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The Lead with Jake Tapper
Official: Fewer Than 250 Americans Left in Afghanistan Who Want To Leave; Rescues Underway As Flooding Inundates Louisiana Towns. U.S. Completes Afghanistan Withdrawal; Interview With New Orleans, Louisiana, Mayor LaToya Cantrell. Aired 4-5p ET
Aired August 30, 2021 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: It looks as though America's longest war will be over in hours.
THE LEAD starts right now.
Rockets fired at the Kabul airport as evacuation flights are coming to a close. So, what happens to any Americans left behind?
People trapped in attics, buildings ripped apart, boats to the rescue, it is deja vu of the worst kind as Ida slams Louisiana 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina.
And hospitals across the south are now running out of oxygen as people who still are not vaccinated push ICUs to the limits.
TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.
And we begin this hour with breaking news in our world lead. Hours before the U.S. is due to leave Afghanistan completely, there are still some 250 American citizens in the country who want to leave and have not been able to. That is according to a senior State Department official. The 20-year-long war in Afghanistan, America's longest war, does appear almost over.
It is now August 31st in Kabul, and the massive evacuation operation is coming to a close. The Pentagon claims that the U.S. has evacuated or aided in the evacuation of more than 116,000 people from Afghanistan since August 14th, a huge number.
But the danger there remains very real. The U.S. carried out a drone strike in Kabul to eliminate an imminent threat believed to be a suicide bomber. The strike inadvertently killed as many as ten Afghan civilians, including six children, according to local journalists. The Pentagon suggested that the civilian casualties are because of secondary blasts because of explosives in the terrorist's car. CentCom says they will investigate the matter.
Overnight, five rockets were fired at the airport in Kabul. Only one made it inside the perimeter. It caused no damage, we're told. ISIS-K has claimed responsibility. We are told there have been no casualties there. The Pentagon says the threat stream is still real and still active. They say the State Department is in touch with the Americans who are still trying to get out.
CNN's Alex Marquardt joins us now live from the State Department.
And, Alex, what do we know about the Americans who may not make it out before the deadline.
ALEXANDER MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, that's right, Jake. The State Department is saying that they have been in touch with those Americans, whether there's by email, by phone, by texts. They say that there are fewer than 250 Americans who remain who have expressed some sort of desire to get out. But, Jake, that's the same figure that we heard yesterday. So very few have gotten out in the past 24 hours.
Now on top of that, there are some 280 Americans believed to still be in the country who have not said that they want to leave. That could be for a number of reasons. They may be dual citizens. They may have extended families who they want to stay with.
But I asked the senior State Department official if this means Americans will be left behind after the U.S. military and diplomatic presence is gone, and the response was that the military is doing all it can while it still has time to get those Americans out.
All told, Jake, some 6,000 Americans have made their way out, whether it's on those evacuation flights or otherwise, like land borders into neighboring countries. That is just a small fraction of the around 120,000 people who have been evacuated. The vast majority of whom are Afghans.
Jake, on top of the Americans, of course, we've been talking about those so-called SIVs, the special immigrant visa either holders or applicants. There is no specific number the State Department says of those people who are left in Afghanistan. And then of course there are many, many more who are trying to apply for some sort of refugee status who are in danger who will almost certainly be left behind after the U.S. departs.
Now, the State Department and the Biden administration have been clear. They say that these efforts to get these people out will not end with the American presence. And we expect Secretary of State Tony Blinken to address that when he speaks around 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time.
But what that mechanism will look like for those consular services for an embassy that will no longer be in the country, that remains very much to be seen, Jake.
TAPPER: All right, Alex Marquardt, thank you so much.
The Pentagon warned today that this moment is particularly dangerous in Afghanistan, this as ISIS-K claims responsibility for an attempted rocket attack on the airport in Kabul. As CNN's Sam Kiley reports for us now, the U.S. is promising to meet those threats with force.
SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The charred remains of the car used as an improvised rocket launcher in an attack on Kabul International Airport, likely by ISIS-K. A U.S. defense system intercepted the rockets before they could make impact. And it's all in the final hours of the mass withdrawal of U.S. troops.
But deaths are still mounting up as the clock ticks down on America's longest war. Ten members of the same family were killed in an earlier U.S. drone strike against an alleged ISIS-K terror team posing an imminent threat to the airport. Six of them were children.
The pentagon saying that there were significant secondary explosions, indicating a substantial amount of explosives in a vehicle hit by the drone.
MAJOR GENERAL HANK TAYLOR, DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF THE JOINT STAFF FOR REGIONAL OPERATIONS: We are aware of reports of civilian casualties, and we take these reports very seriously. And we are continuing to assess the situation.
KILEY: Just hours left ahead of a deadline to be out by midnight Tuesday, evacuations totaling over 122,000 are drastically down to 1,200 in the last 24 hours, as the U.S. effort focuses on military withdrawal.
The Taliban for 20 years a military force now must figure out how to govern. In central Kabul, the economy has ground to a halt, and Afghans are struggling to withdraw money from banks.
