Return to Transcripts main page


Crisis in Afghanistan. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired August 12, 2021 - 15:00   ET



JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: A common infantry combat brigade is about 3, 500 to 4,000 people.

QUESTION: So, why is it -- I'm unclear why -- so, it's 3,000 people who are going to HKIA right away in the coming days. And then you have another 3, 500 who will be there on standby in case all for security.

I'm unclear on what they're doing. If the 3,000 going to HKIA -- it's like a couple of miles from the embassy to HKIA. What exactly are 3,000 people doing? Are they just there securing the airport then?

KIRBY: They will be there to provide safety and secure -- the secure movement of the reduction of civilian personnel out of the embassy, to help facilitate their departure from the country, to also help with the process of moving Special Immigrant Visa applications out of the country and to provide additional security at the airport.

Again, we believe this is a prudent measure, given the deteriorating security situation.

QUESTION: Three thousand is a lot of people. I'm still -- what is -- can you give any better sense of like on a day to day, what are they doing? It sounds they must be -- that number of people, they must be responsible for getting people to the airport and then actually -- it almost sounds as if they're coming in and taking over security at the airport, if it's that size.

KIRBY: I wouldn't go that far, Courtney.

The Turkish forces are still at the airport. The Turks are still in the lead of security at the airport. We already have some security forces, United States security forces, at the airport, including some aviation elements. These 3,000 would be going to bolster that presence and to make sure that the airport is secure enough to facilitate the movement of all these people over the next couple of weeks.

Again, this is about prudent preparation. And we want to make sure that we have got enough on hand to adapt to any contingencies. So, I -- your question about the numbers being too high, we believe it's appropriate to the security situation that we see now and that we can anticipate possibly in the future, which is again why we're going to flow a brigade combat team into the theater to be ready in case we need even more.

Now, hopefully, Courtney, this will be an incredibly permissive environment and we won't need these additional capabilities. But the secretary believes the safety and security of our people, not just American troops, but our allies and partners and our State Department colleagues, is of paramount concern, and he's not going to add additional risk to that safe movement.

QUESTION: Just very quickly, Kandahar City and Herat City, can you confirm what the Taliban are reporting, that they have taken it?

KIRBY: I can't. And I'm not going to do battlefield assessments here from the Pentagon podium.

Yes, let me go back to the phones. I know we got lots to get through.

Tara Copp.

QUESTION: Hey, John. Thanks for doing this.

A couple questions. The infantry battalions, where are they coming from?

KIRBY: The three infantry battalions that I talked about are already coming from inside the Central Command area of responsibility. And I think I'd rather leave it at that for now.

They're already in theater.

QUESTION: OK, thank you.

And then the 1,000 that will be at Qatar is the intent that they will stay at Qatar, or would they also be flying into Kabul to provide additional support if needed?

KIRBY: Yes, as I mentioned to David, right now, the plan is to get them to Qatar, because, again, we were looking at regional sites for processing of SIV applicants. Qatar is one of those sites that we are looking at potentially being able to use.

If they need to move in part or in whole elsewhere to do this job to help with the application process, we will deal with that at the right time. But, for right now, in the coming days, they will be heading to Qatar.

QUESTION: And last one.

Besides the increase in troops, it becomes kind of a logistics issue if you don't have enough, I guess, airlift support. Is the U.S. also going to send additional planes or get additional contracted air to be able to, I guess, increase the throughput of people that can leave Kabul?

KIRBY: As I said earlier, we do anticipate an increased need for U.S. airlift. And the secretary has already had conversations with the chairman and with Transportation Command about these potential needs.

So we do fully expect that there will be additional United States military airlift required. I just don't have the details here today for you, exactly what that's going to look, like how many tails and what the sorties are going to look like.

But we absolutely anticipate being more involved in the airlift element of this mission.


QUESTION: John, what about close air support? Are you going to increase the number of drones or fighter jets overhead to protect these troops?

KIRBY: We still have -- yesterday, we have. And, today, we have the authority and the -- and capabilities in the region to conduct airstrikes if needed.


