Aug 30, 2021
Pentagon Confirms Completion of Afghanistan Withdrawal Press Conference Transcript
Pentagon officials announced the completion of the withdrawal from Afghanistan during a briefing on August 30, 2021. Read the transcript of the press conference speech here.
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John Kirby: (00:00)
… we do have a hard stop at five o’clock. So I will not waste up any more time. General, can you hear and see me okay?
General McKenzie: (00:08)
Hey, John. I can hear and see you just fine. [inaudible 00:00:10] over.
John Kirby: (00:10)
Thank you, sir. Thanks for being here today. And I turn it over to you, sir.
General McKenzie: (00:14)
Thanks, John. Good afternoon, everyone. I’m here to announce the completion of our withdrawal from Afghanistan in the end of the military mission to evacuate American citizens, third country nationals, and vulnerable Afghans. The last C-17 lifted off from Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 30th, this afternoon, at 3:29 PM East Coast Time. And the last manned aircraft is now clearing the airspace above Afghanistan. We will soon release a photo of the last C-17 departing Afghanistan with Major General Chris Donahue and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ross Wilson aboard. While the military evacuation is complete, the diplomatic mission to ensure additional U.S. citizens and eligible Afghans who want to leave continues. And I know that you have heard and I know that you’re going to hear more about that from the state department shortly. Tonight’s withdrawal signifies both the end of the military component of the evacuation, but also the end of the nearly 20 year mission that began in Afghanistan shortly after September 11th, 2001.
General McKenzie: (01:19)
It’s a mission that brought Osama bin Laden to a just end along with many of his Al Qaeda co-conspirators, and it was not a cheap mission. The cost was 2,461 U.S. service members and civilians killed, and more than 20,000 who were injured. Sadly, that includes 13 U.S. service members who were killed last week by an ISIS-K suicide bomber. We honor their sacrifice today as we remember their heroic accomplishments. No words from me could possibly capture the full measure of sacrifices and accomplishments of those who served nor the emotions they’re feeling at this moment. But I will say that I’m proud that both my son and I have been a part of it. Before I open it up for questions, I do want to provide some important context to the evacuation mission that we just completed. And what was the largest non-combatant evacuation in the U.S. military’s history.
General McKenzie: (02:13)
Since August the 14th, over an 18-day period, U.S. military aircraft have evacuated more than 79,000 civilians from Hamid Karzai International Airport. That includes, 6,000 Americans and more than 73,500 third country nationals and Afghan civilians. This last category includes special immigrant visas, consular staff, at-risk Afghans and their families. In total, U.S. and coalition aircraft combined to evacuate more than 123,000 civilians, which were all enabled by U.S. military service members who were securing and operating the airfield. On average, we have evacuated more than 7,500 civilians per day over the 18 days of the mission, which includes 16 full days of evacuations, and more than 19,000 on a single day. These numbers do not include the roughly 5,000 service members and their equipment that were sent to Afghanistan to secure the airfield and who were withdrawn in the conclusion of our mission. The numbers I provided represent a monumental accomplishment, but they do not do justice to the determination, the grit, the flexibility, and the professionalism of the men and women of the U.S. military and our coalition partners who were able to rapidly combine efforts and evacuate so many under such difficult conditions.
General McKenzie: (03:39)
As such, I think it’s important that I provide you with what I hope will be some valuable context. When the president directed the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in April, the team at U.S. Central Command began to update and refine our existing plan for a potential non-combatant evacuation operation or NEO in Afghanistan. We have a framework of plans that included numerous branches and sequels depending on the nature of the security environment. Over time, we continued to refine our plans, which included the interagency, the international community, and other combatant commands. Plans such as this are built upon a number of facts and assumptions, and facts and assumptions change over time. While observing the security environment deteriorate, we continue to update our facts and assumptions. As the security situation rapidly devolved in Afghanistan, we took a number of actions to position ourselves for a potential NEO based upon direction from the Secretary of Defense.
General McKenzie: (04:38)
We positioned forces in the region and put them on increased alert. We began to pre-position supplies and we began some preparatory work on intermediate facilities in Qatar with the support of our gracious host nation. When the evacuation was formerly directed on August the 14th, we began to carry out our plan based upon the initial assumption that the Afghan security forces would be a willing and able security partner in Kabul, defending the Capitol for a matter of weeks or at least for a few days. Within 24 hours of course, the Afghan military collapsed completely opening Kabul up to the Taliban’s advance. On August the 15th, in a meeting with Taliban senior leadership in Doha, I delivered a message on behalf of the president that our mission in Kabul was now the evacuation of Americans and our partners, that we would not tolerate interference and that we would forcefully defend our forces and the evacuees if necessary. The Taliban’s response in that meeting was in line with what they’ve said publicly.