We call on the Taliban to announce its government as soon as possible. The situation in Afghanistan is very bad. Everyone is confused and goes to the borders to leave the country. Everyone is speechless, and I don't know what the future of the country will be.
The Taliban pledged this weekend that even after the coalition is gone, anyone with a passport will be able to leave the country, and the U.N. says more than half a million Afghans have been displaced this year alone, and warns of a mass movement of refugees out of the country by land. That desire to leave is unlikely to wane even with the promises of moderation from the Taliban leaders.
For now, like the U.S., the Taliban focus is on airport security and protecting their former enemies from more radical ISIS-K insurgents so that the bloody cycle of war doesn't carry on into the last day of this conflict.
KILEY (on camera): Now, Jake, there is also now reports coming in from North of Kabul of the sort of cycle of repression that has driven so many Afghans to want to leave the country with the reported murder of Fawad Andarabi who is a famous folk singer. He allegedly was dragged from his home and shot by some Taliban fighters. The Taliban has said that it will investigate and punish those responsible if they find them -- Jake.
TAPPER: All right. Sam Kiley, thank you so much.
Joining us live from the region, CNN chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward.
Clarissa, obviously, the Taliban has been a terrorist and military force for 20 years. Now they need to govern. Now they need to protect and provide services for 39 million people. Does the Taliban have the capability to do that? Do they have the capability to thwart terrorist groups such as ISIS-k?
CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think the Taliban, Jake, is really getting a sense now of just what they're up against, because, as you mentioned, it's a completely different thing to be an insurgency than it is to be governing. I'll never forget General David Petraeus saying they have to be right once, we have to be right all the time. And now it's the Taliban that has to be right all the time.
And CNN has actually spoken to a Taliban source who said that their primary concern right now is that ISIS-K militants are basically melting into the Taliban, pretending to be the Taliban. And it's incredibly difficult for the Taliban to know who is indeed part of their own fighting force and who may be militant jihadist elements from ISIS-K. That poses a real threat and a real danger, because as our viewers may not understand, there are so many different Taliban fighters from so many different parts of the country under different command who have all descended on Kabul to try to provide security there.
So if ISIS militants can sort of adapt the same dress and the same mannerisms and claim to be from a different part of the country, it's actually very easy for them to go about the city with impunity.
So, there are real concerns now that the Taliban is going to face an uphill battle in trying to provide sustained security when ISIS-k is able to masquerade as them and is intent on causing them as much embarrassment and pain and punishment as possible.
TAPPER: Is there any chance that the Taliban will ultimately end up giving safe haven to ISIS-K? Could we be facing a situation in which the Taliban partners with both the United States in one way and ISIS-K in a different way?
WARD: You know, that's a really interesting prospect.
And when we interviewed the ISIS-k commander who we spoke to about two weeks before the attack, two days before Kabul fell to the Taliban, he talked to us about the fact that the group had a sort of de facto deal in place with the government at that time, whereby they agreed to lay low and stay below the radar. And in turn the government agreed for them to have their little fiefdoms in Nangarhar and Kunar province for the most part.
So there's no question that there's president for dirty deals to be done in the name of trying to sort of create some sort of -- not peace but at least stability. At this stage, the Taliban is very much intent on saying that, you know, ISIS-K is an absolute enemy, they understand that the whole premise of the withdrawal was predicated on the idea that Afghanistan could never again become safe haven for terrorists.
So they don't want to see that happen again, at least publicly. But if ISIS-K continues to launch these types of attacks and project more strength, then it's certainly not inconceivable that in the future, some kind of a deal would have to be made if the Taliban once to be able to focus on all the other business that it now is in charge of.
TAPPER: All right. Clarissa Ward, thank you so much.
Will we have eyes on potential terror threats after the U.S. leaves Afghanistan? Will the U.S. have eyes? We'll talk about that next.
And shocking images showing the power of hurricane Ida. Search and rescues underway right now as the government warns the death toll could shoot up.
Stay with us.
TAPPER: In our world lead, we're back with the breaking news. The U.S. has officially hit the August 31st deadline set by the Biden administration for withdrawal from Afghanistan because it is August 31st in Afghanistan right now. So in less than one hour, Secretary of State Antony Blinken will make remarks will the current state of operations.
Let's discuss with my panel.
General Marks, let me start with you. What is your take on the U.S. withdrawal, especially this last 24-hour period?
MAJ. GEN. SPIDER MARKS, CNN MLITARY ANALYST: Well, you know, Jake, I make this analogous to that guy who's going to improve your kitchen floor. He's going to lay down the wood and he's going to stain it, right? And where does he depart?
He goes out a single exit point, makes sure everything's done. I mean, that's essentially what we have on the airport. However, what's different here is that the United States will leave behind, I would guess, unacknowledged capabilities on the ground, special ops capabilities to make sure that those very final last departures are done without incident, and then they will exfil themselves or they may stay behind as well. But I wouldn't see any acceleration, I wouldn't see any enhanced risk.
Look, this is -- they've achieved an amazing feat of getting over 116,000 Afghan nationals and approximately 6,000 U.S. citizens out. They'll continue that pace and they'll be out of there by the end of this evening in Afghanistan.
