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The Lead with Jake Tapper
Biden Addresses Nation On Taliban Takeover Of Afghanistan; Biden Stands By Afghanistan Military Withdrawal; Pentagon Briefing On Crisis In Afghanistan. Aired 4-5p ET
Aired August 16, 2021 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
SEN. JONI ERNST (R-IA): And, unfortunately, we see the resurgence of the Taliban and the reconstitution of al Qaeda in Afghanistan. So I worry about the homeland. But that is the very first thing that our president needs to communicate is to these brave men and women, a heartfelt thank you.
The second thing is how are we going to evacuate all of these Americans, all these Afghans?
And then, third, how are we going to contain the terrorists in Afghanistan, not having our personnel on the ground?
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And we only have a little bit left because we just got the two-minute warning from the White House.
But, lastly, would you be in some support of some sort of bipartisan effort to grant and expedite the SIV, the special immigrant visa program? It's been held up, frankly, for years. And neither the Obama nor the Trump nor the Biden administration has been particularly good at speeding up the process. Does that need to happen?
ERNST: Yes, it absolutely does. And Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and I were the lead sponsors of the SIV bill in the United States Senate. It is something we are extremely concerned about. The State Department has been dragging its feet for months now on this issue. It is time that they expedite this. They need to get as many of our friends and our allies out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible.
TAPPER: And do you think -- I'm watching the White House now. Here he comes. Thank you, Senator.
Here's President Biden.
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Good afternoon.
I want to speak today to the unfolding situation in Afghanistan, the developments that have taken place in the last week and the steps we're taking to address the rapidly evolving events.
My national security team and I have been closely monitoring the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and moving quickly to execute the plans we had put in place to respond to every constituency, including -- and contingency -- including the rapid collapse we're seeing now.
I'll speak more in a moment about the specific steps we're taking, but I want to remind everyone how we got here and what America's interests are in Afghanistan.
We went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago with clear goals -- get those who attacked us on September 11th, 2001, and make sure al Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again.
We did that. We severely degraded al Qaeda in Afghanistan. We never gave up the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and we got him. That was a decade ago.
Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.
Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland.
I've argued for many years that our mission should be narrowly focused on counterterrorism -- not counterinsurgency or nation building. That's why I opposed the surge when it was proposed in 2009 when I was vice president.
And that's why, as president, I'm adamant that we focus on the threats we face today in 2021 -- not yesterday's threats.
Today, the terrorist threat has metastasized well beyond Afghanistan -- al Shabaab in Somalia, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Nusra in Syria, ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq and establishing affiliates in multiple countries in Africa and Asia. These threats warrant our attention and our resources.
We conduct effective counterterrorism missions against terrorist groups in multiple countries where we don't have a permanent military presence.
If necessary, we will do the same in Afghanistan. We've developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed.
When I came into office, I inherited a deal that President Trump negotiated with the Taliban. Under his agreement, U.S. forces would be out of Afghanistan by May 1, 2021 -- just a little over three months after I took office.
U.S. forces had already drawn down during the Trump administration from roughly 15,500 American forces to 2,500 troops in country, and the Taliban was at its strongest militarily since 2001.
The choice I had to make, as your President, was either to follow through on that agreement or be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the spring fighting season. There would have been no ceasefire after May 1. There was no agreement protecting our forces after May 1. There was no status quo of stability without American casualties after May 1.
There was only the cold reality of either following through on the agreement to withdraw our forces or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back into combat in Afghanistan, lurching into the third decade of conflict.
I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I've learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces. That's why we were still there. We were clear-eyed about the risks. We planned for every contingency.
But I always promised the American people that I will be straight with you. The truth is: This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.
So what's happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.
If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.
American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves. We spent over a trillion dollars. We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong -- incredibly well equipped -- a force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies.
We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries, provided for the maintenance of their air force -- something the Taliban doesn't have. Taliban does not have an air force. We provided close air support.
We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.
There's some very brave and capable Afghan special forces units and soldiers, but if Afghanistan is unable to mount any real resistance to the Taliban now, there is no chance that 1 year -- 1 more year, 5 more years, or 20 more years of U.S. military boots on the ground would've made any difference.
And here's what I believe to my core: It is wrong to order American troops to step up when Afghanistan's own armed forces would not. If the political leaders of Afghanistan were unable to come together for the good of their people, unable to negotiate for the future of their country when the chips were down, they would never have done so while U.S. troops remained in Afghanistan bearing the brunt of the fighting for them.
And our true strategic competitors, China and Russia, would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilizing Afghanistan indefinitely.
When I hosted President Ghani and Chairman Abdullah at the White House in June and again when I spoke by phone to Ghani in July, we had very frank conversations. We talked about how Afghanistan should prepare to fight their civil wars after the U.S. military departed, to clean up the corruption in government so the government could function for the Afghan people. We talked extensively about the need for Afghan leaders to unite politically.
They failed to do any of that. I also urged them to engage in diplomacy, to seek a political settlement with the Taliban. This advice was flatly refused. Mr. Ghani insisted the Afghan forces would fight, but obviously he was wrong.
