Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

April 16, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY:  All right, thanks, everybody, happy Friday to you. Just -- thank you so much.  What day is it today?

Q: The summer.

(Laughter.)

MR. KIRBY:  All right, just a couple things at the top, and I know you got lots of questions.

On Tuesday, I think you saw the Director of the Defense Health Agency issued a directive to all military treatment facilities to pause the use of Johnson & Johnson vaccine, in accordance with the FDA and CDC recommendations.

We briefed you last week that DOD intended to use the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to support our overseas personnel and their families.  This week, the vaccine distribution planners on our COVID task force developed a plan to reallocate doses of the Moderna vaccine to our overseas commands.

Each service will now direct a total of approximately 30,000 additional doses of Moderna throughout the month of May.  That's around roughly 10,000 per week, beginning May 10th, to overseas locations in European Command, Indo-Pacific Command and Central Command.  This will help keep the vaccination efforts right on pace to provide initial doses to over 70 percent of our overseas personnel and their families by the end of May.  So we are adjusting fire as appropriate to -- to make sure we continue to get that vaccine flow overseas.

Then one other thing -- I think you -- I -- actually, I don't know if this has been announced but also this week, the Dwight D. Eisenhower carrier strike group began dual carrier flight operations with the French Navy Charles de Gaulle carrier strike group in the Arabian Sea.  That started on the 13th.

Charles de Gaulle is currently assigned to U.S. Naval Forces Central Command as the commander, Task Force 50 -- I'm sorry, Coalition Task Force 50 -- leading, planning, and execution for strike operations.  This dual -- these dual carrier operations demonstrate our combined capability to operate together.

And it's not new.  The Ike and Charles de Gaulle actually have a history of operating together, including air support to Operation Inherent Resolve back in 2016, from the Mediterranean Sea, and then again last year, when they conducted maritime operations in the Red Sea.  So we're glad to see those two carriers and their sailors working together again in -- in support of a shared national interest in the region.

Lastly, I know that one of your colleagues, Marcus Weisgerber, is recovering right now from a -- a -- a health concern and I just wanted to express to all of you and certainly to him and Oriana, that we here at OSD Public Affairs, our -- our hearts and prayers, our -- our thoughts are with them and we're praying for a speedy recovery and we look forward to seeing him back at it and asking me tough questions again.

With that -- Lita?

Q:  Thank you, John.  So a couple of questions on Afghanistan.  The President has said that some troops will begin withdrawing by May 1st.  Can you give us at least some general assessment -- I know you're not going to go into details -- give us some general assessment as to whether that will be dozens, hundreds, or what you expect to -- the initial withdrawal to look like, since that's obviously meant as a signal to the Taliban that the drawdown is beginning?

Second, would you expect that over the next several months that we -- there will be an uptick in troop numbers in Afghanistan in order to do the logistics and the -- the security necessary to complete the -- the drawdown, considering the Taliban has said it would be -- that they have -- they will increase attacks if all troops are not out?  And how contentious do you expect this withdrawal to be?

MR. KIRBY:  I have to write these down.  I was going good until you asked the third one, and then I know I'm going to -- I'm going to forget it.

Q:  May 1st?

MR. KIRBY:  I'm writing -- I'm writing ...

(CROSSTALK)

... you're going to mess me up now, wait.

Q:  I'm trying to help you.

(Laughter.)

MR. KIRBY:  You're not being helpful.  On your -- on your first question, I don't think it will surprise you that I -- I just -- I can't -- I -- I don't have specific information now about initial units departing Afghanistan and when that might be.

There was, I think as you know already, because the -- under the previous administration, the -- the -- the agreement was to leave by May 1st.  So there had already been some preliminary drawdown plans done.  Those plans now have to be revised, given President Biden's direction to begin the -- the drawdown on May 1st, and -- and the -- the military leadership is working on that right now.  Further tasking, more specific tasking, will be coming from Secretary Austin very, very soon.

So we'll have a little bit better clarity as we get closer to the end of the month. I just don't have that right now but -- but -- but preliminary plans that had already been drawn up now are being revised to accommodate President Biden's direction.

You asked about additions.  We've done these transitions before.  You've seen that, particularly in Iraq.

Again, I can't speak with great specificity right now since the plans are still being worked. But it is not out of the realm of the possible that for a short period of time there will have to be some additionally -- additional enabling capabilities added to Afghanistan to, again, help affect a safe, orderly, and deliberately planned drawdown of everybody by the president's deadline here, by -- by -- by early September.

