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At This Hour

Pentagon Gives Update on Withdrawal & Evacuations from Afghanistan. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired August 23, 2021 - 11:00   ET


JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: Coordination has worked. This deconfliction has worked well in terms of allowing access and flow to continue, as well as reducing the overall size of the crowds just outside the airport.


And those crowds have been a factor, Bob. You heard me talk about this the other night. When several days ago, one of our commanders used a helicopter to bring people in and it was largely because of the crowd size outside the Abbey Gates.

So crowd size matters here, too. And that's what this president was referring to.

REPORTER: Thank you.

KIRBY: Sylvie?

REPORTER: I would like to -- I have two questions. I would like to go back to the incident. Can you be a little bit more specific and tell us if you can rule out that the attackers were Taliban? First. And I would like also to go back to the deadline, the French foreign minister said today that it's, quote, necessary to continue the evacuations beyond August 31st.

KIRBY: Cannot rule out who the hostile actor was in this shooting incident last night. I think, as you saw, central command statement referred to it as a hostile actor. We don't know more than that. And this just happened, Sylvie, so I don't know when we'll have more forensics on this.

Again, our focus was on making sure that we could maintain security at the airport. It was maintained. Sadly, we -- it resulted in the loss of a life of one Afghan soldier and wounded several others. So, I mean, obviously that's our focus right now.

On the deadline, I can't speak for other nation states. I can only speak for the Department of Defense, and you heard the secretary address this over the weekend, the goal is to get as many people out as fast as possible. And while we're glad to see the numbers that we got yesterday, we're not going to rest on any laurels. The focus is on trying to do this as best we can by the end of the month.

And as the secretary state, if we need -- if he needs to have additional conversations with the commander in chief about that timeline, he'll do that but we're just not at that point right now -- Jen.

REPORTER: Has the Taliban told you that august 31st is the deadline and that you must leave then? Are those communications happening? Is that something you've agreed to with the Taliban?

KIRBY: We've seen the public statements by the Taliban spokesman about their views on the 31st of august. I think we all understand that view.

REPORTER: And can you explain is it only Americans and SIV holders that are allowed through the gate now? Has that changed? What is the policy about Afghans in need now coming?

KIRBY: Afghans in need are still being processed and facilitated.

REPORTER: Given the number of people who are in hiding who were either SIV recipients, some Americans, Afghan allies, why not reopen Bagram Air Base? Why not go get an agreement to -- from the Qataris to come land in Kandahar, in Mazar-i-Sharif elsewhere?

We saw the Qataris bring the -- Mullah Baradar back with a C17. Why not use the Pakistanis and the Qataris to help bring people out from -- because right now, you're bringing people out from Kabul and it's a choke point.

KIRBY: Well, first of all, the through-put hasn't improved and increased. And I'm not going to -- I don't think it would be a useful expenditure of our time to Monday morning quarterback the whole issue with Bagram. It was closed down as part of the retrograde, Jen.

REPORTER: I'm not talking about Monday morning quarterbacking. I'm talking about why not look at the situation now? You need airfields that you can land on to get people out.

KIRBY: Jen, we are --

REPORTER: -- General Major Taylor.

KIRBY: Let me try it first and give it to the general clearly. We are improving our throughput at the Hamid Karzai International airport and we think that we'll be able to continue to try to improve that. That's the goal.

But what you're talking about is -- would be an expenditure of resources and personnel as well as an increase most likely to the threat that they're under to try to go back and, as you put it, retake Bagram Air Base, which is the size of a small city. And I understand a lot of people have views and opinions about this. It was closed down as part of the retrograde. It was always supposed to be closed down as part of the retrograde. It was the last base to be turned over to the Afghans. And even as recently as three weeks ago, before we actually had to

conduct an noncombatant evacuation the leaders ran a table top exercise on what it would be like to run an effective NEO operation out of Hamid Karzai International Airport.


And we're actually running that play. Now, it's not without its challenges for sure but we're doing that now and that's the focus on making sure that we can get as many people out as possible using Hamid Karzai international airport.

And, Jen, the numbers are showing that it's working. Nobody has taken it for granted. Don't want to be predictive about tomorrow but it's working.

Do you have anything to add to that?

Okay. Tara?

REPORTER: Thank you. Back to the August 31st question, is August 31st extending that deadline, is it really an option for the U.S. anymore? Is this wholly dependent upon whether the Taliban would agree to let a U.S. presence remain in Afghanistan past that date?

