Sep 17, 2021
Pentagon Announces Civilian Deaths in Kabul Airstrike: Press Conference Transcript
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby held a press conference on September 17, 2021. The Pentagon admitted to 10 civilian deaths in a recent drone strike on Kabul, Afghanistan. Read the transcript of the briefing here.
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John Kirby: (00:00)
Okay, good afternoon. Today, I’m very honored and privileged to be joined by General Franklin McKenzie, Commander, US Central Command. The General’s got some opening comments for you related to the August 29th air strike that was taken in Kabul. And then he’ll stick around for some questions. I will moderate those questions as we’ve done before. And since we got pretty much a full house here, and he’s got limited time, I’d ask you to keep your follow-ups to an absolute minimum so that we can be as fair as we can to everybody. When the General’s done, I’ll come back up and brief on some other topics as well. So with that General McKenzie, can you hear and see me okay?
General McKenzie: (00:44)
John, I can hear and see you fine. How [inaudible 00:00:46].
John Kirby: (00:46)
All good here, sir. I’ll turn the floor over to you.
General McKenzie: (00:50)
Thanks, John. Good afternoon. I’m here to brief the results of the investigation. I directed following the report of civilian casualties from our strike and Kabul on 29 August. Having thoroughly reviewed the findings of the investigation and the supporting analysis by inter-agency partners, I am now convinced that as many as 10 civilians, including up to seven children were tragically killed in that strike. Moreover, we now assess that it is unlikely that the vehicle and those who died or associated with ISIS K, or were a direct threat to the US forces. I offer my profound condolences to the family and friends of those who were killed. This strike was taken in the earnest belief that it would prevent an imminent threat to our forces and the evacuees at the airport, but it was a mistake and I offer my sincere apology. As the combatant commander, I am fully responsible for this strike and its tragic outcome.
General McKenzie: (01:48)
While I’ve begun with the most important findings of our investigation, I do want to provide the background leading up to the strike and include an explanation as to why we felt reasonably certain that this was a legitimate strike on an imminent ISIS K threat with no indication that the strike would result in civilian casualties as we asserted in our initial statements. The strike on 29 August must be considered in the context of the situation on the ground in Kabul at Hamid Karzai International Airport following the ISIS K attack that resulted in the deaths of 13 soldiers, sailors, and Marines, and more than 100 civilians at Abby gate on 26 August. And also with a substantial body of intelligence indicating the imminence of another attack. In the 48 hours prior to the strike, sensitive intelligence indicated that the compound at point number one on the map, and let’s bring the map up now, please.
General McKenzie: (02:47)
And we’re just going to bring this up. Hopefully you have an opportunity to see it here as we go forward. John, can you see the map there? John, can you hear me now?
John Kirby: (03:10)
[inaudible 00:03:10] and the press have hard copies.
General McKenzie: (03:13)
Okay, roger. Then I’m going to continue based on that then, John. In the 48 hours prior to the strike, sensitive intelligence indicated that the compound at point number one on the map was being used by ISIS K planners, used to facilitate future attacks. We were also receiving a significant number of reports indicating multiple avenues of attack, which were being planned simultaneously, through which ISIS K would attempt to harm our forces, including with rockets, suicide explosive vests, and vehicle borne improvised explosive devices. In fact, in the 36 hours proceeding the strike, our leaders on the ground, at the airport and in the strike cell, received more than 60 different pieces of intelligence related to imminent threats with some intelligence corroborating, and some conflicting with events observed from our UAVs, which were flying above Kabul throughout the day. One of the most recurring aspects of the intelligence was that ISIS K would utilize a white Toyota Corolla as a key element in the next attack.
General McKenzie: (04:18)
Because the compound at point number one was our strongest lead for the series of imminent attacks, we initiated an intense surveillance of the compound with as many as six MQ9 Reapers on the morning of 29 August. At 8:52 AM local time on 29 August, a white Toyota Corolla arrived at point number one, the compound we believed to be a key area of interest associated with imminent threats to the airport. Two adult males exited the vehicle, met with an adult male in the compound and received a bag from him. The Corolla then departed the compound heading south and we followed the vehicle. At 9: 05 AM, the Toyota Corolla picked up a third adult male, carrying a bag at point number two and then continued south. At 9:35, the Corolla arrived at the compound at point number three, which we now know to include an office of nutrition and education internationals. And all three adult males in the vehicle entered the building on the compound.
General McKenzie: (05:23)
At 11:19 AM, three adult males unloaded bags and jugs from the trunk of the vehicle before departing the compound at 11:22 AM heading south. At approximately this time, US forces were notified of a sensitive intelligence collection indicating that an ISIS K cell leader in Kabul was dropping off supplies. At 12:11 PM, the Corolla arrived at point number four and at least two adult male occupants exited the vehicle in front of an office building before returning to their vehicle and departing at 1:27 PM heading west and then south. At 2:00 PM, the Corolla were returned to the compound at point number three. Subsequently multiple adult males were observed loading the trunk of the vehicle, where the items assessed at the time to be explosives, before departing at 3:47 PM with four adult males heading north. At 4:11 PM, the Corolla returned to point number two and dropped off one adult male carrying a bag, then continued north.
