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Pentagon Briefing on Crisis in Afghanistan; U.S. Embassy Kabul Instructing Personnel to Destroy Sensitive Material; CDC Vaccine Advisers Recommend Third COVID-19 Dose to Certain Immunocompromised People. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired August 13, 2021 - 14:30   ET



REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, DEFENSE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: That the Taliban have moved with the speed with which they have and that the resistance that they have faced has been insufficient to stop those, to check those advances, does not mean, Lucas, that the advantages aren't still there.

You have to use it. You have to be willing to apply it.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: It doesn't make any sense, John. You're saying they have all the advantages as they're getting crushed on the battlefield.

It makes no sense to say they have the advantage. The Taliban appear to have all the advantages right now.

KIRBY: Lucas, I appreciate the effort. Again, they have greater numbers. They have an air force. A capable air force, which, oh, by the way, is flying more air strikes than we are every day.

They have modern equipment. They have organizational structure. They have the benefit of the training that we have provided them over 20 years.

They have the material, the physical, the tangible advantages. It's time now to use those advantages.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is the U.S. military prepared to evacuate all Americans from Kabul and help close the U.S. embassy in Kabul if the State Department requests it?

KIRBY: Our mission right now is to help the State Department reduce their civilian personnel in Kabul and to assist with their acceleration of the SIV immigrant visa process, the special immigrant visa process. That is what our focus is on right now.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: How close is the U.S. government to closing its embassy in Kabul?

KIRBY: You'd have to talk to my colleagues at the State Department. They get to decide that.

They have made it clear, though, that as of today, they are reducing, not eliminating, their diplomatic presence in Kabul. We are simply helping them support that reduction.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And after a night of sleeping on it, are these 3,000 U.S. troops going to Kabul, is this a combat deployment?

KIRBY: I didn't sleep on that question, Lucas. I thought I answered it pretty well yesterday.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You didn't answer it, John.

John, these soldiers and Marines, they're fully kitted out. Putting on night vision goggles, landing in Kabul, taking positions at the airport, they're going to a combat zone, are they not?

KIRBY: They're certainly going into harm's way, Lucas. And they will --


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is it not a combat zone?

KIRBY: Lucas, they will have the right of self-defense. They will be armed.

And as I said yesterday and I don't think I could have made it any more clear, if there's an attack upon our forces, our commanders have now and always have had the right and responsibility to defend themselves and any attack on our forces in Afghanistan will be met swiftly with a forceful and appropriate response.

And I know --


KIRBY: Listen. I know you want to get into the nomenclature here. Nobody's walking away from the fact that this is potentially dangerous.

In fact, I think one of the things I said at the opening of the press conference is I'm not going to provide a lot of operational detail because we know it's dangerous.

We're all mindful of the perilous situation in Afghanistan, and the deteriorating security situation, Lucas.

And I find it a little -- I find it frustrating that you're trying to pin me down on a nomenclature here like we're afraid to say the word combat.

After 20 years of being in Afghanistan, we understand what we're facing right now. We're taking the risks very, very seriously.

And our troops and their leaders will have all the rights and responsibilities that they need to protect themselves and their comrades.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Did the defense secretary recommend this withdrawal of American troops from Kabul?

KIRBY: I'm sorry?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Did the defense secretary recommend the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Kabul? Before this week, of course.

KIRBY: I'm not going to talk about the secretary's recommendations to the commander-in-chief.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Don't you think it's important for history, for the transcript, for the people watching this briefing right now, did the defense secretary support the full U.S. military withdrawal from Kabul?

KIRBY: Lucas, I'm not now, and I haven't, never will talk about the secretary's advice and counsel to the commander-in-chief. That's totally inappropriate.

The president has made his decision, and we are executing that decision.

He has also made additional decisions such as helping the State Department reduce their personnel and we're going to support that, too.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Some veterans think that the Americans should just pull everybody out of Kabul. The U.S. government should pull all Americans out of Kabul and then just level the embassy.