That's not going to change as a result of these new mission sets.

QUESTION: Does this mean the U.S. military withdrawal is not going to be completed by August 31?

KIRBY: Again, I -- what I said was, we're aiming to facilitate the reduction of the civilian personnel by August 31. So, it's all lining up on the same timeline.

I won't speculate about what the footprints going to look like post- August 31, because there's this additional mission set of helping process special immigrants. So we're just going to have to wait and see. But the drawdown itself is still on track to be complete by August 31.

QUESTION: That makes no sense, John.


QUESTION: -- 3,000 troops.


KIRBY: I know what you're saying, Lucas. I'm saying, of the original footprint plans, that is still continuing.

But, yes, we are adding additional troops for this specific and narrow focus.

QUESTION: And you're hoping to get them all out by the end of the month?

KIRBY: I'm not going to speculate beyond August 31.

Our job right now, with this additional plus-up, is to help facilitate the safe movement of civilian personnel out of Afghanistan. And the president's been very clear that he wants that reduction complete by the end of August. That's what we're focused on.

QUESTION: Have you spoken to the Taliban, that they know that you're doing this and that you have some assurances or maybe guarantees that they will not attack these additional forces moving in?

KIRBY: The Defense Department has not spoken to the Taliban about this.

QUESTION: So are you concerned they are going to be under attack?

KIRBY: As I said, we have made it very clear, as I just did a few minutes ago, that, as in all cases, our commanders will have the right of self-defense.

And any attack upon our forces will be met with a swift and appropriate response.

QUESTION: Do you consider this a combat mission?

KIRBY: This is a very narrowly focused mission of safeguarding the orderly reduction of civilian personnel out of Afghanistan, and that's what we're going to be focused on.

QUESTION: It's not a combat mission?

KIRBY: Lucas, I have already described this mission now three times.

We're mindful that the security situation continues to deteriorate in Afghanistan. And, as I said before, our troops will, as always, have the right of self-defense. But this is a narrowly focused mission to help with -- to help safeguard an orderly reduction of civilian personnel.

Jeff Seldin.

QUESTION: John, thanks very much.

If I could follow up a little bit on Lucas' question, with all these new troops resources going into Kabul, is there any consideration of using the Kabul Airport as a staging point for what had been the over- the-horizon capabilities? And has also been any progress on securing anything closer to Afghanistan in terms of staging or basing for the over-the-horizon airstrikes?

And then, secondly, how worrisome is it that a city like Herat, a city like Kandahar, which -- where U.S. airpower has been focused in recent weeks in an attempt to assist the Afghan security forces, are either falling or have fallen to the Taliban, despite the additional U.S. support?

KIRBY: I'm sorry. I didn't get that -- what the question was on your second one.

QUESTION: Sorry. Over the last couple week or so, the U.S., we're told, has focused

some of its airstrike capability on cities like Herat, on Kandahar, in an effort to bolster the efforts of Afghan security forces there.

How worrisome is it that those cities appear to be falling or have fallen into Taliban hands, despite the fact that the U.S. has focused what capabilities it has on those areas?

KIRBY: Well, obviously, no one's pleased to see that the security situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate and that the Taliban continues to act as if they believe the only path to governance is through violence and brutality and oppression and force, contrary to what they have said previously at the negotiating table.

So, of course, nobody's happy to see that. And, as we have said before, Jeff, with these airstrikes, we would provide support to the Afghan national security and defense forces where and when feasible, with the expectation and the knowledge that it's not always going to be feasible.

As to your first question about the airport, there is no planning and no discussion of using Hamid Karzai International Airport as a base for conducting airstrikes in and around Afghanistan. There is a small aviation element at the airport that is rotary-based, and it's for the facilitation and logistics and movement and that kind of thing.

QUESTION: Yes, Mike.

QUESTION: John, you have -- sorry (INAUDIBLE) there at the airport, brigade there in Kuwait, troops in Kuwait. Who's in charge of this? What's the chain of command?

