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Pentagon: "Making Clear" to Taliban That Credentialed Afghans Must Get In. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired August 25, 2021 - 11:00   ET



REPORTER: Yesterday, the president mentioned, also, that he was calling upon the department to create contingency plans in case the number of Americans and Afghans that still need to get out have not gotten out by the 31st.

Can you just explain sort of what the department is thinking about what its options might be to continue to get Americans out after the 31st if they haven't made it to the airport by then?

Just to follow on Jeff's question with Afghans that aren't getting through, have discussions gone on with the Taliban to maybe find some negotiation space for -- they've said no more Afghans can leave. But, clearly, you know, there's 10,000 at the airport. So something is happening behind the scenes that's helping some people get through. Can you talk about that to some extent?

JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: I'll turn it over to the general.

MAJ. GEN. HANK TAYLOR, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, JOINT STAFF REGIONAL OPERATIONS: So, I'll start with that last question first. It kind of comes off of some things that Mr. Kirby just said with that constant communication. I know the most senior commanders on the ground are out and discussing with the Taliban leaders that are manning these checkpoints exactly what the documentation needs to look like, times and coordination, I mean, details of that.

As we know, though, there are reports that some aren't able to get through there. I can tell you that the Department of State, the consular affairs officers that are there are working with our commanders there to ensure that documentation, names and those things, as often as required, are being communicated to the Taliban that are at those checkpoints to allow transition in there to get into the gates.

KIRBY: Tara, on contingency plans, obviously, I'm not going to get ahead of the planning process. We are a planning organization. One of our main jobs is to make sure that the president has options.

As he made clear yesterday, he wants to see this mission complete by the end of the month. We are still working towards that goal, but we will be drafting up potential -- what we call in the military, branches and sequels if, in fact, we believe a conversation needs to be had later on in the month that the timeline might need to be extended.

For what purpose, to -- for what number, for how long, all of that is baked into the planning process. I'm just not going to get ahead of what the planners are doing.


REPORTER: I'm still unclear about, at the very end of this, the 30th and 31st, who is going to be security at the airport as the last U.S. troops are leaving. Is there going to be an agreement? Sounded like you were saying the Taliban would be responsible for security.

KIRBY: No. I said the Taliban will be responsible for running an airport in a city where they're now the titular heads of government there.


Courtney, when we are gone, the airport will no longer be secured by American forces. What that security looks like after we're gone, I can't speak to that.

REPORTER: Before the U.S. leaves. Let's say those last couple aircraft leave with Americans, who is running security keeping those aircraft and the runway safe.

TAYLOR: Yeah. So, you're asking a very good tactical question, right? Security, which we would call the commands' inherent responsibility throughout every phase of the operation, we are continuing to secure ourselves to the very last requirement of that. When you say who is securing the last flight and all those things, we will have that ability to secure ourselves through multiple means, to ensure flights are able to take off.

REPORTER: While I have you up there, I want to clear one thing you've said. You said the most senior commanders on the ground are out and discussing things with the Talibans.

Do you mean Admiral Vasely and General Donohue actually going to the checkpoints --

TAYLOR: I don't want to give you names. I will tell you commanders who have authority at echelon to be able to communicate -- as we've said, the most important thing is to be able to coordinate with the Taliban to get the right people through. We've seen that there's been reports of not the right folks being able to get through -- so every day, we are ensuring that we can get as many people in as possible so that we can fly them to safety.

REPORTER: If I could ask you one more, John, on the equipment you were talking about earlier.

So, when you talk about transitions towards getting military assets out, obviously getting the people out, American military out. [11:05:07]

But will there be a point where you will have a decision or General, whomever it is, McKenzie (ph), will have decision about putting people on these aircraft or putting some of the equipment, artillery, all the equipment that's still at the airport there. Has there been a decision made to prioritize lives over military equipment?

KIRBY: Lives are always going to be the priority, Court, period.

As we get closer to the end, there will be some equipment and systems that we will probably take with us as we leave. The disposition of what we aren't taking with us, that will be up to Admiral Vasely to determine how that stuff is handled, but lives will always be the chief priority throughout this entire process.

