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At This Hour

Pentagon: Taliban Security Failure May Have Led to Bombing. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired August 27, 2021 - 11:00   ET


MAJ. GEN. HANK TAYLOR, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, JOINT STAFF REGIONAL OPERATIONS: My discussion with the commanders there on the ground is that multiple activities have taken place to increase the force protection, specifically in communication with the Taliban of how they are executing their check point operations and communication with them.


So I would say there is multiple -- I don't want to good into the details of the exact communication but that is happened. And what we've seen today is a little lessening of what we would say total capacity of people in and around gates.


REPORTER: Thank you, John. As the general said, ISIS since yesterday, people were worried about everything about the Taliban, they were psychologically and in a lot of situations, some of family the target and tortured by the Taliban. But since yesterday that ISIS created, Afghan people are more, more worried.

Do you think that it is another civil war will stop in Afghanistan, that's way most of Afghan people question and everybody now want to leave the country, because now is -- before it was only Taliban and now ISIS also show up one more time their activity. Do you think that is another civil war that starts soon?

KIRBY: Before I try to answer that question, I do want to take the opportunity on behalf of the Department of Defense to also make sure that we express our condolences for the Afghan people who suffered in yesterday's attack. We know that there were a number of killed and wounded Afghan civilians at the airport. And that there are families that are dealing with the same devastating terrible news that now Gold Star families here in the department are dealing with.

So, again, on behalf of the secretary, we offer our condolences and thoughts and prayers.

And I wish I had a crystal ball and know for sure what is going to happen in Afghanistan. We don't. We obviously don't want to see the country torn asunder through civil war. But that is why whatever the future of Afghanistan is from a

governance perspective, we're going to stay engaged with the international community, to make sure that Afghans, Afghanistan's leaders are held to proper account for the way they are governing and that Afghanistan's neighbors also try to play a constructive productive role in whatever the future of Afghanistan is going to be.

Though we will not have a military presence there, the United States government will still want to see what -- what we could do with the international community to make sure that Afghans can have the best of all possible outcomes for their future.

But I -- I just, I think it would be foolish for us to try to be too predictive about what is going to happen right now.

REPORTER: You have not changed the policy again to be involved again in Afghanistan?

KIRBY: The commander-in-chief has made a very clear decision that it is time to end America's involvement on the ground in the war in Afghanistan and we're going to execute that decision, as we should.


REPORTER: John, for the record, would you clear up the confusion over the service affiliation of the dead. It sounds like we have a total number of 13. But that is a break down within the 13 a little unclear. The marine statement said at this time. So can you tell us what it is and then I have a question for the general.

KIRBY: I'm not able to break it down specifically right now, David. And I want to defer to the services to speak to their specific number of casualties. And you could imagine, they are having to make -- they're having to have difficult conversations with a number of families and we here at the department don't want to get ahead of that process. So I just -- I think on that one I would just defer to the services.

REPORTER: And, General, you didn't answer the question about whether the Taliban have met General McKenzie's request to push the perimeter further out away from the airport. And he also said that he was going to ask them to close some specific roads.

TAYLOR: Sorry if I didn't add that level of specificity. But I know those -- just exactly what General McKenzie said had a been passed to his commanders to have discussions with the Taliban to take not only those specific measures but other activities that will increase the security and the facilitation of those getting through. So --

REPORTER: We know they're coming.

TAYLOR: The discussions?


TAYLOR: I cannot report what actions the Taliban have taken in the last. But I know that those discussions are happening in -- that have happened.

KIRBY: Okay, I have to get to the phones a little bit here.

Laura Seligman, "Politico".

Are you there, Laura? Okay. We'll back to you, Laura, if you're not able to pipe in there.


REPORTER: Hi, can you hear me?

VAUSE: Yes, sir.

REPORTER: Okay, yesterday the president said we're going to be if a circumstance where I believe numerous opportunities will continue to provide access for additional persons to get out of Afghanistan. This is after the 31st.

You said either through means that we provide or provided through in cooperation with the Taliban. You could give me a sense of the planning you're doing to take that direction to heart and what are the military implications of the president's desire for still removing people after the 31st, will there be continued talks with the Taliban staging a force in the region to get more people out, et cetera?

KIRBY: Yeah, Tony, I think my colleague at the White House and the State Department have addressed this question before. I mean, we -- the inner agency, the U.S. government will pursue a variety of ways to help any Americans who want to get out after our military presence at the airport has ended, to be able to help them get out. And it is -- while Afghanistan is a unique case, it is not completely separated from the larger efforts that the United States government pursues all over the world when we know that Americans are at special risk, we do what we can to get them out. And that doesn't necessarily involve the United States military.

So I am not going to -- I wouldn't speculate one way or another about what is going to happen after this particular mission ends. But I would not envision a significant military role in that effort going forward.


