quick questions, if I may.

On the strike against the vehicle, do you -- you -- the -- the Central Command talked about secondary explosions, I think, and that.  But do you actually have visual evidence that there were secondary explosions?  Are you convinced that there were?  Because that seems to be one of the potential contributing factors to civilian casualties.  So do you -- are you -- are you certain there were secondary explosions?

MR. KIRBY:  Yes.

Q:  Can you -- I just have a follow-up on a different part of this.  Can you say how you're sure?

MR. KIRBY:  No.

Q:  My other question, then, is this:  As we inevitably come down to the final hours, what advice or thoughts for American passport holders or green card holders who might be trying to get to the airport and get through, is there still time for them?

MR. KIRBY:  There is still time, and the State Department is in touch, we know, with -- with additional American citizens.  Again, given the tense security environment that we're dealing with, I think I'm just -- I -- I think it'd be better to just not talk about it much more than that, but -- but they are in -- they are in contact.

Courtney?

Q:  Do you mean by the -- there's still time, that flights will continue tomorrow on the 31st (inaudible) --

MR. KIRBY:  I'm not going to get ahead of the actual operational schedule, Courtney.  I'm not going to do that.

Q:  And -- and then can you -- a little bit more on the -- the continuing strike from ISIS-K.  After the U.S. is completely out on the 31st, will you coordinate with the Taliban or get them notice that you plan to conduct more strikes against ISIS?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't think it's useful to get into hypothetical operations for future operations one way or the other.  The only thing I would tell you is that the president has made it very clear that we will maintain robust over-the-horizon counterterrorism capability, the kinds of capabilities that you've seen us use in just the last 24/36 hours, and -- and we'll have the ability to react in ways that are in keeping with our national security interests and help prevent attacks on the homeland.  We still have that capability.  We will use that capability.

Q:  But what's not hypothetical is the fact that the U.S. military has been coordinating with the Taliban on the ground for the last two weeks or so.  So -- and so, to ask if they -- you were going to continue coordinating with them -- in this case, against ISIS-K -- isn't hypothetical.  Will you continue to coordinate with the Taliban after August 31st?

MR. KIRBY:  I -- I beg to differ.  I actually think your question is entirely hypothetical about something that is entirely different than what we've been coordinating with the Taliban on over the last two weeks, which has been to help -- help us get as many people onto that airport as possible.

I do appreciate the sense of the question.  I am not trying to mock it.  It's just that I don't think it's helpful for us to talk about what over-the-horizon counterterrorism capability is going to look like going forward, and how we're going to execute it.

Suffice it to say, we have the capability.  We've demonstrated that over just the last couple of days in strikes that were not coordinated with the Taliban, and we have that ability to go forward.

Q:  And then does the U.S. -- does the Pentagon or CENTCOM or whomever it would be -- to have the authority to continue to -- to conduct strikes against ISIS-K after August 31st, or do those decisions have to go to the president on a case-by-case basis?

MR. KIRBY:  The commander -- the commander on the ground has the authorities he needs right now.  I'm not going to talk about authorities going forward.  I will say this, not -- in terms of, I know what you're asking, you know, specific approval authority for each and every strike.  I -- I won't talk about policy decisions going forward, except to say that the entire interagency, certainly the entire military chain of command understands the -- the existence of this threat and the possibility of this threat to continue to exist over time, and we have the capability to deal with it.

Luis?

Q:  In talking to, following up on these contacts with the Taliban, have there been contacts with the Taliban about the U.S. withdrawal that's going to be taking place right now and over the coming days to ensure that there are no misinterpretations of what's going on?

MR. KIRBY:  The short answer to your question is yes.  Without getting into detail, our commanders on the ground remain in communication with Taliban leaders around the air -- airfield to deconflict and to prevent miscalculations and misunderstandings, and so far, that communication has been effective.

Q:  And that applies to the withdrawal that's going on right now?

MR. KIRBY:  It does.

Nancy?

