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Pentagon: "Ready to Increase" Number of Evacuations; Biden Defends Chaotic U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan; Reuters: At Least 12 Killed Near Kabul Airport Since Taliban Takeover. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired August 19, 2021 - 11:00   ET


MAJ. GEN. HANK TAYLOR, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, JOINT STAFF REGIONAL OPERATIONS: We continue to see the ability to build those ready to fly on Kabul airport to increase to allow us to fly those out.


With the ability to continue -- obviously as Mr. Kirby said, we want that to continue to increase as we continue to bring more people, more American citizens and SIVs and those on to the airfield so that they could be processed and ready to fly.

REPORTER: And have there been any requests from DOD officials to expand the perimeter around the airport so there is more safe zone for people waiting in line? And if there have been, what is the Taliban's response to that?

TAYLOR: So the think the commander on the ground the airfield is secure and every day in security operations commanders are always what we call improving the security environment.

So, as the commander on the ground at every level, finds those things that need to be improved to increase the security to allow mission success, they're going to do those things that they have those authorities to do on a daily basis.

So I think as you saw today, the ability to continue State Departments and the ability to bring more people on and to continue those, that is what we'll continue to look at over the next few days.

REPORTER: Do they have the ability to expand the perimeter around the airport?

ADM. JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: I don't want to get ahead of where we are. The mission remains security at the airport and inside of the perimeter of the airport and that is what we're doing. There are -- as we speak there is no plans to expand beyond that and I think we leave it at that.

The other thing I want to touch on your first question, what general is talking about is capacity. And as I said from very early on, what we want to make sure is that airlift is not a limiting factor and it hasn't been. That doesn't mean that at this point in time every single seat on every single plane is going to be filled.

We're working hard to get there but we want to build out to that capacity and there are a lot of factors that go into the through-put, including the situation out in town, including the checkpoints that the Taliban have set up, including processing at the gates where we have set up and the general mentioned we have additional gates available to us so that is fleshing out of the capacity and weather is a factor and security at the airport is a factor.

And we're not taking other of the last two -- not taking any of them, certainly not taking weather or security at the airport for granted. It changes every day, the security environment changes and of course the weather.

So, there's lots of -- there is a lot of tick points on the way to getting to through-put. What we want to make sure is that one limited factor is not airlift capacity. And as the general said, we're confident that it is not now and going forward it will not be. But that doesn't mean that there aren't going to be -- that doesn't mean that you could -- just because you have 5,000 seats that you could automatically fill 5,000 seats every day.

Now that is what we want to get to. As the secretary said, we want to move as many people as fast and as safely as possible. But there is a lot of steps in the prose. Not all of them do we control and we understand that.

REPORTER: Could I ask one clarification? You're saying you're at that capacity right now but with the C-17s that have come in you would have the capacity to take 5,000 people out in 24 hours right now but you've only taken 2,000 out?

TAYLOR: So, like I said, within the cent com commander assets and availability, we have the appropriate air assets to fly the 5,000 to 9,000 a day. Defending upon the ability, the queue, those ready to fly, we bring in assets to fly them out. So, yes, we have assets available throughout cent com and available to reach those numbers today. And we have had those.

REPORTER: But what is physically flying in right now, in the 24 hours is that enough and I guess we could do the math and see how many people --

TAYLOR: Mary, it's not about the math, it's about what's ready to fly. You know, who's on the airfield ready to leave the holding area, and get on the aircraft. And as those numbers increase, which you've seen they have in the last 24, 48, the CentCom Command Team with continue to bring in the air flow required to fly out those people.

REPORTER: I have a follow up. Is ISIS a factor in this? And there are many other factors. Is the U.S. dependent upon the Taliban to keep those terrorist groups in check during this operation?

TAYLOR: ISIS and al Qaeda is absolutely a planning factor. You wouldn't expect it to be otherwise.


And I'm not going to talk about specific force measures against terrorist threats. I think clearly we're -- we're mindful that that threat could persist.

REPORTER: Is that part of the reason for the overhead flights?

KIRBY: The over watch flights again have been in the air since before the noncombat ant evacuation operation. It is prudent force protection measures in the air, to make sure that we could protect our people and our operations. Against any threat, Tara. Any threat.

REPORTER: Could I just -- so I still want to be clear, you're nowhere near the demand for getting people out is nowhere near the 5,000 to 9,000 that you have established and maintained as capacity to do, right.

