Transcript

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III Holds a Media Availability

Sept. 9, 2021
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III; Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III:  This is an important trip for me to get out and thank the folks who have helped us, the Qataris, the Kuwaitis, and the Bahrainis.  We asked them to help us out in very short notice and they surged capability.  They gave us access.  It was a demonstration of true partnership, and it's great to have partners like this so that in times of need we can very quickly turn to them, and they're very happy to do it.  And they all felt they played a key role in helping out the Afghans, who were transitioning to a new life.

It was also a chance for me to get to talk to many of our people who have done yeoman's work and pulling together some very amazing capability on very short notice.  And I don't know if you had a chance to interact, but many of the folks who were working in Qatar or here, but if you take a look at Qatar, for example, we pushed a lot of evacuees through Qatar, and screened them, and then moved them to other places like Germany or back to the States right away.

You had a Joint Force come together, all services on very short notice, working together with the Qataris, working together with interagency partners and they pulled together a capability that was just phenomenal, and as I listen to them describe what they did and how they did it and the lessons they learned, it was just pretty interesting.

One day, they brought in 600 evacuees.  About five days later, 17,000 evacuees showing up in very short notice, and they were able to manage that, not without challenge, but again, Qataris surged more capability to help us out.  We learned, we adjusted, we adapted.

And so you can imagine, that's one hub at Qatar, another hub here in Kuwait, another hub at Bahrain, other hubs in Europe.  And so this is a really amazing capability that came together in a very short period of time.

So I think for the most part, everybody's focus has been on HKIA, and kind of what it took to evacuate 124,000 people.  But the throughput piece is very important, as well.

And then on the other end of the story, you see us receiving evacuees on a number of installations back in the States, and that being done in a very organized fashion.  And you know, again, I think a lot of lessons learned there, as well, but we surged capability there very quickly.

DHS, as you know, is going to be in charge of the overall process at the end of the day.  Our piece is to house and feed and care for them while they're making the transition.

So, an incredibly complex process overall, but I commend our DOD's people for coming together to do what we've done.  Also, the interagency, I can't say enough about the teamwork that we saw.


I got a chance to talk to some of my soldiers and Marines that were on HKIA as well, and spent a lot of time yesterday with the Marines who were there when the attack occurred, and that was very meaningful for me. I'm just really proud of the way that they processed things and handled things and are taking care of each other.

So I've had a chance to talk to families who lost people at Dover.  I visited the Marines that are in the hospital at Walter Reed, and this was the third piece, to be able to come and talk to the Marines that were operating on the deck there.  So great units, great Marines, great soldiers, and very, very proud them.  So I'll stop there and entertain your questions.

MR. KIRBY:  Okay, go ahead.

Q:  Thanks.  Thank you, sir.  I wanted to ask you a question about Afghanistan, but before I do that, we all are interested in if you could give us a brief word on the development overnight with the Saudis -- postponed or canceled, whatever the right word is, and your visit.  Can you explain, tell us what happened there?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Let’s say postponed, Bob.  We don't have a set date for a follow-on visit, but again, we pulled this trip together on very short notice.  The Saudis have some scheduling issues, and you know, I can't speak to exactly what they were.  What I will say is that the Saudis are a key ally of ours.  We have common interests in the region.  We've worked on tough issues together.  We'll continue to do that going forward, and I look forward to coming back to visit at some point in the near future.

Q:  Okay.  And a question I have for you on Afghanistan is in the course of your discussions here in the Gulf with the folks, the officials, you spoke with during the trip. Did you hear concerns about the prospect of Al-Qaida attempting to regenerate in Afghanistan on this new Taliban era?  And also in the same vein, what is your own personal assessment, your own view about the possibility that they will use this opportunity to attempt to make a comeback?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Sure, Bob.  I think the whole community is kind of watching to see what happens and whether or not Al-Qaida has the ability to regenerate in Afghanistan.  We put the Taliban on notice that we expect for them to not allow that to happen, and I think one of the ways that the Taliban can demonstrate that they are serious about being a bona fide government and respected in an international community is to not allow that to happen, so I think everybody's watching this very closely.

The landscape in terms of my own assessment, the landscape has changed a bit with the Taliban taking over, so you know, we will continue to assess.  We'll continue to watch and make sure that we remain vigilant on any type of capability that's being developed in the region that can export terror to the homeland.  And so again, we are focused on making sure that does not happen, and we'll maintain our over-the-horizon capability to address that.

Q:  Sorry.  So I understand, you're prepared to deal with it, but my question is whether you believe that they will make an attempt to do this, given the new circumstance in Afghanistan.

SEC. AUSTIN:  I think the nature of Al-Qaida and ISIS-K is they will always attempt to find space to grow and regenerate, whether it's there, whether it's in Somalia, whether it's in any ungoverned space, Bob.  I think that's the nature of the organization.

Q:  Okay, thank you.

MR. KIRBY:  Nancy?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Nancy?