What do you think about that?

KIRBY: I think that one of the great things about this country is that people are free to express their opinions about anything that they want.

What I'm here to do, Lucas, my job, is to articulate the policies that we're executing and the way in which we're executing them and that's what my focus is today, to tell you what we've been ordered to do.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is it time just to pull all Americans out right now and destroy the embassy?

KIRBY: Lucas, we are focused on helping the State Department reduce their footprint in Kabul. That's what we're focused on and that's what we're going to be doing.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: I'd like to follow up on Lucas's fourth question.


KIRBY: As opposed to the 14th?



You talked about how the troops there have the inherent right of self- defense. That was going to be my question.

There's a tactical purpose for sending these troops there, which you've described in very general terms. I know you don't want to get into specifics.

But is there a secondary -- a secondary effect that you're having by sending these troops there into Kabul, which is sending a message to the Taliban, these troops are here, don't attack us, we're here to carry out our mission.


And at the same time, saying, we are here to support the government of Kabul, don't attack Kabul.

KIRBY: Are you suggesting there's a -- that there's a contradiction there?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: No, no. I'm trying to ask, is there a messaging intention as well by sending these troops there as well?

I understand the primary mission there's to do this, protect the forces, you know, protect the Americans and the Afghan interpreters and their families as they leave.

But at the same time, is there a secondary effect that you're gaining by sending these troops there, which is to message the Taliban, don't attack us while we're doing this?

KIRBY: The main purpose for these troops is to conduct this particular mission.

And as I said yesterday, the secretary made his decisions based on the -- based on prudence, to make sure that you have what you need and that you have reserve if you need reserves because we don't know exactly how the situation's going to unfold.

And it's not -- he didn't choose these units or this approach to send a message.

He chose these units and this approach to accomplish a mission, and to make sure that he had enough capability and capacity to do it safely and in an orderly fashion.

That said, and I have said this now three or four times, if these forces are attacked and threatened, we have the ability, the right of self-defense, and we will respond in a forceful and appropriate way.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And just one quick follow-up. We've talked about the troops from the 82nd Airborne going into Kuwait that could be on standby if needed.

Is their mission going to be, if they are needed, exactly like the ones from the 3,000 that will be arriving by the end of this weekend or there would be something different?

KIRBY: I'm sorry, say that again.


The brigade, the BCT headed to Kuwait, should they be called upon, are they going to be doing exactly what the 3,000 -- the three battalions arriving in Kabul by the end of the weekend? Or is there some thinking they might do something else?

KIRBY: They're a ready reserve force that we would have available to us should they be needed for any number of security missions.

And again, I couldn't begin to speculate right now what those missions would look like.

But they are -- they will have capabilities that are commensurate with the infantry battalions that are going to the international airport over the course of the next few days.


KIRBY: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Question is, Pakistan is blaming now, again, U.S. for the crisis in Afghanistan. And also prime minister of Pakistan, he already knows the Taliban government in Kabul.

And finally, if any country in the region, including India, ask U.S. help in this mission of evacuation?

KIRBY: I don't know of any other nations involved in this. I mean, these are sovereign decisions that nation states have to make.

As I said yesterday, should we be asked to support any movement by our allies and partners, we can do that. And we will do that. I don't know of any. But I don't know of any such requests or such requirements.

And look, just broadly speaking, what we said before, any of Afghanistan's neighboring nations, any nations in the international community that believe they have or want to have a stake in the future of Afghanistan, we simply would urge them to act in ways that helps lead to those kinds of better outcomes for the Afghan people.

And to help us continue to pursue a negotiated political settlement.



You said yesterday that you thought this was the right time for this mission. Lawmakers from both parties, lots of nonprofits, lots of Afghans, would say that the right time for this mission with SIVs was actually back in May or June.

Can you square those two things? Why did it take so long? Thank you.

KIRBY: We were -- we said for quite some time, dan, that we know we have a moral obligation to help those who helped us.