Q:  I'd like to ask you about -- or in the follow-up to Idrees' question.  In the initial readout from CENTCOM on the strike over the weekend on that car bomb and the -- and the suspects in it, the -- the U.S. said that initially -- the initial assessment was there were no civilian casualties.  On what basis did the U.S. make that assessment?

MR. KIRBY:  The initial statement said that we are assessing, and we have no indications at this time of civilian casualties, if I remember the statement exactly, and that was true when it was said.  We also put in there, or the CENTCOM put in there, that we are assessing, and -- and we continue to assess.

Q:  But -- but what I'm trying to understand, on what basis, and then over-horizon capability, are you making assessments on civilian casualties?  How is that being done?

MR. KIRBY:  Because, well, we're -- certainly, we're -- we're looking at a variety of -- of means of information, and -- and we're obviously collecting open-press reporting, and we're doing the best we can to try to understand the situation locally as -- as best we can, and -- and that would include discussions with the Taliban about -- about what they might be seeing.  So there's a variety of ways that we are trying to do this assessment.

Q:  And then can I get more clarity on why we can't know the names of the ISIS-K suspects that were hit on Thursday?  I -- I -- I'm having a hard time understanding.  They were described as high-profile planners, facilitators.

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah.

Q:  The president has said that we will hunt you down.  Why can't we know who the "you" is?

MR. KIRBY:  Well, there'll probably be a time when we can talk you about the -- the names.  That's not the time right now.  We are still dealing with, as we saw from last night's rocket attacks, very real, ongoing threats, and I think we're doing what we believe to be the prudent thing with respect to the release of information.  We're giving you as much as we can in as close to real time as we can, but we're not going to be able to give you everything.  And we talked about that a couple of days ago when -- when we talked about the retrograde beginning; that there was going to be a -- a -- a more judicious approach about information release.  So there -- there -- there will probably become a time when we can be more forthcoming.  Now is not that time.

Let me go to the phones here.  I haven't done this at all yet.  Alex Horton?  Okay, we'll come back to you, Alex.

Jeff Schogol?

Q:  Thanks.

I have a question, and it's difficult, but I hope you can entertain it.  According to Politico, the U.S. knew where the attack would -- or roughly where the attack would take place on Thursday, and when it would attack, or when it would take place.  Why were there U.S. troops at that gate at that time?

MR. KIRBY:  Jeff, what I can tell you is that we have been monitoring as close as we can intelligence that led us to believe that we are in a very dynamic, and in some cases, specific threat environment, number one.

Number two, as General McKenzie said, we're going to -- we're going to investigate.  We're going to get to the bottom of what happened last Thursday.  Thirteen precious lives were lost.  We're going to take that seriously, and we're going to -- and we're not going to investigate it in public.

Number three, I am absolutely not going to speak to a -- a -- a press story that was informed by the unlawful disclosure of classified information and sensitive deliberations here in the Pentagon.  Just not going to do it.

Yeah, in the back

Q:  John, given being conducted in a residential area, this strike -- drone strike or the collateral damage of this strike was almost a certainty.  So was that the only option you guys used?  Just a question for both of you:  Was there any other options to stop that bomb-laden vehicle?

MR. KIRBY:  I'll let the general -- I'll ask the general to provide context.  The only thing I would say is that we've used the word dynamic a lot.  And I know that sounds like Pentagon-speak.  And but that's really how you -- the best way to describe the threats we are facing, dynamic, moving, fluid, quick.  And because that's how ISIS-K operates.  And we have to try to be as quick and as nimble as they are.  And when you have what we believe to be an imminent threat, and we believed this to be an imminent threat, we took the action that we believed was the most necessary at the best opportunity to thwart that attack.

GEN. TAYLOR:  Commanders will always minimize collateral damage.  That is one of the key tenets of what we -- how we operate.  In this case, just like Mr. Kirby said, that this strike prevented a high profile attack against both, you know, coalition, U.S. forces, and other Afghan civilians.  And so as we looked at the information that we had during the time of the strike, we took all those measures in place.  And the decision was made to strike and thwart that attack.

