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Pentagon: 122,000+ Evacuated During Mission So Far; Pentagon: Threat to Kabul Airport Remains "Real" and "Specific"; Parts of Louisiana Unreachable, Extent of Ida's Damage Unclear. Aired 11-11:30a ET
Aired August 30, 2021 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: As General McKenzie said, we're going to -- we're going to investigate. We're going to get to the bottom of what happened last Thursday. Thirteen precious lives were lost. We're going to take that seriously and we're going to -- we're not going to investigate it in public.
Number three, I am absolutely not going to speak to a press story that was informed by the unlawful disclosure of classified information and sensitive deliberations here at the Pentagon. Just not going to do it.
REPORTER: John, given being conducted as a residential area, this strike, this drone strike -- was collateral damage of this strike was almost a certainty. So, was that the only option you guys used? It's a question to both of you, was there any other option to stop that bomb related (ph) with the vehicle?
KIRBY: I'll let the general -- I'll ask the general to provide context. Only thing I would say is that we've use the word dynamic a lot, and I know that sounds like Pentagon speak and -- but that is really how -- the best way to describe the threats we're facing -- dynamic, moving, fluid, quick, and because that is how ISIS-k operates. And we have to try to be as quick and as nimble as they are.
And when you have what we believe to be an imminent threat and we believe this to be an imminent threat, we took the action that we believe was the most necessary at the best opportunity to thwart that attack.
MAJ. GEN. HANK TAYLOR, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, JOINT STAFF REGIONAL OPERATIONS: Commanders will always minimize collateral damage. This is one of the key tenants of what we -- how we operate.
In this case, just like Mr. Kirby said, that this strike prevented a high profile attack against both, you know, coalition and U.S. forces and other Afghan civilians. And so, as we looked at the information that we had during the time of the strike, we took all of those measures in place and the decision was made to strike and thwart that attack.
REPORTER: And on the fired rockets, so the U.S. force protection measures engaged those rockets and apparently they hit one of them or you didn't engage the other ones? You just wanted to engage that specific one?
TAYLOR: As we look at just going back, the force protection SeaRAM did work. It did engage and had effect on the one. And then one did land in an area and it was not effective.
REPORTER: It didn't -- you intercepted that one, right?
TAYLOR: That is correct. We intercepted one and it was effective. The SeaRAM was effective.
REPORTER: John, I just need to clarify the number you state earlier. Of the 122,000, is the 5,400 part of the number of the Americans evacuated or is that a separate number from the --
KIRBY: One hundred twenty-two thousand plus evacuated over the course of this operation going back to late July when we started moving SIV applicants back home and then you add in the -- since then, yes, 5,400 is included in the 122,000.
REPORTER: Thank you.
KIRBY: Of course I understand you can't give us an update on the number of troops on the ground. But are you still confident that all of the troops will be out by the deadline. And also, if you can clarify when that deadline will come into effect, like Kabul time, it is -- it's a little bit --
KIRBY: A fair. To answer your first question is yes and the answer to your second question is I'm not going to get into it.
REPORTER: Thank you. If ISIS-K terrorist continues terrorism in Afghanistan, even after the withdrawal of the U.S. troops on the 31st, will the United States get involved in the war on terror again?
KIRBY: Well, I think I'd like to go back to what I said before to Courtney. The president has made it clear that our -- our combat mission, the war we have been fighting in Afghanistan, that's going to end. And it's going to end very soon here. But what is not going to end is our commitment especially here at the Defense Department to protect the American people from threats, and particularly from any terrorist threat that could emanate from Afghanistan again.
And as I said, to my -- the previous answer, you could see in just the last 24, 36 hours that we do have an effective over the horizon counter-terrorism capability. We've employed it now twice, and that capability will remain. And obviously, we're not going to detail what it looks like on any given day against any particular threat but we're going to maintain that capability to protect the American people from threats that could emanate from Afghanistan.
And it's also important to remember that counter-terrorism threat isn't just in Afghanistan. It's in Levant. It's in North Africa and you've seen that and we're still going to maintain that ability to thwart those threats as best we can. And over the horizon is not something new to us either. I mean, we've been doing this for a long time in places outside of Afghanistan -- yeah.
REPORTER: That over the horizon ability to strike for ISIS (ph), is that still coming from Gulf bases or are you making progress with regional partners for that the over the horizon.
KIRBY: It comes from the over the horizon, Abraham (ph), and I'm not going into more detail on that.
REPORTER: They made with those negotiators --
KIRBY: We continue to have discussions with neighboring nations about possibilities. I don't have anything to announce today.