And that we were ready, willing, and able to support efforts to move special immigrants, people applying for special immigrants visa out of the country and to locations, and we have met that obligation.


It is a process that, as you know, does not reside here at the Defense Department and a process that has requirements.

So, what I can tell you is, from a DOD perspective, it's not something we ever lost sight of. It wasn't an obligation we just all of a sudden forgot and then came around to.

And as I said at the outset, we've planned for a lot of contingencies and this was certainly one of them.



I had a couple questions.

You said DOD is a planning organization. Has CentCom presented to the secretary or the joint staff a contingency plan to reintroduce U.S. combat troops, a la, what we did in 2014 in Iraq, if the White House requests it?

Has that -- such a plan been crafted?

KIRBY: That we are a planning organization, Tony, is true. What's also true is we don't talk about every single plan on the books.

Our focus right now, Tony, and the plans that we are executing are to meet the president's drawdown requirement by the end of this month, not -- and to assist in the drawdown of State Department personnel also by the end of the month.

And I'm not going to speculate about what things look like going forward.

And again, I would remind tony that this mission is narrowly de focused mission to support the State Department at this particular time.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: I have a second question. KIRBY: Go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Second question. You've heard the narrative and the questions from reporters and everybody else about, is this a repeat of the fall of Saigon?

You're not a historian, but I know that the secretary, a number of you guys are thinking, how do you answer that question?

Can you give a sense of where the analogy is apt and where it's a very bogus, fallacious analogy to equate what's going on now with the potential fall of Saigon?

KIRBY: Tony, what I can tell you is we're not focused on the history of the Vietnam War. We're just not. We're focused on meeting the requirements that we have today. That's where our head space is.

Certainly, we've seen the punditry and the commentary. I think it's best to leave that to historians.

What we're focused on is making sure that we meet our commitments to our State Department colleagues.

And that we continue to meet our commitments while we have the authorities and the capabilities to our Afghan partners on the ground.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is the best -- (INAUDIBLE) -- Iraq 10 years ago?

KIRBY: Mike, go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What's the -- what's it going to say for a 20- year war in Afghanistan if it ends with the Taliban rolling into Kabul in U.S.-made Humvees and turning over weapons our allies gave them.

KIRBY: Look, I don't have a crystal ball. I can't see the future.

And what I can tell you is our troops who deployed to Afghanistan after 9/11 did what they were sent there to do, which is to prevent Afghanistan from being a safe haven for terrorist attacks upon the homeland. And to severely degrade the capabilities of groups like al Qaeda.

In the process of that effort, a lot of progress was made in Afghanistan. Progress which we obviously don't want to see put at greater risk.

Going forward, we're going to do a couple of things. We're going to make sure that a terrorist threat can't emanate from Afghanistan again by maintaining robust over-the-horizon counterterrorism capabilities in the region.

And we're going to continue to support our Afghan partners, bilaterally, through maintenance support, through financial support, and we're going to continue to want to see a stable, secure Afghanistan. The other thing I would say is that we want to continue to see that

there's a negotiated political settlement here for governance going forward.

So that's what our focus is on right now.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you really think the Taliban is interested in negotiating? They haven't -- they seem not interested in that. I mean, do you really think that they are legitimate negotiating partners?

KIRBY: I think that's a question for Taliban leaders to speak to. They have a team in Doha. They have participated in the past in negotiations.

Now, whether they're still interested in that or not, I think it's for them to speak to.

We are still interested in seeing that outcome. And so should the rest of the international community.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: One follow-up question on Mike's question, real quick.

KIRBY: Yes, go ahead.


Will the U.S. allow -- if it looks like the advanced aircraft we've provided Afghan forces over the years, will the U.S. allow those aircraft to fall into Taliban hands or are there plans under way to make sure that doesn't happen.


KIRBY: I think you can understand why I'm not going to speculate about that.

There's an Afghan air force in place. They are flying missions every day.