TAPPER: Juliette, assuming the war is officially declared over in the next few hours, do you expect any sort of response from the Taliban?
JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: No. I actually think at this stage they are going to want to lay low. They have to assert control over the country as Clarissa and others are noting. It's not even clear that they have control over themselves at this stage. We're hearing about murders going on in other areas of Afghanistan that the Taliban is condemning.
So what you're going to see, I think, in the next let's just say about two to four weeks is an assertion of control, lots of counter ISIS operations. We will probably be involved with some of them. We will increase our covert capabilities or what the administration is calling over-the-horizon capabilities. They are not as good as having troops on the ground, but they really are our only option at this stage.
And then the question is longer term is who are we dealing with, with the Taliban? Is this a new more sophisticated, more -- an organization or government that actually wants to play with the international community? That will tell us a lot about whether they will try to stop international terrorism from growing in Afghanistan.
Because that, of course, is our concern, not just what's happening in Afghanistan but whether there is training and other efforts in Afghanistan that then are headed towards western Europe, or as we saw 20 years ago, next week here in the United States.
TAPPER: General, what are you hearing from veterans, their families, current service members, Gold Star families about the withdrawal?
MARKS: Well, obviously there is a tremendous amount of angst, a lot of anger as a result of how this thing's taking place. I would say at the strategic level is the right decision to retrograde and to leave this country, this war that we've been a part of for 20 years.
At the tactical level not surprisingly, Jake, you've reported on this. You've written about this. Our American service members make us proud and make incredible magic occur when given very, very tough missions. But at the operational level, at that policy level, I see the Department of State not talking to the Department of Defense, not executing the non-evacuation operation, the NEO, sooner, so that we could have begun this retrograde and this exfil.
So there's a lot of frustration that's taking place. And then you look at who's responsible for the area of operations. We've got a CentCom commander who needs to raise a hand and say I got this, this is a terrible tragedy, and I haven't really heard that level of frustration or anger or a sense of how we are going to accomplish this and acknowledgment that that individual owns this, I would say, evacuation that hasn't gone exceptionally well at that operational level, and not well-planned at all.
TAPPER: Juliette, we keep hearing about over the horizon intelligence efforts by the Biden administration, which means from not within the country itself.
Will counterterrorism efforts be harder without a U.S. presence in Afghanistan?
KAYYEM: Yes. I mean, we can't deny that. I mean, over the horizon capabilities are good. They are essentially drone and airstrikes or covert operations. But they are different.
And so, I think the question that remains, and some people are exaggerating the threat, others are saying we're going to be able to counter this the same way. Neither is true.
The question that we are facing is as the risk increases in Afghanistan and our capabilities decrease, can we bridge that gap, right, with these over the horizon capabilities? We have a lot of capabilities. And part of that is going to be the motivation of the Taliban, the capabilities of al Qaeda and ISIS.
And then, of course, our homeland defenses. Let's not forget that. We are not the same country we were 20 years ago. So we have defensive capabilities that are very, very different than they were the morning of 9/11 when none of us had ever heard about terrorism.
TAPPER: All right. Juliette Kayyem, Major General Spider Marks, thanks to both of you. Appreciate it.
We're waiting for an update from the Pentagon on the evacuation and withdrawal of U.S. service members from Afghanistan. Stick around for that.
Plus, an entire city without power, entire buildings gone. We're live on the scene after Hurricane Ida pulverizes the Gulf Coast. Stay with us.
TAPPER: In our national lead, new images coming in showing the force of Ida, which is now a tropical storm and still on a deadly and destructive path.
One person has been killed when a tree fell on a house near Baton Rouge. The Louisiana governor expects the death toll to go up, quote, considerably as search teams reach other hard-hit areas. The primary energy company in the region says that more than 2,000 miles of transmission lines are down, and Ida knocked out power to more than 1 million customers. Flooding is, of course, still an issue. More than 24 hours now after landfall. President Biden says he has instructed federal agencies to use drones
and satellites to assess the damage, more than 5,300 National Guard members have now been activated in the region.
CNN's Brian Todd is in the greater New Orleans for us.
And, Brian, leaders there are asking people to stay put and let first responders do the work. Are most people listening?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A lot of people are, Jake. A lot of people staying in their homes. But still some people venturing out. As you see behind me here, and, look at some of the issues that they have to deal with. This house in St. Bernard Parish flattened in a matter of minutes yesterday. There are power lines down around the other side of that house, power lines down all over the place.
This is some of the other danger that these people have to navigate around. These trees, this tree snapped in half. This other tree came down completely. Motorists are trying to navigate around that.
And again I mentioned, Jake, downed power lines are a big issue right now. They are all over the place. Officials are warning people not to go back into your neighborhoods. Flooding is also an issue. All of those things point to the fact that while the storm has largely passed through this area, the dangers remain.
TODD (voice-over): Louisiana reeling tonight from Hurricane Ida's brutal impact.