One question. Two is what is best estimate, if Americans are the first priority, what is the best estimate that you have that you'll work through those and then turn full time as it were to SIVs, Afghans or whatever? So they're not thinking about the --

KIRBY: So a couple of points on this. As the general said, we have the capacity now. There is certainly enough air frames to meet the capacity we'd like to have of five to nine. But that doesn't mean that that number of air frames are just landing at Kabul and then just taking them off empty.

We're trying to make maximum use of the ramp space, of the aircraft and of the queue. And we're going to adjust that every day. The demand will drive -- and the demand and the queue will drive how many sorties we fly. And I'm sorry your second question was?

REPORTER: What is the best estimate of when you are will be --

KIRBY: Yes, with the general citizens. Just in the last 24 hours of the 2,000 that got out, it was a mix of American citizens and family members as well as special immigrant visa applicants and other at-risk Afghans. And I think you'll see that every day, Gordon. I mean, obviously we want to take care of our fellow Americans and the secretary and the chairman were clear about that.

But we also want to take care of at-risk Afghans and special visa immigrant applicants so. We're not holing up a plane just to fill it with Americans and sending it off. We're processing people as fast as we can and getting them on to their onward stations. It is -- it is a balance. And we're trying to strike that balance every single day.

REPORTER: John, what proportion of the 2,000 are American citizens versus SIV and what proportion are women.

KIRBY: I don't have a gender breakdown. Of the 2,000 over the last 24 hours, I think nearly 300 of them were Americans and that includes legal permanent residents, it includes obviously American citizens and family members and that is going to change every day. But I don't have a gender break down of what the manifests are on a daily basis. REPORTER: And does the U.S. government recognize the Taliban as the

legitimate government of Afghanistan?

KIRBY: That is a question for the State Department. The Defense Department is focused on conducting this non noncombatant evacuation.

REPORTER: Are you see more able to access the airport, are you seeing more people able to access the airport over the last 24 hours?

KIRBY: We've seen, by opening up another gate, by adding counselor officers now, we believe that we will soon begin to see an opening up of the aperture and we're hopeful that that means a more consistent increase in the flow.

But I can't tell you right as we speak here, Louie, that there is a dramatic rise. We have additional officers at gates with additional troops helping the counselor officers so I think we're poised to see an increase, but I want to be careful before I make predictions. What I want to drive is an increase, that's very much on everybody's minds.

REPORTER: And the clarification is, you were talking about American citizens and about Afghans and SIVs. But the 7,000 number that was presented earlier, the general had said that you're now including other countries evacuations in those numbers. Is that accurate or is the 7,000 exclusively U.S.?

KIRBY: No, it is others. It as always, since the 14th when we've given you number, there have included some amount of nationals.


REPORTER: Is that on U.S. flights?


KIRBY: Hang on. One at a time. Jen?

REPORTER: It is confusing. How many people has the U.S. government flown out on U.S. military planes because 7,000 if you're including other countries and if you're including civilian flights --

KIRBY: We're giving you the total number of people that we've evacuated since the 14th and it is not all just Americans. There have been some allies and partners that have gone out.

And we're giving you U.S. government flights, I'm not even -- that is not counting people still getting out commercially or on charter flights. Does that clarify?

Understand at the Pentagon, we're fixating on the tails that we own. But it is not the only way out of Kabul right now. As the general briefed, the commercial side is open. There is limited, it is not as -- it is not as robust as what we could do on the military side but people are still getting out that way.

REPORTER: Can you recount the numbers that are 7,000 saying this is U.S. and Afghan?

KIRBY: I do not have a break down. I expect over time as our manifesting process gets more refined we may be able to be there but we don't have that specific breakdown.

REPORTER: How many Americans citizens remain in Afghan --

KIRBY: I don't know.

REPORTER: But your planning for these operations and you should be, did have some kind of account of how many Americans are whether in harm's way or need to be evacuated, right?

KIRBY: I think as you probably know, first of all, the state department would be a better place to go for an if estimate of how many Americans or in Afghanistan or around Kabul. That is not a figure that the United States military would know and I think as you also know not everyone American citizen in another country, there is no obligation that they register their presence. And that we -- and that you could have a perfect accurate count. But I don't have that figure and I would refer to you my State Department colleagues for the best estimate on that.

REPORTER: Kirby, does the president has -- does the Pentagon have the authorization at this point in time to expand the perimeter at the airport or to go into Kabul if necessary from the president?