So I'm left again to ask of those who argue that we should stay: How many more generations of America's daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghans -- Afghanistan's civil war when Afghan troops will not? How many more lives -- American lives -- is it worth? How many endless rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery?
I'm clear on my answer: I will not repeat the mistakes we've made in the past -- the mistake of staying and fighting indefinitely in a conflict that is not in the national interest of the United States, of doubling down on a civil war in a foreign country, of attempting to remake a country through the endless military deployments of U.S. forces.
Those are the mistakes we cannot continue to repeat, because we have significant vital interests in the world that we cannot afford to ignore.
I also want to acknowledge how painful this is to so many of us. The scenes we're seeing in Afghanistan, they're gut-wrenching, particularly for our veterans, our diplomats, humanitarian workers, for anyone who has spent time on the ground working to support the Afghan people.
For those who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan and for Americans who have fought and served in the country -- serve our country in Afghanistan -- this is deeply, deeply personal.
It is for me as well. I've worked on these issues as long as anyone. I've been throughout Afghanistan during this war -- while the war was going on -- from Kabul to Kandahar to the Kunar Valley.
I've traveled there on four different occasions. I met with the people. I've spoken to the leaders. I spent time with our troops. And I came to understand firsthand what was and was not possible in Afghanistan.
So, now we're focused on what is possible. We will continue to support the Afghan people. We will lead with our diplomacy, our international influence, and our humanitarian aid.
We'll continue to push for regional diplomacy and engagement to prevent violence and instability. We'll continue to speak out for the basic rights of the Afghan people -- of women and girls -- just as we speak out all over the world.
I have been clear that human rights must be the center of our foreign policy, not the periphery. But the way to do it is not through endless military deployments; it's with our diplomacy, our economic tools, and rallying the world to join us.
Now, let me lay out the current mission in Afghanistan. I was asked to authorize -- and I did -- 6,000 U.S. troops to deploy to Afghanistan for the purpose of assisting in the departure of U.S. and Allied civilian personnel from Afghanistan, and to evacuate our Afghan allies and vulnerable Afghans to safety outside of Afghanistan.
Our troops are working to secure the airfield and to ensure continued operation of both the civilian and military flights. We're taking over air traffic control.
We have safely shut down our embassy and transferred our diplomats. Our diplomatic presence is now consolidated at the airport as well.
Over the coming days, we intend to transport out thousands of American citizens who have been living and working in Afghanistan. We'll also continue to support the safe departure of civilian personnel -- the civilian personnel of our allies who are still serving in Afghanistan.
Operation Allies Refugee, which I announced back in July, has already moved 2,000 Afghans who are eligible for Special Immigration Visas and their families to the United States.
In the coming days, the U.S. military will provide assistance to move more SIV-eligible Afghans and their families out of Afghanistan.
We're also expanding refugee access to cover other vulnerable Afghans who worked for our embassy: U.S. non-governmental agencies -- or the U.S. non-governmental organizations; and Afghans who otherwise are at great risk; and U.S. news agencies.
I know that there are concerns about why we did not begin evacuating Afghans -- civilians sooner. Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier -- still hopeful for their country. And part of it was because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, a crisis of confidence.
American troops are performing this mission as professionally and as effectively as they always do, but it is not without risks.
As we carry out this departure, we have made it clear to the Taliban: If they attack our personnel or disrupt our operation, the U.S. presence will be swift and the response will be swift and forceful. We will defend our people with devastating force if necessary.
Our current military mission will be short in time, limited in scope, and focused in its objectives: Get our people and our allies to safety as quickly as possible. And once we have completed this mission, we will conclude our military
withdrawal. We will end America's longest war after 20 long years of bloodshed.
The events we're seeing now are sadly proof that no amount of military force would ever deliver a stable, united, and secure Afghanistan -- as known in history as the graveyard of empires.
What is happening now could just as easily have happened 5 years ago or 15 years in the future. We have to be honest: Our mission in Afghanistan has taken many missteps -- made many missteps over the past two decades.
I'm now the fourth American president to preside over war in Afghanistan -- two Democrats and two Republicans. I will not pass this responsibly on -- responsibility on to a fifth president.
I will not mislead the American people by claiming that just a little more time in Afghanistan will make all the difference. Nor will I shrink from my share of responsibility for where we are today and how we must move forward from here.
I am President of the United States of America, and the buck stops with me.
I am deeply saddened by the facts we now face. But I do not regret my decision to end America's war fighting in Afghanistan and maintain a laser-focus on our counterterrorism missions there and in other parts of the world.
Our mission to degrade the terrorist threat of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and kill Osama bin Laden was a success.
Our decades-long effort to overcome centuries of history and permanently change and remake Afghanistan was not, and I wrote and believed it never could be.
I cannot and I will not ask our troops to fight on endlessly in another -- in another country's civil war, taking casualties, suffering life-shattering injuries, leaving families broken by grief and loss.