MIKE COOPER, ST. TAMMANY PARISH PRESIDENT: We've just been through a horrendous night with winds, rain, gusts, water coming up, rivers rising, power outages. It's incredible.
TODD: The category 4 storm brought pounding winds and devastating flooding that topped roofs in some places.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They say it was 185-mile-an-hour winds, and I believe it.
TODD: The storm so powerful, it temporarily reversed the flow of the Mississippi River.
Desperate search and rescues underway today.
GOV. JOHN BEL EDWARDS (D-LA): I don't want to mislead anyone. Robust search and rescue is happening right now. And I fully expect that that death count will go up considerably throughout the day.
TODD: Local officials deployed boats to conduct water rescues for people caught in the quickly rising water.
MAYOR GREG COMER, SLIDELL, LOUISIANA: In about a three-hour period, we had probably 5 to 6-foot rise in the bayou. And we'll see another rise in water again we think this afternoon. TODD: Ida's path of destruction widespread. U.S. Coast Guard aerials
show the storm's severe impact in southeast Louisiana.
EDWARDS: This is going to be a very long ordeal in terms of getting things cleaned up and getting things repaired.
TODD: More than 1 million people across Louisiana are now without power after the storm, including the entire city of New Orleans.
DEANNE CRISWELL, FEMA ADMINISTRATOR: We're already seeing the power outages across the area. And the threat isn't over.
TODD: Overnight, the city experienced an outage in its 911 emergency call system as the storm crossed the state. One major electrical transmission tower that supplies power to New Orleans crashed into the Mississippi River. Entergy Louisiana reported that all eight major transmission lines providing power to the New Orleans area are down. City officials are bracing themselves for what could be weeks without power.
JOE GIARRUSSO, NEW ORLEANS CITY COUNCIL MEMBER: I think we have to be realistic at the same time and prepare people for a worst-case scenario just like Hurricane Laura in Lake Charles where it took weeks.
TODD: Hospitals already hard hit by COVID-19 in Louisiana now battered by Ida. One clinic lost part of its roof and generator power in the storm. Another healthcare system had to evacuate 165 patients from facilities damaged in the storm. Hospital officials in New Orleans watching the power situation closely.
DR. MARK KLINE, CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL NEW ORLEANS: We have fuel for backup generators for the next few days. And we think we will be able to get more fuel here at the hospital. But that probably is the number one concern for us at this moment.
CANTRELL: And another sign of concern about the hours and days ahead, the New Orleans police have said they're about to deploy anti-looting teams inside the city.
We're going to be faced with nightfall in just a few hours, Jake, so that's a big concern.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: All right, Brian Todd, thank you so much.
Let's bring in the mayor of New Orleans, LaToya Cantrell.
Mayor Cantrell, thank you so much for joining us.
So, Hurricane Ida made landfall 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina. As your teams survey the damage today, how did New Orleans fare?
LATOYA CANTRELL (D), MAYOR OF NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA: You know what? We held the line. The city of New Orleans made it through this storm. It was definitely a Category 4 that was over us for 12 hours. The worst-case scenario did not happen. We did not have another Katrina. And this is something right now that we are absolutely so grateful for.
Although we are definitely dealing with significant impacts due to the hurricane, of course, the issues of power, that is a big problem here in the city of New Orleans right now. We're working, trying to work our best way through that.
Where we do have sources of power, it's generators only. And so that does speak to the need for fuel. And, again, we're working through that. The president of the United States, President Biden, has been definitely activated immediately on last night, ensuring that the federal government is providing the resources necessary, and, of course, working with state officials.
But you know what? The worst did not happen. And we did not have to do a major rescue, nor a post-storm evacuation at this time.
TAPPER: I just want to say, the Pentagon is going to have a briefing at any moment. And I have -- if I have to interrupt you, I'm apologizing ahead of time for that happening. But that hasn't happened yet.
Just next door to New Orleans in Jefferson Parish, we have seen growing lines outside stores and gas stations. Is that also the case in New Orleans?
CANTRELL: No, the city of New Orleans isn't really seeing that much at all.
What we are seeing is that residents aren't hearing...
TAPPER: All right, Madam Mayor, I am sorry. I have to interrupt. Thank you so much.
CANTRELL: That's OK.
TAPPER: And our prayers are with the people of the region.
Let's listen to the Pentagon press briefing. There's Vice Admiral Jon Kirby.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: ... commander of U.S. Central Command.
He will have some opening comments, and then he will take some questions.
We do have a hard stop at 5:00. So I will not waste up any more time. General, can you hear and see me OK?
GEN. FRANK MCKENZIE, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: Hey, John. I can hear and see just fine. (INAUDIBLE) Over.
KIRBY: Thank you, sir. Thanks for being here today.
And I turn it over to you, sir.
MCKENZIE: Thanks, John.
Good afternoon, everyone.
I'm here to announce the completion of our withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of the military mission to evacuate American citizens, third country nationals and vulnerable Afghans.
The last C-17 lifted off from Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 30 this afternoon at 3:29 p.m. East Coast time, and the last manned aircraft is now clearing the airspace above Afghanistan.