Alex, let me come back to you. Are you there?
REPORTER: Yeah, you could hear me, John?
KIRBY: I got you.
REPORTER: Yeah, going back to the strike, the drone strike on the vehicle, you know, I want to revisit the evidence you used. It seems like verification that it was a legitimate target came from an secondary explosion an ordinance expert and trained EOD tech told me, you know, assessing the wire photos, publicly available photos of scene show a lack of soot on the walls, relatively little amount of shrapnel, there is a tree that was knocked down that was -- with the foliage still in act.
So, you know, after viewing these things, do you still stand by with a high degree of confidence there was a significant explosion and not something like a gas tank explosion or something like that that may misdirect the evidence of a big secondary explosion?
TAYLOR: We know that, as I said earlier there was a secondary explosion. That assessed that what was there was going to be used in a high profile attack. I don't have details on the -- the information that you're just saying, but our intelligence experts and the CentCom will continue to assess the post-strike activities.
KIRBY: Okay, a couple more. In the back there?
REPORTER: In coordination with Taliban applied to the final phases of the withdrawal, I mean, will they take over the airport before you leave? How will you ensure the protection of your troops and will you depend on your capabilities, how the outcome would look like, the last flight?
KIRBY: There is a lot there. As I said to Louie, we have been in communication with the Taliban about these final days. So that we could make sure there is no miscalculation, no misunderstanding. Our goal is to complete this retrograde and to wrap up evacuation operations as safely and as orderly as we can. I'm not going to get into the details of either the conversations we're having or our processes and procedures.
As we have seen all too vividly in the last day, the threat remains high and it remains real. So what I could assure you is that General McKenzie and Admiral Vasely and General Donohue there on the ground, they have worked out a very carefully coordinated method of safely completing this retrograde and that's about as far as I think I can go.
As for the airport, the airport will remain operational through our final flights. What it looks like after we are gone, I would just point you to what the secretary of state said, that the international community, there is a couple of countries that have talked about being able to come up with an arrangement to keep it operational for commercial air traffic and coordination with the Taliban. I'll let those countries speak for the efforts with the Taliban.
That would not be a U.S. military function. It would not be a U.S. military responsibility once we have completed the retrograde and we are no longer there.
Just a couple more.
REPORTER: The ratio of flights to people getting out has gotten pretty high.
Is that only indicative of fewer people coming on to the airport or is that also a mix of flights filling up with equipment and supplies heading out?
TAYLOR: Like -- so, we're not going into detail of the load plans, but obviously, we're reaching the end of our prescribed mission. So, commanders are inflowing and outflowing those requirements needed to complete the police.
REPORTER: And are there still strike aircraft flying overhead keeping out in case something is going on near the airport while everyone is getting on planes?
TAYLOR: Assets as we talk about -- assets available, we're not getting into the details of what is flying and where there is, but the commanders that are fulfilling the last part of the mission have all of the assets they need in the air and on the ground where they're at to complete the mission safely. KIRBY: Mass evacuation operations are dangerous, period. And the end
of them, particularly one in that environment that we can't consider clearly, cannot consider permissive, are particularly dangerous. And the commanders on the ground have the resources they need to enact appropriate force protection.
REPORTER: What is more dangerous now about saying there are F-18s and the Reapers flying over than it was two weeks ago?
KIRBY: It's not -- it's not -- it's not that we're not saying more specific because for one reason or another, it is that we're in a particularly dangerous time now, Megan, not that it hasn't always been dangerous. But it is particularly dangerous now. And we're just not going to detail every aspect of our force protection measures in public while we still have troops in harm's way and we're still trying to get people out of Afghanistan.
There will be a time to talk about all of that. It's just not today.
REPORTER: One quick question.
KIRBY: Yeah, jen.
REPORTER: There is an American hostage still being held by the Taliban. Has the Taliban agreed to release Mark Frerichs before the U.S. leaves? Does the U.S. have any plans to leave without this American hostage?
KIRBY: Without getting into specifics, Jen, I could tell you that we share the entire government's concerns over Mr. Frerichs and our strong desire to see him return home to his family where he belongs and there has been a concerted effort over many, many months to try to achieve that outcome.
And regardless of what we do over the next day or so, we will remain -- all of us will remain focused on returning him safely to his family. That's not going to change one way or the other.
Okay. Listen, I'm going to wrap it up here. I appreciate it. Thanks very much and we'll talk to you soon.
KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Hello, everyone, I'm Kate Bolduan.