KIRBY: The mission, Helene, is to provide safe and secure operations.

REPORTER: I know, I'm asking if the Pentagon has the authorization from the president.

KIRBY: I'm not going to talk about potential of any future decisions one way or another. That would be a policy decision. We are focused on security at airport.

REPORTER: My question is, do you have the authorization now at this point -- who makes that decision? Is it Biden or is it Austin?

KIRBY: We are authorized to provide safe and secure operations at the airport, Helene.

REPORTER: Can you talk about the logistics regarding the human need at the airport, there is a lot of civilians and troops and there is food and sleeping arrangements and are you handle military and civilian and how are you doing that.

TAYLOR: So when you look at when whom ever comes into the gated at HKAI, and it's process for ready fly, all human needs, you know, all of those things -- basic needs to ensure the welfare, they're care and to ensure that the medical -- all of the things to ensure they could go forward and fly are being done. And that is a combination of state department support, and military support. Working hand in hand, the commander and State Department to ensure eating, sleeping, well taken care of. Out of the elements are being done, absolutely. REPORTER: You've got like two more weeks almost of this. Are there

concerns about maintaining the input of supplies, the cleanliness over time?

TAYLOR: As military planners, we always ensure that we have the proper supplies on days for -- to conduct missions. And those are assessed on a daily basis and the commanders are always assessing what do we have now and what do I need to do in the short-term, and so forth.

And so we are always continuing to, and that is why you see other planes continuing to arrive at required to continue to ensure commander as everything that they need to do to execute the mission that we have right now.

KIRBY: I need to get to somebody on the phone, too. Tom Squitieri?

REPORTER: Hi, John. Thanks. Good morning. I want to check on something. In regard to the pentagon policy that existed to provide air support and other assistance to the Afghan government that was in place this summer, has that policy ended with the fall of Kabul? Or is it still alive for elements of the government that is still functioning in places like the Panjshir Valley? Thanks.

KIRBY: Tom, as I think you could see by events, it's -- there is -- that there aren't operations out in the rest the country to support.


And our focus in terms of air power is as the general described, and that is providing appropriate overwatch for our operation and that operation right now is at the airport.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Can I go back on the question of gates at the airport? Can you tell us this new gate that you opened, are the Taliban outside of that gate or are they out letting people of Afghans and people with U.S. documentation, United States citizens through the new gate? And have you been able to keep very specifically all of your gates including Camp Sullivan on your side, have you been able to keep them open or have you had to close Camp Sullivan at various points have you have to close any of the gates?

TAYLOR: So the gates at the Kabul airport are secure. And as we continue to flow more forces in, that gives the commander greater capability to provide security at those gate and as we said and open more gates and allow for greater input and into Kabul airport.

STARR: I'll follow up with Kirby. All respect, the question is, are all of the gates continuously open if you had to close -- have -- if the marines had to close Sullivan at various points, do you have the Taliban letting people through this new gate that you're talking about? Have you been able to keep them all continuously open? KIRBY: Barbara, as the general said, we have additional gates now and

reporting this morning is that they are open. But I can't tell you with perfect clarity that there haven't been times over the last 72 hours when temporarily because of security incidents that they have had to close. I suspect that that is true. I don't have a firm answer for you on that. Our goal was obviously to keep them as open as possible and to increase the flow as much as we can.

STARR: Just for the record, have any of the U.S. troops been involved in any additional crowd control measures that included them having to fire?

KIRBY: I'm not aware of any over the last 24 hours.

STARR: Thank you.

KIRBY: I think that is probably good -- it's a good place to stop. So thanks very much. My plan is to -- Jim.

REPORTER: Could I just get if a Haiti question? There are reports that American military medical teams are going in to the area. Do you have anything on that?

TAYLOR: That is what I said earlier. So first we do have air force medical personnel there helping assist. And the first thing I said were the flights of the helicopters that we are bringing in one of our medical hospital capabilities and more to come today to be able to help and assist in a medical hospital first aid type care.

REPORTER: So their setting up a field hospital that will be manned by American military personnel.

TAYLOR: That is correct.

REPORTER: Great, thank you.

KIRBY: Thanks, everybody. My plan is to update you again this afternoon. But it'll be off camera. So we'll see you about 2:15. That is the plan right now. Thank you.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Kate Bolduan here. Thank you for joining us.

We're been watching an update from the Pentagon on unfolding situation in Afghanistan right now.

Joining me now is retired Major General James Spider Marks. He's a CNN military analyst.