Q:  And on the fired rockets, so the U.S. force protection measures engaged those rockets and then apparently they hit one of them or you didn't engage the other ones, you just wanted to engage that specific fourth one?

GEN. TAYLOR:  Yes, as we look at -- just going back, the force protection CRAM did work, it did engage, and had an effect on the one.  And then one did land in an area and it was not effective.

Q:  You didn’t, you didn’t intercepted that one, right?

GEN. TAYLOR:  That's correct.  We intercepted one.  And it was effective.  The CRAM was effective.

MR. KIRBY:  Terace?

Q:  Good morning, John.  I just wanted to clarify the numbers you stated earlier.  Of the 122,000, is the 5,400 a part of that number of Americans evacuated or is that since -- a separate number from the --

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  122,000-plus evacuated over the course of this operation going back to late July when we started moving SIV applicants back home.  And then when you add in, since then, yes, 5,400 is included in the 122,000.

Q:  Okay.

MR. KIRBY:  Wafaa?

Q:  Of course, I understand you can't give us an update on the number of troops on the ground.  But are you still confident that all the troops will be out by the deadline?  And also if you can clarify, when the deadline will come into effect, like, Kabul time, August -- it's a little bit confusing.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  No, no, it's a fair -- the answer to your first question is yes.  And the answer to your second question is, I'm not going to get into it.

Janne?

Q:  Thank you, John.

If the IS-K terrorists continues terrorism in Afghanistan even after the withdrawal of U.S. troops on the 31st, will the United States get involved with it in the War on Terror again?

MR. KIRBY:  Well, I think I would like to go back to what I said before to Courtney.  The president has made it clear that our combat mission, our -- the war we have been fighting in Afghanistan, that -- that's going to end and it's going to end very soon here.  But what's not going to end is our commitment, especially here at the Defense Department, to protect the American people from -- from threats and particularly from any terrorist threat that could emanate from Afghanistan again.

And as I said to -- to my -- the previous answer, you -- you can see in just the last 24, 36 hours that we do have an effective over-the-horizon counter-terrorism capability.  We've employed it now twice.  And that capability will -- will remain.

And obviously we're not going to detail what it looks like on any given day against any particular threat but we're going to maintain that capability to protect the American people from threats that could emanate from Afghanistan.

And it's also important to remember that the counter-terrorism threat isn't just in Afghanistan -- it -- it's in the Levant, it's in North Africa -- I mean -- and we -- and you guys have all seen that.  And we are going to still maintain the -- that ability to -- to thwart those threats as best we can.

And -- and -- and over-the-horizon is not something new to us, either.  I mean, we're -- we -- we've been doing it for a long time in -- in places outside Afghanistan.

Yeah, Abraham?

Q:  Thank you, John.

That over-the-horizon ability for strike and for ISR, is that still -- is that still coming from Gulf bases or are you making progress with regional partners for that over-the-horizon --

MR. KIRBY:  It comes from over-the-horizon, Abraham, and I'm not going to go into more detail on that.

Q:  -- being made with those negotiations?

MR. KIRBY:  We continue to have discussions with neighboring nations about -- about possibilities.  I don't have anything to announce today.

Alex, let me come back to you.  Are you there?

Q:  Yeah, can you hear me, John?

MR. KIRBY:  I got you.

Q:  Yeah, going back to the strike -- the -- the drone strike on the vehicle, you know, I want to revisit the -- the evidence you used.

You know, it seems like verification that it was a legitimate target, came from the secondary explosion, though an ordinance expert and trained EOD tech told me, you know, assessing the wire photos, publicly available photos of the scene show, you know, a -- a lack of soot on the walls, so, you know, relatively little amount of shrapnel.  There's a tree that was knocked down that -- with the foliage still intact.

So, you know, after viewing these things, you know, what is your -- do you still stand by, with a high degree of confidence, that there was a significant explosion and not something like a -- you know, a gas tank explosion or something like that that may misdirect the -- the evidence of a big secondary explosion?