REPORTER: All nationalities?

KIRBY: Lives with always be the priority throughout this process. Let me go over here. Idriss?

REPORTER: Two quick questions. I think yesterday you did put out a statement that about 4,000 Americans have been evacuated.

KIRBY: That's correct.

REPORTER: Do you have a base number how many have to be evacuated?

KIRBY: Right now, today, north of 4,400. I don't have a specific number of total Americans that are still in need of leaving. I don't have that.

REPORTER: Just a quick follow-up, the secretary and I guess the department at large have -- lawmakers to come to Kabul unannounced? Do you find it helpful for them to be there?

KIRBY: We were not aware of this visit, and we are obviously not encouraging VIP visits to a very tense, dangerous and dynamic situation at that airport and inside Kabul generally. The secretary I think would have appreciated the opportunity to have had a conversation before the visit took place.

REPORTER: Just how disruptive was it having them there?

KIRBY: They got a chance to talk to commanders, as I understand. They got a chance to talk to troops, but to say there wasn't a need to flex and to alter the day's flow including the need to have protection for these members of Congress, that wouldn't be a genuine thing for me to assert. There was certainly -- there was certainly a pull-off of the kinds of missions we were trying to do to be able to accommodate that visit.

REPORTER: Just to be clear, Congressman Moulton and Congressman Meijer, they took seats that would have been for refugees leaving and took time away from the mission. KIRBY: They certainly took time away from what we had been planning

to do that day, and I don't know on the aircraft -- they did fly out on a military aircraft. I honestly don't know what the seat capacity was on that aircraft. But they are out of the country now.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Just one more question on withdrawal in the coming days. Since the president has said, setting contingency planning aside, that everyone will be out by August 31st, my question is, do you have in hand all the authorities, approvals, signed orders, whatever is necessary to just move ahead and carry that out, or does the president, the secretary, General McKenzie, General Millie, does somebody still have to sign an order to have that formal withdrawal begin?

KIRBY: Barb, without making it sound like I'm trying to gloss over your question, obviously we're tracking the end of the mission at the end of the month. So, of course, General McKenzie has retrograde plans on the shelf and ready to go. But I can assure you that before that effort is undertaken in earnest. There will be a conversation with the secretary of defense and Secretary Austin will have a chance to provide his guidance with respect to retrograde, and I think I'll leave it that.

STARR: I'm sorry. I guess I don't understand. The president made a decision to stick to the deadline of august 31st of all intents and purposes.


KIRBY: That's right.

STARR: And you have that from the commander-in-chief.

KIRBY: Uh-huh.

STARR: So what is it -- I just don't get it. What is it that still has to happen to have the formal official withdrawal begin?

KIRBY: The president also said that he wanted the pentagon to come up with contingency plans should there be a need to have a conversation about altering the timeline. So we are tracking towards the 31st. There are retrograde plans that have been drafted up, and the secretary has seen them and is aware of them. I think you would expect that in these final days the secretary would want to have the opportunity to issue specific direction to General McKenzie about going forward with those retrograde plans.

We're going to try -- as I said -- we are focused on that date, but also focused keenly on making sure we get as many people out as fast as we can for as long as we can. If there has to be alterations to that, obviously Secretary Austin is going to want to be a part of that conversation and be able to issue his guidance and direction to commanders on the ground -- Christina. REPORTER: Thank you. Can you confirm that no Americans have been

killed since August 14th? And if there is any American killed through August 31st, how would that be announced?

KIRBY: Are you talking American soldiers, troops?

REPORTER: Any American.

KIRBY: No, there have been no U.S. troops killed since the 14th. I know of one minor injury. I know of no American citizens who have been killed on this. We don't have perfect visibility to everything going on in Kabul. We know of no American casualties.

REPORTER: Just one more question. When exactly does the August 31st deadline take effect? Is that August 31st midnight or is that September 1st midnight?

KIRBY: August 31st. Thank you.