We were just listening to the top Pentagon officials giving an update on the situation in Afghanistan calling the threat to the airport in Kabul real and specific and ongoing. About 1,200 people were evacuated from Kabul in the last 24 hours. And we are gist hours away as they've indicated from the podium from President Biden's deadline to withdrawal all U.S. troops.
Let me go first to CNN's Nick Paton Walsh, he's joining me once again, for the latest on this.
Nick, we've seen -- we know the numbers of the -- from this evacuation, right, the latest update was 122,000 people evacuated, overall 5,400 Americans. But the numbers have slowed considerably in terms of those evacuated in the last 24 hours. And we see this ongoing threat from ISIS.
What are you hearing about what the situation looks like on the ground in Kabul right now?
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Yeah, I mean, very limited information about what's happening in the airport. And you heard John Kirby not answering questions about posture and flowing of individuals an even the deadline whether that would kick in, between the 30th or the 31st -- or some point during the 31st, citing operational security reasons, understandable, frankly, given the environment that they're facing at the airport.
But it does mean that this longest war will happen without as much transparency as possibly some may hope. Also, the 122,000 figure which he did say, interestingly enough, he wasn't able to provide a break down of precisely how many SIV applicants are within that number, passing that on to the state accident.
Now I have concerns that in some of the early chaos around the airport when many crowds rushed toward it, that possibly tens of thousands if not thousands of Afghans who went through less official routes ended up on the tarmac and ended up being flown out.
But we will obviously see in the days ahead and that is clearly something that the Pentagon did not want to get into it. And interestingly enough, they were not in a position to dispute the reports of civilian casualties as a result of the drone strike which hit a car in a compound.
And that appears to, as we understand it, from local reporting on the ground, taken as many as ten lives, possibly including six children, a stark reminder of the violence that has been in Afghanistan for quite sometime. And, of course, John Kirby there saying that no military makes greater efforts to try to protect Americans than the U.S .military does.
But clearly we're in the closing window here. They talk about operations coming to an end. That means sporadic bursts of C-17s landing in the airports over the past day. And we may not know when that moment is that the final departs. The airport will be shrouded in darkness soon if it is not already is.
But this in itself an end of a chapter over the last week, which has extraordinary loss of life for Afghans and also for U.S. service people at that Abbey Gate blast and in the crushes around the airport beforehand, but also too, a 20 year presence in the country which has ended with scenes I think which are often so hard to understand or accept as having inevitable, Kate.
BOLDUAN: And comprehend for sure.
Jeff Zeleny is at the White House for us today. Jeff, one thing that John Kirby did say was this is the largest airlift that U.S. military has ever conducted. But this also comes after we know that President Biden was present for the dignified transfer of those fallen service members yesterday.
What are you hearing from the White House today as the countdown is on for the end of this operation?
JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, you know that President Biden and Vice President Harris and other top advisers are meeting right at this hour. They have been for the last hour or so in the situation room and talking and very likely watching what is happening on the ground in these final hours of America's longest war.
And they are -- to say that things are on edge here at the White House is perhaps an understatement, particularly given the grievous events of the last several days, particularly what President Biden and several other officials went through yesterday, firsthand when they went and paid their respects as these 13 American troops came back to U.S. soil.
And they do believe that the threat is still very real. So they are not giving any specifics about when the actual deadline is. Is it midnight tonight going into the 31st tomorrow which would be about 3:30 here this afternoon. Or is it tomorrow?
But do not look for President Biden to mark this in any type of a major way with a big speech or anything of that kind. They are trying to focus on the number of airlifts as Nick was just saying there, and extraordinary work by the military over the last week. But the work is not yet done. The question is, how many more flights are still remaining.
That is something that John Kirby did not necessarily answer. He told our Barbara Starr, there is still time to get Americans out. A few hundred Americans are thought to still be in Afghanistan. But he would not say if planes will fly tomorrow.
So the next several hours in the White House, across Washington, when the state department, to the pentagon, very tense as America's longest war is closing they hope in a quiet and peaceful way but they're certainly standing by prepared for the opposite of that, Kate.
BOLDUAN: Yeah, let's get over to Barbara Starr. She's at the Pentagon for us, who was in the briefing, of course.
Barbara, this is a particularly dangerous time, something that I wrote down of what John Kirby as well as General Taylor were saying about the tail end of this evacuation operation.