Spider, thank you for being here. You were listening in to John Kirby there, as well on the update. What sticks out to you?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, what we really see is a plan that is starting to gain momentum. You have to believe what you're hearing from the senior folks in the pentagon. That there is every effort being made to make sure that there could be safe passage, entry into the airport and the departure of those that have been vetted so they could get out of Kabul.

What they indicated I think is very important. There are limited multiple factors that have to come in plan here. The two factors are what is the Taliban going to do and what the is weather like on the ground. You have little ability to affect the Taliban and no ability to affect the weather.

Everything else is within the power of CentCom and the Department of Defense to make happen. That includes aircraft availability, maintenances the aircraft, fuel access, vetting of the personnel, et cetera.

So of those things that you could affect and control, you get after those and that is exactly what I heard.


BOLDUAN: They're not yet up to the level that the president has said and that they have said that they want to get to in terms of number of people evacuated. Five to 9,000 people has been where they want to ramp up. They are nowhere near the number now. Why not, Spider?

MARKS: Primarily I would say, and you know, Kate, it is very difficult to evaluate and even try to critique an ongoing operation. This is a combat operation. We certainly as we have talked won't critique an on going gunfight in combat. So I'm a tad hesitant to try to dissect this.

But the key thing laid out is it is the access -- two things, it is access to the airport, the Karzai Airport. Are there multiple entry points?

And the second part is there sufficient screening taking place at those checkpoints to ensure a real voluminous kind of flow of potential passengers into the airfield? Because the air force and the joints staff, they're -- and the CentCom folks, they'll get the C-17s in there for departure. It is loading those bad boys up and that is what is going to take -- access and really good screening.

Now, if I may, there is one way to do this as well. We're sorting them and then we're sending them out.

BOLDUAN: That is exactly what I was just going to ask you. Because a former marine, he's now a member of Congress, Rubin Gallego, he put it in colorful terms. I want you to ask you about, what is the hold up, why can't you get the people on planes and then sort it out?

He tweeted, there are tons of cruise ships that are empty, there are bases around the world and there is a massive country to that is used to assimilating immigrants, just put them on F-ing plans and get them out there.

MARKS: Yeah, and I know Congressman Gallego. Ruben was an infantryman in the marines who fought in the Mideast. I mean, he's not going to -- there are no soft terms that he would use to describe this.

And that is a course of action. Now there is inherent risk, right? You've got to start putting people on an aircraft.

Have we sufficiently diligence those guys to ensure you don't have any real problems. Now you could get a bad guy out of the country but we could figure that out down range.

I think there is a strong argument to say let's load these bad boys up, let's get them going and then we could sort them out wherever we land. Whether that is someplace else in a host country in the Mideast. Tajikistan took Ghani, right? Why doesn't Tajikistan take --

BOLDUAN: Now, he's up in the UAE.

Now, I got to ask -- I'm out of time. But real quick, looking forward, do you think they're going to need more troops on ground there in order to pull this all off?

MARKS: Kate, I think so. When do you the troop to task and you look at timeline, the president has opened the window for continuation of the operation beyond 8/31. I think it is a prudent measure to say in order to accomplish this tank, we're going to take additional troops in there because if we want the volume going we're going to need some additional help.

BOLDUAN: General, Spider, thank you very much.

MARKS: Thank you, Kate.

BOLDUAN: So the chaotic situation that is there now has turned deadly. President Biden defiant and defensive on his handling of the crisis there, and in any new interview. "Reuters" is reporting that at least 12 people have been killed and around the Kabul airport since the Taliban took control of the capital on Sunday.

A Taliban official tells "Reuters" that those deaths were caused either by stampedes or by gunshots in the area if you trust the word of the Taliban, of course.

New this morning, President Biden tells ABC news that he is willing to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan until all Americans are able to leave the country. The president disputes that his military leaders told him to keep a residual force in the country.

President Biden also saying that despite the devastating images out of Kabul, the withdrawal could not have happened in any other way. Listen.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS ANCHOR: You don't think this could have been handled, this act could be handled better in any way, no mistakes?

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, I don't think it could have been handled in a way -- we're going to go back in hindsight and look, but the idea somehow there's a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don't know how that happens. I don't know how that happened.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So for you that was always priced into the decision?


Now, exactly what happened, it's not priced in, but I knew that they're going to have an enormous, enormous -- look, one of things that we didn't know is what the Taliban would do in terms of trying to keep people from getting out. What they would do.