I don't -- I can't speak today with exactly that would look like, how many, when they would be going in.  But as we transitioned out of Iraq, of course, you know, you -- it's logical to assume that you may need some logistics help, maybe some engineering help.  You -- you may have to add some force protection capabilities -- again, temporary -- just to make sure that the drawdown goes in a safe, orderly, and effective way.

Again, we'll know more as we get closer.  But that would not be out of the realm of the possible.

And then you asked how contentious it will be.  We've made it very -- I -- I can't speak for the Taliban, obviously.  We've seen their threats and it would be imprudent for us not to take those threats seriously. It would also be imprudent for the Taliban to not take seriously what the president and what Secretary Austin both made clear, that any attack on our drawdown on our forces or our allies and partners as they drawdown will be met very forcefully.

Q:  And just as a follow-up, you brought up Iraq a couple of times. But as we all know, the withdrawal from Iraq, which many of us witnessed in December of 2011, was not done under these...

MR. KIRBY:  That's exactly right.

Q: ... circumstances.  So...

MR. KIRBY:  That's exactly right.

Q: ... doesn't this one look a lot different?

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, and I wasn't trying to -- I was only comparing it in terms of, when you transition out, you -- you -- you may need additional help.  You're right.  That help is going to be scoped and tailored to the situation.

This is not the same -- it's not the same country, not the same terrain, not the same distances.  It's a landlocked country and there is clearly the potential for resistance here -- opposition as we begin to drawdown.

So all of those things, Lita, have to be taken into consideration, which is why, again, I say, without specificity, it's not out of the realm of the possible that some temporary enabling functions may have to be introduced into the region to permit this to be as safe and as orderly as possible.  That would be right thing to do, the prudent thing to do. It would be irresponsible if we weren't thinking about that.

Q: (OFF-MIKE)

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, let me go to Tom and then I'll come back to you.  I've got to get on the phone too.

Q: Yes, John, if you could talk about the way ahead here, the -- Secretary Austin and Secretary Blinken talked about the U.S. will maintain a strong relationship with the Afghan government, the Afghan military.  So with U.S. and NATO forces leaving will the training effort come to an end, number one?

And number two is the secretary talked about supporting the Afghan Air Force Special Missions Wing.  That's all being done by contractors.  Do you expect contractors to remain...

MR. KIRBY:  Right.

Q: ... when all troops leave or -- or do you know yet?

MR. KIRBY:  So on the contractors we don't know exactly.  There are some preliminary plans.  And clearly the goal is to get all our personnel out and I suspect that contractors will be part of that.  But whether there'll still be a need for some contractor support, I just don't know.  We don't have that level of detail right now.  We're still working through that.

And I'm sorry, your first question was?

Q:  Will the training effort -- will that come to an end?

MR. KIRBY: The -- the -- the mission, Resolution Support Mission, will be ending and that includes the training.  The support that we will be offering the ANDSF going forward will be largely through a -- financial perspectives.

Q:  Well, I mean, how does that work?  Because, you know, right now the Afghan military can't maintain its own equipment, so they need contractors.  They can't do it on -- on their own.  So are you saying you'd just cut them a check and they find...

MR. KIRBY:  Tom, we're still -- we're still working out what the future bilateral security relationship's going to be with Afghanistan.  We're going to transition to a bilateral relationship, a military relationship that's more akin to the kinds of relationships we have with other countries.

It will not include a U.S. military footprint on the ground in Afghanistan, with the exception of what's going to be required to support the diplomatic mission there.  And all that's still being worked out.  So I can't speak with specificity today about what contract support the Afghan Security Forces are going to need going forward.

And -- and I would take some issue with your assumption that they can't take care of their stuff. I mean, they -- they have been -- I mean, you're talking about a force that's now grown to roughly 300,000 people.  They have their own air force and they are fighting the vast majority -- in fact, pretty much all the missions right now -- and, sort of, securing and defending their people.  And they're far more competent and capable now than they have ever been before.

So I -- I take issue and I would suspect the Afghans would take issue with the -- you know, with the allegation that they can't take care of their stuff. I mean, they -- they do have an air force and they are caring for it.

Do they need some contract support, or at least right now?  Yes, they do. But what that looks like in the forward -- that doesn't mean that it can't -- they can't still have contract support going forward.  It's just going to be maybe of a different character.  OK?

Ma'am?

Q: Thank you, John.  Secretary of Defense said on Wednesday that they keep some anti-terrorism forces in the region.  Can you clear, please, that the -- where of the region -- which country?

MR. KIRBY:  What the secretary said was that we will maintain counterterrorism capabilities to continue to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a launching pad for terrorist attacks on our homeland.