GEN. TAYLOR:  No -- we know that, as I said earlier, there was a secondary explosion that assessed that what was there was going to be used in a high profile attack. I don't have details on the -- you know, the information that you're just saying there but, you know, our intelligence experts and the CENTCOM will continue to assess the post-strike activities.

MR. KIRBY: OK – a couple more.  In back there.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  -- and does the coordination with Taliban apply to the final phases of the withdrawal?  I mean, will they take over the airport before you leave?  How will you ensure the protection of your troops?  Will you depend on your capabilities?  How does -- the outcome would look like, the last to fly?

MR. KIRBY:  Well, there's a lot there.  As I said to Luis, we have been in communication with the Taliban about -- about these final days so that we can make sure that there's no miscalculation, no misunderstanding.

Our goal is to complete this retrograde and to wrap up evacuation operations as safely and as orderly as we can.  Obviously I'm not going to get into the details of either the conversations we're having or our processes and procedures.

As we have seen all too vividly in the last day, the -- the -- the threat remains high and it remains real.  So what I can assure you is that -- that General McKenzie and Admiral Vasely, General Donahue there on -- on the ground, they have worked out a very carefully coordinated method of -- of safely completing this retrograde, and that's about as far as I -- I think I can go.

As for the airport, the airport will remain operational through our final flights.  What it looks like after we are gone, I -- I would just point you to what the Secretary of State said, that the international community -- there's a couple of countries that have talked about being able to come up with an arrangement to -- to keep it operational for commercial air traffic, in coordination with the Taliban.  I'll let those countries speak for their efforts with the Taliban.  That would not be a U.S. military function, it would not be a U.S. military responsibility once we have completed the retrograde and -- and we are no longer there.

Just a couple more.  Yeah, Meghann?

Q:  The ratio of flights to people getting out has gotten pretty high.  Is that only indicative of fewer people coming onto the airport or is that also a mix of flights filling up with equipment and supplies heading out?

GEN. TAYLOR:  Yeah, like -- so we're not going to get into details of load plans.  But obviously we are reaching the end of our prescribed mission, so commanders are inflowing and outflowing those requirements needed to -- to complete the mission.

Q:  And are there still strike aircraft flying overhead, keeping out in case something's going on near the airport while everyone's getting on planes?

GEN. TAYLOR:  Assets, as we've talked about -- assets available, we're not going to get into the details of what's flying and what there is, but the commanders that are fulfilling this last part of this mission have all of the assets they need in the air and on the ground and where they're at to complete the mission safely.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  Non-combatant evacuation operations are dangerous, period.  The end of them, particularly one in that -- in -- in an environment that we can't consider -- clearly cannot consider permissive, are particularly dangerous.  And the -- the commanders on the ground have the resources they need to enact appropriate force protection.

Q:  So what is more dangerous now about saying there are F-18s and Reapers flying over than there was two weeks ago, when you --

MR. KIRBY:  -- it's not -- it's not a -- it's not -- it's not that we're -- it's not that we're not saying more specific because, for one reason or another, it's -- it's that we are in a particularly dangerous time now, Meghann -- and not that it hasn't always been dangerous but it is particularly dangerous now, and we're just not going to detail every aspect of our force protection measures in public while we still have troops in harm's way and we're still trying to get the people out of Afghanistan.  There will be a time to talk about all that, it's just not today.

Q:  One quick --

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah, Jen?

Q:  There's an American hostage still being held by the Taliban.  Has the Taliban agreed to release Mark Frerichs before the U.S. leaves?  Does the U.S. have any plans to leave without this American hostage?

MR. KIRBY:  We're -- without getting into specifics, Jen, I can tell you that that we -- we share the entire government's concerns over Mr. Frerichs and our strong desire to see him returned home to his family where he belongs, and there has been a concerted effort over many, many months to try to achieve that outcome.

And regardless of what we do over the next day or so, we will remain -- all of us will remain focused on -- on returning him safely to his family.  That's not going -- that's not going to change one way or the other.

Okay, listen, I'm going to wrap it up here.  I appreciate it.  Thanks very much, and we'll talk to you soon.

40:23