Do they report -- is there somebody in charge of the collective military effort, or do they report to the embassy security officer, the RSO or--



KIRBY: As we've said, we have Rear Admiral Vasely, who is in Kabul, and has been placed in charge by General McKenzie to be the commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan Forward.


KIRBY: Ashley from "Jane's."

QUESTION: Yes, hi, John.

Just to follow up on some of the other questions, in addition to any additional aircraft, are there -- is there additional equipment that these three battalions are going to need? And then can you just sort of walk us through how you arrived at the need for 3,000 additional troops?

KIRBY: Well, I'm not going to get into the deliberations over exactly how these particular units were chosen.

This was based on consultation by the secretary with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and with General McKenzie, based on the mission set. And, again, it's a narrowly defined mission to safeguard the movement of civilian personnel and to help process and at an accelerated pace Special Immigrant Visas.

And so, based on the mission set, we sourced the mission. And based on consultations with top military leaders, the secretary decided that this was the appropriate amount right now and to, again, have additional forces available closer into theater if that was required.

I'm sorry. And I missed your other question.

QUESTION: Oh, in addition to potential aircraft being sent into the country to help with the evacuation, is there a need -- is there additional equipment being sent in to help with transportation or anything else at this point in time?

KIRBY: Well, as I said, we anticipate the use of additional military airlift as required. And we're working through the requirements for that right now.

And these infantry battalions come with some measure of self-defense equipment, mortars, machine guns, and, of course, personally carried weaponry. So, I mean, they have self-defense capabilities. But I'm not going to -- and I'm not able to detail specifically what each battalion will be carrying with them, but they will obviously have the capabilities they need to defend themselves.

Lou (ph)?

QUESTION: John, one term that we have heard in the last couple of days is a NEO, noncombatant evacuation operation.

Sending 3,000 personnel, another 1,000 to another country, 4,000, and none of 3,000 to -- inside, I mean, that's a significant number. Is this a NEO? And if not, why is it -- why are you not calling it that?

KIRBY: We're not classifying this as a noncombatant evacuation operation.

We are, as I said -- at the very beginning, this is a very narrowly focused, temporary mission to facilitate the safe and orderly departure of additional civilian personnel from the State Department and to help accelerate, to help the State Department colleagues accelerate the processing of SIV applicants.

We are not classifying this as a NEO at this time.


QUESTION: A follow up. I mean, there's a certain irony here that the drawdown was for 2, 500 troops, and you're sending in an additional 3,000 to get out civilians and ramping it up super quick. And on top of that, another 3, 500 in Kuwait. I mean, what is the

irony here for people who might be asking, is it -- I mean, literally, isn't this ironic that, in order to get out the 2, 500, you're having a ramp up significantly?

KIRBY: No, I don't -- I don't share your view of the irony, Louis (ph).

This is a very temporary admission for a very specific purpose. That's a big difference than saying you're deploying for eight, nine, 12 months forces to stabilize and secure Afghanistan, which we'd been doing for the last 20 years. This is a very narrowly defined, very temporary mission.


So, once this mission, this very narrowly defined mission is over, there are only going to be 650 troops to protect the airport and the embassy staff?

KIRBY: Once this mission is over, I won't get into specific numbers here, but we anticipate having less than 1,000 U.S. troops on the ground to support the diplomatic presence in Kabul, which we all agree we still want to be able to have.

QUESTION: And I defer to my colleague, who has been very gracious.

KIRBY: After three questions.



QUESTION: Are you considering the need for even more troops if the situation continues to deteriorate?

And to follow up on David's question, if there wasn't one event that led to this, what changed in the last 24 to 48 hours that's led to what appears to be an incredible acceleration of the plans to get out those the U.S. needs to get out?

KIRBY: To your first question, no.

I think we laid out pretty clearly that the three infantry battalions on the way now and a brigade combat team being brought over into the region as a reserve. So there's no plans right now for additional forces.

And I can only say what I said before to David. I mean, there wasn't one precipitating event in the last couple of days that led the president and the secretary to make this decision. It's a confluence of events.