REPORTER: Just wanted to clarify a couple of points you made earlier for me.

You mentioned at some point the U.S. will prioritize getting military personnel out of Hamid Karzai International Airport. I'm curious that given that, is there a point where Afghan nationals and U.S. citizens will not be allowed to get into the airport, the supposition being that you would have to have some sort of cutoff before you can could fly the final troops out. If so, when is that?

TAYLOR: So, I just want to go back to something I said earlier about airflow. As you've seen the capability over the last three days, over 90 aircraft total yesterday. So, a lot focused on evacuations. The way to answer that question is, the commanders who will go forward with their -- the plan, will have options to make decisions on a daily, sometimes hourly basis of what loads are ready, what aircraft are ready, can I put something else on that bird.

That's how fluid and quite honestly, we're able to do that level of planning. It goes back to the overall missions is continue to be able to get as many out as possible.

REPORTER: I appreciate that. I think one reason I'm a little confused, it seems part of this is contingent on the Taliban and how they secure the area around the airport, who they let in and when they let them in.

So, I think one thing that would help me understand better is, who makes the final determination of security outside the airport? You made mention that there are communications happening. But, for example, if the U.S. wanted some kind of national in and the Taliban didn't want to let them in. Who makes that determination and how is it sorted out?

TAYLOR: Right now, the airfield is secure to allow full operations. I do not assess that is going to change right now. So, that is our current planning, and we'll continue to go forward with that. KIRBY: Nancy, I think to sort of revisit what I said before, we've

been very clear with Taliban leaders about what credentials we want them to accept. Remember, it's American citizens. It's SIV applicants and it's vulnerable Afghans. We have shared what the proper credentials are.

By and large, not saying it's been perfect, but by and large, the people that we have made clear to the Taliban that we want to have access through the checkpoints have been able to get through, by and large. Again, with caveats. So, it hasn't been a big problem to date.

As the general said earlier, we also have other means to go out and get people in if we need to. We've now done three, rotary wing lifts. So we have that option available to us as well. Did that answer your question?

REPORTER: Yeah, I don't mean to be thinking (ph) about this. I'm just trying to understand how that communication happens? Let's say they're not letting in a certain credential you think should be let in. How is that resolved?

KIRBY: Good question. And what would happen is the commanders on the ground would -- if that was brought to their attention -- and this has actually happened. I'm not -- this isn't notional. When we have reports that somebody who is properly credentialed is not being let in or maybe their family members, but they have proper credentials, we are making that clear to the Taliban leaders that, no, they are appropriate, you do need to let them in.

And again, there's been a little give and take. I think it was Nazeera (ph) mentioned this earlier. Not every checkpoint is manned by the same way and same individuals as every other one. So, there's variance in terms of how the word has gotten down and how much the Taliban manning the checkpoint are following the dictates of their commanders. So that's why it's a constant communication on the ground with them to keep that flow going as much as possible.

But yes, there are stops and starts. There are hurdles that have to be overcome almost on any given day. Really, it's a credit to the commanders on the ground there that they're continuing to have these conversations. Did that get at it better?

REPORTER: Yes, thanks.

KIRBY: OK, all right. Jennie?

REPORTER: Thank you, John. Thank you very much.

The South -- the South Korean government is operating a military transport operation to receive the Afghanistan refugees in South Korea. It will arrive tomorrow. As you know, North Korea sponsors the Taliban and we know that in the past the North Korean Taliban, they conducted special training together. What kind of United States monitoring about North Korea which poses the security threat?

KIRBY: You want to take it? TAYLOR: First of all, as we talk about the Republic of Korea's

support to airlift, obviously we, as we said earlier, extremely grateful for their contribution to increase our outflow. You know, throughout the world, as you know, we talk about North Korea and all of our combatant commands, specifically PACOM are always diligent in watching in their mission of ensuring, keeping awareness of any type of thing North Korea is doing. So, once again, we or very grateful and thankful for the Republic of Korea's support in doing this.