General McKenzie: (06:38)
After driving near point number one, the Corolla dropped off one adult male on the road at point number five, which is roughly several hundred meters north of point number one. At 4:39 PM, the Corolla dropped off its last passenger on the road at point number six. At 4:51 PM, the Corolla arrived at point number seven and backed into a compound that was approximately three kilometers from the airport, which was the closest it came to the airport all day. We were very concerned that the vehicle could move quickly and be at the airport boundary in a matter of moments. By this time we’d observed the vehicle for about eight hours. While in the compound, the vehicle was observed being approached by a single adult male assessed at the time to be a co-conspirator.
General McKenzie: (07:29)
The strike was executed at this time because the vehicle was stationary and to reduce the potential for civilian casualties. The single Hellfire missile was fused to detonate inside the vehicle to further minimize the chance for civilian casualties. It struck the vehicle at 4:53 PM, which produced an explosive event, and following flames significantly larger than a Hellfire missile would have been expected to produce.
General McKenzie: (07:58)
It is my assessment that leaders on the ground and the strike cell had achieved a reasonable certainty at the time of the strike to designate the vehicle as an imminent threat to US forces at the airport and that they made this self-defense strike in accordance with established rules of engagement. That assessment is based upon interviews with leaders on the ground and members of the strike cell, on a review of the intelligence available to the team at the time of the strike and on the team’s interpretation of how this vehicle and its occupants actions were confirming the intelligence that they were seeing. It is further my assessment that the strike team were convinced at the time of the strike, that the area was clear civilians and that they had taken prudent steps in regards to weaponeering the strike to minimize the potential for civilian casualties.
General McKenzie: (08:48)
Finally, it is my assessment that they did believe as reported, that there was a secondary explosion. Our investigation now concludes that the strike was a tragic mistake. First I will stress, this was not a rushed strike. The strike cell deliberately followed and observed this vehicle and its occupants for eight hours while cross checking what they were seeing with all available intelligence to develop a reasonable certainty of the imminent threat that this vehicle posed to our forces.
General McKenzie: (09:20)
Second, while the initial reports indicated a secondary explosion, the initial investigation could only conclude that it was a possible to probable presence of external accelerant that can include either explosive material in the vehicle or an ignition of the gas tank of the vehicle. Subsequent analysis could not rule out the presence of a small amount of explosive material, but determined that the most likely cause was the ignition of gas from a propane tank located immediately behind the car. Such an ignition would have created a brief, but massive fireball oriented directly up and out of the compound that was observed in the video and displayed in this photo, if we could get that next photo up, please.
Speaker 1: (10:07)
They have me disabled, sir.
General McKenzie: (10:13)
Finally, while the strike cell reported, John can hear me okay?
John Kirby: (10:17)
I got you, sir.
General McKenzie: (10:18)
Roger. Finally, while the strike cell reported the presence of two adult males, one inside the vehicle and one outside the vehicle at the time of the strike, the cell initiated a review of their footage immediately following the report of civilian casualties and determined that a few partially obscured forms were briefly visible moving into compound. This led to my initiation of an investigation within 24 hours of the strike. A comprehensive review of all the available footage and reporting on the matter led us to a final conclusion, that as many as 10 civilians were killed in the strike, including up to seven children. At the time of the strike, based upon all the intelligence and what was being reported, I was confident that the strike had averted an imminent threat to our forces at the airport.
General McKenzie: (11:07)
Based upon that assessment, I and other leaders in the Department repeatedly asserted the validity of this strike. I’m here today to set the record straight and acknowledge our mistakes. I will end my remarks with the same note of sincere and profound condolences to the family and friends of those who died in this tragic strike. We are exploring the possibility of ex gratia payments. And I’ll finish by saying while the team conducted the strike did so in the honest belief that they were preventing an imminent attack on our forces and civilian evacuees. We now understand that to be incorrect. With that, I’m ready to take your questions.
John Kirby: (11:46)
Thank you, General. Tom?
General, this is a complete and utter failure. Can you explain how this possibly could have happened?
General McKenzie: (11:56)
Well, so this particular strike, certainly was a terrible mistake and we certainly regret that. And I’ve been very clear that we take full responsibility for it. At the same time, we were carrying on a number of complex operations designed to defend ourselves. We conducted a strike a couple of days before up in Nangarhar that was very successful. We conducted other operations across the battlespace to, to defend ourselves during this very difficult 48 hour period, when so many eminent threats were manifest. So while I agree with it, this strike certainly did not come up to our standards and I profoundly regret it, I would not qualify the entire operation in those terms.
And will anybody be held responsible?
General McKenzie: (12:35)
We are in the process right now of continuing that line of investigation. And I have nothing for you now because that involves personnel issues.
John Kirby: (12:43)
Please identify yourself and your outlet. When you ask your question. David?