And he also said that we have a vast range of capabilities available to us.  And we're not going to speak to the details of exactly how we're going to maintain those capabilities and utilize those capabilities, but there -- there are already in Central Command a terrific amount of capability at -- at the disposal of the United States.  And we'll examine this going forward.

OK, let me get on the phone here. Sylvie?

Q:  Hello?

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, I got you.

Q:  I have a question on Russia.  Russia has announced that it -- it's going to restrict the navigation of foreign military and offshore ships in some parts of the Black Sea.  So I wanted to know if you have a comment on that and if you can confirm that the U.S. Navy has canceled the deployment of two warships in the Black Sea this week.

MR. KIRBY:  Thanks, Sylvie.  We're aware that Russia has announced its intention to block foreign naval ships and state vessels in the Kerch Strait, the Sea of Azov, and parts of the Black Sea through October, citing what they say are Russian military exercises.

Russia has a history of taking aggressive actions against Ukrainian vessels and impeding international maritime transit in the Black Sea, particularly near the Kerch Strait. This would be just the latest example of its ongoing campaign to undermine and destabilize Ukraine.

We call on Russia to cease its harassment of vessels in the region and reverse its build up of forces along Ukraine's border and occupied Ukraine.  We reaffirm our unwavering support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, extending to its territorial waters.

And as for your other question, so, you know, we don't talk about operational -- specific operational movements, certainly we don't talk about maritime operational movements in and out of -- of specific chokepoints.  I would tell you that we have, and you've seen this yourself, we have routinely operated naval warships in the Black Sea, and that will continue.

Q:  But the Turks have been speaking about your plans to deploy this to Black Sea -- two ships in the Black Sea, so that's why they have been speaking about it perfectly.  That's why I wanted to have a...

MR. KIRBY:  No, it's a fair question and then we've seen those statements, but it's -- these are our naval assets to speak to and we simply don't talk about hypotheticals and we don't speculate about future operations.  We have, in the past, operated vessels, Navy vessels, in the Black Sea, and I suspect that that will continue going forward.  And when we can talk about that, we will, but I'm not going to speculate about these reports coming out of Turkey.  Yes, go ahead.

Q: Just a follow-up to Silvie, what's the current posture of the United States military in the Black Sea? Do you have any assets?

MR. KIRBY:  Well, I'm not aware of any U.S. Navy assets in the Black Sea right now.

Q:  And on -- on Afghanistan, how many contractors are we talking about?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have that figure for you today, I don't have that figure. I can take the question or we can see if we can get back to you.  Not all contractors in Afghanistan are contracted through DOD funds, but the ones that we can speak to, I'll try to get you a number on that.  Thank you.

Q:  So folks are putting together the draw down plan.  When is the deadline to get that to SECDEF so it can be reviewed and...

MR. KIRBY:  I -- I don't have a deadline specific for you.  As I said to Lita, I think that more specific direction will be coming from the SecDef very soon.  I just -- I don't want to get ahead of him and his directives to military leadership.  So I don't have a date certain for you.  Now, obviously, everybody understands the need to move with some alacrity here.

The drawdown has to start on -- on May 1, that's just a couple of weeks away.  I also would point you to the fact that there had already been some preliminary planning, retrograde planning, done already, so it's really now about refining those plans and adjusting them to the new timeline.

And as we can get more, we'll give you -- I also, thanks to your question, I just want to make sure that I -- I stress to you all that -- that -- and again to Lita's question, I mean, we have to take seriously the threats that the Taliban have made, which means that -- that there's going to be, and I think you would expect there's going to be, a limit to how much transparency we can offer about the eaches, about the details of the drawdown on a day-by-day basis because we want to make sure that nobody gets hurt and that this is done.

You know, the first word when you hear us talk about this is safely, and -- and the secretary takes that very seriously.  So we're going to be very mindful and very cautious about how much information we're releasing about this particular drawdown, and I think you guys would all understand that.  Let me go back...

Q:  Is There a possibility that he or Milley might brief us on any of those details ...

MR. KIRBY:  There's always that possibility, (Meghann.  There's always that possibility.  Let's see, Jeff from Task and Purpose.

Q:  Thank you.  The latest Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction Report found the Afghan Air Force has less than half of the maintainers it needs.  The Afghan military was completing about 20 percent of its maintenance work orders, and the Afghan police was completing about 12 percent of its maintenance work orders.

Does this describe a -- an effective fighting force that can survive without U.S. military assistance?

MR. KIRBY:  Jeff, the Afghan National Security Forces, as we've talked about, have been greatly improved over the -- the years.  Certainly, like any military force, they've got needs and they've got capability gaps and they have things that they know that they're going to -- to need to improve.  And as also, as the secretary said, we're going to continue to stand by them.