This is not in our national security interest. It is not what the American people want. It is not what our troops, who have sacrificed so much over the past two decades, deserve.
I made a commitment to the American people when I ran for president that I would bring America's military involvement in Afghanistan to an end. And while it's been hard and messy -- and yes, far from perfect -- I've honored that commitment.
More importantly, I made a commitment to the brave men and women who serve this nation that I wasn't going to ask them to continue to risk their lives in a military action that should have ended long ago.
Our leaders did that in Vietnam when I got here as a young man. I will not do it in Afghanistan.
I know my decision will be criticized, but I would rather take all that criticism than pass this decision on to another President of the United States -- yet another one -- a fifth one, because it's the right one -- it's the right decision for our people. The right one for our brave service members who have risked their lives serving our nation, and it's the right one for America.
Thank you. May God protect our troops, our diplomats, and all of the brave Americans serving in harm's way.
TAPPER: You've been listening to President Biden speaking at the White House forced to talk about the worsening crisis in Afghanistan, forced to speak to the nation after the calamity of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. The president stated he stands squarely behind the decision he made to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan even though he has in fact been enforced to send roughly 6,000 back in.
The president saying, in fact, that, if anything, the events of the last few days, this foreign policy and humanitarian disaster proves to him that he made the right decision, given the fleeing of Afghan politicians from the country and the collapse of the Afghan military.
The president said that the buck stopped with him, but, in fact, the speech was full of finger-pointing and blame, especially for the Afghans even saying that while the U.S. would be working to rescue those Americans and U.S. allies who needed to be saved, he claimed part of the reason why the U.S. did not save sooner Afghan allies, the translators and others who worked with the U.S. military, who fear being slaughtered by the Taliban, they didn't act sooner because some Afghans, he claimed, did not want to leave earlier because they were hopeful about a new Afghan government.
Mr. Biden also said that the Afghan government discouraged the U.S. from ordering a mass exodus for fear of triggering a crisis of confidence, the president said.
Mr. Biden also focused on the larger decision to end the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, that was in fact his larger focus, whether or not the U.S. should continue to be there he did not really get into or accept any blame for the catastrophic exit that we have been watching on television in the last several days.
Our experts are here.
I want to get everyone's gut reaction. Clarissa, as somebody in Kabul, what was that speech like to you? How do you think Afghans will hear it?
CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think to Afghans, a lot of this will sound like hollow words, Jake. And there will be a lot of frustration with the speech as well because it didn't get to the nub of the core issue, which, as you mentioned, is not the issue of whether the U.S. should withdraw from Afghanistan.
Plenty of Afghans understand that it's Afghanistan's duty to defend itself, that the U.S. couldn't fight this war for more decades. They understand that. Their issue, their grievance is with, as you called it, the catastrophic manner of this withdrawal.
And there was very little there in terms of stepping up to the plate, assuming responsibility or even, dare I suggest it, issuing some kind of an apology to the Afghan people. We saw that desperate crush of humanity.
I also think there will be some frustration or disappointment with what the future holds in terms of what President Biden promised in terms of advocating for the rights of Afghan people. He said we'll engage in regional diplomacy, we'll continue to speak out for Afghan girls.
Speaking out, unfortunately, realistically is going to be very limited in terms of the effects that it is going to have here on the ground in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
He talked also about rallying the world to join in with the U.S. Well, you know whose embassy isn't shut today, Jake? Russia's, China's, those embassies staying open. Those countries still engaged.
And the fact that we just heard the State Department less than a week ago saying the embassy's not closing, guys, and the message is one of enduring partnership. Those words sound hollow. And because those words sound hollow, the words we hear from the president, I believe to many Afghans, will also sound hollow, Jake.
TAPPER: Fareed Zakaria, we had this experience on my show yesterday with Secretary of State Blinken. They want to talk about whether or not the U.S. should stay in Afghanistan for another 20 years. That's obviously more comfortable terrain for the Biden administration than the manner of this exit and the idea of why it has been so ineptly and incompetently done, why President Biden didn't listen to military leaders who talked about how quickly and intelligence officials who talked about how quickly the Taliban might take over the country, how quickly everything could collapse.
The only time I really heard him addressing this, Fareed, was when he explained why they didn't take out so many Afghan translators, et cetera, earlier, and also when he said there is never -- there was never ever going to be a good time to leave Afghanistan.
FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN ANCHOR: Jake, I think you put it well. Look, President Biden made some important points that to an American audience will ring true. The point that ultimately we failed in trying to nation-build in Afghanistan, but more importantly and simply, defeating the Taliban. Let's remember, the Taliban controlled 5 percent of the country in 2001, roughly, once we ousted them.
They were up to 50 percent by the time Donald Trump was in office when there were 15,000 American troops in the country.
So the Taliban had been gaining ground. There was -- it's a fantasy that we could have kept 2,500 troops there. Biden was right about that.
He was right about the fact that, in general, the United States' mission had not found a way to defeat the enemy, to build Afghanistan. All that I think for Americans will ring true.