We will soon release a photo of the last C-17 departing Afghanistan with Major General Chris Donahue and the U.S. ambassador, Ross Wilson, aboard.
While the military evacuation is complete, the diplomatic mission to ensure additional U.S. citizens and eligible Afghans who want to leave continues. And I know that you have heard and I know that you're going to hear more about that from the State Department shortly.
Tonight's withdrawal signifies both the end of the military component of the evacuation, but also the end of the nearly 20-year mission that began in Afghanistan shortly after September 11, 2001. It's a mission that brought Osama bin Laden to a just end, along with many of his al Qaeda co-conspirators.
And it was not -- it was not a cheap mission. The cost was 2, 461 U.S. service members and civilians killed and more than 20,000 who were injured. Sadly, that includes 13 U.S. service members who were killed last week by an ISIS-K suicide bomber.
We honor their sacrifice today, as we remember their heroic accomplishments.
No words from me could possibly capture the full measure of sacrifices and accomplishments of those who serve, nor the emotions they're feeling at this moment. But I will say that I'm proud that both my son and I have been a part of it.
Before I open it up for questions, I do want to provide some important context to the evacuation mission that we just completed, in what was the largest noncombatant evacuation in the U.S. military's history.
Since August the 14th, over an 18-day period, U.S. military aircraft have evacuated more than 79,000 civilians from Hamid Karzai International Airport. That includes 6,000 Americans and more than 73, 500 third country nationals and Afghan civilians.
This last category includes Special Immigrant Visas, consular staff, at-risk Afghans and their families. In total, U.S. and coalition aircraft combined to evacuate more than 123,000 civilians, which were all enabled by U.S. military service members who were securing and operating the airfield.
On average, we have evacuated more than 7, 500 civilians per day over the 18 days of the mission, which includes 16 full days of evacuations, and more than 19,000 on a single day. These numbers do not include the roughly 5,000 service members and their equipment that were sent to Afghanistan to secure the airfield and who were withdrawn at the conclusion of our mission.
The numbers I provided represent a monumental accomplishment. But they do not do justice to the determination, the grit, the flexibility, and the professionalism of the men and women of the U.S. military and our coalition partners who were able to rapidly combine efforts and evacuate so many under such difficult conditions.
As such, I think it's important that I provide you with what I hope will be some valuable context.
When the president directed the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in April, the team at U.S. Central Command began to update and refine our existing plan for a potential noncombatant evacuation operation, or a NEO, in Afghanistan.
We have a framework of plans that included numerous branches and sequels, depending on the nature of the security environment. Over time, we continued to refine our plans, which included the interagency, the international community and other combatant commands.
Plans such as this are built upon a number of facts and assumptions. And facts and assumptions change over time. While observing the security environment deteriorate, we continued to update our facts and assumptions.
As the security situation rapidly devolved in Afghanistan, we took a number of actions to position ourselves for a potential NEO, based upon direction from the secretary of defense. We positioned forces in the region and put them on increased alert. We began to preposition supplies, and we began some preparatory work on intermediate facilities in Qatar, with the support of our gracious host nation.
When the evacuation was formally directed on August the 14th, we began to carry out our plan based upon the initial assumption that the Afghan security forces would be a willing and able security partner in Kabul, defending the capital for a matter of weeks or at least for a few days.
Within 24 hours, of course, the Afghan military collapsed completely, opening Kabul up to the Taliban's advance. On August the 15th, in a meeting with Taliban senior leadership in Doha, I delivered a message on behalf of the president, that our mission in Kabul was now the evacuation of Americans and our partners, that we would not tolerate interference, and that we would forcefully defend our forces and the evacuees if necessary.
The Taliban's response in that meeting was in line with what they have said publicly. While they stated their intent to enter and occupy Kabul, they also offered to work with us on a deconfliction mechanism to prevent miscalculation while our forces operated in close quarters.
Finally, they promised not to interfere with our withdrawal. It's important to understand that, within 48 hours of the NEO execution order, the facts on the ground had changed significantly. We had gone from cooperating on security with a longtime partner and ally to initiating a pragmatic relationship of necessity with a longtime enemy.
Into that environment, Rear Admiral Pete Vasely and Brigadier General Farrell Sullivan of the Marines, and, subsequently, Major General Chris Donahue of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division deployed and employed their forces, and did extraordinary work with the leading elements of our reinforcement package to safely close the embassy in one period of darkness, or one evening, to establish a deconfliction mechanism with the Taliban, to establish security at the airport, and to bring in the rest of our reinforcements into the airport.
They accomplished this difficult list of tasks within 48 hours of supporting the transfer of the embassy to the airport. I visited Kabul on Tuesday, August the 17th, to see the work being done to establish security firsthand and to observe the transition to the evacuation.
I left on a C-17 that brought more than 130 Afghans and American citizens out from Karzai International Airport to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Our men and women on the ground at the airport quickly embraced the dangerous and methodical work of defending the airport while conducting the hand-to-hand screening of more than 120,000 evacuees from six different entry points under the airfield.