General McKenzie: (05:40)
While they stated their intent to enter and occupy Kabul, they also offered to work with us on a deconfliction mechanism to prevent miscalculation while our forces operated in close quarters. Finally, they promised not to interfere with our withdrawal. It’s important to understand that within 48 hours of the NEO execution order, the facts on the ground had changed significantly. We had gone from cooperating on security with a longtime partner and ally, to initiating a pragmatic relationship of necessity with a longtime enemy. Into that environment, Rear Admiral Peter Vasely and Brigadier General Farrel Sullivan of the Marines and subsequently, Major General Chris Donahue of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division deployed and employed their forces and did extraordinary work with the leading elements of our reinforcement package to safely close the embassy in one period of darkness, or one evening, to establish a deconfliction mechanism with the Taliban, to establish security at the airport, and to bring in the rest of our reinforcements into the airport.
General McKenzie: (06:40)
They accomplished this difficult list of tasks within 48 hours of supporting the transfer of the embassy to the airport. I visited a Kabul on Tuesday, August the 17th, to see the work being done to establish security firsthand, and to observe the transition to the evacuation. I left on a C-17 that brought more than 130 Afghans and American citizens out from a Karzai International Airport to air Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Our men and women on the ground at the airport quickly embraced the dangerous and methodical work of defending the airport while conducting a hand screening of more than 120,000 evacuees from six different entry points under the airfield. We also conducted three separate helicopter extractions of three distinct groups of civilians, including at least 185 American citizens, and with our German partners, 21 German citizens. Additionally, U.S. Special Operations Forces reached out to help bring in more than 1064 American citizens and 2017 SIVs for Afghans at-risk, and 127 third country nationals all via phone calls, vectors and escorting.
General McKenzie: (07:54)
We have evacuated more than 6,000 U.S civilians, which we believe represents the vast majority of those who wanted to leave at this time. It would be difficult to overestimate the number of unusual challenges and competing demands that our forces on the ground have successfully overcome. The threat to our forces, particularly from ISIS-K, was very real and tragically resulted in the loss of 13 service members and dozens of Afghan civilians. I’ve said this before, but I like to say it again. We greatly appreciate the contributions of the many coalition partners that stood with us on the ground at Karzai International Airport. I’m just going to single out one nation as an example of the many, the Norwegians who maintained their hospital at the airport and who were absolutely critical for the immediate care of our wounded after the Abbey Gate attack. Even after the attack, they agreed to extend the presence of their hospital to provide more coverage for us.
General McKenzie: (08:53)
Our diplomats have also been with us in Kabul from the beginning and their work in processing over 120,000 people stands right beside that are their military partners. We were a team on the ground. As I close my remarks, I would like to offer my personal appreciation to the more than 800,000 service members and 25,000 civilians who have served in Afghanistan, and particularly to the families of those whose loved ones have been lost or wounded. Your service as well as that of your comrades and family members will never be forgotten. My heart is broken over the losses we sustained three days ago. As the poem by Laurence Binyon goes, we will remember them. The last 18 days have been challenging. Americans can be proud of men and women of the armed forces who met these challenges head on. I’m now ready to take your questions.
John Kirby: (09:45)
Thank you general. We’ll start with the Lita at AP. I would ask you to, because we’re limited on time, to please limit your follow-ups so that more people can get questions asked. Go ahead, Lita.
General, thanks for doing this. It’s Lita with AP. Can you give us a sense of whether or not there were any American citizens or other civilians who were taken out on any of those last couple of C-17 that flew out this afternoon? And can you give us a picture of what you saw with equipment and other things getting either destroyed or removed at the airport before they left?
General McKenzie: (10:25)
Thank you, Lita. So, no American citizens came out on the last, what we call the joint tactical exfiltration, the last five jets to leave. We maintain the ability to bring them in up until immediately before departure, but we were not able to bring any Americans out. That activity ended probably about 12 hours before our exit. Although we continue the outreach and would have been prepared to bring them on until the very last minute, but none of them made it to the airport and were able to be accommodated. [inaudible 00:10:57], we brought some of it out and we demilitarized some of it. Let me give an example of something that we demilitarized. You’re very much aware of course, of the rocket attack that occurred yesterday where five rockets were fired at the airfield. Our C-RAMs were very effective in engaging the two rockets that did fall on the airfield. And we believe they probably kept them from doing more significant damage.