The part, as you say, that's more complicated, is the withdrawal, the tactical issue of how they did it. Could they not have quietly set a plan in place? Could they have not recognized that, you know, this would happen very quickly and therefore they needed more troops there early? Part of the problem here, Jake, is that the Pentagon, I believe, told them speed is safety. When you get out, get out fast.
Well, that is not compatible with securing an airport, making sure that everyone can get to it, or in orderly processing of people, particularly Afghans. And there frankly it was a hard choice to make, no, we're going to keep forces there, we're going to build up, we're going to hold so that we can do this in an orderly fashion.
Remember, the Taliban has not attacked American troops. So it is possible there was a better way to get out. But as I've said, Jake, at the end of the day, the problem is we lost this war several years ago. We have not been able to defeat the Taliban. Biden did pull the band- aid off. And I think he took a very tough decision, a brave decision, and maybe at the end of the day there is no elegant way to lose a war.
TAPPER: Kaitlan Collins at the White House, usually President Biden can be coerced or -- it actually doesn't even take that much coaxing to take a question shouted out by the press corps after he gives remarks. His staff gets frustrated that he does that. But this time he stayed on message, he gave a speech and left.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Jake. And I think a lot of the questions that went unanswered in that speech are not over why the U.S. is withdrawing from Afghanistan. This is a position that President Biden has held for a very long time ever since he was the vice president for eight years under President Obama. It is not surprising this is the route that he chose to take.
The questions that are facing the administration right now and that did not really get a lot of answers during that speech by President Biden were how this withdrawal happened. Those are the big questions and the big criticisms over the images that are seeing, given we have top national security aides saying that they did plan for every possible contingency, and that is what the White House is telling their Democratic allies on Capitol Hill as well, given the reality of what we are seeing on the ground.
And what Clarissa and Nick are reporting on and the images coming out of the airport in Kabul where there are desperate Afghans clinging to U.S. planes as they are taking off from the tarmac. Those are the big questions that are facing the White House over misjudging the intelligence. Because President Biden did concede six weeks after saying he thought a Taliban takeover was highly unlikely, that it happened a lot faster than they expected. But the questions behind that are whether or not he was warned that this could happen, whether or not the U.S. intelligence did believe that was a possibility.
And if they were preparing for every possibility, why was this not included in it? Because there are people who said, yes, this could happen, they thought it was going to take months. But people like the Secretary of State Blinken, who you interviewed yesterday, said they did not envision it being a Friday-through-Monday takeover. When we pretty much got a 72-hour takeover when it came to Kabul.
And so, those are big questions facing the White House, Jake. And we should note, President Biden did return from Camp David just to give this speech. And now, based on the latest schedule that we are getting from the White House, he is returning to Camp David where we expect him to monitor the situation from there.
TAPPER: Kaitlan Collins, thanks so much.
David Axelrod, I want to bring you on because you said before the address that you thought that you wanted to hear President Biden accept responsibility for the catastrophe we've been watching take place in Afghanistan, Afghans desperate running onto the tarmac grabbing onto the wheels of U.S. Air Force planes falling from those planes almost like a cruel and tragic bookend to the falling man images that we saw on 9/11.
He did say the buck stops with me. But I heard a lot of finger- pointing. What did you think, David?
DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I agree with you, Jake.
I thought that his case for why we had to get out was strong, it was compelling. And I think he did to do that as well. But I do think that he needed to take responsibility.
You know, my thoughts go back to President Kennedy in the Bay of Pigs crisis when that was a failure.
He stood before the American people, and he said, victory has 1,000 fathers, but defeat is an orphan. I am the responsible officer of government.
And I think a little more of that would have been useful for the president here. We're going to continue to see horrific scenes for some time to come here. And this clearly did not go as planned. And to pretend that it did go as planned -- I mean, he did say in passing that this was not -- that it that went faster than they thought it would.
Well, that's like a pretty big fact. And there were all kinds of implications of that. I was thinking when he said we will continue our counterterrorism operations, and we're going to have our eyes on the ground there, well, presumably, they had eyes on the ground now.
And so why did we fail in anticipating what happened? So I think he would have served himself well if he had just embraced it. Yes, there were failures on the part of the -- clearly, on the part of the Afghans. Yes, the government there is corrupt. Yes, Donald Trump left him with a mess.
All of that is true, but he is the commander in chief now. He is in charge of this operation. And he should have said, it did not go as it should have and taken responsibility for that.
TAPPER: Dana, do you think this speech will go over well with a segment of the American people, not just Biden supporters, but with people who are weary of the war, people who are inclined to believe President Biden when he says that there never was going to be a good time to leave this and I'm not going to lose one more American soldier in -- to fight for a country where they won't fight for themselves?
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, yes, and not just Biden supporters, maybe even Trump supporters, since he was the one who got this ball rolling, and even people who weren't necessarily focused on any of this.
To hear the president explain why Afghanistan is in -- and staying in Afghanistan is not in America's national security interests was for domestic American consumption, full stop.