David Martin: (12:47)
David Martin with CBS News. So you said that you started following this car after it showed up at a place associated with ISIS-
Speaker 2: (13:01)
… did it with ISIS. In retrospect, was that place associated with ISIS? And this was described as an over the horizon strike, which is what the US is going to be relying on from now on in Afghanistan. So what does this incident say about the reliability of future strikes against terrorist threats in Afghanistan?
General McKenzie: (13:32)
[inaudible 00:13:32]. I’ll take the first part of your question and begin with that. So point one on the map, we do assess very definitely associated with ISIS-K. In fact, a little less than 24 hours later, rockets will be launched from that point against the airfield. So we had very good intelligence to make a stink. Point one on the map was in fact a area where ISIS was centered. So I think that was very good intelligence supported that belief.
General McKenzie: (13:59)
Now the second part of your question about whether this will affect future OTH operations. Let me be clear. This was a self-defense strike taken under self-defense rules of engagement based on an imminent threat to attack us. That is not the way that we would strike in an OTH mission going into Afghanistan against ISIS-K targets. For one thing, that will not be a self-defense strike. It will be done under different rules of engagement. And we would have a lot more opportunity probably than we had under this extreme time pressure to take a look at the target, to use a phrase that you’ll be familiar with, to soak the target with multiple platforms, to have an opportunity to develop extended pattern of life. None of these things were available to us given the urgent and pressing nature of the imminent threat to our forces.
Speaker 3: (14:51)
Are you considering reparations for the victims here? And what does what happened with this strike say to you about the over horizon capability that we’ve been hearing so much about? What are the risks involved with carrying out strikes when you don’t have people on the ground in Afghanistan going forward?
General McKenzie: (15:05)
Sure. So as I said in my statement, we are considering ex gratia or reparations for this. And that ultimately will be a matter for policy. So we’re in consultation with the office of the Secretary of Defense that determine the way forward there. As you will also understand, it’s very difficult to reach out on the ground in Afghanistan, to actually reach people. But we are very interested in doing that and we’ll move on it based on our ability to do that.
General McKenzie: (15:29)
So your question about this and OTH, I’ll sort of echo what I said to David. I would reject a parallel between this operation and an over the horizon strike against the ISIS-K target. Again, because we will have an opportunity to further develop the target and time to look at pattern of life. That time was not available to us because this was imminent threat to our forces. It’s important that I emphasize that. We did not have the luxury of time to develop pattern of life and to do a number of other things. We struck under the theory of reasonable certainty. Probably our strikes in Afghanistan, going forward, will be under a higher standard. That’s a policy matter, not a purely military matter. But I don’t think you should draw any conclusions about our ability to strike in Afghanistan against ISIS-K targets in the future based on this particular strike.
Speaker 4: (16:22)
[foreign language 00:16:22] You said that you had intelligence about a threat emanating from a white Toyota. So was it, this intelligence was not good or there was another white Toyota which was dangerous and nothing happened from another white Toyota?
General McKenzie: (16:44)
So I would tell you this, clearly our intelligence was wrong on this particular white Toyota Corolla. At the same time, we undertook a variety of things to make it hard for them to get at us during this period of time. We closed the gates, which we didn’t want to do at HKI during this period of time, as force protection. We were very active with our ISR overhead, which we know often has a suppressive effect on their activities. We still took rockets the next day, as you know, when they fired those rockets from near point one and from other places actually near the route of this vehicle. But I will tell you unequivocally, in this case, clearly the intelligence was wrong on this vehicle. And we certainly regret that, as I’ve been very clear.
John Kirby: (17:27)
Let me go to the phones. [Jennifer Steinhauer 00:26:03], New York Times. Jennifer, you there?
Jennifer Steinhauer: (17:39)
My question’s on a different matter, John, for after this.
John Kirby: (17:42)
All right. Okay. Louis Martinez, ABC. You there, Louis? Okay. Nothing heard. [Nancy Usef 00:26:03].
Nancy Usef: (17:58)
Thank you. General, can you clarify a couple points for me. If I’m understanding you correctly, you followed the wrong Toyota Corolla from the beginning, that is you weren’t following one vehicle and mistaking it for another one. And also in your initial statement, you said that there was no initial reports of civilian casualties. It appears that there was at least some concern about civilian casualties very early on. So on what basis did you make that statement? And finally was any of the intelligence that you were using gathered from the Taliban? Thank you.
General McKenzie: (18:28)
So let me begin with the last question. Nothing we did was gathered from the Taliban, and I should be very clear about that. We selected this car based on its movement at a targeted area of interest to us, a known target area of interest to us. And we held it throughout the day. Clearly, based on the end result, that was a mistake. And I have acknowledged that.
John Kirby: (18:53)
Megan Myers: (18:54)
Megan Myers, from Military Times. During this time, were you tracking any other suspicious activity in Kabul that might have also been part of this threat? And do you have any intelligence from after this drone strike that suggests what happened to the imminent threat afterward?
