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Pentagon: "There's Been No Change to the Timeline of the Mission"; G7 Allies to Press U.S. to Extend Afghanistan Withdrawal Deadline. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired August 24, 2021 - 11:00   ET



JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: If there needs to be destruction or other disposition of equipment there at Hamid Karzai International Airport, we'll do that and do that appropriately.

Carla, did I get you already?


KIRBY: We'll come back to you. My fault, my fault, my fault.


REPORTER: Thank you.

Can we -- could I ask you both about the bottlenecks? Because you have 20,000 people out in the last 24 hours, which is a big number. The biggest you've had yet. Do you have 20,000 people now inside of the airport to get out in the next 24 hours or are there bottlenecks that are preventing people from getting in and getting people on planes and those planes in the air because there is nowhere to receive them.

MAJ. GEN. HANK TAYLOR, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, JOINT STAFF REGIONAL OPERATIONS: I'll talk about just bottlenecks and I think I talked about that earlier. As we -- those that depart Kabul and get to those staging bases within EuCom or CentCom AOR, that is the coordination that I was talking about earlier, to ensuring that we place evacuees in one of those 14 locations to prevent a bottlenecks, so that our increased through-put, as you know, increase that number that they're able to hold there, CentCom and EuCom are continuing to coordinate together and with the joints staff in TransCom of where to put those evacuees to allow flights to continue to leave Kabul.

So, as we look at those on Kabul, there is no constraint of allowing flights to leave today. We still expect the through-put that we saw in the last two days to be able to continue with no bottleneck and others.

We continue to manage that on an hourly, minute basis to ensure that we know where to fly people to.

REPORTER: Do you have enough people in the airport compound now in Kabul --

TAYLOR: I don't have the exact number. But there are evacuees on Kabul right now being processed through all stages of the process there to be ready to fly.

REPORTER: But you don't have the number?

TAYLOR: It's -- i don't have the exact number. I don't -- when I left here, but we have folks ready to evacuate.

KIRBY: We could get you the number that is on the airport now. As the general said, it changes by the hour. If you think about what we did yesterday, it is virtually, you just do the math, it is almost a thousand people per hour over the last 24 hours. So it changes a lot.

So, it is a fair question. We'll take it and get you the number of what there is now. But I would caution you to understand that that number constantly changes. That is the whole goal, to keep the through put. You get down through a certain level and you keep moving people through. It is constantly fluid. Yeah.

REPORTER: Thanks, good morning. I know you said you're fixed on August 31st as the departure date.

KIRBY: Just a second. I think we could find that number now. You could go get it and bring it up here. So we don't have to wait until the end of the briefing. I'm sorry, go ahead.

REPORTER: You said earlier, you're fixed on August 31st as a departure date. Nevertheless, there is some discussion of possibility of changing that mission. But does something like that fall under what you call speculation or fall under what you would call planning, because you've always made a distinction between those two when we ask you about the possibility of things and I'm trying to get clarity on that. Thanks.

KIRBY: I'm not completely sure I understand the question so let me take a stab at it and if I fail, you could tell me that I failed.

REPORTER: I would never do that.

KIRBY: The president's direction has to been to complete this withdrawal, this evacuation and withdrawal by the 31st of August. That is the -- that is the direction that we are operating under and therefore that is driving a lot of our plans. You heard us say and the secretary say that if there needs to be a conversation about changing that, that he would have that conversation.

I'm not going to get into internal deliberations about what people may be thinking one way or the other. But you heard the national security adviser say yesterday that he believe that's we could accomplish this mission by the end of the month. So we're still driving toward the end of the month. That's where we are now, and if and when there is any change to that, we'll certainly, you know, make it clear to the American people. REPORTER: Because in the past couple of weeks, the Pentagon has come

under rightly or wrongly criticism for not, quote/unquote, planning for eventualities that happened in Kabul. So this seems to be a possible eventually of a mission that might have to extend to past the deadline.

So, I was just asking, is there planning going on in the event that this has to happen?


KIRBY: We are a planning organization, Tom. We plan for all matters of contingencies even as we execute the orders that we've been given and that's what we're doing right now.