And, obviously, this is -- the imagery here is a symbolic and a very real crisis for the U.S. on an international scale. But what that address was about was telling the American people, this is why I stand by my decision, this is a reminder that I am the fourth president to preside over the war in Afghanistan, and I won't allow there to be a fifth, and weaving in the (AUDIO GAP) from President Biden about China, about Russia.
And as tough a pill as this is to swallow, that clearly was the aim of President Biden. I will say, though, having said all that, he didn't answer really important questions, like, for example, why wasn't -- if this was very long in the planning, why wasn't it executed properly?
Why wasn't the American military ready for this? Why didn't the people who wanted visas, despite what President Biden said, and were asking for it, as you have been talking about constantly, Jake, why weren't they brought out a long time ago, since we knew this deadline was going to happen?
And one other thing that I will say as I toss back to you, Jake, is, I got a text from Biden allies saying one thing that was missing -- and this is about also domestic American consumption -- was an acknowledgement and sympathy with all of the American military forces who have served there who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
Again, you know about this very well, Jake. You have written about it. And maybe there could have been more of an emphasis on that.
TAPPER: David Chalian, President Biden keeps trying to change the subject from this inept withdrawal, which just let's be frank here.
If you withdraw 2, 500 troops, and then you have to send 6,000 back, that's not planned.
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Right.
TAPPER: That's on its face an example of a failure. He keeps trying to change the subject from that to this straw man. It's not actually a straw man, because there are people who want to keep an American presence there.
TAPPER: But to the larger argument about an American presence continued in Afghanistan.
I suppose that that might work for some people.
CHALIAN: Yes, I mean, I actually think he succeeded in that goal today, right, which is to reframe these horrific images of a clearly failed plan in departure here to try and put it, as you called it earlier, Jake, into that safer political terrain of this larger notion of the decision to withdraw forces from Afghanistan.
That's not really what these last 72 hours was about, though. I mean, yes, he can do his best, as he did today, to reframe for the American people what they're seeing, that's a casualty of this ultimate decision that he knows a majority of Americans support him on, which is no longer having a military presence in Afghanistan.
He even said -- he used words like it's going to be hard and messy and far from perfect. He said he's deeply saddened by the facts we are facing right now.
But, again, it all came back in a 20-minute speech, the vast majority of it was just reframing the big decision to ultimately withdraw and not hand this on to another president.
But I will note, just before the speech, Democratic Senator Mark Warner, the chair of the Intel Committee, had put out a statement. And at the end of that statement, he said, it's going to be his mission to ask the tough questions, and, understandably, that it is going to be hard to find the answer to this, to why this did not go clearly the way that the administration had planned for it to go, that the American people deserve answers to that.
And, obviously, all that served in Afghanistan and their families and sacrificed there, they too deserve answers for that because of what they are seeing on the screen. So, though he had a political reframing that I think he did quite well and looked totally in command, as commander in chief -- this was not a Joe Biden that seemed sort of overwhelmed by the problem.
It seemed a tripling down on his decision as president to withdraw the United States from -- the military forces from Afghanistan. But you can't have both, we planned for every contingency, but the truth is, it unfolded more quickly than we anticipated. Those two things don't actually go together.
And it's that -- leaving that unanswered, I think, leaves this opportunity for legitimate criticism that I think the president is going to probably need to continue or at least get back to and try another take at getting those answers to why this didn't go as planned.
TAPPER: And, Jeff Zeleny, to the point David Chalian was just making, President Biden didn't want -- didn't take any questions today. But he's going to face tough questions from Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
I mean, this was a foreign policy disaster, watching what we have watched unfold over the last few days. It is possible, I suppose, that if no Americans suffer and ill fate, have in the last few days, or do in the next week or two, if these rescue missions succeed -- and, God knows, I hope they do -- it is possible that a large swathe of the American people -- and I'm not advocating for this -- that a large swathe simply won't care what happens to the Afghan people.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: And, Jake, I think that's absolutely correct.
And, look, I mean, we have talked more about Afghanistan in the last three days than we have the last three months. This simply is not on the tops of the hearts and minds of most Americans right now. But that is really beside the point.
As David was just smartly pointing out there, there are Democrats asking questions as well, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner, saying he's going to ask tough questions.
One thing here to keep in mind. The top advisers here surrounding President Biden, I am talking specifically...
TAPPER: Jeff, I've got to interrupt you.
We have to go to the State Department, where State Department spokesman Ned Price is talking and briefing reporters. Let's listen.
NED PRICE, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: All remaining us direct-hire embassy personnel, including the ambassador, have relocated to Hamid Karzai International Airport, where they are secure.
The Department of Defense is working to restore a safe and secure environment, so that military and commercial flights can resume. Now, of course, the situation is evolving quickly, and we will communicate information to U.S. citizens as rapidly as possible.
In the meantime, we are asking U.S. citizens to shelter and not to travel to the airport until they hear otherwise from the Department of State. We also continue to pursue all options to relocate interested and
qualified Afghan SIV applicants and their immediate families, as well as other vulnerable Afghans. We remain closely coordinated with our international partners on the ground and around the globe.