KIRBY: Our focus is on getting this done by the end of the month, Tara. And what we do here at the building at the Pentagon is options. Our job is to provide the president, the commander in chief, options. As you heard the secretary say, if he gets to a point, he and Chairman Milley, they believe they get to a point where they need to provide that advice and counsel to the president about an extension, then he'll do that.

We just aren't there right now. And you heard the secretary say himself f he had more time on the clock he would absolutely use more time on the clock. But we're focused on getting this done by the end of the month.

REPORTER: And secondly, for Major General Taylor, you mentioned that 42,000 have been evacuated since July. Is that 42,000 just on military air lift or include the commercial and chartered planes?

MAJ. GEN. HANK TAYLOR, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, JOINT STAFF REGIONAL OPERATIONS: Yeah. So that total number is U.S. military plus U.S. civilian, state department, some of that was State Department contract air that went out early on.

REPORTER: Do you have any number of breakdown of the U.S. citizens of that 42,000 have gotten out.

TAYLOR: I do but I don't have that right now.

KIRBY: Idriss (ph)?

REPORTER: So just a couple quick questions. Firstly on the vaccine. This is -- would be specifically to Pfizer, right? That would be mandatory?

KIRBY: Right now, we're focused on the Pfizer vaccine because of the FDA approval that came in this morning.

REPORTER: Just another couple of quick ones. How many Afghan soldiers remain in the perimeter? I think you said 500 to 600 a week ago. Is that still the number?

KIRBY: I believe that's the operative number.

REPORTER: And then how many Americans have been evacuated? I think you gave 2,500 Americans. Has that number changed?

KIRBY: We think that overall, we've been able to evacuate several thousand Americans. And I would be reticent to get more specific than that. But since the 14th we believe we have been able to evacuate several thousand Americans.

REPORTER: Very quickly lastly -- so the last table top exercise for NEO operation from HKIA was about three weeks ago.

KIRBY: It was about three weeks ago. It was certainly before Kabul fell. This is something -- I talked about this before, this was something that the pentagon had been thinking about for a long time. I mean, as far back as late April when we held a rehearsal of concept exercise here at the Pentagon looking at the retrograde and how that was going to parse out over the summer.

Part of that conversation was potential for noncombatant evacuation operations and what that would look like and how we would execute that.


REPORTER: Thank you. I wonder if you can clarify a couple points you said earlier. You said any extension beyond August 31st would be the secretary talking with the president. Would that decision include inputs from our NATO allies particularly those who say they need more time? Is that a factor in the U.S. consideration?

KIRBY: I think we would consider the views and opinion of our allies and partners who also have people there and our -- as the general briefed, very much a part of moving people out.

REPORTER: And have any of those NATO allies communicated to the United States that they need more time beyond August 31st?

KIRBY: I'm not aware of specific conversations we had with respect to the deadline.

REPORTER: On the perimeter, I'm having a hard time understanding the president talked yesterday he said about expanding that perimeter. Can you help me understand who is part of that? Is that U.S. forces? Have they moved where they're positioned from where they were a few days ago? KIRBY: Without -- I want to be very careful here to talk about

specific movements at a tactical level on any given day. And so, I'm just not going to do that I know that will be largely unsatisfying.

But let me finish. So, that as a caveat, we continue to look at security on the airport itself as well as the immediate environment of the airport because in those immediate environment outside the airport, that's where you have Taliban check points, that's where you have crowds assembling, that's where access to the gates is critical in that space just outside the airport, where we don't have a military presence of a sustained nature.

And what we're doing is that we are in constant communication with the Taliban about that space and what that space looks like.


And the only thing I would say is that as you heard the secretary say this, you heard General Milley say this -- we're going to do what is required on any given day at every possible opportunity to make sure that those who need to get out can get out and that includes -- that includes the monitoring and the accessibility of that space outside the airport. But what it looks like on any given day, Nancy, is going to change.

REPORTER: I appreciate that. But I'm not looking for tactical details. I think once that movement happens it's a different threat to U.S. forces and something the public had has a right to know. How often they cross it, how we should be thinking about where the U.S. military is in that environment?

KIRBY: I would tell you that we already consider our troops in harm's way at the airport. It's a dangerous situation. There's no question about that. And we're not taking any of these threats for granted.