Q:  Hi, Mr. Secretary.  I wanted to follow up on the over-the-horizon capability that you both have been specifically -- on how you see it playing out in the Gulf.  I'm curious what kind of conversations you've had with Gulf States about their role in over-the-horizon.  Did you express concerns about strikes being launched from their countries for that capability?  Is there talk of keeping weapons or bringing in assets from Afghanistan to the region to help bolster that campaign?  I was wondering if you could give us more granularity on how you proceed over-the-horizon playing out in this region.

SEC. AUSTIN:  You've heard me say a number of times that, you know, a couple of things.  First of all, we do have the ability to address threats using over-the-horizon capability.

And you've also heard me say that our capability has evolved dramatically over the last 20 years, and I can certainly attest to them personally.  When I was in Afghanistan in 2003 on the ground, we didn't have a fraction of the capability that we have now.

In terms of addressing specific requirements, or making specific requests to our Gulf partners on this trip, that was not part of the agenda.  The agenda on this trip was just to ensure that we thanked our partners for doing what they did to help us with the evacuation process. 

But again, we've maintained capability in the region.  We maintain capability from other places.  We have the ability to do a heck of a lot more now from greater distances than we could 20 years ago.

Q:  You mentioned that you didn't (inaudible) the request.  Did the Gulf make specific requests from you in terms of what they wanted or did not want to provide?

SEC. AUSTIN:  No.  Again, we didn't have those conversations on this trip, Nancy.

MR. KIRBY:  Luis?

Q:  Sir, thank you.  You mentioned earlier about the Taliban, that you would hold them to task if they did not follow through with the commitment to not let Al-Qaida regroup.  What exactly do you mean by that?  And also, the Taliban government that has been formed includes many Haqqani network leaders who specifically targeted American troops over the last two decades.  As a former military commander there, what are your thoughts on that, and what are your thoughts as defense secretary going forward on how you can deal with a government that includes individuals who (inaudible)?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Well, in terms of holding them to task, Luis, my thought -- and you've heard Secretary Blinken say this before, that the Taliban want to be recognized as a bona fide government, and they know that they need resources to   govern.  One of those resources is money, and they also very much want the respect of the international community.  And you know, they want to have sanctions lifted, and that sort of business, so they have goals and aspirations.  If they demonstrate that they're going to harbor terrorism in Afghanistan, all of that will be very, very difficult for them to achieve.  And so it'll be more difficult for them to govern.  So I think the international community will hold them to task, quite frankly.

But again, our goal is to make sure that terror cannot be exported from the spaces in Afghanistan to the homeland, and we will remain focused on that.

Q:  And about the Haqqani network as being individuals in government and how you can deal with that.

SEC. AUSTIN:  Well, the Taliban, you know -- I think the whole international community was hopeful that they would be inclusive, as they kind of said they would be weeks and months ago, but we've not seen evidence of that early on.  And so it appears to be many of the same actors.  You heard Secretary Blinken talk about this yesterday, and we'll listen to what they're saying. I think the international community is going to listen to what they're saying, but watching what they're doing, and right now, it just seems it's more of the same.

Q:  And just specifically about the Haqqani network and, like, your thoughts on them being included.

SEC. AUSTIN:  It's the Taliban's government.  We don't get a vote in that, but certainly, these are people, that I don't look favorably upon personally.  But again, it's the Taliban's government.

MR. KIRBY:  Jim?

Q:  Mr. Secretary, thanks for doing this.  Appreciate it.  You know, I want to flip the discussion a little bit, if I could.  You came here to thank the Gulf allies.  Well you know, there are a lot of Americans who really don't see the need for this global network that we have.  And this last month is sort of a poster child for the necessity of that global network.  What would you say to Americans about the need for the global network?  And I'm just curious -- could we have evacuated 124,000 souls without these people here and in Europe?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Short answer to that, is no.  We wouldn't have had the legs with the aircraft to be able to reach from HKIA to places far away, certainly not to the homeland.  And of course, we're going to make sure that everybody we bring into the States has been properly vetted.  

So the capabilities here are really, really important.  Our allies and partners have enabled us to do things that have never been done before.  I mean, this is the largest airlift in the history of -- well, the largest airlift ever.  And so the ability to shuttle back and forth and lift out as many people as we did as fast as we did could not have happened without partners in this region and in Europe.

And there were people around the globe that were volunteering to accept evacuees, as well.  The Philippines came on board and said, "Hey, we'll help you if you need help from us."  And other people around the globe.

I think that's one of the great strengths of the United States of America. We treasure our allies and partners.  We work hard to make sure that we maintain good relationships.  At the end of the day, Bob, you can't surge trust.  You have to work on these issues every day.  You have to strengthen those relationships and build that trust each and every day, and that's what we've done.  And so in time of need, you see what happened here.

Q:  Yeah, well --

SEC. AUSTIN:  But thanks, Jim.