BOLDUAN: And with the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks just weeks away President Biden was asked about how he explains a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan now to the American people.


STEPHANOPOULOS: In a couple of weeks, we're all going to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11. The Taliban are going to be ruling Afghanistan like they were when our country was attacked.


How do you explain that to the American people?

BIDEN: Not true. It is not true. They're not going to look just like they were when we were attacked. There was a guy named Osama bin Laden there was still alive and well.

They were organized in a big way that they had significant help from other parts of the world. We went there for two reasons, George. Two reasons.

One, to get bin Laden, and two to wipe out as best we could and we did the al Qaeda in Afghanistan. We did it. Then what happened? We began to morph into the notion that instead of having a counter-terrorism capability, to have small forces in the air or in the region to be able to take on al Qaeda if it tries to reconstitute, we decided engage in nation-building, in nation-building. This never made any sense to me.


BOLDUAN: Joining me now from the White House is CNN's Kaitlan Collins.

Kaitlan, are you getting a sense of the reaction inside of the White House to the president's interview.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think their less focused on what has happened and a large part of the interview which led to the chaotic mess that we saw that ensued over the weekend as the Taliban over took Kabul and a lot of their focus has to do what w what he talked about at parts in the interview which is the evacuation process that is underway, with the Pentagon just briefing on.

And that is what they're focused on. Not really looking back at what happened. Though the national security adviser said that will be a pros that's they do review in the future and said they will share that publicly once they do have that.

But I think what you're hearing from President Biden in the interview is that he is defending as he has been for several days the fact that the United States left. There are a lot of questions that are being raised by his usual allies on Capitol Hill over how the United States left.

And one thing he does tell George Stephanopoulos during that interview is he believe that's no matter when the United States left Afghanistan, it was going to be a messy exit. And so, essentially saying that it was inevitable and that is something that Democrats have pushed back saying it didn't have to be this way and they could have been move fasted to get the SIV applicants that they are trying to get to the airport, the logistics, you heard the top military officials talking about is now the situation that he's facing.

But we're told right now that when the meetings are happening behind the scenes, when President Biden is the Situation Room with his team, they are almost single-mindedly focused on what is underway right now, and whether or not they are going to be there past August 31st or if they could get all of the Americans out, and depending, of course, on how they make the decision on whether the U.S. troops stay while the endangered Afghans are trying to get out.

Two things we should note. One President Biden has told and made clear to aides he doesn't want to see any empty seats on the flights that are leaving Kabul. That has been an issue when they were first getting the flights underway. Just trying to get flight news the airport and out of the airport. He has told aides since then he does want to see any empty seats.

Of course that doesn't mean that you won't see any of them given the chaotic nature that we're still seeing. But that is a directive that we have heard about from the president to his top aides.

The other thing that we should note is just how even President Biden seem surprised by how you will this hinges on the Taliban. And they're saying that they've been talking with Taliban local commanders about ensuring that people can get through. A lot of the people who are trying to leave not necessarily the Americans but the endangered Afghans are trying to leave because they're worried their targets of the Taliban.

So, it just really makes you step back and look at how the process is underway and how it varies day by day how this is going.

BOLDUAN: And look, I think people appreciate that they're not looking back or doing any report now because they're in the middle of crisis still. But Biden in this interview also said something sticks out, which is his mild military advisers did not advise him to leave a force of 2,500 troops to maintain stability in Afghanistan. Let me play this for folks.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Your top military advisers warned against withdrawing on this time line. They wanted to you keep about 2,500 troops.

BIDEN: No, they didn't. It was split. That wasn't true. That wasn't true.

STEPHANOPOULOS: They didn't tell you that they wanted troops to stay?

BIDEN: No. Not at -- not in terms whether we're going to get out in a timeframe, all troops. They didn't argue against that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So no one told you no, we should keep 2,500 troops and it is a stable situation for the last several years, we could do that and continue to do that?

BIDEN: No. No one said that to me that I can recall.


BOLDUAN: Kaitlan, help me with this because that doesn't match the reporting that we've had for months.

COLLINS: Well, I think it is that last phrase that he used there, that is so important here, which is not that I can recall.

We know there were strenuous debates internally how this should proceed. Those happened not just at principle level but at lower levels as well and there were some, we were told at time, including the chairman of the joints chiefs of staff, General Mark Milley, who advocated for keeping a presence in Afghanistan.