And the commanders on the ground have the wherewithal to move their forces as they see fit to again do essentially three things, make sure the airport is secure and can be defended. Make sure that air operations can continue to carry on at the clip we need them to carry on and, C, this is an important one, to make sure that American citizens, at-risk Afghans or SIV applicants can get process and entry to the gates. Those are the three primary tasks. Our commanders on the ground know that's what their tasks are and can move forces, can employ forces and assets as they see fit to do that.

And again, on any given day that could change, Nancy. I don't think it would be helpful particularly because the threat environment is so high for us to talk with any great specificity what that's going look like -- David.

REPORTER: John, will you be deliberately vague when you said number of Americans was several thousand or was it because you're not sure of the number? If you need to check the number, I mean, that's the most important number here, the number of Americans. So, if it's just a matter of checking the number, can you do that and give it to us? Or if you're being deliberately vague, tell me why you're being deliberately vague.

KIRBY: I think I'm just going to leave it at several thousand, right now, Dave.

REPORTER: Tell us why.

KIRBY: Because I think the number is very fluid. And it literally changes nearly by the hour.

REPORTER: It's not more fluid than these 11,000, 37,000.

KIRBY: I'm going to leave it several thousand right now.

REPORTER: You said that you heard the public statements from Taliban about the redline, August 31st. Does this mean that you didn't hear it directly from them since you're communicating with them on a daily basis? Are you this issue, did you tell them, discuss with them the need for maybe extending the August 31st deadline?

KIRBY: I'm not going to speak to specificity with the communications we're having with the Taliban on any given day. It happens several times a day. We are well aware of the stated desire to -- by the Taliban to have this mission completed by the 31st of August. I would tell you that we, too, are still planning on completing it by the 31st of August. That is the mission that had been signed by the commander in chief assigned to us and that's what we're trying to execute at.

Go ahead.

REPORTER: Are the forces remaining now in Kabul focusing on that evacuation mission the U.S. forces, of course, are they maintaining that capability to maybe deal with threat from Taliban beyond the august 31st deadline or maybe attacks?

KIRBY: Yeah. Again, I appreciate the question in terms of hypothesizing past the 31st. We just aren't there yet. Our troops are focused on the mission. The three missions I just articulated. And that includes, as I said, being able to defend the airport which means being able to defend themselves and their operations.

And we have assets in places, assets in place to allow them to do that as well. I'm not going to speculate about post-August 31st. We are head down focused on keeping these numbers up as best as we can, getting as many people out as we can by the end of the month. If there needs to be a discussion about extending that timeline, then we absolutely will have that discussion at the appropriate time with the commander in chief.

Let's go to the phones which I have not done yet.

Jeff Schogol, you get the first one.

REPORTER: Thank you very much.

Regarding the incident, was the gunman killed? And was it U.S. troops who shot this person? [11:15:03]

KIRBY: I do not know on either, Jeff. You could certainly reach out to Central Command for more detail at that level of the incident. But again, this just happened, Jeff. So I just don't think we have that level of forensic detail to offer you today.


REPORTER: I think he has one more question.

KIRBY: Do you have one more, Jeff?

REPORTER: Oh, yes. I'm sorry. From what we're hearing on the ground, only American citizens and green card holders are being allowed into the airport. Do you know when that will change? And Afghans at risk will be able to enter?

KIRBY: As I mentioned to Jen, it's for American citizens, it's for -- SIV applicants can still be processed through the gates. At risk Afghans are absolutely being considered for entry.


REPORTER: Two questions. First of all, how many people have been killed at the airport? We've been hearing reports of seven, nine. A NATO official told ABC there were 20 killed in and around the airport. What's that number?

TAYLOR: You're talking about Afghans at the gates?

REPORTER: We're adding the people who were killed on Monday during the incident when the C17 took off, the two that were killed during skirmishes inside the airport. The guy killed today. What's that total number of people who have died?

TAYLOR: Less than -- the number -- I don't have exact numbers of that. So I can't answer the exact number right now.

REPORTER: Can you take that question and get back to us on that?

TAYLOR: Absolutely.

REPORTER: And also you had mentioned, sir, the capacity was 5,800 troops at the airport right now. And then the secretary of defense had told us last week that he did not have the capability to go out and do extractions because there's just not enough troops, they're defending the airport.

Have you asked for authorization of additional troops to go in to the airport to help with potential extraction should it come to that?