General McKenzie: (19:10)
Sure. So as I noted in my comments, we had over 60 very, very high caliber reports of imminent threat to our forces in and around Kabul. Typically, those are signals based, but there are also some other human intelligence as well. So we had a variety of sources for that intelligence. We believe that the strike we took a couple of days prior up in Nangarhar, actually had an effect on quietening down because we got a key attack planner and that strike. We believe that disrupted some of their plans. Additionally, we did things to make it harder for them to get to us.
General McKenzie: (19:47)
For example, we closed the gates. The gates, as we know, are a particular point where we’re vulnerable. So we decided not to process people and we hunkered down for a little bit of time while this threat was still there. So there were over 60 clear threat vectors that we were dealing with during this period of time, including as I’ve noted before, the rocket attacks that occurred a little bit after this from locations that are displayed on the graphic that you have. Thank you.
Megan Myers: (20:13)
A really quick follow-up. Not in terms of the number of threats, but the number of other cars or groups of people that you were following that day, were you tracking anybody else this closely?
General McKenzie: (20:23)
We tracked a lot of other people. We didn’t track anybody as closely as we did this because of the limitations on our resources. And frankly, we thought this was a good lead. We were wrong.
John Kirby: (20:35)
Thanks, John. General McKenzie, this is Alex Marquardt from CNN. You mentioned that immediately following the attack, you saw shapes in the video that led you to believe that this necessitated an investigation, that there could have been more civilians there. On September 1st, we heard from General Milley who called this a righteous strike. This was several days later. Did you, at the time, several days later, also believe that this was a righteous strike? And could you talk about your erosion of confidence over the fallen, the next subsequent two weeks of the investigation?
General McKenzie: (21:07)
Sure. So I think we issued a statement from US Central Command about six hours after the strike, acknowledging the possibility of civilian casualties. So we knew from the very beginning, there was a possibility of civilian casualties. I think we still thought we had good reasons to have taken that strike and it took us gathering the facts to change that. We didn’t think, as you understand and appreciate, we didn’t take the strike because we thought we were wrong. We took the strike because we thought we had a good target. It takes a little while to uncover some of those things. We moved and worked as rapidly as we could. And actually, I think we worked extremely rapidly to get this information out and to make it public.
John Kirby: (21:44)
Speaker 5: (21:45)
Thank you, John. Thank you, General. So despite numerous intelligence reports and warnings, on the 26th, we had that tragic attack on the airport. 13 US service members were killed in addition to tons of Afghan civilians. Again on the 29th, this strike, another tragedy took place, as you said, 10 civilians were killed among them, seven children. Is that a failure of intelligence or leadership in Afghanistan? And what do you intend to do about that? Thank you.
General McKenzie: (22:18)
Well, I will tell you, we had two events. We had the attack at Abbey Gate and we had this strike. Now, the Abbey Gate attack, you’re in combat with an enemy who is alive and has his own will. And sometimes that enemy, his plans are just going to work. You can’t cover every eventuality all the time, despite our very best efforts to do that. And we took every precaution we could at Abbey Gate. In fact, when we had threats develop over the 48 hours that followed, as I’ve noted, we closed the gates, recognizing it would reduce our ability to bring people in. But at the same time, we thought that was the best thing we could do to actually reduce our attack surface, if you will, to protect our forces. There were also a number of attacks that were thwarted. These are two that you know about because they’re high visibility and we’re talking about them. Others were thwarted and did not occur. So the silence of those attacks should mean something too. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to prove a negative.
John Kirby: (23:14)
Tony Passier: (23:15)
Tony Passier with Bloomberg, I got two quick questions. Are you going to release the report of investigation? Two, in your fact gathering, to what extent did you rely on the New York Times’ extensive video investigation and then talks with NGOs or civilian eye witnesses at the scene?
General McKenzie: (23:37)
So repeat the first question again, for me.
Tony Passier: (23:39)
You’ll be releasing the final report of investigation.
General McKenzie: (23:43)
The final report is a highly classified document. There will be procedures that would have to be followed to declassify elements of that document if it were to be released. And I’ll just leave that question there. As we, in fact, worked our investigation, we use all available sources of information to inform us as we went forward. Certainly that included some of the stuff the New York Times did. It also included our own extensive resources in this area, which we looked at. So we tried to go everywhere we could and not overlook anything as we tried to build a picture.
Tony Passier: (24:13)
[inaudible 00:24:13] aid in the investigation or the fact gathering?
General McKenzie: (24:17)
Tony Passier: (24:18)
John Kirby: (24:19)
General McKenzie, Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News. Did you have forces on the ground that helped you conduct this strike?
General McKenzie: (24:29)
No, we did not. As you know, at no time were our forces really away from Hamid Karzai International Airfield. So there was nobody there on the ground to have to play that role. I think you can see from the graphic that the position of the strike was about three to four kilometers to the west of HKI, so no, there was nobody, either of us or a proxy of ours that was involved in this.
That includes special operations forces?
General McKenzie: (24:56)
Can you talk about the challenges conducting these drone strikes without any US troops on the ground?
General McKenzie: (25:04)
So we conducted a very successful drone strike two days earlier up in Nangarhar province, and we got the target. And I think that had a significant event on dislocating and suppressing ISIS-K’s ability to attack us during this period of time. We actually had success with that. This one, we did not have success with success and we’ve been very clear about owning up to our responsibility in this regard.