REPORTER: Do you have any contingency planned for anything happening in the Korean peninsula during this --

TAYLOR: Indo PACOM's mission remains unchanged and steadfast.

REPORTER: Thank you.


KIRBY: I need to go to the phones and get some more. Tony Capaccio?

REPORTER: John, two quick questions. Jen Psaki yesterday said that this evacuation is on track to be the largest in U.S. history -- the largest airlift in U.S. history. The numbers you have applied so far, 88,000 I think you said have been evacuated.

So, are you pretty confident that you will be able to best the Operation Frequent Wind 1975 Saigon evacuation where 131,000 people were evacuated by air and sea?

KIRBY: We're not competing with history, Tony. We're trying to get as many people out as fast as we can. When it's all said and done, we'll take a look at what we were able to accomplish.

This isn't about trying to beat some sort of historical record. I will only add that at 88,000 in the course of just a week, week and a half is no small feat. You've seen us over the last three days alone exceed what we thought was going to be a maximum capacity. We certainly would like to keep that going for as long as possible.

Let me go back to the phones. Sylvia, I'll get to you. I promise.

Stephen Losey?

REPORTER: Yes, thank you. Can you tell me if all SIV holders who have made it onto the airport ground with valid papers are going to be able to make it onto flights? I ask because an interpreter with an SIV I've been in contact with, just made it onto the grounds, was almost put out of the gate. That appears to have now been corrected.


But will -- will this interpreter and other SIV holders who are on the ground be able to fly out before the deadline is over?



REPORTER: Thank you. I have two small questions. First, about the numbers. You said that 88,000 departed since the 14th of August. Is it only U.S. flight, so if it's not on a U.S. flight, how many were evacuated by U.S. flights?

TAYLOR: Total number?


TAYLOR: Right at around 58,000 to 60,000.

REPORTER: Okay. Thank you.

And the second question was about the president mentioned the ISIS-K threat. I wanted to know if you've received new threats, if there was an immediate danger at the gates or if it's a threat in general that you have known for a long time.

TAYLOR: So, as we talk about, we won't go into specific intelligence collection. But we know, as previously reported, there is a threat. This has been a dangerous place that has had threats by ISIS, and we continue to ensure that we collect and keep the force protection to the highest levels possible to ensure we're able to continue evacuation operations.

REPORTER: So you won't confirm new threats?

KIRBY: We're not going to talk about the intelligence farm. You know that. As the general said, these are credible threats and we're mindful of that. We're not going to talk about it in great detail.


REPORTER: I want to clarify your remarks about the vaccine memo. Is this to say that the secretary is not going to request a waiver from the president and DOD will just give vaccines on a mandatory basis as they become --

KIRBY: No, not at all. We'll have to see where the other vaccines end up. That's not at all what I meant to say. It's just that the only ones that will be made mandatory right now are the -- are ones licensed by the FDA.

REPORTER: So by mid September, if I may ask?

KIRBY: I won't rule anything in or out. As the memo says, we'll only make mandatory those that have FDA licensure. The question alone would indicate that the other vaccines are getting close.

REPORTER: How is the relationship between U.S. and Taliban? Do you think Pakistan should play a role to make a good relationship? As long as I heard from Taliban spokesperson, you guys have no good relationship, right, because they prevented civilian to leave Afghanistan. Do you think that Pakistan has role? Which role play Pakistan? KIRBY: All of Afghanistan's neighbors can play a role here. We hope

that they do, a constructive role in Afghanistan's future. Pakistan certainly I would think would figure largely into that calculus, as we talked about. There's safe havens across the border remain a problem. We've been very honest and candid with Pakistani leaders about the importance of not allowing that.

You would want to believe that they also share that sense of urgency because they, too, are the victims of terrorist attacks that emanate from there. They should, and I suspect that they will want to play a significant role going forward. And we would just ask for them and for any country, any neighboring country to make that as constructive as possible.

In the back there.

REPORTER: What percent of the forces aren't vaccinated yet and when will they have to be vaccinated by?