TAYLOR: Yeah. I think you used word capability. And the actual troop number I think are two different things.

So we have 5,000, approximately 5,800 forces. And as I briefed over the week, as forces flew in, you know, flowed in, capability continued to increase. Initial security was the most important ability to establish, because without that security the ability to do other things is just not possible.

So, as our capability increased and at that 5,800 number, as you've seen, we have the capability and have executed other operations to ensure that American citizens are being brought in safely and prepared for evacuation.

REPORTER: So just so I can understand what you're saying just to recap, you think that at 5,800 troops the U.S. has the capability now to expand the perimeter at the airport and continue all of this to or to do whatever the president had mentioned with the opening of the perimeter and also do extractions if needed? Or are you going to ask for authorization of more troops?

TAYLOR: No, what I said is that 5,800 were able to continue to secure the airfield, continue to increase safety there and continue to do the operations that we already have.

KIRBY: Carla, what the secretary said was that where he was on last Wednesday that we didn't have the capability to do large scale, massive movements of people, but he did say if there's an incident where somebody is in extreme is and we need to get them in small numbers we can do that and we have been doing that.

And as the general said, that was last Wednesday. Over the course of the ensuing days more capability has flown in, more troops have flown in so we have the ability to help when we can and where we can to help Americans move towards the gates. We're not going to talk about the details of each and every one of those, but we do have those capabilities.

REPORTER: One last one. What I'm asking is do you foresee the need to authorize additional troops to go in should you have a hard stop at August 31st and you have to ramp up capacity again, do you foresee authorizing additional troops?

KIRBY: I don't think it would be helpful to get ahead of where we are right now. There are no plans at this time to request or to authorize additional U.S. forces to this mission.


REPORER: Are you U.S. troops leaving the airport on a regular basis? I still don't understand what's going on.

KIRBY: Courtney, on occasion, as needed, our commanders have the authority that they need to use their assets and their forces to help assist Americans who need to get to the airport get to the airport on a case by case basis. Your question was leaving in a regular --


KIRBY: It's not regular. I don't want to leaf you with the idea that we're somehow patrolling the streets of Kabul. But on occasion, where there's a need and there's a capability to meet that need, our commanders on the ground are doing what they feel they need to do to help Americans reach the airport.


And there's a variety of methods that that can be affected and without going into detail, we're using the variety of methods at our disposal.

REPORTER: So, we know about the Chinooks last Thursday at the Baron Hotel. Have there been additional cases since then and can you tell us any details about that?

KIRBY: There has been at least one additional instance where rotary airlift was used to help Americans get from outside the airport into the airport. And I think I'm just going to leave it at that today.

REPORTER: I got more.

Your planning organization, when do you expect that you will have to -- assuming you're sticking to this August 31st, deadline, when will you have to stop taking in additional people at the airport to evacuate? Because you have to get the 5,800 American U.S. troops out, right?

KIRBY: Stop taking in evacuees?

REPORTER: Correct. Yes. And additional Americans whomever is left out there, what is the deadline so that you'll be able to get the American military who are there at the airport supporting in any last embassy people there out, when will you stop accepting evacuees?

KIRBY: I mean, remember, it's important to remember that we are not the only people flying evacuees out. So it's certainly conceivable that even without a U.S. military footprint there, that people could still be able to get out of Kabul. I don't have specific retrograde timeline to speak to today.

We'll work through that as appropriate as we get closer to the end of the mission. And as you well know, we very methodically and deliberately plan in the movement out of assets and equipment and resources so that we can preserve the capability we need for as long as we need it. I think I'll just leave it at that.

REPORTER: I only asked that because it took several days to flow these 5,800 in. So I know that there are logistical hurdles to get them in. It could take a day or two to get the military back out so that may bump the timeline back from August 31st to the 28th?

KIRBY: I -- look, clearly --


REPORTER: Jen was speaking about 28th.

KIRBY: Clearly, there -- you know, you have to do backward planning for retrograde obviously. I'm not prepared to speak to the specific dates or process by which that would occur. But obviously, we're thinking through that right now. A lot will depend on how far we get as fast as we can get by the end of the month.

I just don't want to speculate now about what that's going to look like. But, let me just back up. I mean, the focus is on getting as many people out as we can as fast as we can. That means being able to secure and defend the airport, which we are doing now.

And we will factor all of those things in to whatever the departure timeline looks like to make sure we can continue to maximize throughput as best we can and without getting anybody hurt.