REPORTER: So, you always said that airlift is not the factor here and people are getting into the airport and getting out. What do you attribute that to? Is that expanding the perimeter or the check points that getting more people through and we don't have the number of how many people are on HKAI right now, but how long are they spending there before they get on a plane?

TAYLOR: Yeah. So, within the last 48 hours, the timeline has been very short in Kabul. As soon as we are getting people in and processed, as you could see, a flight every 45 minutes is a lot of getting people out there. So, as we look at what will have been the factors behind that, numerous. Weather continues to play in everybody's factor, great coalition and partners and other people volunteering aircraft.

And as General Lyons said yesterday, the ability to get not only the aircraft coming into Kabul, but others providing aircraft to fly, you know, people from the Lilly pad or the safe haven into the states and then moving them around. It has allowed us to keep that through-put going.

And also I think the continued ability to inform and get the word out of how to get into the gates, where to come, the processing of the -- of those not only through the gates but the processing internally on Kabul by our troops that are there continues to become more efficient.

REPORTER: So are there more people showing up now than there were last week when there was so much panic?

TAYLOR: I would say, as we look at those showing up with the right documentation, the right people that have come I think is one factor that has allowed us to increase the through-put.

KIRBY: And the crush of the first few days as reduced as more order and structure around the airport has increased, security and the processing flow itself has just gotten better and the crowds around the airport are smaller than they were before. So, the situation around the airport right now is just not the same, it is not as chaotic as it was in the first couple of days. Terace?

REPORTER: Thank you for taking my questions.

I've spoken to service members and spouses on one of the bases where evacuees are expected to be held and they have a serious concern about COVID. So what are service members or anyone live on bases being grieved to try to ease that concern because obviously as of yesterday they are still very concerned about that issue?

KIRBY: Oh, sure. They have every right to be. We're in the midst of a pandemic and conducting one of the largest airlift operations in recent American history is no small feat in the best of circumstances an this one is obviously not the best of circumstances because in addition to this we're doing it in the midst of a pandemic.

I could tell you that screening occurs at every stop, at every stage of the process. And we're doing best we can to make sure that we've got enough visibility on everyone's health. But, again, we're really, the focus is on getting the numbers out and so there is a elementary screening done at Kabul for those who are symptomatic. Additional screening takes place at the temporary safe havens and then of course upon arrival here at the United States, there is screening that is done as well.

So it is on everybody's mind. Believe me. We also are mindful of the health of our air crew and our troops at the airport. It is a constant process and we're not -- we're not leaving anything for granted. We're taking it seriously.


KIRBY: I don't know the exact medical process. Let me go over here. Apparently I'm missing. Go ahead I'll come back to you, I promise.

REPORTER: Thank you.

Mr. Kirby, we're hearing different statements from the White House, Pentagon, for example number of troops, operation in Kabul, et cetera. Can you talk about why there is a constant (INAUDIBLE) among the highest level of the state and is there any communications issue?

KIRBY: I'm sorry, I misunderstood. What's the dissonance that you're talking about?

REPORTER: For example, Biden said al Qaeda gone from Afghanistan, but Blinken say, yes, there is al Qaeda.


So we could see different statements from the White House, different comment from the Pentagon. Is there any communication issue from the highest level?

KIRBY: No, no. I think you're reading way more into things that you need to. I think we're all cited on the fact there is still an al Qaeda threat in Afghanistan. And as well as al Qaeda affiliates that we know are there.

Nobody is -- we've said that consistently. There's no gap in understanding here.

REPORTER: No, just for example, how could you say 11,000 in Afghanistan but you say 10,000 -- 5,000 between 10,000. So, different statements, I have to ask.

KIRBY: Look, the Defense Department can't speak specifically to the number of Americans in Afghanistan. I think we already addressed this earlier in the briefing. There is no firm certain hard number on that because not everyone American that goes to Afghanistan has to tell the government that they're there.

We have made it clear that any Americans that wants to leave, we're going to find a way to get to them or get the information to them to help them make the right decisions for transportation out of the country. But everybody is cited on the -- that this is a dangerous perilous environment, it is very dynamic, it's very fluid and we're doing the best we can to move as many people as we can, as fast as we can.

