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President Biden Holds Press Conference on Afghanistan Withdrawal. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired August 20, 2021 - 14:00   ET



QUESTION: But you also promised not to -- to help -- to bring out those who helped America in its war effort.

We have seen these heart-wrenching images at the Kabul Airport of people trying to get there, to say nothing of the people who can't get to that airport. You made the commitment to get American troops out -- to get American citizens out.

Will you make the same commitment to those who assisted in the American war effort over the last 20 years, number one?

And then, number two, what is your message to America's partners around the world who have criticized not the withdrawal, but the conduct of that withdrawal, and made them question America's credibility on the world stage?

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have seen no question of our credibility from our allies around the world.

I have spoken with our NATO allies. We have spoken with NATO allies, the secretary of state. Our national security adviser has been in contact with his counterparts throughout the world and our allies, as has the general or -- excuse me -- I keep calling him the general, but my secretary of defense.

The fact of the matter is, I have not seen that. As a matter of fact, the exact opposite, I have gotten, the exact opposite thing, because we're acting with dispatch. We're committing to what we said we would do.

Look, let's put this thing in perspective here. What interests do we have in Afghanistan at this point with Al Qaeda gone? We went to Afghanistan for the express purpose of getting rid of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, as well as, as well as getting Osama bin Laden.

And we did. Imagine, just imagine if the attack -- if bin Laden had decided, with Al Qaeda, to launch an attack from Yemen. Would we have ever gone to Afghanistan? Would there ever be any reason we would be in Afghanistan, controlled by the Taliban?

What is the national interests of the United States in that circumstance? We went and did the mission. You have known my position for a long, long time. It's time to end this war. The estimates of the cost of this war over the last 20 years range

from a minimum of $1 trillion to a think tank at one of the universities saying $2 trillion. That's somewhere between $150 million a day and $300 million a day.

The threat from terrorism has metastasized. There's a greater danger from ISIS and Al Qaeda and all these affiliates in other countries by far than there is from Afghanistan. And we're going to retain an over- the-horizon capability if they were to come back to be able to take them out, surgically move.

So this is where we should be. This is about America leading the world. And all our allies have agreed with that.

And, by the way, before I made this decision, I was at the G7, as well as met with our NATO partners. And I told them all, every one of them knew and agreed with the decision I made to end, end, jointly end our involvement in Afghanistan.

The first part of your question was -- I can't remember now.

QUESTION: Would you commit to the same commitment -- would you make the same commitment to bring out Afghans who assisted in the war effort?

BIDEN: Yes. Yes. We're making the same commitment.

There's no one more important than bringing American citizens out. I acknowledge that. But they're -- equally important almost is all those who -- those SIVs, we call them, who, in fact, helped us, that were translators, that went into battle with us. They were part of the operation, as well as we're also trying to get out as many NGOs, non- government organizations, women's organizations, et cetera.

We're doing all we can. In the meantime, Secretary Blinken and I am going to be working with our allies to see to it that we can bring international pressure on the Taliban to -- they're looking to gain some legitimacy. They're going to have to figure out how they're going to maintain that country.

And there's going to be harsh conditions we're -- strong conditions we're going to apply. And it will depend on whether they get help, based on whether or not how and well they treat women and girls, how they treat their citizens.

So, this is just beginning on that score.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) stay past the 31st to make that happen, to bring all the Americans out, to bring those SIVs out?

BIDEN: I think we can get it done by then, but we're going to make that judgment as we go.

Now, Justin Sink of Bloomberg.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. You just said that you would keep a laser focus on counterterrorism

efforts and that you don't see as great of a threat of terrorism from Afghanistan as other parts of the world.

But if you and your administration so badly misassessed how quickly the Taliban would sweep through Afghanistan, and we no longer have an embassy there from which to run intelligence operations, how can you at all be confident of your assessment of the risk of terrorism and the ability of the U.S. to conduct over-the-horizon missions to keep it in check?


Can you tell Americans that they're safe and will remain safe from terror attacks in Afghanistan?

BIDEN: I think you're comparing apples and oranges.

One question was whether or not the Afghan forces we trained up would stay and fight in their own civil war they had going on. No one -- I shouldn't say no one. The consensus was that it was highly unlikely that, in 11 days, they would collapse and fall and the leader of Afghanistan would flee the country.