We have been engaging tirelessly with our partner partners in the international community. You may have seen last night the United States organized a joint statement with 98 signatories calling on all parties to respect and facilitate the safe and orderly departure of foreign nationals and Afghans who wish to leave the country.
Today, Secretary Blinken spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, PRC State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Pakistan Foreign Minister Qureshi, U.K. Foreign Secretary Raab, NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg, Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, E.U. High Representative Josep Borrell.
Yesterday, he spoke with Australian Foreign Minister Payne, French Foreign Minister Le Drian, German Foreign Minister Maas, and Norwegian Foreign Minister Soreide. Other senior officials have been making calls to their counterparts as well around the clock.
Additionally, the U.N. Security Council issued a joint press statement earlier today calling for a new government that is united, inclusive, and representative, including with the full and -- full and meaningful participation of women.
The Council spoke with one voice to underscore that Afghanistan must abide by its international obligations, including to international humanitarian law and ensure the safety and security of all Afghans and international citizens.
The situation will continue to remain fluid in the coming hours and likely in the coming days. Nevertheless, we are operating on multiple fronts and around the clock to protect our people, those who have worked side by side with United States over the years, and other vulnerable Afghans.
Now, before I take your questions, I do want to speak to one additional issue that is of great importance to us. And that is the U.S. response to the earthquake in Haiti. The United States is closely monitoring the situation following a magnitude-7.2 earthquake that struck south -- the southwestern part of the country on August 14.
We offer our deepest condolences to all who suffered the loss of loved ones or saw their homes or businesses destroyed. We are in close contact with Haitian authorities to respond to the earthquake and any requests for assistance.
On Saturday, USAID deployed a disaster assistance response team, or a DART, to lead the U.S. government's humanitarian response efforts. And, yesterday, at the request of the government of Haiti, USAID deployed members of Fairfax County Fire Department's Urban Search and Rescue, USAR, a team to join the DART. So far, the DART conducted an aerial assessment and is continuing to
assess the damage. They will also identify priority needs and coordinate with the government of Haiti and humanitarian partners.
TAPPER: Let's go to the Pentagon right now, where the spokesman there, former Admiral John Kirby, is addressing the crisis in Afghanistan,
JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: ... of our Afghanistan crisis action group.
I'm going to ask each gentleman to come up and say just a few words, give you some updates from their perspectives, operations in the general's case and on the SIV process and what DOD is trying to help along with that from Mr. Reid's perspective.
And then we will get to some Q&A for a little bit. I will moderate that Q&A. So I will still be up here calling on you. And we will try to get through as many of you as you can in the limited amount of time that we have.
So, with that, with the time being constrained, I'm going to stop talking and bring up the General.
MAJ. GEN. HANK TAYLOR, VICE DIRECTOR FOR LOGISTICS, THE JOINT STAFF: Good afternoon.
Thank you, Mr. Kirby.
I want to reinforce what has already been said today a little bit earlier. The U.S. military remains focused on the present mission, to facilitate the safe evacuation of U.S. citizens, SIVs, and Afghans at risk, to get these personnel out of Afghanistan as quickly and as safely as possible.
When this plan was put in place, we prepared for a number of contingencies and recognized that events unfolding at HKIA has drawn concern and attention throughout the world.
We're actively monitoring the situation, what's happening on the ground, and we will continue to support the commander and adjust forces as necessary to allow the mission to be successful.
Our troops are trained professionals. They understand the complexity, the urgency, and the importance of their mission. They remain agile. Our mission was and still is today to secure the airport, so that we can evacuate, as I said earlier, U.S. citizens, SIVs, Afghans at risk out of the country.
We have approximately 2, 500 troops that have moved into Kabul within the last 72 hours, and more will arrive soon. By the end of the day, we expect nearly 3,000 to 3, 500 troops on the ground.
First, for a real-time update, as of 15:35 local Eastern data time here, the airfield at HKIA was open for operations. Shortly thereafter, the first C-17 landed with U.S. Marines on board, and the next C-17 is preparing to land as we speak with members of the 82nd Airborne Division.
I'd also like to offer a couple of additional operational details. More than 700 SIV applicants have departed Afghanistan in the past 48 hours by a combination of contract and commercial air, bringing the total to date to nearly 2,000.
And Mr. Reid here will have more details on that.
The U.S. military continues to support the State Department with the closing of the U.S. embassy in Kabul, moving several hundred personnel by helicopter to HKIA. Those personnel remain safe and are preparing to depart.
Forces continue to conduct operations, security operations at HKIA. And as I said earlier, we are in charge of air traffic control, and that includes with commercial, contract, and military air. We expect to maximize our throughput of all means of transportation over the next coming days.
Again, our focus right now is to maintain security at HKIA, to continue to expedite flight operations while safeguarding Americans and Afghan civilians. We are proud of the professionalism and the skill of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are showing under extraordinary circumstances at HKIA. And they are absolutely prepared to respond and self-defend if necessary.