We also conducted three separate helicopter extractions of three distinct groups of civilians, including at least 185 American citizens, and, with our German partners, 21 German citizens. Additionally, U.S. special operations forces reached out to help break in -- bring in more than 1, 064 American citizens and 2017 SIVs or Afghans at risk and 127 third country nationals, all via phone calls, vectors and escorting.
We have evacuated more than 6,000 U.S. civilians, which we believe represents the vast majority of those who wanted to leave at this time. It would be difficult to overestimate the number of unusual challenges and competing demands that our forces on the ground have successfully overcome.
The threat to our forces, particularly from ISIS-K, was very real and, tragically, resulted in the loss of 13 service members and dozens of Afghans. I have said this before, but I'd like to say it again. We greatly
appreciate the contributions of the many coalition partners that stood with us on the ground at Hamid -- at Karzai International Airport.
I'm just going to single out one nation as an example of the many, the Norwegians, who maintained their hospital at the airport and who were absolutely critical for the immediate care of our wounded after the Abbey Gate attack. Even after the attack, they agreed to extend the presence of their hospital to provide more coverage for us.
Our diplomats have also been with us in Kabul from the beginning, and their work in processing over 120,000 people stands right beside that of their military partners. We were a team on the ground.
As I close my remarks, I would like to offer my personal appreciation to the more than 800,000 service members and 25,000 civilians who have served in Afghanistan, and particularly to the families of those whose loved ones have been lost or wounded.
Your service, as well as that of your comrades and family members, will never be forgotten. My heart is broken over the losses we sustained three days ago.
As the poem by Laurence Binyon goes, we will remember them.
The last 18 days have been challenging. Americans can be proud of the men and women of the armed forces who met these challenges head on.
I'm now ready to take your questions.
KIRBY: Thank you, General.
We will start with Lita at AP. I'd ask you to -- because we're limited on time, to please limit your follow-ups, so that more people can get questions asked.
Go ahead, Lita.
QUESTION: General, thanks for doing this. It's Lita with AP.
Can you give us a sense of whether or not there were any American citizens or other civilians who were taken out on any of those last couple of C-17s that flew out this afternoon?
And can you give us a picture of what you saw with equipment and other things getting either destroyed or removed at the airport before they left?
MCKENZIE: Lita, no American citizens came out on the last what we call the joint tactical exfiltration, the last five jets to leave.
We maintained the ability to bring them in up until immediately before departure. But we were not able to bring any Americans out. That activity ended probably about 12 hours before our exit, although we continued the outreach and would have been prepared to bring them on until the very last minute, but none of them made it to the airport and were able to be -- and were able to be accommodated.
MCKENZIE: We brought some of it out. And we did demilitarize some of it.
Let me give you an example of something that we demilitarized. You're very much aware, of course, of the rocket attack that occurred yesterday, where five rockets were fired at the airfield. Our C-RAMs were very effective in engaging the two rockets that did fall on the airfield.
And we believe they probably kept them from doing more significant damage. We elected to keep those systems in operation up until the very last minute. It's a complex procedure, complex and time-intensive procedure to break down those systems.
So, we demilitarized those systems, so that they will never be used again. And they were just a -- we felt it more important to protect our forces than to bring those systems back.
We have also demilitarized equipment that we did not bring out at -- of the airport that included a number of MRAPs, up to 70 MRAPs that we demilitarized that will never be used again by anyone, 27 Humvees, a little tactical vehicle, that will never be driven again.
And, additionally, on the ramp at HKIA are a total of 73 aircraft. Those aircraft will never fly again when we left. They will never be able to be operated by anyone. Most of them were non-mission-capable to begin with, but, certainly, they will never be able to be flown again.
QUESTION: General, David Martin with CBS.
Was there any attempt to interfere with the final flights out either by the Taliban or by ISIS or any other group? And at the end, did Americans just vacate the premises, or did they turn it over to the Taliban?
MCKENZIE: We know that ISIS-K has worked very, very hard to continue to strike. We feel that the strike we took yesterday in Kabul actually was very disruptive to their attack plans and threw them off stride. I think that was one of the significant reasons why they were not able to organize themselves and get after us as we conducted the final withdrawal.
I will tell you the Taliban had been very pragmatic and very businesslike as we have approached this withdrawal. We did not turn it over to the Taliban. General Donohue, one of the last things he did before leaving was talk to the Taliban commander that he had been coordinating with about the time we were going to leave just to let them know that we were leaving. But there was no discussion of turning anything over of that at all.
REPORTER: General, Jennifer Griffin from Fox News.
If I could just have you reflect personally after 20 years of war you've served there, you've now watched the last troops leave. You've lost troops in recent days. How did it feel leaving Afghanistan to the very group that you overthrew 20 years ago, the Taliban?
MCKENZIE: Well, as I sort of said in my remarks, as you know, I've been there a couple times. My son's been there a couple times. And it was very -- I was very conflicted actually. But I would tell you, I was pretty much focused on the task at hand.
I'll have days ahead to actually think about that. But we were so completely focused on getting our troops out in the days before getting our citizens out and honorable Afghans to the best of our ability that I did not have a lot of time for reflection. I'm sure I will do that in the future. But right now I'm pretty much consumed with the operational task at hand. And I am going to be thinking about that in the days ahead.