That's a very different question than whether or not there is the ability to observe whether or not large groups of terrorists begin to accumulate in a particular area in Afghanistan to plot against the United States of America.

That's why we retained an over-the-horizon capability to go in and do something about that if that occurs, if that occurs.

But in the meantime, we know what's happened around the world. We know what is happening in terms of what's going on in other countries, where there is a significant rise of terrorist organizations, in the Middle East, in East Africa, and other places.

And so the bottom line is, we have to do -- we're dealing with those terrorist threats from other parts of the world in failed states without permanent military -- without permanent military presence there.

We have to do the same in Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Sir, just on that initial assessment, we learned over the last 24 hours that there was a dissent cable from the State Department...

BIDEN: Sure.

QUESTION: ... saying that the Taliban would come faster through Afghanistan.

Can you say why, after that cable was issued, the U.S. didn't do more to get Americans out?

BIDEN: We got all kinds of cables, all kinds of advice.

Have you noticed? They range from this group saying that -- they didn't it would fall when it would fall -- when it did fall, but saying that it would fall, to others saying I wouldn't happen for a long time and they would be able to sustain themselves through the end of the year.

I made the decision. The buck stops with me. I took the consensus opinion. The consensus opinion was that, in fact, it would not occur, if it occurred, until later in the year. So, it was my decision.

Now, my I got -- my next is Stephanie Ramos, ABC.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

Two questions for you. The military has secured the airport, as you mentioned, but will you sign off on sending U.S. troops into Kabul to evacuate Americans who haven't been able to get to the airport safely?

BIDEN: We have no indication that they haven't been able to get in Kabul through the airport. We have made an agreement with the Taliban. Thus far, they have allowed them to go through. It's in their interests for them to go through.

So we know of no circumstance where American citizens are carrying American passport are trying to get through to the airport. But we will do whatever needs to be done to see to it they get to the airport.

Thank you.

QUESTION: And one more, Mr. President.

Last month, my colleague Martha Raddatz interviewed Abdul, an interpreter who was on the front lines with U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Overnight, we received a photo of Taliban militants coming to the door of his home, literally hunting him down. Thankfully, he was able to escape, but he is obviously still in mortal danger.

What would be your message to Abdul, his wife and his three young daughters?

BIDEN: We want you to be able to get to the airport. Contact us. We will see whatever we can do to get you there. We have got to get you out. We are committed to deal with you, your wife, and your child, to get all three of you out of Afghanistan. That's the commitment.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir.

BIDEN: Meredith Lee of "PBS NewsHour."

QUESTION: You mentioned just now using every resource available for evacuations. Why haven't you ordered the military to expand the security perimeter

around the Kabul Airport? Do you have any plans to do so, given that will likely require more U.S. troops? And are you considering rescue operations to recover Americans and Afghan allies stuck behind Taliban checkpoints?

BIDEN: The last answer is yes to the last question. We're considering every opportunity and every means by which we could get folks to the airport. That's number one.

Number two, the reason why we have not gone out and started -- and set up a perimeter way outside the airport in Kabul is that it's likely to draw an awful lot of unintended consequences in terms of people who, in fact, are not part of the Taliban.

We have been in constant contact with the Taliban leadership on the ground in Kabul, as well as the Taliban leadership at Doha, and we have been coordinating what we're doing.


That's why we were able, for example -- how we got all of our embassy personnel out, how we got everyone out of the embassy safely. That was a distance. That's how we helped get the French out and -- out of their embassy.

So, the question remains. There will be judgments made on the ground by the military commanders at the moment. And I cannot second-guess each of those judgments to be made.

But the idea of -- again, let me get back to the fundamental point I made at the outset.

When the decision was made by me that -- and it was made some time ago, when I ran for president saying I wanted to get us out of Afghanistan. One of the things that is a reality is, people now say to me and to others, and many of you say it on air, that why did we have to move because no Americans were being attacked?

Why did we withdraw those -- why did we agree to withdraw 2, 500 troops? No Americans were being attacked.