General McKenzie: (11:19)
We elected to keep those systems in operation up until the very last minute. It’s a complex procedure, complex and time-intensive procedure to break down those systems. So we demilitarized those systems so that they’ll never be used again. And they were just… We felt it was more important to protect our forces and to bring those systems back. We have also demilitarized equipment that we did not bring out of the airport, that included a number of MRAPs, up to 70 MRAPs that we demilitarized and will never be used again by anyone, 27 Humvees, that little tactical vehicle that will never be driven again, and additionally on the ramp at HKIA are a total of 73 aircraft. Those aircraft will never fly again when we left. They’ll never be able to be operated by anyone. Most of them were non-mission capable to begin with, but certainly they’ll never be able to be flown again. Thank you.
John Kirby: (12:15)
David Martin: (12:17)
General, David Martin with CBS. Was there any attempt to interfere with the final flights out either by the Taliban or by ISIS or any other group and did, at the end, did Americans just vacate the premises or did they turn it over to the Taliban?
General McKenzie: (12:41)
Oh, we know that ISIS-K has worked very, very hard to strike us and to continue to strike us. We feel that the strike we took yesterday in Kabul actually was very disruptive to their attack plans and threw them off stride. And I think that was one of the significant reasons why they were not able to organize themselves and get after us as we conducted the final withdrawal. I will tell you, the Taliban had been very pragmatic and very businesslike as we have approached this withdrawal. We did not turn it over to the Taliban. General Donahue, one of the last things he did before leaving was talked to the Taliban commander that he had been coordinating with at about the time we were going to leave just to let them know that we were leaving, but there was no discussion of turning anything over of that at all.
John Kirby: (13:29)
Jennifer Griffin : (13:30)
General McKenzie, Jennifer Griffin from Fox News. If I could just have you reflect personally, after 20 years of war you’ve served there, you’ve now watched the last troops leave, you’ve lost troops in recent days. How did it feel leaving Afghanistan to the very group that you overthrew 20 years ago, the Taliban?
General McKenzie: (13:53)
Well, as I sort of said in my remarks, as you know, I’ve been there a couple of times, my son has been there a couple of times, and I was very conflicted actually, but I would tell you, I was pretty much focused on the task at hand. I’ll have days ahead to actually think about that, but there were just so much going on in this headquarters and we were so completely focused on getting our troops out and the days before getting our citizens out and vulnerable Afghans to the best of our ability that I did not have a lot of time for reflection. I’m sure I will do that in the future, but right now I’m pretty much consumed with the operational task at hand. Thanks for your question and I am going to be thinking about that in the days ahead.
Jennifer Griffin : (14:33)
Your message to Americans and Afghan allies who were left behind?
General McKenzie: (14:38)
So, the military phase of this operation is ended. The diplomatic sequel to that we’ll now begin. And I believe our Department of State is going to work very hard to allow any American citizens that were left, and we think the citizens that were not brought out, number in the low, very low hundreds, I believe that we’re going to be able to get those people out, I think we’re also going to negotiate very hard and very aggressively to get our other Afghan partners out. The military phases over, but our desire to bring these people out remains as intense as it was before. The weapons have just shifted, if you will, from the military realm to the diplomatic realm and the Department of State will now take the lead on that.
John Kirby: (15:19)
Sir, just to clarify just a couple of points, can you tell us how many people are on that final C-17 flight? Can you tell us where that flight is headed? And you mentioned that General Donahue had talked to his Taliban, essentially his counterpart, can you give us any sense of what role the Taliban played from a security perspective to allow the U.S. to safely depart Kabul?
General McKenzie: (15:41)
Yeah. So I’m not going to be able to answer the first two questions because those operations are still concluding as to where those aircraft are going and the exact disposition of our forces on the aircraft. I can tell you this though, about what the Taliban has done. They established a firm perimeter outside of the airfield to prevent people from coming on the airfield during our departure. And we’ve worked that with them for a number of days. They did not have direct knowledge of our time of departure. We chose to keep that very information very restricted, but they were actually very helpful and useful to us as we close down operations.