Though we may not have a footprint on the ground, it doesn't mean that we're walking away from our Afghan partners.  We'll continue to pay salaries, for instance.  As you said, we're going continue to support their Afghan Air Force.  So we're not walking away from -- from them or from our recognition that they still have improvements that they -- that they have to make, as many militaries around the world do.

Q:  Well, is the U.S. military prepared to evacuate the U.S. Embassy in Kabul should the Taliban become a threat to the Embassy?

MR. KIRBY:  Jeff -- Jeff, that's a terrific hypothetical that I'm not going to get into today.  We're going to, as you heard the president and the secretary say, we're -- as part of our analysis going forward, make sure that we -- that we're working in lockstep with the State Department to make sure that we can help protect and secure our diplomatic mission there.  What that looks like, I don't know right now.

We're still working our way through that, but I'm not going to get into hypotheticals about potential operations that may -- may occur in the future.  Our -- our goal here is to -- to make sure this transition is done safely and effectively and in an orderly fashion, and that we continue standby Afghan National Security forces and they continue to stand by their fellow citizens.

Jennifer?

Q:  John, have you seen any change in the force posture of the Russian forces on the border with Ukraine since the sanctions were announced?

MR. KIRBY:  I won't get into intelligence assessment.  Again, I think you can understand that.  What I will say is we continue to watch this buildup very, very closely.  It is still of serious concern to us about the number of forces they have along the border with Ukraine and in occupied Crimea, which is -- they're still there.

Again, I won't talk about specific intelligence assessments, but it is of serious concern.  And I would just reiterate what we've been saying, and that's that we call on Russia to be more transparent about what they're doing, why they're doing it, and to not further aggravate what is already a very tense situation.

It was clear to the secretary in Brussels how uniformly our NATO allies, all other 29 of them, how uniformly they all felt about the same level of concern about what's going on and -- and concern about the lack of transparency from Russia.

Q:  And lastly, do you -- does the Pentagon now view the reports and the unverified intelligence about Russia paying bounties to the Taliban to attack U.S. soldiers to be a false report or can you -- where do you stand on that?

MR. KIRBY:  We -- you saw the administration mention this yesterday, that this exact issue -- it is -- it is reporting that is still of concern, and it -- and again, while the intelligence assessment, you know, isn't -- they're not a hundred percent sure of all the details, it's a serious enough charge that we continue to be concerned about that and we can we call again on Moscow to make it clear what involvement they might have had in this.

I mean, we have a sacred obligation to protect our men and women in harm's way as best we can.  And should it have been true, I mean, that's a pretty serious charge.  So we want more transparency out of Moscow on that as well.

Q:  Was there ever any evidence that U.S. troops were targeted as a result of Russian bounties?

MR. KIRBY:  I'm not prepared to speak to specific evidence linking attacks on our troops to potentially – potential bounties being paid, but it is a serious enough charge that we believe it needs to be explained.

Yes.

Q:  Thank you, John.  So, since the conditional approach has been dropped in making the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, and noting that many times the secretary and yourself said that there is full confidence in General McKenzie and the leaders in Afghanistan to be able to conduct like a drawdown whenever that decision was made, why not abide by the May 1st date according to the Doha agreement, noting that as well Taliban is making serious threats towards U.S. troops and foreign troops in Afghanistan?

MR. KIRBY:  The president made the decision to start the drawdown on May 1st, and to have all of our troops out by – by September 11th, or early September.  And that is the plan that were going on.  You heard the president's speech, the Doha agreement is perhaps not the kind of agreement he would have negotiated, but we are where we are now.

We wanted to have a thorough review of our Afghan policy before having any decision made.  And the president ran a very inclusive, deliberate decision-making process that led to him making this decision to withdraw.  And now we've got to execute it.  So it doesn't -- you know, it's not about why you didn't do it before, we were going through a review process to figure out where we wanted to go forward in Afghanistan.  The president has made his decision and now we're executing.

Q: And where will the troops -- will be going to?  Are you going to maintain -- where will the troops be going to?  Are you going to maintain some contingency in the area?  Do you have any...

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  Decisions about follow-on deployments for the troops that are in Afghanistan haven't been made yet.  Again, I think you're going to get -- there will be more specific guidance and direction coming from the secretary soon.  I'm not going to speculate about where it -- you know, where they go on a follow-on capacity.  I would suspect that most if not all will be returning to stateside bases.  We have a robust capability in the Central Command area of operations as it is.

But, again, I won't speculate. We need to get the drawdown plan written up and approved by the secretary and then executed.