KIRBY: Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON: Back to what David was asking. If the U.S. military knew there were improvements to be made such as closing roads and pushing the perimeter back further, why wasn't this discussion engaged in before -- before the attack, why wasn't the point pressed, why weren't these improvements asked for by the Taliban. Because you're saying, General McKenzie was clear, he's asking for this now.

KIRBY: Well I'll tell you, from the very get-go, even before we had specific threat assessment, it was of paramount importance to General McKenzie, to the secretary and I don't want to speak for the chairman but think I can for General Milley as well in this regard.

I could tell you from the very beginning force protection was always at the front of everybody's mind. And force protection as you well know particularly in a dynamic environment is something that changes all of the time. And so as we got more information, we made adjustments to force protection measures to try to do the best we could at what we thought were the specific threats we were facing.

And you heard the general talk yesterday about even overwatch in the air. And there was a lot of effort being done, which included, as the general said, daily communication with Taliban about the nature of the threat and sharing with them the appropriate relevant information about what we knew.

Now clearly all of that effort and there was a lot of effort, clearly fell short in some way because this attack was able to be perpetrated and we did suffer as well as our Afghan friends, suffer casualties.

We're going to do the forensics on this, Barb, and clearly try to figure out what went wrong, because clearly something went wrong. But it would be irresponsible if we didn't act immediately to just to double down and make sure that we were -- that we were being as anticipatory as possible because we still believe there are credible threats.


In fact, I would say specific credible threats and we want to make sure we're prepared for those. And I don't think, and I'm sure you could understand, that just by virtue of the fact that we may be taking other steps doesn't mean that they would have necessarily been the proper steps for what we saw yesterday. We have additional information and so what I would tell you is we're -- what you're seeing us act on to the degree we could talk about it is based on information that we have. And I think I'll leave it at that.

REPORTER: When you say you have additional information, can you tell us, do you mean you have developed additional information since the attack, do you still believe something is potentially imminent?

KIRBY: I thought General McKenzie covered it very well with you yet. We certainly are prepared and would expect future attempts, absolutely. But I won't get into what we're doing.

REPORTER: Do you have additional intelligence since the attack?

KIRBY: We -- again, without talking to intelligence, we're monitoring these threats very, very specifically. Virtually in real time and you could understand we couldn't get any more detail than that -- Tara.

REPORTER: Two questions for General Taylor. In the wake of the attacks has the U.S. commanders on the ground had improved communications with Taliban commanders not only in improving security but potentially in getting SIV applicants or Afghans through the gates and secondly, if the wake of the attacks since ISIS is also a problem for the Taliban, is there potential there to coordinate to actually target ISIS?

TAYLOR: So, we say improved communication, I just want to -- I would answer that with we are continuing, you know, communication. So improve, I would say every day that is improving, because we have more repetitions. We're able to continue to have open lines of communication.

So the specificity of what is being passed back and forth tactically to allow for a better security environment, I would say is improving because those repetitions are happening and the understanding of the Taliban of what needs to take place is being reinforced. So I think, yes.

And then your second question of passing on specifics like what are we looking for here, what is the threat that we need you to look for, yes, that is absolutely being passed from the commanders on the ground to the Taliban commanders to ensure as Mr. Kirby said, things like yesterday we understand what to look for and we understand what the threat is to try to prevent it.

REPORTER: Specifically to target ISIS though.

TAYLOR: To any -- those threats -- yes, those ISIS threats that could come in.

REPORTER: And then secondly, there was a secondary explosion later yesterday where U.S. forces were doing controls detonations of equipment. You could talk about the type of equipment in the retrograde so it doesn't fall into the wrong hands either.

TAYLOR: So the type of equipment what was destroyed, I don't have that. But we have said that the commander has the authority there to destroy equipment that they feel is responsible.

As we talked about controlled detonations, I think that was your specific question, that is what we call that, a controlled detonation that could take place if the commander decided to destroy some type of equipment.

KIRBY: I only add that as I mentioned earlier, lives are going to be the priority, Tara. So there will be -- you could expect that there will be other equipment and material things that will not be brought back with us. We're going to do this in a judicious way. Some stuff will come back with us.

But for the aircraft that are departed, as we get closer to the end of the month, we want to prioritize passenger seats as much as possible. So you're going to continue to see things disposed of in a responsible way as we get closer to the end of the mission, and I think people would expect us to do that.


REPORTER: John, what is the department's assessment of the capabilities of ISIS-K?


And is there concern that they could use Afghanistan to launch attacks against the United States post-August 31st?

KIRBY: Well, obviously, there are serious terrorist threats. And that was brought home to us in pretty stark ways yesterday. We take the threat very, very seriously.