Many of us have spent time in Afghanistan over the years and feel a deep sense of connection to the current events. We are focused on the safest evacuation of Americans and Afghans. Thank you.
GARRY REID, LEADS DEFENSE DEPARTMENT SPECIAL IMMIGRANT VISA EFFORT: Thank you, General. Thank you, John.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for taking time today.
I'm Garry Reid. I'm the lead for the DOD crisis action group for Afghanistan for matters pertaining to the relocation of refugees and transportation of our embassy staff. Americans, allies, and other partners from Kabul to their onward destinations.
Secretary established the crisis action group in early July and we've been working very closely with the Department of State as a lead agency since that time.
Partnered with the Department of Homeland Security, our initial focus was to relocate the SIVs, finalize their visas and resettle them into the United States with the help of our nongovernmental organizations.
To date, nearly 2,000 Afghans have passed through this process, joining more than 70,000 that have participated in the SIV program since 2005. Our military has done an outstanding job supporting this effort. U.S. NorthCom and U.S. Army North operating predominantly from Fort Lee, Virginia, have provided housing, food, medical treatment, medical screening, and other services to these Afghans. Our military embrace the opportunity to recognize their contributions to combined operations in Afghanistan by welcoming them into the U.S.
As we prepare for even more arrivals, U.S. North Com and the U.S. army are working to create additional capacity to support refugee relocation in the U.S., including temporary sites under assessment at Fort Bliss, Texas, and Camp McCoy, Wisconsin. There may be other sites identified if services are needed, additional capacity is needed. At this point, we're looking to establish 20,000, 22,000 spaces. We can expand if we need to.
As with the operation, we've been supporting at Fort Lee, persons that come to these locations will have been prescreened by the Department of Homeland Security to enter on condition of full immigration processing once they arrive. With this operation underway, given the urgency of the situation in Kabul, our focus has shifted to supporting movement of our embassy staff, American citizens, allies, and other partners out of Kabul.
Starting on August 14th, we began movement of these persons on department of defense aircraft, providing them transportation that had flown into Kabul delivering our troops and hauling cargo. This is an important point. The numbers today are in the hundreds. We certainly have a much greater requirement.
We are still in the process of bringing in forces, these aircraft as spaces available on the outbound have been taking passengers. And of course this has been somewhat disruptive in the last 24 hours. But nonetheless, we have transported several hundred to countries in the region and aligned them again with our State Department, DHS colleagues for their onward transportation.
We anticipate picking up the pace, provided we can stabilize conditions at Kabul as described by the general. Our military team in Kabul is working side by side with the ambassador and his staff to coordinate future airlift operations in the coming days.
The department of state and the department of homeland security will facilitate processing at overseas transit points and prepare for onward movement for all of those transported by the Department of Defense. Thank you.
KIRBY: OK. We'll get to questions.
Bob, want to go?
Question for General Taylor.
General, has the U.S. military conducted any airstrikes today or in the last 24 hours or so? And also, there have been some reports of Afghan pilots flying the aircraft into other countries. Is that happening and is the U.S. taking any sort of steps to prevent the aircraft or other military equipment from falling into the hands of the Taliban?
TAYLOR: First off, the first question on the strikes. No strikes have been conducted in the last 24 hours. But the commander on the ground continues to maintain that capability if required to do so. The commander has the assets that are available and in support from other areas of the region.
I don't have information on your second part of the question. But we'll get back to that.
REPORTER: There's no U.S. actions being taken to prevent equipment from falling into the hands of Taliban by destroying it or anything else?
TAYLOR: I don't have the answer to that question.
REPORTER: You don't have the answer?
REPORTER: General Taylor, was this a failure of intelligence or planning that led to the scenes we saw at the airport today?
TAYLOR: When the scenes at the airport of everybody --
REPORTER: Caused it to be shut down.
TAYLOR: Yeah, what -- what we know happened at the airport was that there were a lot of Afghans that were trying to get out of the country. So I don't think that was a lack of planning. As we look at the coordination with those that were responsible for securing that, we'll look at our mission though as I talked earlier is now that the airfield's open is to make sure that it remains open so, like, as I said, we can continue expediting flights in and outbound.
REPORTER: But the quick fall of Kabul, was that a failure of intelligence?
TAYLOR: I can't answer that.
REPORTER: And, Mr. Reid, you're in charge of the SIVs. There are women who fought for the Special Forces. There are reports that the Taliban are now knocking on doors going into the homes of those who served in the military. What are you doing to protect them to get them out? Are you in touch with the Taliban and do you have assurances that they'll be safe?
REID: We recognize that beyond the SIVs, there's additional Afghans at risk and they are included within the group of people that, in time as we get through the Americans and the immediate priority, that we have plans in place to support lifting them, transporting them out of the country on the defense side.
Again, it would be department of state, homeland security questions about immigration processing. We recognize the risk that they face and we're doing everything we can to get this operation underway at scale so we can get through as many as possible under these very difficult conditions.