And as I have been saying for -- now for several weeks, we have been watching very closely with concern the security situation the ground. And far better to be prudent about it and be responsible and watching the trends to make the best decisions you can for safety and security of our people than to wait until it's too late.

So we believe that this is not only the right thing to do, but that it's the right time to do it.

QUESTION: At what point is the fall of Kabul inevitable?

KIRBY: I wouldn't speculate, Oren. I'm not going to speculate about hypothetical situations in the future. And I'm certainly not going to get into intelligence assessments from the--


QUESTION: Well, clearly, you think it's close if you're evacuating all these Americans.

KIRBY: I'm not going to speculate about the future of Kabul, Lucas. And I'm certainly not going to talk about intelligence assessments.

We believe that this is the right thing to do and this is the right time to do it. And as my State Department colleague said earlier today, there's still a diplomatic presence in Kabul. And the intention is to maintain a diplomatic presence in Kabul.

QUESTION: If the Pentagon isn't talking to the Taliban, is the State Department or any diplomats talking to the Taliban right now?

KIRBY: I'm not -- well, we have a special envoy, Mr. Khalilzad, who routinely talks to leaders of the Taliban in terms of the pursuit of a diplomatic negotiated settlement.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) massive deployment?

KIRBY: You -- I would refer you to my State Department colleagues to speak to what Ambassador Khalilzad is doing.

QUESTION: And why can't you call this a combat deployment? Because it's insulting for Americans watching this right now.

KIRBY: I disagree, Lucas. I don't think that it's insulting, and I'm not sure I share that -- that sentiment at all.

This is--

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) deploying into Kabul. You telling me that the Marines and the soldiers that are about to strap it on, go into Kabul, that this isn't combat?

KIRBY: Lucas, Lucas, what I'm telling you is -- and I have said it before -- they will have the ability to defend themselves.

They will be armed, of course. They're going for a security mission. They're going for a narrowly defined mission to help secure and safeguard the movement of these civilian personnel, as well as the movement of special immigrants, or men and women and their families who are applying under that process. That's the goal.

QUESTION: It's not a combat mission?

KIRBY: That's the goal.

QUESTION: Being clear here, I'm responding to e-mails I'm getting from people in Afghanistan.

This is a narrowly defined mission to, as you just said, for our diplomatic personnel and those in the SIV program? It is not for any other individuals who are not Afghans in Kabul who may work -- have worked for U.S. agencies or who work for other governments?

And the follow-up question is, at some point, without you speculating, this is a NATO mission. Is it possible that the U.S. could work with other NATO allies to evacuate other personnel?

KIRBY: On your first question, Tom, again, I think I have characterized this mission appropriately. And I'm going to leave it at that.

On your second question, this is a U.S. decision by the commander in chief to reduce civilian personnel and to have U.S. military personnel flow in to help with that reduction. So, it's not a NATO mission.

That said, we fully anticipate to be in close consultation with our allies and partners going forward. And if we can be of assistance to them, if they desire to make changes in their footprint, then the secretary fully intends to make it clear to them that we will be ready to help as needed.

QUESTION: Thank you.


Let's see. Dan Lamothe.

QUESTION: Yes. Thank you, John.

Can you clarify how this doesn't qualify as a NEO? And can it -- and regardless of that, can you at least make it clear that if a NEO was needed because this speeds up yet still, you have got everything you need in place for one?

KIRBY: Yes, again, the purpose here is to help with the reduction of civilian personnel out of the embassy. That is -- that is not the same as a noncombatant evacuation operation, where you're moving a massive amount of people who aren't necessarily U.S. government employees.

It is a different -- it's a different operation altogether. And we're just not there.

The other thing that we're going to be doing is helping the State Department, again, accelerate the process for Special Immigrant Visa applicants. That also does not fall under the rubric of what would be a noncombatant evacuation operation. Jeff Schogol.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

I know you're telling us as much as you can. And I know the Pentagon is committed to transparency.

It is in that spirit that I ask, can you say where these issues infantry battalions are coming from? "The New York Times" is reporting the Marines are coming from a Marine expeditionary unit.


Can you say which MEU?