I don't want to -- I'm not going to speculate about future threats. What I will tell you, the president has made this clear and the secretary has made it clear to the leadership at the Pentagon, that we're going -- we're not going to allow attacks on the homeland to eminent from Afghanistan like they did 20 years ago and we do have over the horizon counter capability to make sure that doesn't happen and I will leave it at that.

REPORTER: Do you believe that Afghanistan could with stand ISIS-K, could defeat them?

KIRBY: I think that the threat by -- from ISIS is real. And nobody wants to see that threat grow. I cannot speak, would not begin to speak for Taliban capabilities or Taliban intent. Obviously, there is significant animosity between these two groups. And they don't share interests. But I'm not -- it would be foolish for me to try to predict to the degree which -- what operations the Taliban may conduct against ISIS-K.

All I could tell you is the direction that this department has is to not allow attacks on the homeland to emanate from Afghanistan again. And we are committed to that, as well as counter-terrorism operations elsewhere around the world, because the threat has metastasized outside of Afghanistan to other places where we also have to maintain a focus and a degree of over the horizon counter-terrorism capability.

Let me go back over here in the back here.

REPORTER: Two questions. First, could you speak to any rescue ops that have happened since the attack.

KIRBY: I don't think there has been any -- you mean by rotary?


KIRBY: Nothing additional.

REPORTER: And the second question, which is probably more for the general. In the past days, we've seen 89 to 94 flights leave Kabul and somewhere between 125 and 216. Could you explain why it fluctuates so much, but the number of flights have remained relatively steady?

TAYLOR: Yeah. So, I think what you have seen, I'll break these into two bins. First as you look at the U.S. flights have stayed pretty steady, in the numbers. As other countries are coming in, they are evacuating certain numbers, you know, of where they are in their capability, a requirement. So I think that is where you've seen some of the differences in the outward flow. And I think, I mean, you have really have to go back to as my number

is today, 110,000 total. We have zero up to 110,000, we would see some of the numbers start to come down.

KIRBY: Let me go back to the phones. Sam Legron?

REPORTER: Hey, John. As part of the exit, is it the U.S. intention to leave a functioning airport with readers that work, computers that work? What is the obligation for what you all leave behind? Thanks.

KIRBY: The airport is functioning, Sam. And we need it to continue to function up until the very end. I think the general assumption is that as we depart, we're going to need to depart from a functional completely operational airport. That is our assumption going forward. That it will be operational right up until we're gone.

And as you probably heard Secretary Blinken say the other day, that we're working with the international communities, there are several nations that want to contribute to the effort to keep it operational and willing to work with the Taliban to that end, and I'll let them speak to that effort.


REPORTER: In Taliban operations against ISIS aside, any future things or whatever, do you have any assessment of what ISIS fighters at the prisons that they may have taken action against or killed other than some of the ones that we know about?

KIRBY: I do not. I don't.

REPORTER: Is that something that is knowable? That you have sought to find out and can't find out.

KIRBY: I don't know if that is knowable, Gordon. I'm happy to take that question but I don't want to raise expectations on the level of granularity of what we got from the prison releases. I don't want to promise here. I'm happy to ask that question, but I can't promise you a good answer.

REPORTER: Thank you, John.

The 50,000 SIV capacity that you referenced early, can we expect them to be processed in the same four states or a capacity beyond the New Jersey, Virginia, Texas and Wisconsin?

KIRBY: No, I think I added some extra facilities here today that I -- ones in new Mexico, Hallman Air Force Base and two in Virginia, Quantico and Fort Pickett. And the secretary has been clear that if we need more, because the demand is there, that we'll work with the states and we'll work with the services to identify potential future U.S. military instillations but those are the ones that we're operating from now.

REPORTER: A quick follow up. Currently it is a 14 step process to get an siv application validated. Is there going to be a change in where those are processed, are those being processed overseas and then brought to U.S. bases for final relocation?

KIRBY: I honestly can't answer that question. That is really for the State Department. They run the SIV process. It is not a Department of Defense equity.


REPORTER: Thank you. May I ask -- thank you. Next time I will bring more. President Biden said that also -- President Biden said also the General McKenzie said yesterday that he had the international partners, have he or thought about military operations, the -- or our allies and what are the primary U.S. primary military options?

TAYLOR: So I can't speak for General McKenzie. And the discussions other than what he said yesterday is, you know, continuing to coordinate with all of our allies and partners that are helping us with this right now is extremely important. So the ability to continue to synchronize all of the airlift that continues to come in. And ensuring that as timing goes forward, all of that is well-planned together is extremely important. I think I have to turn it over to back to General McKenzie for any of those other specific questions.

REPORTER: And another one. What are the units special reasons for our allies and international partners? Do we have any message for them?

TAYLOR: I'm sorry?

REPORTER: What wishes.

TAYLOR: From the operational side I think the it is just like I said earlier, it is continue that support and the work together as we continue this mission is extremely important. Thank you.