REPORTER: But are you communicating with the Taliban? Do you have a line of communication?
REID: I'm personally not communicating with the Taliban, but I would imagine there are communications within the diplomatic channels.
KIRBY: As we said earlier, General McKenzie did meet in Doha with Taliban leaders. We're not going to detail that conversation as we said earlier. But the message was very clearly put to the Taliban that these operations and our people will not to be attacked or there would be a response. And as you and I speak, there has been no attack on our operation or on our people at the airport.
To your other question, I would again like to just fill out the mission that the military has right now is to secure the airport, to keep operations going, and to help make sure that we can safeguard the movement of personnel people from Kabul to onward destinations. That's the focus right now.
The State Department has methods of their own to reach out to people to communicate with them about the process of getting into the cue, and I would let the State Department speak to that. The military mission is very narrowly focused around the airport in making sure we can secure operations there.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: I'd like to follow up with you or the general. But let me start with you, please, if I may. To follow up on the previous question -- the U.S. military, the department of defense always for decades says we plan for everything. Clearly, whatever you've planned for did not get planned for at the airport.
We've now seen a C17 with more than 600 people sitting on the floor with a pilot making the decision that he would fly them out anyhow even though that's an extraordinary number of people. We've seen a whirl to see all the scenes at the airport.
So, my two questions are, what failed in your planning? Because you didn't plan for this, you would not have planned to fly in such dangerous circumstances.
And how do you determine where the responsibility lies for this failure?
KIRBY: Well, first of all, Barbara, I would take issue with your designation of this operation at the airport as a failure. But let's get back to that in a second.
KIRBY: Let's get back to that in a second. Yes, we do plan for all manner of contingencies. This is a planning
organization, and we do that specifically to try to mitigate risk and to try to be ready for unforeseen circumstances. But it's not a perfect process. Plans are not always perfectly predictive, and as is well known military maxim that plans don't often survive first contact, and you have to adjust in real-time.
And I think when you look at the images out of Kabul that would have been difficult for anybody to predict. Yes, we did plan on noncombatant evacuation operations as far back as May, there were drills being done here at the pentagon to walk through what different noncombatant evacuation operations might look like. There was another one recently just done two weeks ago to again examine what a noncombatant evacuation would look like out of the Hamid Karzai International Airport. I mean, specifically at the airport.
And we think that those exercises did prepare us in terms of having their resources forward, secretary forward deployed troops including marines off of their ship and into Kuwait so that they could be more readily available as well as other forces in the region. So, we -- a lot of what you're seeing transpired. The reason we can be so quick with upwards of 6,000 troops is because we anticipated the possible need to do this.
Now, could we have predicted every single scenario and every single breach around the perimeter of the airport with only a couple of thousand troops on the ground? Absolutely, you know, there are changes that happen.
So, plans are terrific and we take them seriously. But they are not and never have been perfectly predictive.
STARR: When you practiced this, was one of the scenarios a complete Taliban takeover of the capital?
KIRBY: There was certainly, as you do exercises, I don't want to go into too much detail here on these, but it would certainly be wrong to conclude that the United States military did not view as a distinct possibility that the Taliban could overrun the country including Kabul. Now as we've talked about here many times, it happened very fast. And one of the things that we couldn't anticipate and didn't anticipate was the degree to which Afghan forces capitulated sometimes without a fight.
STARR: But the president said he did not see that happening. Did you tell the President that you thought it was a possibility that you thought the country would be overrun?
KIRBY: We won't speak to advice and counsel that our leaders here in Pentagon give to the president. What I can tell you is that in the planning that we've done and in the exercises and drills we ran, we certainly ran them against the possibility that the Taliban would make significant gains throughout the country, yes, absolutely.
Carla (ph)? REPORTER: Speaking of the images we've been seeing at the airport, a
U.S. official has told that there's an investigation currently underway about multiple civilian deaths when a C17 took off from the airport. What more can you tell us about that investigation, and can you confirm that --
KIRBY: I can't confirm that reporting, Carla. You're getting information that I don't have. But it wouldn't surprise me in the least that commanders would be taking a look at what happened this morning with respect to the C17, and I won't get ahead of that process. There will be -- you can expect that we will take a look at this to see what happened and what we can learn from it in the future. That is absolutely consistent and it wouldn't surprise me at all if there was in fact a formal investigation. I just can't confirm that right now.
REPORTER: Looking at the images, was the U.S. too late to bring in the number of troops that it brought in? Was the decision -- did the decision come too late?
KIRBY: We flew these forces in as if he is as we possibly could. And it was aided in fact by the pre-positioning that was done in previous weeks. I mean, you all reported yourselves about the Iwo Jima, the Navy ship from which these marines were based. You know, being extended for a couple of weeks by Secretary Austin. That was a decision made several weeks ago because it was all part of the contingency planning for the need to maybe do some evacuations.
To make that even faster we moved those marines ashore and we saw the benefit now. Those marines were the first ones on scene. So, it was something that we absolutely had thought about.
REPORTER: And one last question. This can be for you or the general.