REPORTER: Message to Americans and Afghan allies who were left behind?
MCKENZIE: So, the military phase of this operation has ended. The diplomatic sequel to that will now begin. And I believe our Department of State is going to work very hard to allow any American citizens that are left, and we think the citizens that were not brought outnumber in the low, very low hundreds. I believe that we are going to be able to get those people out. I think we're also going to negotiate very hard and very aggressively to get our other Afghan partners out.
The military phase is over, but our desire to bring these people out remains as intense as before. The weapons have shifted, if you will, from the military realm to the diplomatic realm, and the Department of State will now take the lead.
REPORTER: Clarify this a couple of points. Can you tell us how many people were on that final C-17 flight? Can you tell us where that flight is headed? And you mentioned that General Donohue talked to his Taliban, essentially his counterpart. Can you give us any role on what the Taliban played from a security perspective to allow the U.S. to safely depart Kabul?
MCKENZIE: I'm not going to be able to answer the first two questions because those operations are still concluding as to where those aircraft are going and the exact disposition of our forces on the aircraft. I can tell you about though what the Taliban has done. They established a firm perimeter outside of the airfield to prevent people from coming on the airfield during our departure. And we've worked with them for a number of days. They did not have
direct knowledge of our time of departure. We chose to keep that information very restricted. But they were actually very helpful and useful to us as we closed down operations.
KIRBY: I want to go to the phones. I haven't done that yet.
REPORTER: Thanks for calling on me. General, can you give us, I guess, a deeper level of detail on what this last day looked like in terms of number of flights, number of people you had on the ground to start with, who might've been on that last plane, particularly senior leaders, and kind of how this all played out. Thanks.
MCKENZIE: Sure. I'll actually begin with the back end of your question on the last airplane out was General Chris Donohue, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division and my ground force commander there. And he was accompanied by our charge, Ambassador Ross Wilson. So, they come out together. So, the state and defense team were in fact the last people to step on the airplane.
So what has happened over the last 12 or 18 hours is we first of all we were intent on maintaining the ability to bring out Americans and other Afghans as long as we could.
So we kept that capability until just a few hours ago. And we were able to bring out some people earlier in the day. Although we had to cut it off some time before this operation began. But we were intent on maintaining that capability.
We were also intent on maintaining our force protection because the threats from ISIS were very real, very concerning. And so we did a number of things. We had overwhelming U.S. air power overhead should there have been any challenge to our departure. And again, there was absolutely no question we were not going to be challenged by the Taliban. If we were going to be challenged, it was going to be by ISIS.
And I think some of the things we've done yesterday, particularly the strike, and other things we've done have disrupted their ability to conduct that attack planning. But they remain a very lethal force, and I think we would assess that probably there are at least 2,000 hardcore ISIS fighters in Afghanistan now. And of course many of those come from the prisons that were opened a few days ago. So that number is up and is probably as high as it's ever been in quite a while. And that's going to be a challenge for the Taliban I believe in the days ahead.
REPORTER: Thank you, General. Two quick questions. There are about 500 Afghan soldiers who were protecting the perimeter. Did you evacuate them and their families? And secondly, just on the airport, now that you've departed, do you believe it can take on civilian aircraft pretty soon? Or will it require some type of repair or expertise?
MCKENZIE: To the best of my knowledge, which is actually pretty good, I believe we brought out all the Afghan military forces who partnered with us to defend the airfield and their family members. I believe that has been accomplished.
We need the airport to be operational. And we need the airport to be operational quickly for civilian traffic. So, we're going to do everything we can to help with that.
Let me give an example. One of the things we did not demilitarize as we left were those pieces of equipment that are necessary for airport operations such as fire trucks, some of the front-end loaders. We left that equipment. So that is available to allow that airport to get back and get operating as soon as possible. And it needs to get operating as soon as possible.
REPORTER: General, today is August 30th, and the deadline had repeatedly been said that it was going to be August 31st. Do you think that there may be some people who had some false hope that they had at least one more day before this happened? And can you explain the tactical decision as to why you have completed this mission on the 30th as opposed to the 31st?
MCKENZIE: Sure. So it's actually the 31st in Afghanistan as we take a look at what day of the month it is. It's the 31st in Afghanistan. So, we actually went out on the 31st, not the 30th, if you look at Afghan time.
Look, there's a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure. We did not get everybody out who we wanted to get out. But if we had stayed another ten days, we still wouldn't have gotten everybody out.
It's a tough situation. I want to emphasize that simply because we have left, that doesn't mean the opportunities for both Americans that are in Afghanistan that want to leave and Afghans who want to leave, they will not be denied that opportunity. I think our department of state's going to work on that very hard in the days and weeks ahead.
REPORTER: There's just one clarification, General. It's Courtney Kube for NBC News.
So were there any evacuees left at the airport when the last U.S. military flight left?
BLITZER: There were no evacuees left at the airport when the last U.S. flight left, Courtney.