We have made commitments to help improve their capabilities. Those commitments remain in place, including refurbishing Blackhawk helicopters, helping them finance the refurbishment of some of their M.I.-17s, in terms of financial, contractual support, and then the provision of Super Tecanos.

I'm not going to speculate about the destruction of personnel -- I'm sorry, the destruction of property going forward.

We are going to continue to stay focused on making sure they have the capabilities to use in the field.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Would you say that the U.S. will not allow those aircraft to fall into Taliban --


KIRBY: We are always worried about U.S. equipment that could fall into an adversary's hands, and that's something we never lose focus on.

And what actions we might take to prevent that or to forestall it, I just don't believe and won't speculate about today.


KIRBY: Paul?


KIRBY: Paul? From "Politico."

OK, I guess Paul's not there.



I just wanted to clarify something you had said earlier. You said with the air lift, the military will be able to move thousands of people per day.

Were you speaking specifically about Afghans? So, should I say, John Kirby said the military will have the ability to move thousands of Afghans and their families per day?

KIRBY: Jeff, I think you can surmise that when I say thousands of people, that would include a population of Afghans, of course, that are being processed through the special immigrant visa program, including their families.

OK. That's about it for today. Thank you. Thank you very much.


KIRBY: We're all set. We're all set.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: All right, Admiral John Kirby there at the Pentagon. We'll get to the news made there in just a moment.

But I want to go first to Kylie Atwood, our national security correspondent. She has breaking news.

What's the new reporting, Kylie?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: The new reporting is that the U.S. embassy in Kabul is instructing their diplomats to get rid of any sensitive materials.

This is from a management notice that was sent to those personnel on the ground.

What they are telling them to do is get rid of anything that's sensitive. And of course, that's classified material.

They're also telling them to get rid of anything that could be misused in propaganda efforts. So they're noting things like an American flag or something that has the stamp of the U.S. embassy on it.

Now, what the embassy is going to be doing is providing material support for those diplomats, for those personnel at the embassy to get rid of this material. That includes things like burn bins.

What this tells us right now is that this embassy is in a place where they are preparing for the worst situation.

You don't get rid of classified materials and anything, including an American flag, unless you are expecting the possibility that you really will have to evacuate that embassy.

Now, that is not the situation right now, as we heard from the Pentagon spokesperson.

Right now, there are U.S. troops on the way to Afghanistan to help get out some of the U.S. personnel who have been at the embassy. There's no decision yet to evacuate that embassy.

But right now, those preparations are under way in a very real way.

BLACKWELL: All right, Kylie, stay with us.

I want to bring back now Nick Paton Walsh, also CNN global affairs analyst, Kimberly Dozier.

Nick, let me start with you, with the breaking news from Kylie.

And I want you to reconcile that with what we heard from Admiral Kirby there when he says that Kabul right now is not in imminent threat environment.

However, the embassy staff is being told to destroy sensitive material. Is there direct contra distraction there?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Yes, John Kirby, a communication professional has long been able to square the sad reality off and on the ground with the message that the U.S. government want to give out. We saw a bit of that today as well.

While we gave us the news that we have seen, apparently, or we know now that the first Marines have landed at the airport, he also went on to remind everybody of the strength of the Afghan security forces, their numbers of 300,000, the resources they have.

The fact that he says they're doing more air strikes than the Americans are at the moment. And that's probably true, given the reduction in U.S. air power.

So still pushing a message that essentially there's something in the Afghan security forces that may be able to fight back and resist.

Quite how that comes to fruition, we simply don't know at this stage.

Yes, the phrase, you can p that as much as you'd like but it's essentially saying that Kabul isn't immediately under siege at the moment. And that's true.

But what she is reporting, I think, is the acceptance of the inevitable, most likely by the U.S. embassy. It's an enormous compound. They simply don't want to have enough people there necessarily to protect it.