REPORTER: If they cannot reach the airport leaving Afghanistan, the Americans, don't Taliban and ISIS trade for them if they're stuck somewhere, if they cannot communicate --

KIRBY: We absolutely understand that Afghanistan is a dangerous place right now which is why we're trying to move as many Americans as we can as fast as we can, and we want to get that done before the end of the month.


REPORTER: Could you address the situation and the conditions at Al Udeid in Qatar to be described as squalid for a lot of the people coming through there? And then if you could -- I can't quite understand what the gem said about the 14 different stations -- like weigh stations because I understood the main hubs to be Ramstein and Qatar and Bahrain.

So are there way more now?

KIRBY: I'll let the general come up here and say. Let me just say -- just set this a little bit. Yes, those are three main hubs. But we are adding to that. You've seen Italy, U.S. military instillations in Italy, U.S. military installations at Spain also provide additional capability, and there are other countries in the Gulf region who are willing to take on a temporary basis some individuals.

So it is a bigger, broader sort of hub and spoke network than it was a few days ago and I'll let the general fill that out for you.

On your first question, just let me level set it right away, we are aware of and as concerned as anybody about what had been some terrible sanitation conditions at Qatar that were facilitated by the sheer numbers an the speed with which those numbers got there and we are all recognize that. And nobody, nobody here wants anyone to be less than safe, secure, comfortable, and well-cared for as they go through this process. We take it very seriously.

But we'll be the first to admit that conditions in Al Udeid could have been better. They are improving now. I'm going to stand up here and tell you they're perfect, because they're not, because evacuees continue to flow into Qatar. And there is a lot on the ground right now.

And as the general said, we're working hard to clear out that population so that we could ease the pressure there and continue to move these people along their way to their new lives.

Nobody is making the excuses. Nobody is ducking from this. We recognize that things were and in many ways still are not at the level of sanitation and good hygiene that we want. I can tell you that from the secretary on down, everybody is focus on trying to improve that and as a matter of fact, you saw a statement from central command last night, they are taking measures to ease that pressure and to improve conditions there.

But it is something we're going to watch not just there but at every other temporary safe haven that we're operating from.

REPORTER: Before the general speaks to the hubs, you could just speak and clarify, you said you don't think there is a crush around HKAI currently, or less of one or you could clarify what you meant?

KIRBY: That the crowd size is smaller now than it was in the first few days. And so we're not experiencing to the degree we did last Monday, the physical crush and chaos.


I'm not suggesting, Gordon, that there aren't desperate people outside of the airport that want in. Absolutely. We're not ignoring that. I'm saying that to Megan's question, we're not seeing the same pressure put on the system now that there was in the early days.


TAYLOR: First go back to question. So approximately right now 5,000, a little above 5,000 are on HKAI going through the processing. Continuing to be manifested and ready to fly. So gates are still open. We will continue to assess those numbers throughout the day.

When we go back to hubs and spokes, I'll give you the macro. And then we could possibly get back with you on the real details of their -- so both within the CentCom and the EuCom AOR, we have main hubs, think of Ramstein and then going into Qatar.

But from there, within the last 24 to 72 hours, both of those commands have started billing up and going from an initial operational capability to get full what we would call smaller satellite areas to ensure that with the through-put that we've had, that we could safely and humanitarianly keep those people there until their flights go back into the states.

When you specifically talk about and talking to CentCom this morning as we look at capabilities, and I talked about this a little bit earlier, but a lot of work has been done in the last 48 hours of -- you know, bringing in more portable hand washing stations and refrigeration trucks to ensure there is cool water and the food is there to ensure that people have these humanitarian capabilities.

KIRBY: I would also say just as a scheduling note, this afternoon's briefing I'll be joined by General VanHerck of Northern Command, as well as General Wolters of European Command, so they could address some of the specific questions about the temporary safe havens and you'll have a chance to talk to them directly.


REPORTER: Thank you.

Can you commit to evacuating the Afghan commander of other troops that are helping with the evacuation currently?


REPORTER: All of them?

KIRBY: Any of them that want to leave and we have to assume that that is -- that's all of them. They will be evacuated, yes.

REPORTER: How many do you estimate?