As I said before, the reason they weren't being attacked was part of an agreement that Trump had made a year earlier. We will leave by May 1, he said, as long as there's no attack on Americans in that year, period, number one.

Number two, the Taliban was taking large swathes of the countryside, north and south, none of the major areas, none of the major points of -- the capitals of each of these provinces, but they were all over the country.

And the idea that if I had said on May the 2nd or 3rd, we are not leaving, we are staying, does anybody truly believe that I would not have had to put in significantly more American forces, send your sons, your daughters, like my son was sent to Iraq, to maybe die? And for what? For what?

So, the only rational thing to do, in my view, was to set up and preposition American forces for the purpose of evacuation, and the aircraft, to preposition those ahead of time, so that we would be able to begin the process of evacuation of American citizens, SIVs, and others who helped us.

The last point I will make is this. Look, if we had decided 15 years ago to leave Afghanistan, it would have been really difficult. If we decided five years ago, if we started -- if we continue the war for another decade and tried to leave.

There's no way in which you would be able to leave Afghanistan without there being some of what you're seeing now.

But what we have done so far is been able to get a large number of Americans out, all our personnel at the embassy out, and so on. And thank God, so far, knock on wood, we're in a different position.

Scott Detrow, Scott, NPR.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

I just want to follow up on something you said a moment ago. You said that there's no circumstances where American citizens cannot get to the airport. That doesn't really square with the images we're seeing around the airport, with the reporting on the ground from our colleagues who are describing chaos and violence.

Are you saying unequivocally that any American who wants to get to the airport is getting there and getting past the security barrier and to the planes where they want to go?


BIDEN: I thought the question was, how can they get through to the airport outside the airport?

And the answer is, to the best of our knowledge, the Taliban checkpoints, they are letting through people showing American passports.

Now, that's a different question, when they get into the rush and crowd of all the folks just outside the wall near the airport. That's why we had to, I guess -- was it yesterday or the day before, we went over the wall and brought in how many?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A hundred and sixty-nine.

BIDEN: A hundred and sixty-nine Americans.

So, it is a process to try to figure out how we how we deal with the mad rush of non-Americans, those who didn't help, those who were not on the priority list, just any Afghan, any Afghan to be able to get out of the country.


And so my guess is that, no matter what, under what circumstance that we -- anyone -- there's not a whole lot of Afghanis -- there's a whole lot of Afghanis who just assumed, come to America, whether they are any involvement with the United States in the past at all, rather than stay under Taliban rule, or any rule.

So, what I was saying is that we have an agreement that they will let pass through the checkpoints that they, the Taliban, control, they will let Americans through.

QUESTION: But given this, given the negotiations with the Taliban, the scenes that we're seeing, can you just fully explain why the plan wasn't to go ahead with these evacuations of both Americans and allies before the drawdowns began, before Bagram was closed, looking past several months?

Because whether it was now or several months from now, there seems to be a broad consensus the Taliban would make these gains and these would be needed at some point.

BIDEN: Well, yes, at some point.

But the point was that, although we were in contact with the Taliban and Doha for this whole period of time, that some point wasn't expected to be the total demise of the Afghan national force, which was 300 (sic) persons.

Let's assume the Afghan national force had continued to fight and they were surrounding Kabul. It would be a very different story, very different story.

But the overwhelming consensus was that they -- this was not going to -- they were not going to collapse. The Afghan forces, they were not going to leave. They were not going to just abandon and they would put down their arms and take off.

So, that's what's happened.

Thank you very much. Thank you.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: Hello. I'm Victor blackwell.

You have been listening to President Biden there give an update on the crisis in Afghanistan. The president for about 30 minutes there talked about the several elements that now have to be navigated.

He started this speech today by saying the only country capable of projecting this much power with this precision is the United States, and then went on to show just how imprecise the plan and the operations are and the degree of power that the U.S. is not using in some respects.

Let's bring in now for this conversation CNN's Kylie Atwood, Barbara Starr, Jeff Zeleny, CNN global affairs analyst Susan Glasser, CNN military analyst Colonel Cedric Leighton, and CNN senior political analyst Nia-Malika Henderson.

Welcome to you all.

Barbara, I want to start with you and what is happening there and now. There was a pause of flights that happened for about eight hours, our Clarissa Ward reported. The president says that was to make sure that they could process arrivals at sites. That was the reason for the pause.