REPORTER: Can I follow up about something that Gordon asked about. Which is hearing some reports that there have been some attacks by ISIS-K against Taliban check points in the city. Are you seeing any evidence after tacks that ISIS-K is attacking those Taliban --

TAYLOR: I have not seen those reports.

REPORTER: And you could give us clarification on the sharing of American citizens information as well as SIV information with the Taliban. There were reports yesterday that the U.S. officials were sharing that information.

TAYLOR: Yeah, I don't think there is sharing information as you would say in that question of like we're giving information. What information is very important right now is at the ground level to ensure that as people approach check points, that those Taliban checkpoint leaders have an understand who is coming, what documentation they are supposed to have.

Because that is really important for us to ensure that the time that people are not in areas and just staying there for long periods of time, you know, the commanders on the ground are continuing to coordinate. How do we continue to increase that through-put through checkpoints and gates to get on HKIA as fast as we can. That is very safe to get them there. Thanks.

REPORTER: How many troops, U.S. troops are still on the ground at HKIA and how is the security posture of the gate changed? There are more or fewer troops going in and out of the gates and is there more over watch in the crowd for suspicious activity?

TAYLOR: Back what Mr. Kirby said earlier with we talk about troop numbers and capability. Capability has not changed for us to secure all of the gates, to be able to process evacuees and our ability to rapidly turn aircraft as they arrive and get those up.


And as we talk about force protection at the gate, I'm not going to get into the specific TTPs that those junior leaders are taking down there other than we continue to learn every day from the day before. And we work within all of the capabilities we have to ensure, one, that we could continue people to come in, but also stay safe.

REPORTER: When you say continue to learn, does that mean you have to switch things up in order to make it more safe.

TAYLOR: I would say patterns are things that we try not to, you know, get into. So, you know, I would just say as the most simple operational piece that we're always doing things that we can to keep us safe and not create patterns.

KIRBY: I would only add to that, as mentioned, we still have active threat streams and we're taking steps that we believe are appropriate to those streams. And I think I'd leave it at that.

And I want to foot stomp the boots on ground number, as the general mentioned in his opening statement. More than 5,000 today. We are not going to get in going forward to a daily count of what is on the ground. Just going forward as we get closer to the end of the month and the end of the mission, don't expect daily updates on what exactly how many troops are there at any given moment -- Mike.

REPORTER: Yeah. When you say there is going to be an investigation into what happened yesterday, are you talking about a full criminal inquiry with forensics people on the ground and interviewing possible witnesses, who would be doing that and how do you that in the middle of a war zone?

KIRBY: I wouldn't characterize it as a criminal investigation. But it is as comprehensive as General McKenzie needs to be to do the forensics here to figure out what happened and what we could learn from it going forward. It will be a very complete and thorough investigation and I will leave it to General McKenzie to describe for you sort of the architecture of what that is going to be. But it is not like we haven't sadly had to do this before.


KIRBY: And we now how to conduct these investigations.

Yes, sir. You.

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE). U.S. service members doing incredible job with sacrificing their life, (INAUDIBLE). My question is some strategy. Do you think the removable from Afghanistan, it will to use your control in the Asia and the Pacific, the U.S. control?

KIRBY: It's not about U.S. control in the Indo Pacific. It is about protecting our country from threats and challenges that emanate from that part of the world and about revitalizing our network of alliance and partnerships to help our partners in the international community do the same. That is why the secretary's first trip was to the region. He just came from the region, the vice president just returned this morning from the region.

We are laser-focused on the Indo Pacific and the security challenges as well as opportunities that are there. It is not about U.S. control. It is about U.S. partnership.

Sylvie, you've been patient.

REPORTER: I know you don't want to speak about the details of the circumstances of the attack, but could you tell us if it was at the gate itself or in the middle of the crowd or at the checkpoint? Was the guy walking or was he in a bus. You could give us a little details?

TAYLOR: First, I'll start off with details or continuing to be collected as it goes back to the question about continuing to learn as much as we can. Because as you know, when attack initially starts, you know, you have to fight the fight. Then we're right now ensuring that, you know, the respect and dignity of our wounded and those that were killed in action.

And so -- but as we look at the details, as we saw yesterday at about 17:48 Kabul time, there was what we reported as a suicide born vest there that was exploded right at and around the gate. We don't know the exact location, you know, but it was right outside in the vicinity of that gate, and then followed by direct fire from an enemy position that is not exactly known. That is the outside and what we would call north of that gate area also.

REPORTER: How many assailants were killed? Was it just the suicide bomber plus the shooter or how many people --

TAYLOR: It goes back to what I said. Right now what we know, there was shooters, don't know the exact number. But one with a suicide vest.

KIRBY: Go ahead.

Wait, we've already got you.

Louie, go ahead.

REPORTER: Was anyone killed by that gunfire?