KIRBY: I don't have any an exact number. I think as we talked about before, the general has, somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 to 600, we know Afghan forces are there at the airport with us and actually helping us in the security mission and they will all be able to come out.

REPORTER: Even if they don't have SIV --

KIRBY: They will all be able to come out.

REPORTER: And as a follow up, what is happening to the money that was intended to go for the Afghan security fund?

KIRBY: Yeah, obviously and we're working closely with Congress on that. But that money is being held now. Yeah, absolutely.

Let me go to the phones. I haven't, in addition to not getting one of the room, I've not done a good job on the phones.

Dan Lamont?

REPORTER: Hey, John, thanks for taking my call. Looking to check in just to get some additional fidelity at what is going on at the gates. We've heard a lot of frustration with some of the veterans groups and other organizations that are trying to assist people to get to the gates and through the gates. Sounds like there is at least to some degree inconsistencies on who is being allowed in and when they're being allowed in and just some chaos there that is to a degree understandable but also frustrating. Thanks.

TAYLOR: Yeah. Gates continue, the coordination there is the critical piece of understanding, getting through the checkpoints and that is been a lot of the work that has been done over the last 48 hours is the coordination between U.S. forces forward there, the commanders to ensure who comes through and what checkpoints that people are coming through to expedite.

And the key has been, we have had an increase in information coming to the -- to the commanders on ground of who needs to come. I think that is been one of the -- of the increases in our through-put is understanding in all of the populations of who is where and who needs to come through the gates so that we could provide better information, which gate, when to come in and make sure that those conditions are set to come on to HKAI.


KIRBY: Okay. Time for a couple more.

Sylvie, you've been very patient.

REPORTER: I wanted to go back to the airport. I know I you don't want to speak about the decline, the deadline and the August 31st or not. But whenever the U.S. troops are leaving, are you speaking about, with the Taliban about the Taliban's own third party country about the security of the airport? To allow the airport to remain open?

KIRBY: I'll let the general take it. Would you just-- I would just say that we are in daily communication with the Taliban about the situation at the airport now. Our focus from a military perspective is going to be whenever -- right now, the plan is to end the mission on the 31st of August. I don't want to suggest that is not what we're planning on.

As we get there, as I said earlier, we want to preserve as much capability as long as we can to continue to conduct evacuations while safely removing our people and our equipment all at the same time. That is our focus right now is on properly executing a mission and effectively and safely drawing it down. But I'll ask the general if he has any other thoughts.

TAYLOR: I just think when you talk about transition, absolutely, there is planning going on of how to transition all of the space that we currently occupy here in the future.

KIRBY: Okay?

OK, Terace. Go ahead.

REPORTER: It is just a follow up to my previous question. For those that are symptomatic, what are they being told when they arrive for processing and then once they're --

KIRBY: Being told?

REPORTER: So once they're arriving, are they being told, hey, like what is the process for those who may have symptoms? I don't know how the information, how they're getting the information about where they need to go, which gates they need to go to, et cetera, et cetera. So what are they being told?

KIRBY: Let me take the question and see if we could get a more contextual answer. I think what they're being told and how the process is going to be done varies at each location, because there are different demands. The demand at Hamid Karzai International Airport in terms of timing is a much more urgent than it would be, you know, at Ramstein, so, where there is obviously much greater medical capability.

So, I think it is going to vary, but let me see if we could get you other answer.

OK, I'm going to have to wrap it up. We'll see you again at 1500. 3:00. Sorry. With General VanHerck from Northern Command and General Wolters of European Command. I will basically turn the podium over to them and I assume that that will be the focus of the briefing if I need to stick around after for other issues, I'll do that as well.

So, we'll see you later this afternoon. Thank you.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, hello, I'm Kate Bolduan.

We've been watching the update from the Pentagon. John Kirby and General Hank Taylor taking questions from reporters on the evacuation operation underway from Afghanistan.

Let me bring in for some more on this, CNN's Jeremy Diamond. He's at the White House. CNN's Sam Kiley is on the ground in Kabul and retired U.S. army major, Dana Pittard.

Thank you all for being here.

Jeremy, given what we just heard from the Pentagon, progress made, but so far no change in their mission.