What's the CNN reporting? What's your reporting on the cause of the pause?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, very quickly, it does appear that flights are resuming to some extent. They had to shut them down because they had something like 10,000 to 15,000 people inside Kabul Airport.

They could not put them on planes, because those planes had nowhere to land where they could unload that many passengers for processing in the third country. The site in Doha, Qatar, is getting full. We are led to understand that a site in Germany is opening up and they will again be able to fly people out, but another day when military planning doesn't seem to match the reality on the ground, because, outside the gates, people are still pressing so desperately to get inside, get processed and get on a plane.

I have to tell you, Victor, the thing that the president said that we knew nothing about, publicly, at least, he twice referenced that U.S. troops went outside the wire, outside the gate of the airport and brought 169 people inside.


STARR: He talked about it twice. In one of his answers, he referenced it being Americans, not something that we know anything about at this point.

And we will be asking at the upcoming Pentagon briefing. He is also opening the door to U.S. troops perhaps going out in the city, if needed, and trying to bring Afghan allies and Americans to the airport.

The president has said American passport holders are not having any trouble getting past the Taliban checkpoints. That may be problematic, an awful lot of reports that that is still very much a problem -- Victor.

BLACKWELL: Yes, Barbara, I picked up on that.

He said that, yesterday, we went out and got 169 Americans over the wall using military assets.

I will come to you, Colonel, for that in a moment, but first to Jeff Zeleny there at the White House.

The president already delivered remarks on Monday. Then there was the ABC News interview midweek and now he's back again. What do you make of the tone? And did he accomplish the goal that he was set out to accomplish today?


JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Victor, I think there's no question that President Biden was more in command of this chaos in Afghanistan than we have seen him really for more than a week publicly.

He said very clearly any American who wants to come home will be able to come home and then authorized -- saying he will use any resources necessary, and left the door open to the possibility of staying beyond his self-imposed deadline, and actually left us several spaces open for command decisions on the ground there, as Barbara was just mentioning, so perhaps more has been gone on than the military leaders have left us to believe.

But, from the president's point of view, one goal, I have been told by White House officials, was to try and get off his heels, if you will, to try and get on offense and show that they are indeed in control of this.

But he also said at the outset that this is still a very dangerous operation. He made that very clear, and with an uncertain ending. So, without question, this is a precedent that we have really not seen for the last several days. He's refused a couple different times to take questions on this.

So, again, trying to at least reset the conversation. And he did say there will be time for a second-guessing later. And, of course, there will be. But by standing there in the East Room with, of course, his vice president, but as well his top Pentagon commander, Secretary Lloyd Austin, as well as his -- the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, making clear that he does have their full confidence and their support.

So that was all by design to show that this president is indeed in charge of this, also canceling his trip today. He was supposed to be on a plane right now to Wilmington to spend an August weekend there. He's staying here at the White House to manage this, because, no question about it, this is still the biggest crisis of his presidency. And it's not over yet.

BLACKWELL: All right, we have got on the phone with us chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward from Kabul.

Clarissa Ward, I understand that you were able to hear the president's remarks. How do they reconcile with what you have watched there over the last several days?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, Victor, but there's obviously a growing recognition of the enormity of this catastrophe that we're seeing play out on the ground.

I think, in the beginning, we consistently heard the administration try to put a sort of gloss coat on things to say that, oh, in the beginning, the embassy wasn't going to close, it was going to be enduring partnership, and then sort of doubling down on the policy, refusing to accept that maybe the planning could have been better, et cetera.

It seemed like there was a slightly more humble and sober tone today, and perhaps more recognition of the enormity of the task that lies ahead, which is certainly, based on what I'm seeing here on the ground, just to give you some perspective -- I have been here since -- well, I mean, like midnight.

And the last U.S. plane I saw take off with evacuees on it was before 3:00 a.m. There was one other plane that flew out a few hours ago, but it had only U.S. military personnel. So, that's basically more than 10 hours with no evacuees being taken out of the country, which is a disaster, because we already have a real problem here with bottlenecks.