So, clearing up because we know you're going to have to pull back towards the airport, as Kylie reported. That's the sensible planning. As well as sending 3,000 Marines to be sure you're secure enough.

It's clear on the ground that the next two to three weeks are about slowly reducing their presence and leaving, maybe with a skeletal staff left behind.

For now, the Pentagon, they still want to project a message there's something left in the Afghan security forces despite the remarkable week we have seen of half of the provincial capitals, including the second and third-largest city falling within just a week.


BLACKWELL: Kimberly, we also heard from Admiral Kirby, when he was asked if there was a fear that Kabul would fall to the Taliban, he said this is a moment for the Afghan people, for the Afghan government, the Afghan forces to step up to unite.

How realistic is that considering what we know are the challenges of the Afghan forces, the desertion rate as well and what we have seen over the last week?

KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Entirely unrealistic considering the momentum of the Taliban offensive on the ground and how the Afghan people are reacting to it.

It's as if the U.S. administration neglected the way the troops on the ground respect American air power.

And when they don't have it to rely on, they don't count on their own people. They don't have trust in their leadership to come through with logistics.

The other thing is the way the Taliban has been handling its offensive.

In towns where they've been negotiated peacefully, the troops have been released and allowed to surrender and live.

In towns that have fought, in places where the army has fought hard, all the soldiers have been captured, slaughtered, tortured. Those are the reports that are coming out coming out. Now, remember, the Taliban doesn't have to take Kabul.

They are very close to encircling all of it with only a few routes out that are very easy to block, like the one to Jalalabad, which, in many places, is just a narrow mountain path. They could just starve the city out.

And they've already made a point of capturing at least four of the major crossing points from other countries where oil comes into the country and the capital, which a strategic eye to this siege.


Kylie, there's a rhetorical difference between what we heard yesterday from Admiral Kirby and today.

Yesterday, he would not speculate about the possibility that U.S. forces would have to stay beyond August 31st. He just ended any questions there.

That's the deadline for withdrawal set by the administration.

Today, he said, we'll adjust if we need. Is that a significant change or am I reading too deeply into that?

ATWOOD: I think it's worth reading into that. It demonstrates that the U.S. is fully aware that the Taliban is encroaching on Kabul.

And although the U.S. troops are going with a primary mission of helping these American diplomats get home, they are putting themselves into situation that could grow deadly. There could be air fire there.

And they are in a position they could have to defend themselves.

John Kirby did say that. They have the right to self-defend. That means the situation could change very quickly.

Our reporting is that the Taliban is trying to essentially lock in Kabul.

They are growing around them, growing around Kabul rapidly. They are not necessarily going to try and over run Kabul. We don't know what their plans are. And John Kirby said that.

But the situation, because it is changing so rapidly, because U.S. officials are surprised by the pace of these Taliban gains, means sending U.S. troops there could also have to change. They could have to alter what they're doing on the ground.

BLACKWELL: We also know the big headline from that briefing is that U.S. forces are in route, as we speak.

Kylie Atwood, Kimberly Dozier, Nick Paton Walsh, thank you.

[14:54:36] New guidance from the CDC means some Americans should get a third vaccine shot. What you need to know about the latest recommendations. We have those for you, next.


BLACKWELL: Coming up on the top of the hour now. I'm Victor Blackwell.

The CDC has just voted unanimously to recommend a booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine for certain people who are immunocompromised.

This is after the FDA also authorized a third vaccine shot for that same group.

The group we're talking about, organ transplant patients, people with certain cancers, others taking certain immune-suppressing medications.

But the recommendation is not for people with some chronic conditions like heart disease or diabetes.

CNN chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, is here.

Sanjay, why, do you believe, or did they explain why not all immunocompromised people, just the group we're discussing.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. They did describe this to some extent, Victor.

I'm getting tons of e-mails and questions about this even since the announcement was made though. So it's still confusing.

They're looking at moderate or severe immunocompromised people. So people who may be vulnerable because of chronic conditions.