John Kirby: (25:29)
Lucas, you’ve had three questions. We’ve got time for just a couple more. [Tara Capp 00:25:35].
Tara Capp: (25:35)
Thank you. General McKenzie, Tara Capp with Defense One. Since there are no more US forces on the ground, how would the ex gratia payments be provided to surviving family members if they are provided? And then I know you walked us through the timeline at the beginning of this, but can you give us the overall amount of time spent actually identifying and confirming this target before the strike was taken?
General McKenzie: (26:01)
Sure. So as for the ex gratia payments-
General McKenzie: (26:03)
Sure. So, as for the Ex-gratia payments, we’re working that right now. And it will be difficult as I noted in my remarks, I think during the first questions, it will be difficult to do that without a presence on the ground. And that’s just something we’re going to have to work through. I don’t have a better answer for you right now, other than, we recognize the obligation and we’ll continue to work that problem.
General McKenzie: (26:21)
So in a situation like this, to go to the second part of your question, as you continue to look at the target over the course of the day, began to build probabilities. You began to weigh, are we going to take a strike? Why are we going to take the strike? When the vehicle came up to the final point at 0.7 on your map, which is actually as I’ve noted, the closest to the airfield it had been all day, we were very concerned about a white Corolla being involved in an attack. So the cumulative force of all the intelligence that we gathered throughout the day, the position of the vehicle, its nearness to the airport, the eminence of the threat and the other SIGAINT that we’re getting throughout the day, all led us to the moment of deciding to take the strike.
Speaker 6: (27:07)
And one last follow-up, who actually ordered the strike? Who had the final authority to say fire?
General McKenzie: (27:14)
So in this case, the target engagement authority is held over the Horizon Commander, who’s forward in the theater. The Over the Horizon Strikes Cell Commander, I should say.
John Kirby: (27:26)
Okay. We have time for one more and then we’re going to have to let the General go. Jeff Sullivan from VOA.
Jeff Sullivan: (27:32)
Jeff Sullivan from VOA. Thanks very much for doing this, General. Given how this Over the Horizon strike went, where do things stand in terms of getting at least a closer presence, a closer basing agreement for future Over the Horizon Strikes.
Jeff Sullivan: (27:46)
And we’ve been told that the Taliban had made various commitments to counter-terrorism. I know you said that they didn’t provide any information for this strike, but did they provide any sort of help in the closing days in terms of preventing the threat from ISIS K, or have they been helpful since then in cracking down on ISIS K as they continue to plot against us Western targets?
General McKenzie: (28:10)
I think the best I can answer your question, is to sort of take the middle part of the question. In the final days and really in the second half of our time at HKAI, as we continued our evacuation, the Taliban were helpful in establishing an outer security perimeter, which actually we believe, prevented some attacks from developing.
General McKenzie: (28:29)
Now, look. There’s a downside to that, too. It also allowed them to screen people that might otherwise have gotten to the airfield. That’s just a hard, harsh fact. And you have to balance those, too. Forced protection of our forces, which is supported by Taliban external presence against the fact that it may prevent some people that you would like to bring out from being able to get to you unmolested. And that’s a difficult balance.
General McKenzie: (28:53)
I frankly, came down that I wanted to protect our forces and I needed that outer boundary. And to that degree, we were able to work together. I have no particular affection for the Taliban, and I don’t know that they’re doing anything at all for us right now. But those questions are probably better go to the Department of State, along with questions about basing and where we might be able to get closer basing than where we are right now. I know all of those things are actively being worked by our diplomats as we speak.
John Kirby: (29:20)
Thank you, General. Appreciate your time this afternoon. I’ll turn it over to you for any last closing comments you might want to make, Sir.
General McKenzie: (29:27)
No, John, I appreciate the opportunity to come on, and I appreciate the opportunity to take responsibility for this, because I do feel responsible for it. I appreciate the questions from the media. Thanks, John.
John Kirby: (29:38)
General. Thank you very much. Okay.
Hey John, before you move on, he referred to a picture which didn’t come up. Are there individual pictures of these little blocks in here?
John Kirby: (29:52)
I’ll have to check with Central Command, David. I’m sure if they were able to make that graphic, there must be imagery of it. But what resolution they’re in and all that, we’ll check.
Speaker 7: (30:02)
Do you know if it was sent out to the networks or anybody?
John Kirby: (30:03)
I don’t believe it was. It was designed for this briefing, and we wanted to make sure you had hard copies of it. But we can check with Central Command. That’s fair.
John Kirby: (30:13)
So the Secretary was briefed by General McKenzie morning at 8:00, on the results of his investigation. And on behalf of the men and women of the Department of Defense, he offers his deepest condolences to the surviving family members of those who were killed, including Mr. Amati, and to the staff of nutrition and education international, Mr. Amati’s employer. And you should have in your inboxes now, a statement that I’m basically paraphrasing from.