What did you hear that stuck out to you?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think they are going minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour until this is over. Because of the dangerous situation they -- John Kirby also talked about an active threat presumably from ISIS-K still ongoing. I want to endorse what Jeff Zeleny just said, the pentagon often has
tense days. This is one of them. People are very much on edge in terms of not wanting to disclose exactly what could unfold in these final hours. How they will get the remaining U.S. troops out. What are they particularly advising any people in Kabul with American passports or green cards.
They say there is still time for them to get to the airport. Saying that suggests that there is a way for them into the airport. But that can be a very fraught situation. Nobody is saying at this point how that would actually take place.
So, it's a situation where they literally are watching by the minute. Right now, they believe they've gotten about 5,400 Americans out of Afghanistan.
Not a clear picture at the moment how many as we've talked about for days now may be left. The fact that they had had five rockets, only one really was successful, aim for the airport, that they had to destroy a vehicle that was full of explosives, that they had to do that drone strike against operatives out in the southeast of Afghanistan, all of that adds up to what they believe is still very much an intention by ISIS-K, ISIS in Afghanistan, to strike the U.S. before the U.S. is able to pack up and leave.
We're showing pictures right now of the vehicle that blew up with a lot of explosives inside. And a lot of questions about whether there really were secondary explosions. The pentagon insists that there were. That would suggest it was packed with explosives. It may, we do not know, have contributed to potential civilian casualties. Local people on the ground are reporting several civilians dead. The Pentagon said it is convinced there were secondary explosions and they are investigating the whole incident.
But right now, for the next several hours, Kate, this is really an effort below the radar to get the U.S. packed up and gone and destroy any valuable or sensitive military equipment that they can't pack that they have to leave on the airfield and look for all of that to be blown up.
BOLDUAN: We're going to stand by for that.
Colonel Cedric Leighton is also here with me, retired Colonel Cedric Leighton.
Colonel, just to what Barbara was talking, about the five rockets fired at the airport overnight, we learn more detail about what happened with them. Three of them landed outside of the airport. One was neutralized by the SeaRAM and one landed inside of the airport but from the podium they said that it -- that it posed no threat or danger to anyone or any personnel in the airport.
Is that how a SeaRAM is supposed to work? The general said that it was, quote/unquote effective. Is that a successful -- is that successful?
COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, it can be, so there are nuances operationally here but the fact that it actually shot one down of the rockets is good. The other part of it is that based on what we just heard that one rocket that got into the airport perimeter and detonated in an area that was not impacting operations. That's okay as well.
But the other thing that I think we have to bear in mind here, Kate, is the fact that these rockets are not accurate. This is in essence, a poor man's way of getting into the artillery, into the rocket business. And some of these rockets don't have the types of guidance systems. In fact, they have no guidance system like the ones we're used to using.
So what they're doing is they're firing the weapons as targeted as they possibly can. But they're targeting, ISIS-K's targeting is not that accurate. So that is why you see these kind of results.
BOLDUAN: Colonel, thank you so much. We'll have much more we're following minute-by-minute as Barbara Starr said perfectly in the drawdown of that operation and massive evacuation operations. We're going to continue to follow that.
But also coming up for us, the other major story that we're watching play out before our eyes. Hurricane Ida ravaging Louisiana. We are only now beginning to get a sense of how bad the devastation is. CNN has reporters all across the state with the very latest, coming up next.
BOLDUAN: All right. Welcome back, everyone.
We're getting a first look at the devastation playing out across the south. These pictures coming from WLOX. This is the Mississippi coastline, I'm told and what they're seeing, just the effects of Hurricane Ida being left there.
We do know so much destruction. We are getting first look at is in Louisiana. Ida slammed into the state yesterday as a category four storm, leaving at least one person dead and a number that the governor there, the governor of Louisiana, said that he expects will climb substantially throughout the day.
The powerful hurricane just pounded Louisiana for hours and hours, grinding over the land with high winds, heavy rains, punishing storm surge. We're going to continue to show you some of the destruction throughout our show -- flooded homes, ripped off roofs, trapping some residents in the rapidly rising waters.
Right now, more than a million customers in the state with without power. Most of them in the New Orleans area. An officials are warning it could be weeks to restore power completely to some areas. We have reporters all over Louisiana for us today.
CNN's Jason Carroll, he is live in Houma with the latest.
Jason, what are you seeing there?
JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, just as we've been able to get out and take a look nearly every structure in downtown Houma has some sort of damage. If you look behind me, you could see this is an example of what we've been seeing all over Houma. This building behind us partially collapsed roof, that is what we've been seeing par partially collapsed homes and damage nearly everywhere you look. The house next to it, Kate, for example, that house still standing but that man lost part of his roof and carport.
He rode out the storm with his wife.