What do we expect President Biden to say today when he addresses the situation on the ground?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen, today is supposed to be, has to be decision day for President Biden in terms of the August 31st deadline. He's facing immense pressure from the G-7 allies, particularly France and the United Kingdom in the meeting underway as of the last hour, to extend that August 31st deadline. The military is also telling him in that if he wants to extend the August 31st deadline he needs to tell them today. But you heard from John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesperson, saying that as of now, the military is moving forward as if the August 31st deadline is when U.S. forces will withdraw from there.

And he made clear as this withdraw takes place, they will not provide day-to-day updates on how that happens to ensure there remains order at that airport and that U.S. forces are protected as they retrograde, as they say in the pentagon lingo. But again, this is clearly something that the president is going to need to decide. As of now, we know that president has been warned against extending that deadline.


There is a lot of concern inside of the White House and around the administration about the possibility of terrorist attacks at or around the airport.

We know that while the U.S. has been coordinating with the Taliban on security around the airport, there is one terrorist group that is not coordinating with the Taliban and certainly not with the United States, and that is Ion security around the airport, there is one terrorist group that is not coordinated with the Taliban and not with the United States and that is ISIS-k, an off shoot of ISIS which is not in cahoots with the Taliban and could pose a threat, day by day that threat increases of course.

BOLDUAN: Sam, does the situation on ground in Kabul reflect what we heard there from pentagon officials, from inside of that briefing?

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Okay, here on the ground, at the international airport, the numbers of people waiting and this is Afghans predominantly waiting to get on aircraft are significantly visibly down from where they were yesterday.

There had been a peak of some 20,000 people here on the air base. That is down to around 4 1/2 thousand, changing every day, relatively really small numbers coming in, some through covert routes and some being filtrated or filtered in through gates which we understand from military officials here are being opened at different times and for relatively short period of times so that perhaps they don't generate the magnetic effect that they've had in the past of generating crowds and posing a danger both to people inside of the air base but presenting themselves as a bigger target for ISIS-k which is a very real and persistent threat.

Today, Taliban commander told one of my CNN colleagues, local colleagues on the ground that they had arrested four ISIS-K members who they believe were filming in order to try to assess targets around Kabul. That is a worrying development, not great surprise but a worrying development, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely, Sam. Thank you so much for that.

And, General Pittard, I have several questions for you coming from this briefing. But first, just on the progress that has been made. Yes, a rough start for the administration. But despite that, overnight they did make huge progress, 21,000 people evacuated in 24 hours.

What do you think made the difference? What is your assessment of this evac operation right now?

MAJ. GEN. DANA PITTARD (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Good morning, Kate. I think the evacuation going fairly well and part of that is

unleashing U.S. military which has best logisticians in the world to get after it. It was obvious that the noncombatant evacuation operations also called neo was not really thought through as part the initial withdrawal plan. If it had been, then the key airfield at Bagram air base would not have been given up so easily.

So despite that, the last 48 hours, the evacuation itself is going well for inside of the Kabul airport. The key thing that must be discussed though is the American citizens and Afghan allies who are outside of the Kabul airport and how do you get them to the airport.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. And one thing that we heard there the in the briefing and it is a question, is how many Americans have been evacuate. Asked again today, John Kirby said he will leave it at several thousand and he didn't want to go into more details on it. Do you think this don't have that level of specificity? Or I'm getting to the place, General, is there a strategic or security reason for them not to be more specific with that number?

PITTARD: Well, I'm not sure why they wouldn't be more specific on American citizens that have been evacuated. What should be held close is number of American citizens to yet be evacuated. They're outside of the Kabul airport for security reasons. So I do understand that.

BOLDUAN: And that is a really fluid number as they've described many times.

As Jeremy Diamond was laying out, we are going to hear from President Biden and he really does have a huge decision, this is a huge decision moment for him in terms of the deadline. He's getting a lot of pressure from G7 allies, he met with virtually today to extend the deadline to get more people out.

What do you think he should do about this deadline, General?

PITTARD: Well, I think he should ask his advisers and assess whether or not the mission has been accomplished and the mission is to evacuate American citizens and our Afghan allies. August 31st artificial deadline is immaterial to that. Has the mission been accomplished? If it is not been accomplished, then you need to extend the deadline until it is accomplished.