KIRBY: Jeff, as I said, I'm going to leave it at letting you know that they're coming from with inside a Central Command area of responsibility.

And I'm just going to leave it at that for right now.

QUESTION: Thank you.

Which brigade from Bragg is going?

KIRBY: I'm not going into detail which brigade, but it is a brigade from the 82nd Airborne.

Meghan (ph), did you have a question?

OK, Sylvie. And then I will take one more after that. And we will have to call it a day.

QUESTION: OK, thank you, John.

You said that you don't want to speak about intelligence, which I understand. But you can speak about image. What do you think that the evacuation of civilian by the military will look like? And how do you -- how are you going to avoid parallel with the fall of Saigon?

KIRBY: What this is going to look like is what it is, Sylvie.

And that's the United States government looking after the safety and security of our people, first and foremost, and making sure that we, the military, are supporting the safe movement of these individuals out of Afghanistan, as I said, which we believe is a prudent step.

We're not walking away from our commitments to the Afghan forces. We are not completely eliminating our diplomatic presence on the ground. We're still going to have diplomats there. We're still going to be doing work, as Ned Price said earlier. And the military will still remain committed to helping protect the diplomatic presence that remains inside Afghanistan.

So nobody is abandoning Afghanistan. This is not walking away from it. It's doing the right thing at the right time to protect our people. OK, one more. Anything here?

Jim, you haven't had a question.

QUESTION: It may seem a little strange, but does this operation have a name?

KIRBY: No, it does not.


QUESTION: The U.K. announced it's sending in troops also to help evacuate its people.

KIRBY: You know more than me.

QUESTION: I was going to say, you don't -- OK.

KIRBY: No, I wasn't aware of that.

QUESTION: Are you worried about this triggering panic in the population there in Kabul?

KIRBY: Again, this is about the safe movement of our people in Afghanistan.

And we obviously want--

QUESTION: I'm referring to the civilians who live there. They're going to see a large number of Americans being whisked away by the military, while they're stuck there with the Taliban--


KIRBY: What I'd say, Mike, what I'd say to that, Mike, is what I have been saying for the last few days, that the Afghan forces have advantages. They have capability to protect their territory and their people.

They have the capacity to do that. What I think the Afghan people want to see and what they deserve to see is the leadership and the will to use those advantages to their benefit.

Thanks, everybody. Going to have to go now.


QUESTION: -- clarify the numbers one more time, so I have no mistakes?

Three thousand going in to the airport, 1,000 first going to Qatar, and then to Afghanistan to help with SIVs or staying in Qatar?


No, I said the 1,000 enablers will go to Qatar for right now. I can't predict whether there will be onward movement from there. Right now, they're going to Qatar--

QUESTION: And then 3, 500--


KIRBY: -- again, for helping process, and then 3,000 to the airport in the next few days. And then there will be a reserve force out of Bragg that will -- that will stage out of Kuwait. And that's roughly 3, 500 to 4,000.

QUESTION: All of that is in addition to the 650 who are there?


KIRBY: That is correct.


QUESTION: -- ballpark?


Thanks, everybody.

QUESTION: I'm sorry.


QUESTION: .. the immigrants, though, is that just transportation, or are they actually, like, helping--

KIRBY: No, I mean, processing their applications, medical screening, that kind of thing.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: You been listening to the Pentagon briefing there from Retired Admiral John Kirby, and this very important announcement, as the situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate.

Let's break down what we have learned, CNN national security correspondent Kylie Atwood, CNN international security editor Nick Paton Walsh, and CNN military analyst Lieutenant General Mark Hertling. We also have with us CNN senior Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, let me start with you.

And we go from 650 U.S. troops who are in Afghanistan to now more than 3, 650. Break down what's happening over the next 24 to 48 hours.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Victor, here is where we are at this hour.

Let's recall that all of this is about the withdrawal of 2, 500 U.S. troops of Afghanistan by the end of the month. But, in the last several days, the security situation in the country has largely fallen apart with Taliban advances.