Q:  We're like two generations, you know, these folks that work together.  And I noticed in Qatar a young Air Force staff sergeant was wearing a Qatari rank, and the Qataris’ airmen were wearing American ranks.  They knew each other.  That was when you talked about a joint coalition force, it really was, in that case.

SEC. AUSTIN:  I think so.  We met a young lieutenant colonel yesterday in the Kuwaiti armed forces that is a West Point graduate.  And you know, his goal in life is to make more West Point graduates and more Naval Academy graduates.  But it's that kind of sharing of opportunities and experiences that I think that builds that trust over time.

Q:  You mentioned just a minute ago the question of vetting Afghan evacuees who make it to the United States.  I'm just wondering, from your point of view, I know the Defense Department is not entirely in charge of that whole operation, but do you personally have any issues or concerns about the quality of the vetting that may allow some people to get in who shouldn't be getting into the United States?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Well, I would say that, again, you're right.  DHS is in charge of that.  I wouldn't want to comment on DHS's process.  Our standard is to make sure that everyone who enters the States has been vetted, has been biometrically screened and biographically screened, and I think that there's a significant effort ongoing to make sure that happens.

Q:  You're confident that it's going to work, that it is working?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Well, it obviously is working.  No process is ever perfect, and so if there's a blip in the screen or there's something that somehow gets through, I think the system will very quickly follow up to make sure that that's addressed.  

Q:  Okay, thanks.

Q:  I wonder if you can indulge me on two kind of questions.  You mentioned DHS as sort of in charge, but the U.S.' military's housing and feeding evacuees.  Do you have a timeline in terms of how long you think they'll be at U.S. military installations?

And then I want to go back to your answer to Luis about the Haqqani network and the Afghan government we've seen formed by the Taliban so far.  General Milley had said that it was possible that the United States would work with the Taliban in some capacity going forward.  Does the formation of this government as you see it create less likeliness of that happening?  Is there a scenario, based on what you've seen so far, where the United States could work with the Taliban?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Well, whether or not we work with them in the future, I mean, that's a policy decision that'll be made by our leadership, and of course,  leave it to State to help figure out whether or not and how we will engage, or if we will engage the Taliban going forward.

What was the other part of your question there?

Q:  On the evacuees, you've mentioned that DHS is in charge, and I was just trying to get a sense if you have a timeline of how long you see them?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Oh, okay.  So it's uneven, Nancy.  I mean, as you've seen with Fort Lee, we had evacuees come in and leave very quickly because they were in the advanced stages of their processing.  Because people are in various stages, some will leave very quickly, others won’t so this will take months to play out.

Q:  But do you think within a year the U.S. military will be out of holding them or housing them?

SEC. AUSTIN:  I would hope so.  I don't hazard to make any predictions though, Nancy.  What I will tell you is that we'll do what's necessary for as long as it's necessary to make sure that we provide the adequate care for hopefully these aspiring Americans. 

MR. KIRBY:  There's time for one more.

Q:  Thank you. The engagements you had on this trip are also to reassure our partners in the region.  How did the capabilities to be able to surge and create this airlift, what you've described, the largest in history. How does that capability reassure our partners in the region about the U.S. commitment to the region?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Well, above and beyond the airlift, my goal is to always reassure them that first of all, we're a global nation with global interests, and this region will always be important to us.  We will have to shift our stance from time to time to focus on what we describe as our main effort, and that’s understandable. But, we will always be interested in what is going on in this region.  We will always treasure our relationships and our partnerships here.

Again, the fact that we have such great allies allows us to do things that no other nation can do, and creating greater capacity and capability with these allies, I think is very important to us.  That's part of our overall scheme there, is just to make sure that we employ the resources of our allies and partners as much as we can to address regional issues and work together.  And increasingly, we see a desire to do that on their part.

MR. KIRBY:  Okay.  Thanks, guys.  

Q:  Thank you for your time.

SEC. AUSTIN:  Thank you.  Thanks for being here, guys.  I really mean that. And again, sorry about the C-17.

Q:  And sir, how did the Marines react?  How are they doing?  Are they all right?

SEC. AUSTIN:  They --

Q:  I know it's tough, but --

SEC. AUSTIN:  They are in good shape.  You know, in units like that, I mean, there's a cohesion there that's just hard to describe, and they're loyal to each other.  They care about each other.  The ability to spend time with each of them and say thanks for what they've done was really meaningful to me, and also to report back to them on how they're colleagues were doing in the hospital.

Q:  Okay.

SEC. AUSTIN:  The first question from them is “how is so and so doing?”  And they're talking to them on a daily basis, cell phone and that sort of stuff.

When I visited the Marines in the hospital, half of them were starting to do push-ups even though they were injured.  They were still trying to do P.T. in the hospital.  But that's to be expected with these young warriors.  They always go above and beyond the call.

It’s tough things for young people to deal with, but I think they have the support that's necessary to help them.  They're there for each other, and a very impressive group, Josh.

Q:  Thank you.

MR. KIRBY:  Thanks, guys.