John Kirby: (30:43)
As the Secretary says, in this statement, we apologize and we will endeavor to learn from this horrible mistake. And to that end, he has directed a thorough review of the investigation just completed by U.S. Central Command. And he has asked for this review to consider the degree to which the investigation considered all available context and information, the degree to which accountability measures need to be taken and at what level, and the degree to which strike authorities, procedures and processes need to be altered going forward.
John Kirby: (31:15)
And he reiterates that, of course, no military works harder than we do to avoid civilian casualties. When we have reason to believe that we have taken innocent life, we investigate it. And if it’s true, we acknowledge it, just like we did today. But he also notes that we have to work just as hard to prevent recurrence, no matter the circumstances, no matter the intelligence stream and certainly no matter the operational pressures under which we labor.
John Kirby: (31:43)
On another matter altogether, today, the Secretary approved a request from the Capitol Hill Police Board to provide 100 members of the Washington DC National Guard, who will be stationed at the DC Armory as a physical security task force this weekend to augment law enforcement over the weekend, covering the September 18th demonstration on Capitol Hill. The DC National Guard will join a number of local law enforcement agencies in supporting the Capitol Police. Should the Capitol Police require assistance, they will first utilize local, state, and federal law enforcement capabilities, before requesting the deployment of the Physical Security Task Force.
John Kirby: (32:24)
The task force will only be deployed upon request of the Capitol Police to help protect the U.S. Capitol building and Congressional office buildings by manning building entry points and screening individuals that are seeking access to the building. They will be unarmed. And with that, I can take some questions. Yeah, Travis.
I had a question about that, regarding troops going to the Hill. I would say back in January, it became kind of a big issue that there were veterans, and I think in a couple of cases, active duty troops were involved in the January 6th incident.
John Kirby: (33:00)
And I’m just wondering if there’s been any effort to say something to troops ahead of this, about if they’re thinking about going what, they should consider first. And if that’s too many levels below to speak from the podium, can you talk at all about what the Secretary might say to the troops who are thinking about going to a rally like this on Saturday?
John Kirby: (33:26)
I don’t know of any official communication that’s come out from the department at any level specifically to troops who might consider being a part of a protest. There are already limits to what they can do in uniform, and clearly, political protest is one of those things they not allowed to do. But I don’t know of any specific guidance that’s been issued.
John Kirby: (33:57)
They are American citizens. In their off duty hours, they’re allowed to participate in social, political events like that, but they can’t do it in uniform, and obviously, should things turn violent, then they will be held accountable for any violence that they participate in.
John Kirby: (34:23)
Of course, Travis, nobody wants to see it, get to that point here. And the Secretary has confidence that the men and women of the Department understand the limits and the constraints on their behavior in these kinds of circumstances. Phil.
Is the Secretary satisfied with the level of accountability so far following from this investigation? Or is he concerned that there hasn’t been enough accountability following this strike?
John Kirby: (34:50)
I’m not going to characterize it one way or the other right now, Phil. As I said, just a few minutes ago, he’s asked for a review of this investigation. And one of the things that he wants to review to do, is take a look at the accountability and the degree to which accountability measures need to be considered. And if so, at what level. So I’m not going to get ahead of his decision-making on that.
Has he rolled out firing anybody?
John Kirby: (35:13)
I’m not going to get ahead of the Secretary’s decision-making. That’s why he’s asked for a review, so he can get a look. Yeah.
Mike Brett: (35:19)
Mike Brett for the Washington Examiner. Will there be a review of the first strike at all?
John Kirby: (35:24)
The one in Nangarhar?
Mike Brett: (35:25)
John Kirby: (35:26)
No, no. Yes? In the back there?
Speaker 8: (35:33)
Okay. So it’s on Iraq. Today, the Joint Operations Command announced a security agreement with the U.S. to reduce the combat troops in Al Asad Air Base and the RBU, by the end of September. The OIR statement didn’t mention any reduction of the troop level. Can you please clarify what’s going on and in Iraq now, why there’s misunderstanding between the Iraqi part and the coalition? And also, can you confirm that their level of troops will remain the same through at least September in Iraq?
John Kirby: (36:18)
I can’t confirm that. And you’re going to have to let me take your question on the statements, because I just haven’t seen those today and I don’t want to venture a guess right now. So let me take your question, and we’ll get you an answer back.
Speaker 8: (36:31)
Okay. If you can just explain a little bit about the capabilities that the U.S. Forces will maintain after December in Iraq. Will they be able to conduct air strikes targeting…
John Kirby: (36:47)
Yeah. Obviously, we’re still in technical talks with the Iraqis about the presence going forward. I’m not going to get ahead of those talks or what decisions they might make. So I think it’s better for me to just leave it where we are right now.
Speaker 8: (37:00)
And the shift of the mission, the nature of the mission in Iraq, will it affect in any way, the mission in Syria?
John Kirby: (37:07)
Again, I’m not going to get ahead of decisions that haven’t been made or policies that haven’t been decided upon. We’re in talks with the Iraqis about what the posture is going to go forward. We have a much smaller presence in Syria, but it’s aligned to the same mission, which is to continue to counter ISIS and their influence in both Iraq and Syria.