REPORTER: Thank you. And on the Taliban, you've talked about their pragmatic ways of operating with the U.S. military. Do you see a role for the U.S. military to have open conversations with the Taliban, even potential coordination going forward? And particularly with this growing and now accentuated threat from ISIS?
MCKENZIE: Well, I'll tell you, my dealing with the Taliban and the dealings of my commanders on the ground with the Taliban revolved around our determination to execute this operation and the very flat statement we made to them that if you challenge us, we're going to hurt you. And I think they recognize that.
And for their own purposes this is something they wanted to have happen, too. I can't foresee the way future coordination between us would go. I would leave that for some future date. I will simply say that they wanted us out, we wanted to get out with our people and with our friends and partners, and so for that short period of time, our view of the world was the same.
Finally, I do believe the Taliban's going to have their hands full with ISIS-K and they let a lot of those people out of prisons and now they're going to be able to reap what they sowed.
REPORTER: General, this is Tara Copp with Defense One.
Can you assure the American public that every single U.S. service member is now out of Afghanistan?
MCKENZIE: Every single U.S. service is now out of Afghanistan. I can say it with 100 percent certainty.
REPORTER: So, really quickly just to clarify, you mentioned 123,000 out of Afghanistan. Earlier this morning, we heard 122. So can we assume that that was a thousand Afghans that came out in some of these final flights? And then I have quick follow-up.
MCKENZIE: We brought about 1,000 Afghans. I think over 1,500 out in the last 24 hours or so. The exact number I'm sure -- that computation's probably going to change a little bit in the days ahead. I don't think it's going to change much. But, yes, we brought a number of Afghans out at the very end.
REPORTER: And then, sir, how would you characterize this evacuation mission? Because on the one hand, 123,000 people got out. On the other hand, of course, you lost 13 marines, more than a hundred Afghans died, and there are still potentially tens of thousands SIVs, P1s, P2s and others that wanted to get out that did not get out, as you said. So how would you characterize this mission?
MCKENZIE: Well, first of all, the 11 marines, the soldier and the sailor that we lost, I will never forget that. That will be with me and I know every other commander involved for the rest of our lives. We've all lost -- we've all lost people before, and it's never an easy thing.
We would like to bring out everybody that wanted to come out. We're not able to do that. The situation wouldn't allow it.
I think we did a very good job of getting everybody that we could get out given the unique challenges of the tactical situation on the ground. The fact that really not all Americans wanted to leave, there were Americans that for a variety of reasons wanted to stay for a while. I think they will have the opportunity to revisit that and come out if they want. I think it's just important to note that we shouldn't look on this as the end of that engagement about people in Afghanistan. I am confident that that engagement is going to continue to a variety of venues. And it won't just be the United States that's going to be engaged on this. I think our international partners are also going to be very engaged on this as well going forward.
KIRBY: We had two more, I'm afraid. Then we'll go to the phones again. Jack Detsch?
REPORTER: Thanks. Thanks, General McKenzie. I'm kind of curious just how American citizens are going to be expected to get to the airport and what the continuing terror threat will be just in the coming days and what the evacuation picture's going to look like for them.
MCKENZIE: Well, I think the threat is going to be very high and I don't want to minimize that. But I think what we'll do is we will work with the Taliban and work with the next government of Afghanistan, whatever is characterization is going to be in order to ensure that our citizens are protected and that they have an opportunity to lead. As you know, we still hold a variety of significant leverage over whatever future government exists in Kabul. And I have no doubt that the department of state will fully exercise that leverage.
REPORTER: Do you have any confidence in their ability to secure the city right now, the Taliban?
MCKENZIE: I think they're going to be challenged to secure the city. I do know this just speaking purely practically as a professional. They helped us secure the airfield, not perfectly, but they gave it a very good effort, and it was actually significantly -- significantly helpful to us, particularly here at the end.
KIRBY: Last question for today, Meghann?
REPORTER: Are there any U.S. -- this is Meghann Myers at Military Times -- are they aircraft still doing overflights of Afghanistan either Kabul or otherwise looking out for potential threats?
MCKENZIE: So, as we have said for quite a while, we always reserve the opportunity to go after the CT realm, counterterrorism realm when those targets present themselves. So we will always retain the ability to do that.
KIRBY: Okay, that's about all the time we have. General, any concluding thoughts you might want to add?
MCKENZIE: John, it's been a long day, and much longer actually for our forces that are coming out. The operations have gone smoothly so far. I just look forward to recovering the force completely, getting everybody home.
KIRBY: Thank you, General. Thanks for your time. Thank you, all. Have a nice afternoon.
TAPPER: So, that is some breaking news for you. The war in Afghanistan is over, according to the chairman of the Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie. The last American military planes have left Afghanistan after 20 years of war. This marks the first time in 20 years that the U.S. and its allies have not had any troops on the ground, any service members in Afghanistan.
But hundreds of Americans who wanted to leave and thousands of lawful, permanent residents of the United States, and countless Afghan allies have been left behind.
We are waiting to hear from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken shortly to talk about that and more.
CNN chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins joins me live.