Q: And if I may ask a pointed question, the global threat assessment is basically proceeding some military advances by Taliban when the U.S. ceases military support to the Afghan security forces.  Did that -- that assessment appears to be basically true, materialize. What type of assistance is the U.S. willing to provide to the Afghan security forces?

MR. KIRBY:  I'm not aware of this assessment that you're citing.  So I can't speak to that.  The president and the secretary both made clear that -- that it's still in our national security interest that terrorist attacks on the homeland don't emanate from Afghanistan, and that not be a safe haven for groups like al Qaeda and another terrorist group that would threaten the homeland.  And they are serious about that objective.

And as the secretary said, we will maintain as robust as possible the counterterrorism capabilities in the region and available to us to prevent that from happening.  Now what that looks like and how that's manifested, I wouldn't get into.  You would imagine we're not going to telegraph that kind of activity.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: ... my question though, I think I -- my question is about Afghan security forces who partnered with the U.S. for 20 years, the U.S. put blood and money training these troops, you said they're like standing 300,000 now soldiers.  If these...

MR. KIRBY:  And they're in the fight.

Q:  In the fight.  So after the withdrawal, these troops, under attack from Taliban, the U.S. -- that's not the U.S. problem anymore, is that what you're saying?

MR. KIRBY:  Our mission in Afghanistan -- our military mission in Afghanistan is coming to a close.  We will continue to maintain the kinds of capabilities necessary, sufficient to prevent terrorist attacks on the homeland emanating from Afghanistan.  But the Afghan national security forces are right now defending their own people, defending their -- securing their own borders.  And they will continue to do that.  And our support for them, while it will shift, it transitions from, you know, being boots on the ground, advisers, it will shift from that to a measure of support for their efforts going forward.

And we had terrific discussions in Brussels about other framework nations also lending their support.  Now we're not walking away from the progress that Afghan national security forces have made, but the relationship is going to transition to one that is more akin to the kind of bilateral relationships we have with other countries.  It won't include a military footprint on the ground in a perpetual conflict, OK?

Let me get back to the phone.  Idrees from Reuters?

Q:  Hey, John.  Two questions.  First, just a verification on the contractors.  And I may have misheard.  If you could just clarify.  So are all contractors going to also be leaving by September the 11th, or is that something that you haven't decided on yet?  And then I have a separate follow-up.

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, as I said, I think, to Tom's question, there are preliminary plans that are being revised to extract contractors with military personnel.  But it's preliminary and we don't have a firm, specific answer on what that is exactly going to look like this.

Q:  OK.  So we don't know if it's all, some...

MR. KIRBY:  I don't have that level of detail for you, Idrees.

Q:  OK.  And then separately, just back on the contractor -- sorry, the Russian bounties in Afghanistan.  You said that if the charge of Russian bounties is found to be true, it'd be very serious.  General McKenzie and I think, you know, your predecessors under Trump have said they couldn't find any corroborating evidence to support those views.  So is your view that this matter is not closed or is it that you are still looking?  If you could just provide some details on that.

MR. KIRBY:  Again, as I said, and as our colleagues at the White House said, this is a serious charge.  And we believe it should be taken seriously.  And, you know, we call on Moscow to be more forthcoming about this about this charge.  So I don't know what more you want me to add to that.  And I can't speak for what other leaders have said about this in the past, but it's the kind of thing that has been analyzed and assessed for quite some time, and again we feel it should be addressed in a serious way.  OK, in the room.  Lara?

Q:  Thanks, John.  So will we still be able to provide air support to operations in Afghanistan?  And where will these forces be based in the future once we leave?

MR. KIRBY:  If you mean air support in terms of support of the Afghan National Security Forces as...

Q:  Counterterrorism operation.

MR. KIRBY: ... well again, I'm not going to talk to the specific counterterrorism capabilities, and you know we have a wide range of capabilities at our disposal, and the secretary was very clear on Wednesday night that we intend to use all our capabilities and whatever mix is best appropriate to deal with that particular threat emanating out of Afghanistan.  But where and when and how that's going to manifest itself over coming months and years I'm not prepared to speak to specifically today.

Q:  And then separately the British Chief of Defense Staff said in an interview that this withdrawal decision is not what he wanted, so have you received any negative feedback from other NATO allies about this decision?

MR. KIRBY:  I think the allies should be given the opportunity to speak for themselves and their governments and their -- and their populations.  They are sovereign nations, and we respect that of them.  I can tell you that in Brussels the secretary noted the positive reaction that he and Secretary Blinken got from our allies with respect to this decision.

Q:  So how does that explain the negative reaction that you got from the British Chief of Defense?