John Kirby: (37:27)
So while they are different places, different force postures, same ultimate goal, but I’m not going to speak about policy decisions or operational decisions that haven’t been made yet.
Thank you, John. Recently, a North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un sent a victory message to the Taliban, and the urging U.S. military to quit. What is your comment?
Speaker 8: (37:54)
Did not see the comment by Kim Jong-un, so he can speak for his own communications with the Taliban. What I can tell you is that, we no longer have a presence on the ground in Afghanistan. Our involvement in that war, on the ground, is over. And the president made clear his intention to do that. The retrograde withdrawal is done, as well as the military part. Military element of evacuating Americans and special immigrant visa holders that said, the U.S. government is still very much going to stay involved in trying to help people leave, who want to leave and who qualify to leave. And as you heard General McKenzie say, “We’re also going to stay focused on the terrorist threat that could emanate from Afghanistan.” Yeah, Silvie.
Hello, John. I would like to ask you a few details about the August agreement announced yesterday on the military side. The Australian defense minister spoke about…
Speaker 9: (39:03)
The Australian Defense Minister spoke about basing. Does it mean that the U.S. wants to deploy U.S troops on Australian soil permanently?
John Kirby: (39:14)
Well, we already have a rotational Marine Corps deployment there, which the Australians have been incredibly gracious and generous and helping host. And I don’t want to speak for, again, decisions that haven’t been made, but one of the things that was discussed was the opportunity to expand that presence in Australia and that access to Australia. No decisions came out of yesterday’s [Osman two-plus-two 00:39:39], but that is something that I think you can expect we’re going to continue to talk to the Australians about going forward.
Speaker 9: (39:46)
And in terms of missiles, did you get any [crosstalk 00:39:52]?
John Kirby: (39:52)
Again, I think you’ve heard both the Secretary and the Minister, Minister Dutton, talk about this yesterday that there was a range of capabilities that we’re going to continue to explore with our Australian allies. No decisions have been made. The only decision really in terms of capabilities that came out of yesterday was, of course, the decision to help the Australian Navy acquire nuclear submarines. But as part of the meeting yesterday, they talked about a range of other types of capabilities that we might want to continue to pursue with Australia. But those discussions are really just starting and, again, these are going to be bilateral decisions made by both the United States and Australia going forward outside of AUKUS. Of course, Great Britain will be involved in AUKUS related things as well. But my point is these are sovereign decisions that these nation states have to make, and I just don’t have anything additional to read out today. Fadi.
Thank you, John. I have two separate questions. So the first one is on the 29th attack. As General McKenzie said, the statement from CENTCOM on that day, at the end it mentioned the possibility of civilian casualties.
John Kirby: (41:05)
So I’m still wondering why General Milley on September 1st still called the strike a righteous attack?
John Kirby: (41:16)
I think General McKenzie answered that question quite well, Fadi. I’m not sure that I can add to that, and I’m not going to speak for Chairman Milley, but as you saw from General McKenzie, within 24 hours of an indication that there could have been civilian casualties, he launched an investigation, as is his responsibility. And he just completed it and they did it fairly quickly, but I think they wanted to take the time to be as contextual as possible. So I think he already spoke to that.
Yeah, but I mean, you said within 24 hours, but General Milley came out on September 1st. That’s more than 24 hours and still called-
John Kirby: (41:55)
Fadi, again, I’m not going to re-litigate the past statements here. As General McKenzie mentioned, every leader in the department that spoke to this in the moment that it was spoken to was speaking to you in good faith based on the information that we had. And that includes me, by the way. Things that I said, obviously, have not turned out to be correct. But it was done in as a good faith effort as possible to be as transparent as we could with what we knew at the time. Obviously, we now know more things and different things. That has completely changed the character of this strike and, again, we’re trying to be as open and transparent as we can when we know things.
And on AUKUS, it seems France just recalled its Ambassador to the U.S., and this is a fallout from the submarine issue. The government effort to bolster Australia’s defenses in the Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China, it seems you’re having a growing issue with France. How concerned are you, first, about the future of defense cooperation with France? And was the French government notified ahead of time of this move?
John Kirby: (43:19)
Senior administration officials have been in touch with their French counterparts to discuss this arrangement, including before the announcement. The Secretary spoke with the French Minister of Defense this morning, and I won’t characterize the French side, of course, but it was clear from the discussion that there is still much work to do in terms of our defense relationship with France. I mean, more things to work on, that there are opportunities and shared challenges and shared interests that both Ministers committed to continue to explore. And, as the President said, there is no regional divide that separates the interests of our Atlantic and our Pacific partners. Ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific is a shared interest between the United States and Europe and we will continue our close cooperation with NATO and the EU and other partners on that kind of an endeavor. Tony.
On Australia, I had a follow-up there. Going forward now, what role will the Pentagon and the Navy play with Australia in terms of smoothing the way for the introduction of nuclear submarines? They were going to buy diesel subs. Now, they’re going to buy nukes. Over the next 10 months or so? What’s going to happen. What’s the role of the Defense Department and Navy?