One soldier told me they have 10,000 people processed and ready to go and get on planes. But if the planes aren't flying, then you can't get them out, which means you can't take more in, which means you get a bigger crush of people every day butting up against those front gates and those Taliban fighters.

Now, I do have to say, I'm being told that there are a couple U.S. planes. One is already on the ground and that one or two more are inbound. And they are expected to fly out tonight. We will see what happens with that. And I will continue to (INAUDIBLE)

But, certainly, from everything I have seen, the situation is desperate. It's chaotic. People are lying in the gravel, in the dirt for two days now, with little babies in the scorching sun and the cold of the evening.

I can't even begin to explain to you what the bathroom here looks like. It's only worth mentioning because there are hundreds of Marines here, and there's no reason for it. These people, they need tents for some shelter during the day.

We saw Marines today handing out little wedges of cardboard, so that people could fan their babies. I saw a newborn baby dehydrate and have to be (INAUDIBLE) and taken for medical treatment.


So, it's a desperate situation, and it's only going to get worse unless things are really taken into order.

BLACKWELL: Clarissa, the president was asked about I believe it was a translator named Abdul who worked with the U.S. And his response to that reporter was just, once he gets to the airport, gets to the airfield, that we will evacuate him.

His commitment starts at the airport. Can you just make it clear for everyone how difficult it is to get to that point, to get to the other side of the wall for these Afghans who are in disparate parts across the country?

WARD: I mean, it's incredibly difficult for anyone, be it for an American, for a Brit, for a Dutch.

Basically, you come up toward the front gate, those many different gates you can try. Every single gate has hundreds of people outside of it who are waiting for that door to open for five seconds.

And the minute it opens, there is just a massive heave of people pushing to get in. I know that because I was one of those people pushing, my team members and I, holding onto each other's luggage, holding onto each other's hands, being thrust and pushed by the crowd as we tried to get in through a gate that we thought was going to be relatively empty, but, actually, there is no such thing as an empty gate.

Every gate has dozens, if not hundreds of people, waiting outside for their one window of opportunity. And, by the way, they have already had to beat their way past the Taliban checkpoints, through fighters with whips and guns, even to get to that stage.

Then, once you get there, you begin the long journey of being processed. I have been talking to people on the ground here who have been in this airport now, in this compound for two full days, with no proper access to washrooms, minimal food and water which is being given to them by U.S. servicemen, but on a sort of ad hoc basis, no access to shelter.

I mean, even just the ridiculous thing, Victor, like you do finally get to the flight path, while we have been here for whatever it is, 10 hours, 11 hours. It is incredibly noisy.

I have actually managed to like hunker down here to do this (INAUDIBLE) with you in a Turkish guard hut. But for everybody else, they're basically on the runway. If you have a baby and you are on this runway for 12 hours, there's dust and dirt flying around.

It's just a terrible situation. There are people in wheelchairs. As I mentioned before, there's not proper bathrooms that are easily accessible. It's a nightmare scenario, and it doesn't end even when you get to the relative safety of passing through that front gate.

BLACKWELL: The president said, on Americans, two things, first, that there was no indication that Americans were having any difficulty getting there to the airport.

Have you seen any difficulty for Americans there with American passports trying to get through into the airport? And do we know if any of the 10,000 who are waiting there are Americans?

WARD: We had difficulty getting into the airport.


WARD: Working how to get to this airport is like a Rubik's Cube. You sit and go through a whole different slew of factors and

contingency plans and trying to get help from just some different places. I can't get into the details of how we did get in, but it's very difficult. It's very difficult. It's not a simple process at all.

And you might remember I did a live shot a couple days ago outside the airport. I was talking to people with green cards, people who had all their SIV applications accepted, their visa. And they couldn't get close. They couldn't get close, because it's thousands of people crushing into each other, Taliban fighters with truncheons and whips pushing people back, shots being fired into the air.

Then you go through another layer. You have got Afghan special forces commandos who are kind of the first line of defense afterwards from the U.S. Then you have got the U.S. processing.

Anyone who says that any American can get in here is -- yes, I mean, technically, it's possible, but it's extremely difficult, and it is dangerous.

BLACKWELL: Clarissa Ward there still in Kabul after, she said, about 10, 11 hours there, thank you again for