MR. KIRBY:  I would ask you if that's a question better put to our British allies.  I'm saying that writ large -- writ large the secretary was grateful for the generally positive reaction he got in Brussels, but each ally should speak for their own equities, and we respect that. We won't run any other way. It's not out place to speak for them. I would just tell you that, again, it was a generally positive reaction to this decision in Brussels. Yes.

 Q:  Secretary Austin said that you asked was providing support materials to Ukraine and would like to continue to do that...

MR. KIRBY:  Yes.

Q: ... based on their needs.  Is there any plan to maybe provide the support that -- any additional support or is there any request from the Ukrainian side given the investigation on the borders?

MR. KIRBY: Well I think as you know I don't have anything specific to announce or speak to today with additional assistance.  We have been providing a mix of nonlethal and lethal.  In fact, just recently $125 million worth was approved, and I suspect -- well I don't suspect.  I know that support will continue to help Ukraine defend itself, OK?

Peter?

Q:  Hi, John.  Hi, John, thanks a lot.  I wanted to ask about Prime Minister Suga's visit today.  Will he be meeting with any defense officials?  Have -- what kind of information -- I know you don't like to speak to these specific, so I'm trying to word it carefully.  What -- how much has Taiwan come up in discussions for preparing the president on this discussion and any other comment you have on the prime minister's visit, please?

MR. KIRBY: I would refer you to the White House to speak to the details of the discussions, and as I understand it they will have more to say about this meeting later this afternoon, so I'm certainly not going to get ahead of that.  As a matter of fact, as I understand it, the meeting is ongoing as we speak.

And as per defense officials, I can tell you that Secretary Austin is there at the White House and participating in the bilateral discussion, so the short answer to your question is yes.  He will be speaking with defense officials.  He will be speaking to the top defense official in the country who'll be in the room for the bilateral meetings.  Tony?

Q: John, you’ve been involved with Afghanistan issues for quite a number of years. I wanted to -- a broad question to you.  What potential benefits does Secretary Austin see to the U.S. military in this draw down?  I find it hard that believe that to withdraw like 2,500 troops is going to help the U.S. reposition for -- or facilitate the reposition into for Asia or against Russia or other regions.  Is this mostly saving the $3 billion a month that's being spent there being shifted to other...

MR. KIRBY:  It's more -- it's more than that, Tony.  I mean, and you heard the secretary talk about this a little bit Wednesday night I think to remind that the president's decision also gives the department an opportunity to refocus our efforts in areas and on threats and challenges that we believe are more relevant to our way of life, to threatening our way of life here in the United States now, than a greatly-diminished terrorist threat from Afghanistan.

And you've heard the secretary talk about this in testimony and up here at the podium with you that he considers China our pacing challenge.  We certainly have obvious and deep concerns about where Russia's going not only in the region but elsewhere around the world.  We've got continued malign activity from Iran in the Middle East, and of course there's North Korea.  

There are a plethora of significant challenges and threats to our national security interests and those of our allies and partners.  And the president's decision allows us now to better focus on those more relevant threats and challenges, and that's what this decision helps us do.

And as you also know, Tony, you talk about 2,500 troops on the ground.  And while that may sound minuscule to some people, it's still 2,500.  And there was another 8,000 or so from our NATO allies on the ground.  So it was a total of 10,000, really.

And we've talked about contract support.  I don't have the exact number, but there are a lot of contractors in the country, some of which answer to contracts that we've let.  Not all.  And then you mentioned the financial commitments.

Q:  $3 billion a month basically...

MR. KIRBY:  Financial commitments...

Q: ... (inaudible).

MR. KIRBY:  Those are resources now that can help us also apply to more -- to refocusing on other threats and challenges.  That said, as the secretary also made clear, we're going to continue to offer financial assistance to the Afghan National Security Forces, but clearly drawing down will allow us to focus all our resources, people and financially, on focusing on the threats and challenges that we believe are most important to the American people now in 2021.

Q:  All right.  Fair enough.  Thanks.

MR. KIRBY:  OK.  Luis?

Q:  I have two questions.  What are the contractors -- if I can just follow up.  I know you were talking about something very preliminary, but are you addressing the notion of only American contractors inside Afghanistan?

MR. KIRBY:  Yes.  I just -- Luis, I don't have the detail.  I mean, I knew this was going to come up today.  It wasn't like I didn't think about the fact that you guys would be asking about contractors.  I just don't have that.  Preliminary plans are being worked on right now to figure out what the contract situations going to look like going forward.  And when we can talk about that wit more specificity we will.

Q:  And -- thank you.  And moving on to the bounties, you're calling it a charge.  Jen Psaki yesterday referred to it as low and moderate-level intelligence or -- excuse me, low and moderate level of confidence that the allegations are true...