John Kirby: (44:45)
Yeah, Tony, obviously, we’re going to be putting together the framework of what this is going to look like, this process going forward, but I think you can obviously expect that the United States Navy and Navy nuclear reactors will be very much involved in helping with the acquisition of this capability.
Are there any particular questions that need to be answered to the Navy’s satisfaction about Australia’s capability to build nuclear submarines or private contractors to build subs?
John Kirby: (45:12)
I don’t think all that’s been worked out right now, Tony, but, yes, there’s a lot of questions that have to be answered here. I mean, this is a significant undertaking and it will add significant capability to the Australian Navy as well as reach. And there’s going to be a lot of questions and technical details that have to be worked out. But to your first question, of course, the United States Navy and Navy nuclear reactors will be very much involved from the very beginning.
I’d like to ask a General Milley question on the controversy with the book. Is the Department of the Defense mulling, reviewing, and releasing in redacted form the transcripts or classified notes of the Milley-China conversations that were leaked to Woodward for his book. Any thought about just releasing them like the White House did last year with the Trump-President of Ukraine transcript?
John Kirby: (46:00)
I know no such plans to do that and I’d refer you to the Joint Staff to speak to whatever notes they might have on a counterpart call that the Chairman conducted. I think I’ve got to get to the phones here. Jennifer, are you still there?
Yeah, I am. Thank you. About the Afghanistan refugee situation on bases, are you still monitoring and do you know of more measles or other communicable disease cases? And are you obligated to report those at least domestically to local health officials?
John Kirby: (46:28)
We’re working with HHS very closely. So, of course, if we find any additional cases, we certainly are keeping HHS informed, and we’re obviously making sure that to the degree there are any cases on domestic bases that our base commanders and people that work and families that live there are kept abreast. I don’t have any additional updates in terms of additional cases to report out today. But, again, we still remain in a pause for flights coming from any of the lily pad locations overseas to the United States as we continue to work this out with HHS. Megan.
So all of the services have released their mandatory COVID vaccination policies. The Army is giving itself, at least its Reserve and National Guard components, through the end of June to get fully vaccinated. Does the Secretary have any concerns about that long of a timeline given that there’s been a surge in the past month or so of military deaths and the bulk of military deaths have been in Army Reserves and National Guardsman?
John Kirby: (47:33)
The Secretary has made it clear that he expects the services to move out as energetically as they can on this because he is concerned about the rise in deaths and the impact that the Delta variant has had on the force. That’s one of the driving reasons why he went to a mandatory regimen for, in this case, the Pfizer vaccine. He spoke to the service secretaries just a few days ago about this very topic and they reported out to him their progress and what their implementation guidelines were. He’s satisfied that they are working hard enough and fast enough to try to improve the vaccination population inside each of the services. But it’s not something that he’s just going to lose focus on. He’s going to continue to engage with the services, continue to get updates, and certainly if the Secretary feels like a change in implementation needs to occur in any one service based on whatever the data is or what the rate of infection is, certainly the rate of deaths, I mean, he will absolutely do that. Yeah, [Phil 00:48:32].
Is the Secretary satisfied with where the authorities are right now to conduct any further strikes against ISIS-K in Afghanistan? Or, given what’s been uncovered here, is there some thought to elevating the ability to authorize another strike?
John Kirby: (48:48)
Well, without getting into specific decisions on authorities, I know that he has had conversations with General McKenzie and with the General Milley about the authorities going forward and I can tell you that, with respect to the authorities going forward, particularly in Afghanistan, yes, the Secretary is very comfortable what the arrangement is. Secondly, as I announced at the top, they’re in this review that he has ordered on this particular investigation. He does want the review to factor in any changes in procedures, processes, and authorities for strikes going forward that might be recommended. So it’s going to be part of the review. Yes, in the back there.
Speaker 10: (49:27)
On AUKUS, the submarines, the long-range missiles, the rotations of air, sea, and naval forces, what is it about the deployment and the rotation of these forces that’s going to help the U.S. achieve its strategic goals in the Indo- Pacific?
John Kirby: (49:43)
It’s not about just achieving U.S. goals in the Indo-Pacific. It’s about, and you heard the Secretary talk about this yesterday, it’s about improving what he calls integrated deterrence, which is really about being able to, in a networked way, improve the capabilities of not just all the joint force, but our allies and partners as well. And as he said, this will improve the Australian Navy’s reach and it’ll improve their capability. And in a highly contested security environment as we have seen in the Indo-Pacific, the Secretary believes, the United States believes, that this is a worthwhile endeavor. Yeah.
More on the National Guard. Was the initial request that came in from the Capitol Police to include armed National Guardsman? And was that something that was considered by the Secretary?
John Kirby: (50:37)
Yeah, I’ve seen the press reporting on this, Matt. I’m not going to get into the sausage making process. What I can tell you is that we did approve an official request for a physical security task force, and they will be at the armory and they will be unarmed.
John Kirby: (50:53)
Strictly unarmed, yep. Okay. Thanks, everybody. Appreciate it.