John Kirby: (16:15)
I’m going to go to the phones. I haven’t done that yet. Dan Lamothe.
Dan Lamothe: (16:19)
Thanks for calling on me. General, can you give us a, I guess a deeper level of detail on what this last day looked like in terms of number of flights, number of people you had on the ground to start with, who might’ve been on that last plane, particularly senior leaders and kind of just how it’s all played out? Thanks.
General McKenzie: (16:39)
Sure. So let me actually begin with the back end of your question. On the last airplane out was a General Chris Donahue, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division and my ground force commander there. And he was accompanied by our chargee, Ambassador Ross Wilson. So they came out together. So the state and defense team came out on the last aircraft and were in fact the last people to stand on the ground, step on the airplane. So what has happened over the last 12 or 18 hours is first of all, we were intent on maintaining the ability to bring out Americans and other and other Afghans as long as we could. So we kept that capability until just a few hours ago, and we were able to bring out some people earlier in the day, although, as I’ve noted earlier, we had to cut it off sometime before this operation began. But we were intent on maintaining that capability.
General McKenzie: (17:26)
We were also intent on maintaining our force protection because the threats from ISIS were very real, very concerning, and so we did a number of things. We had overwhelming U.S. air power overhead, should there have been any challenge to our departure. And again, there was absolutely no question. We were not going to be challenged by the Taliban. If we were going to be challenged, it was going to be by ISIS. And I think some of the things we’ve done yesterday, particularly the strike, and other things we’ve done have disrupted their ability to conduct that attack planning. But they remain a very lethal force, and I think we would assess that probably there are at least 2000 hardcore ISIS fighters in Afghanistan now. And of course, many of those come from the prisons that were opened a few days ago. So that number is up and is probably as high as it’s ever been in quite a while. And that’s going to be a challenge for the Taliban, I believe in the days ahead.
John Kirby: (18:18)
Thank you, general. Two quick questions. There were about 500 Afghan soldiers who were protecting the perimeter. Did you evacuate them and their families? And secondly, just on the airport, now that you’ve departed, do you believe it can take on civilian aircraft pretty soon or will it require some type of repair or expertise?
General McKenzie: (18:43)
Sure so. To the best of my knowledge, which is actually pretty good, I believe we brought out all the Afghan military forces who were partnered with us to defend the airfield and their family members. I believe that that has been accomplished. We need the airport to be operational and we need the airport to be operational quickly for civilian traffic. So we’re going to do everything we can to help with that. Let me give you an example. One of the things we did not demilitarize as we left were those pieces of equipment that are necessary for airport operations, such as a fire trucks and the front end loaders, things like that. We left that equipment. So that is available to allow that airport to get back and get operating as soon as possible, and it needs to get operating as soon as possible.
John Kirby: (19:27)
Speaker 9: (19:28)
General, today is August 30th and the deadline had repeatedly been said that it was going to be August 31st. Do you think that there may be some people who had some false hope that they had at least one more day before this happened? And can you explain a tactical decision as to why you completed this mission on the 30th as opposed to the 31st?
General McKenzie: (19:48)
Sure. So, it’s actually the 31st in Afghanistan. As we take a look what day of the month it is, it’s the 30th here, it’s the 31st in Afghanistan. So we actually went out on the 31st, not the 30th if you look at Afghan time. Look, there’s a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure. We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out, but I think if we’d stayed another 10 days, Willy, we wouldn’t have gotten everybody out that we wanted to get out. And there still would have been people who would have been disappointed with that. It’s a tough situation, but I want to emphasize again that simply because we have left that doesn’t mean the opportunities for both Americans that are in Afghanistan that want to leave and Afghans who want to leave, they will not be denied that opportunity. I think our Department of State is going to work that very hard in the days and weeks ahead.
John Kirby: (20:33)
Courtney Kube: (20:34)
Just one clarification, General McKenzie. It’s Courtney Kube from NBC News. So, were there any evacuees left at the airport when the last U.S. military flight left?
General McKenzie: (20:43)
There were no evacuees left at the airport when the U.S. last flight left, Courtney.
Courtney Kube: (20:47)
Thank you. And then just on the Taliban, you’ve talked about their pragmatic ways of operating with U.S. military here, do you see a role for the U.S. military to have open conversations with the Taliban, even potential coordination going forward and particular with this growing and now accentuated threat from ISIS?