MR. KIRBY:  Right.

Q: ...  that -- the Russian bounties.  When you label it a charge, and when you label it low and moderate levels of confidence, is that enough for you to then believe that this is actually the case, because I would think that this is -- that the bar is kind of low at that point. Is the bar high to prove this, or is the bar low?

MR. KIRBY:  It's because -- it -- the -- it's because the idea is so serious, this idea that a nation-state could offer cash bounties to -- for others to kill American soldiers, it's because it's so serious, we want to be careful in the way it's being described.  I make no apologies for that.  And because it was characterized by the intelligence community as low to moderate, it -- it specifically then, I think, calls out for Moscow to explain itself.

Q:  But you don't think then that the bar is set very low?  Because when you're calling it low level in confidence, I mean, typically that's not operationable, that's not actionable.  So what made this, in this case, again, actionable?

MR. KIRBY:  Well -- now, you're getting into an intelligence assessment here, Luis, and I can't -- I'm not going to go there.  I think we've all tried to be as transparent on this as possible, specifically because we don't like talking about intelligence assessments.  And by characterizing it as at low -- as low to moderate, it's as -- I think it's as honest and as forthcoming as we can be.

Because, again, it's such a serious idea, you want to be careful how you couch it. And again, I think even being low is serious enough, even if your assessment is that it's low, it's serious enough that it demands accountability from Russia as to the veracity of it.

Q:  Just to follow up, let's talk about the facts of the bounty case.  It's not that there's a broad body of intelligence suggesting bounties, it came from a detainee interview that now the intelligence community says has low to moderate confidence was even true.

If you don't have evidence that bounties were paid, why is the U.S. government still accusing Moscow of paying for bounties?

MR. KIRBY: I'm -- Jen, I've not accused anyone here, I don't think we've accused anyone.  We've said that it's a serious potential charge here.

Q:  But if you have one detainee saying that...

MR. KIRBY:  I'm not going to speak to the intelligence or where it's coming from, Jen.

Q:  But it's come out already, it's not...

MR. KIRBY:  I'm not going to speak to intelligence here from this podium, I just won't do it.

Q:  But is there enough to suggest that you still have concerns that Russia paid bounties?

MR. KIRBY:  As I think we've made clear, we are concerned enough about this that we want Moscow to be transparent about it.

Go ahead, what's your question?

Q:  It just seems like you're still trying to give this credence after it's been basically, you know, wiped -- you know, shown to be pretty -- you know, pretty thin stuff, just the way you're describing it.  We want -- I mean, Moscow has said they didn't do it.  I mean, I don't take their word either, but I mean, what -- it does sound like you're still trying to say that there's something there.

MR. KIRBY:  I'm saying we'd like to know more about what is there.

Q:  OK, what if nothing's there?  I mean, how do you do that?  I mean, you have one detainee says something, and there's nothing else, I mean, I don't -- I mean...

MR. KIRBY:  I'm not -- I don't understand what -- what you're...

Q: ... it just seems like you're trying to -- it does sound like you're trying to still say there's a foundation to this rather than being...

MR. KIRBY:  There's enough uncertainty about it that -- that we believe that we believe we need to know more.  And -- and I'm a little bit perplexed as to why the very idea of this, why you -- you wouldn't want us to want to take it seriously, and to know more about it.  This idea that -- the idea, even just the idea of it, that a nation-state would potentially do something like this, why wouldn't we want more answers on that?  I mean, you should be calling us on the carpet if we weren't asking more questions about it.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  This was brought up as a campaign issue during the election.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  The right wing doesn't like it.

MR. KIRBY:  Hmm?

Q:  The right wing doesn't like it, the right-wing media is taking -- throwing shots at this because The New York Times broke it, John.  That's all.

MR. KIRBY: Well, I can't speak to that, Tony.  I mean, I just don't understand why we -- why you wouldn't want us...

Q:  No, it's not that nobody -- we had to deal with this during the last administration and we questioned them about the veracity of it.  And the consensus from this building was there was no evidence of bounties having been paid.  So we reported on that back a few months ago, and so we're just trying to understand, do you have new evidence suggesting that bounties were paid?  Is -- is this true or not?  And I think that's a fair question as well.

MR. KIRBY:  It is.  Again, we're not going to get into specific intelligence assessments, and I won't go beyond what the White House said the other day, that this is -- it's concerning enough that we -- we want more answers about it.  I think that's fair for us to say, I think that's fair for us to say.  And I think you would expect us all to want to know more.

Q:  But it's fair for us to question, and this is not a right-wing issue, Tony.

Q:  Yes, it is.