And, thus far with obviously some exceptions, some small exceptions, I mean, we've been fortunate that nobody has, OK?


REPORTER: Is there any effort totally up the number of U.S. weapons and equipment that are now under Taliban control? Is there any program to mitigate this problem through destruction or confiscating them back, taking them back?

KIRBY: Yeah, Mike. We talked about this before. I don't have an exact inventory of what equipment the -- that the Afghans had at their disposal that now might be at risk. Obviously, we don't want to see any weapons or systems that -- to fall into hands of people that would use them in such a way -- to harm our interest or those of our partners and allies.

I mean, we have a vested interest obviously in not wanting that to happen. But I don't have any policy solutions for you today about how we would or could address that going forward.

I would remind you, though, mike, that an awful lot of equipment, weapons, resources were drawn down even in the last years and months of the previous administration as President Trump decided to move down to a force of 2,500. So, there were a lot of retrograde of things up to that point.

And after the president's decision in mid-April to complete this draw- down, albeit on an extended timeline, a very -- and we talked about this, too, the very big part of the retrograde was the disposition of weapons and equipment and systems and vehicles.


Some of them were destroyed. Some of them were brought back home. Some of them were redeployed into the region and, yes, some turned over to the Afghans.

And we're working through right now to try to get a better sense of what that would look like. But I don't have any specific solutions for you in terms of what we're -- what we can or will do going forward on this. And to a degree -- well, I'll leave it that. I'll leave it at that.

Jennie (ph)?

REPORTER: Thank you.

Let me ask General Taylor, please? General Taylor, the United States has asked South Korea to help accept Afghan refugees. Do you have any more detail on this?

TAYLOR: I don't other than that communication is happening. And like I said earlier, we are very grateful for all of our partners, allies that continue to offer any assistance to allow the safe evacuation of Afghans and American citizens.

REPORTER: Has there any military support to doing United States (INAUDIBLE) South Korea (NAUDIBLE) military aircraft?

TAYLOR: I don't -- I don't know how many Republic of Korea aircraft have been used. We've had, as you said today, a lot of countries have been supporting and we appreciate that. But we don't have the number off hand.


TAYLOR: Yeah (ph).

REPORTER: Thank you very much.

KIRBY: All right. Go back to the phone here.

Kim Dozier?

REPORTER: Thanks, John.

I wanted to ask if you were given the short amount of time left, just seven days. Are you going to allow private charters to start landing in greater numbers at KHIA daily to pick up Afghans at risk? Because even by conservative math, you can't possibly move all the American citizens out in just seven days, much less the green card holders, Afghan special operators, et cetera.

Also, private charter companies tell me told when they can land they only have an hour to land, pick everybody up and take off. And some of them are leery of even going because they don't think they can get it done that fast.

TAYLOR: So the ability to continue through-put is very important. And so, we look at airfield operations and the ability to get aircraft landed safely, immediately in and loaded, that drives a lot of the -- what we would call time on ground to maximize the amount of evacuees that we can get out. As you saw in the last day the numbers, that required, as you just said, you know, aircraft on average to be on the ground less than an hour, which is very quick.

I do know that TRANSCOM and the commanders on the ground who are facilitating that synchronization are using and want to continue to use every capability possible to get people out of Kabul. So, that's all I have. KIRBY: One more on the phone here.

Sam Legron?

REPORTER: Hey, John. Can we get an update on U.S. support for the Haiti earthquake and disaster relief?

KIRBY: Yeah. I think we can facilitate that a little later, Sam. But, yes we can get you an update on that, yeah.

REPORTER: I have a question for the general real quick. Sir, it sounds like from what we're hearing from the podium, that the U.S. is essentially relying on the Taliban for crowd control outside the gates. Obviously, that was not part of the original plan.

What forces were originally assigned to conduct security outside the perimeter and how did that fall apart? Where are they now?

Then I have a follow up.

TAYLOR: Yeah. So the 5,800 forces were part of that force package to provide security for the airfield. As, you know, within the last seven days, we have seen the ability to continue to coordinate and synchronize with Taliban check points. And I would say as you look at the last two days, that ability with the commanders on the ground to work with the Taliban tactical commanders has allowed and I would say the ability to control better the access into that.

REPORTER: So, you're saying U.S. troops were originally planned to be on the perimeter outside the airport but that did not work out? Is that what I understood?