So, to the -- now we we're talking about putting more than 3,000 U.S. troops possibly back into the area. What the Pentagon announced a short time ago is 3,000 troops will go into Afghanistan to help take diplomats out of the embassy, to help get Afghans out, to facilitate security, to facilitate operations at the airport.

Let's break it down a little bit. Of these 3,000 military personnel that will go in, they will be made up of Marines and Army troops coming from Kuwait. They will also be made up of an Air Force aircraft bringing them in. Those aircraft are likely now to be used to be turned around and help take people out of Afghanistan.

To the side, another 1,000 troops will go to the Gulf nation of Qatar to help process Afghans who need visas. In addition, there will be another unit from the 82nd Airborne that will go to the region, not right into Afghanistan, but to the region, possibly 3,000 or more troops. They are a crisis response unit, essentially, out of Fort Bragg from the 82nd Airborne.

If security deteriorates further, if the 3,000 troops going in need more help, they will be close by and ready to help, all of this because the Taliban in the last several days have made massive advances across Afghanistan, taking city after city, the Pentagon clearly unsettled, the State Department wanting to assure security for the troops that it's trying to get -- for the diplomatic personnel it's trying to get out of there.

I want to make another point. John Kirby was repeatedly asked if this is now a combat mission, because U.S. troops have not been technically in combat in Afghanistan for some years now. He did not say it was a combat mission.

But let's be clear. U.S. troops are in a combat environment. They are going to be heavily armed. They will have the right of self-defense. They are concerned about a Taliban challenge. And they will respond with force under the rules if they are challenged.

We also have U.S. pilots overhead, let's not forget, conducting airstrikes. So there is a good number now of U.S. troops, certainly in a combat environment in Afghanistan, even if the Pentagon wants to stand on that delicate point that they are not in combat -- Victor.

BLACKWELL: So let's take that point to Nick now.

The Taliban now taking its third -- 12th, I should say, provincial capital. Describe for us, fill out the picture of the environment in which these now 3,000 troops will arrive.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Well, it lands with the focus now really on Kabul.

And I think it's extraordinary that this move has been made, utterly unexpected, I would say, that this volume of troops would go back in. It puts them, frankly, above the number they were before they began withdrawing. It's definitely a sign of concern about what's likely to happen in the capital in the months ahead.

We have seen an extraordinary day of cities falling, three, at least. Ghazni was early this morning. That's key to reaching the south, where there are other cities in peril. There are reports of real Taliban advances inside Lashkar Gah. That's a vital symbolic city in Helmand.

And then the third largest city in the country, Herat, fell just a matter of hours ago. It had been holding out with the assistance of local militia too, but it seemed that the Taliban moved in and the governor's compound was the last place to fall. I think that will have sent shockwaves.

It's half-a-million people live there, but extraordinary to see Herat that many I think felt would probably hold out because of the forces inside there. Collapse. We're now eyes on Kandahar too. Neighboring Lashkar Gah and Kandahar both inflicted with prison breaks. That swelled Taliban ranks.

And it seems the Taliban of pushing into Kandahar, the second biggest city. That looks deeply imperiled too.

So, once these other places are taken -- and there are still at least over half of the provincial capitals that are not in Taliban hands -- then you might start seeing the insurgency focus on Kabul, if it doesn't decide to do that a little bit earlier.

Clearly, there are many deeply concerned that security could deteriorate inside Kabul. I have to tell you, this announcement is extraordinary in two ways, because, as you heard from Barbara, it puts back into the game so many American soldiers to enact this withdrawal.

And, of course, it will mean -- that they're supposed to leave at the end of the month, but it will mean that there will be a moment when they have to come out again and America will be faced with the decision to pull these troops out.

Effectively, by being in Kabul in such extraordinary numbers, the 600 Brits going as well announced separately, that provides, with all their capabilities, a slight security blanket around some key institutions for the next few weeks.

I have to say, though, one senior official I spoke to in Kabul was really taken aback and distraught at hearing this announcement. And I could hear -- I have never heard someone feel -- sound so betrayed, how darkly they're perceiving what America is doing right now.