KIRBY: So, on the active duty force, 68 percent is fully vaccinated, and we estimate just over 76 percent have at least one dose. I can break this down by the services. This would include guard and reserves in these figures.

For the Army, 40 percent fully vaccinated with 57 percent with one dose. For the Marine Corps, 53 percent fully vaccinated, 60 percent with one dose. For the Navy, 73 percent fully vaccinated, 79 percent with at least one dose. And for the Air Force, which includes Space Force, that's 57 percent fully vaccinated, 64 percent with one dose.

The secretary has made clear his expectation to the military departments that he wants them to move with some alacrity here and get the forcefully vaccinated as fast as possible.


If you look in his memo, you'll see he tasked them to regularly update the deputy secretary on a very frequent basis on how they're moving out to achieve those goals. Right now, this mandatory vaccine will just be Pfizer, and we'll see where it goes with the other licensures.

REPORTER: John, will you be mandating vaccines for any of the Afghan refugees who come into the United States and are brought here by the U.S. military?

KIRBY: I'm going to leave that question to the State Department. There is COVID screening being done at each stop along the way. Again, I think that's a better question for the state department.

REPORTER: You just said any SIV holders that come to the gate would be let onto a flight. But we're just getting real-time reports from Abbey Gate that marines are turning away SIV holders. Can you clarify, are marines supposed to be turning away those with SIV papers or with authorization to come onto the airport? Have they closed down Abby Gate? KIRBY: I'm going to let the general take that question. The question

that was posed to me by, I think it was Stephen, was if you have S IV credentials and you're at the field, if you're on the airport, will you be able to get off. The answer is yes. I'll let the general take that.

TAYLOR: Obviously, I can't speak to the absolute real-time to the second report. The guidance still remains. Those that have the proper paperwork and are safely at the gates, is to bring them in and to process them. I can't speak to that specific report there. But what I do know is that, whether it's our marines or soldiers that are at those gates, working with the counselor officers who are there, as people are there and present the proper SIV paperwork, we are to get them as quickly as possible in, process them --

REPORTER: Can you make sure that message gets down to the Marines at Abby Bate? But this is a legitimate report that just came in.

TAYLOR: We appreciate those reports, right? I just know as I have talked to the commanders that they're using a lot of time and it's good to ensure they get this information and put it out throughout the entire force.

KIRBY: Jen, without speaking to this case, sometimes gates -- traffic is halted at the gates to manage flow on the airport. It's a physics issue. Again, appreciate that. If you share with us after the briefing the details of this, we will certainly pass it on, absolutely.

REPORTER: Can I ask one more vaccine question. Now there's been several weeks since the decision to make this mandatory, what is the secretary's policy or decision on any troops who refuse to get the vaccine?

KIRBY: Great question. What the secretary has communicated to the military departments is to execute this mandatory vaccination program with obviously skill and professionalism, which we always do, but also with a measure of compassion. And so, for a member who still objects -- obviously you can ask for an exemption on religious grounds. You certainly can be exempt if you have a pre-existing condition that your doctor advises you not to get it, obviously. But if it's an objection outside those two frameworks, the individual will be offered a chance to sit down with a physician and have that physician communicate to them the risks that they're taking by continuing to not want to take the vaccine.

They will also be offered a chance to sit down with their chain of command and their leadership to talk about the risks that their objection will impose on the unit and on the force and on their teammates. The point is, court, that the commanders have a wide range of tools available to them to help their teammates make the right decision for themselves, for their families and for their units.

We expect and the secretary expects that the commanders will use those tools short of having to use the UCMJ.

REPORTER: If the service member goes through the counseling, doesn't have a religious objection and still objects and refuges to get the vaccine, the individual will be processed in UCMJ?

KIRBY: The commanders have a wide range of tools available to them, short of using the UCMJ. And I think, you know, we're going to trust the commanders are going to make the right decision forward.

REPORTER: So, they get like an NJP basically?

KIRBY: Court, I can't give you an exact answer to every hypothetical situation. There are -- it is man -- once you mandate it -- once you mandate it, as we've done, it's a lawful order. It's a lawful order.