MR. KIRBY:  I'm not going to get into the politics of it.  We're talking about the -- the safety and wellbeing of our troops in harm's way, and I -- we won't make any apologies for wanting to be concerned about that.  And I guess I -- I -- you might think it's not worth us asking more questions about it, I guess we would just take issue with that.

Christina?

Q:  Thank you for taking my question. So I'm wondering about this -- these reports about North Korea, indications of new reprocessing campaign design to expand North Korea's inventory of fissile material for nuclear weapons.  This is from a think tank that's reputable.  So is there anything there, do you have any comments or anything to shed...

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  I haven't seen that...

Q:  I know you don't want to talk about intelligence, but.

MR. KIRBY:  You're ahead of me.  I haven't seen that assessment or that report.  We -- we're all committed to the denuclearization of North Korea, and we're going to continue to work towards that end.  I won't speak to specific reports by independent agencies, that's really a question better put to them and I'm obviously not going to talk about intelligence here.

Pierre?

Q:  You mentioned in your opening statement the Eisenhower and De Gaulle and the Arabian Sea, the involvement against terrorism, against Daesh, and -- and other things. Can you add also that this is also directed as a message to Iran not to interfere in the freedom of navigation?  And you mentioned at least once or twice the Iranian malign activities.

MR. KIRBY:  We exercise with foreign navies all the time, and that's common of navies around the world.  And we want to take every opportunity we can to improve our own readiness at sea.  So dual-carrier operations, whether they're between two U.S. carriers or a U.S. carrier and one of our allies is, again, not something that's -- that's uncommon.

And it's not arrayed or you know, specifically to send a message to any one country, as much as it is to send a message to our navies and our sailors that we take their training and their readiness seriously, and to our allies and partners in the region that we take our commitments, our security commitments in the region seriously.

Sam?

Q:  My question's been addressed, I yield back.

MR. KIRBY:  OK.  Yield back, I don't hear that much in here.

(Laughter.)

Oren.

Q:  The president said it was...

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  It's very stately...

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: ... very stately.

Q: ... The president said it was not a hard decision for him to withdraw. Was it a hard decision or hard recommendation for the secretary?  And has the secretary's position been, throughout this process, that the reason, the mission we went into Afghanistan is complete, or has his position evolved throughout the discussions in the interagency on -- when it comes to Afghanistan?

MR. KIRBY:  Mission complete?  Well, let me -- let me back up.  As the secretary said on Wednesday, he fully supports this decision, and he was deeply involved in the process, a process that he described for you on Wednesday night as deliberate and inclusive.  And he's confident that -- that not only was his voice heard, but that of the military leaders.

He's also, as I said, fully in support of this decision, very comfortable with moving ahead now and executing on the commander-in-chief's direction, OK?

I got one more, go ahead.

Q: My question is on Taiwan.  So China is ramping up the pressure on Taiwan militarily.  What does the U.S. expect or want from Japan to enhance the security of Taiwan or push back China on the situation in the Taiwan Strait?

MR. KIRBY:  I'll let the leaders who are meeting now at the White House speak to that, later this afternoon.  Our alliance with Japan is ironclad, secretary was just there last month, terrific discussions in Tokyo.  And nothing's changed about our adherence to the One China Policy, and to our commitment through bipartisan administrations, going back now many years, to helping Taiwan defend itself.

And I'll let the Japanese government speak -- speak for this themselves, and I think you'll be hearing from them very soon, so I think it's better for me to defer to them, OK?  Thanks.

Q:  Can I ask one more question, please?  It's about the families and the soldiers who sacrificed in Afghanistan, whether who died or who got injured.  The president said and the secretary echoed his message in Brussels, that the U.S. has long since accomplished its objectives in Afghanistan.

What do you say to the families and loved ones of the soldiers who lost their lives and sacrificed in Afghanistan in that period between accomplishing those objectives and getting to the point where there's been a political decision to finally put out and put an end to the war in Afghanistan?

MR. KIRBY:  I can't do it any better than the Secretary did.  I'd point you back to his comments Wednesday.  But what we say is thank you.  Thank you for the service and sacrifice of your loved one who did make so much progress possible in Afghanistan and not just American soldiers, but soldiers from so many different countries over so many years who made the progress possible that Afghanistan now enjoys and the opportunity now that the Afghan people have.

And thank you for preventing another 9/11, from not letting that happen.  There's not too many people, if you walk around this building, and I know we're still in COVID manning here.  But there's not too many people, you walk around in this building that doesn't know somebody, including me, who didn't make it back home alive from Afghanistan.

And we're always going to be grateful for what they made possible, OK.  Thanks.

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