General McKenzie: (21:09)
Well, I’ll tell you, my dealing with the Taliban and the dealings of my commanders on the ground with the Taliban revolved around our determination to execute this operation. And the very flat statement we made to them that if you challenge us, we’re going to hurt you. And I think they recognize that. And for their own purposes, this is something they wanted to have happen too. I can’t foresee the way future coordination between us would go. I would leave that for some future date. I will simply say that they wanted us out, we wanted to get out with our people, and with our friends and partners, and so for that short period of time, our issues, our view of the world was congruent, it was the same. Finally, I do believe the Taliban is going to have their hands full with ISIS-K. And they let a lot of those people out of prisons, and now they’re going to be able to reap what they sowed.
John Kirby: (21:56)
Tara Copp: (21:56)
Thank you. General McKenzie, Tara Copp with Defense One. Can you assure the American public that every single U.S. service member is now out of Afghanistan?
General McKenzie: (22:11)
Every single U.S. service member is now out of Afghanistan. I can say that with 100% certainty.
John Kirby: (22:16)
Sir, really quickly just to clarify, you mentioned 123,000 out of Afghanistan. Earlier this morning, we heard 122. So can we assume that that was a thousand Afghans that came out in some of these final flights? And then I have a quick follow-up.
General McKenzie: (22:34)
We brought about a thousand Afghans, I think, over 1500 out in the last 24 hours or so. The exact number, I’m sure it’s probably, that computation is probably going to change a little bit in the days ahead. I don’t think it’s going to change much. But yes, we brought a number of Afghans out here at the very end.
And then sir, how would you characterize this evacuation mission? Because on the one hand, 123,000 people got out. On the other hand of course, you lost 13 Marines, more than a hundred Afghans died, and there’re still potentially tens of thousands SIVs, P1s, P2s, and others that wanted to get out but did not get out, as you said. So how would you characterize this mission?
General McKenzie: (23:16)
Well, first of all, the 11 Marines, the soldier, and the sailor that we lost, I will never forget that. That will be with me, and I know every other commander involved for the rest of our lives. We’ve all lost people before, and it’s never an easy thing. You would like to bring out everybody that wanted to come out, we’re not able to do that. Situation wouldn’t allow it. I think we did a very good job of getting everybody that we could get out given the unique challenges of the tactical situation on the ground, the fact that really not all Americans wanted to leave. There were Americans that, for a variety of reasons, want to stay for a while. I think we’ll go back and they’ll have the opportunity to revisit that and come out if they want.
General McKenzie: (23:55)
I think it’s just important to note that we shouldn’t look on this as the end of that engagement about people in Afghanistan. I am confident that that engagement is going to continue through a variety of venues and it won’t just be the United States that’s going to be engaged on this. I think our international partners are also going to be very engaged on this as well going forward.
John Kirby: (24:16)
We had two more. I’m afraid we’ll go to the phones again. Jack Detsch.
Jack Detsch: (24:23)
Thanks, General McKenzie. I’m kind of curious just how American citizens are going to be expected to get to the airport and what the continuing terror threat will be just in the coming days and what the evacuation picture’s going to look like for them.
General McKenzie: (24:37)
Well, I think that the terror threat is going to be very high and I don’t want to minimize that, but I think what we’ll do is we will work with the Taliban and work with the next governor of Afghanistan, whatever his characterization is going to be in order to ensure that our citizens are protected and that they have an opportunity to leave. As you know, we still hold a variety of significant leverage over whatever future government exists in Kabul. And I have no doubt that the Department of State will fully exercise that leverage.
Jack Detsch: (25:06)
Do you have any confidence in their ability to secure the city right now, the Taliban?
General McKenzie: (25:11)
I think they’re going to be challenged to secure the city. I do know this, just speaking purely practically as a professional, they helped us secure the airfield, not perfectly, but they gave it a very good effort and it was actually significantly helpful to us particularly here at the end.
John Kirby: (25:27)
Last question for today, Meghann.
Meghann Myers: (25:30)
Are there any U.S., sorry, this is Meghann Myers at Military Times, are there any U.S. aircraft still doing over flights of Afghanistan, either Kabul or otherwise looking out for a potential threat?
General McKenzie: (25:41)
So, as we have said for quite a while, we always reserve the opportunity to go after in the CT, around the counter-terrorism realm, Al-Qaeda and ISIS, when those targets present themselves. So we will always retain the ability to do that.
John Kirby: (25:56)
Okay. That’s about all the time we have. General, any concluding thoughts you might want to add?
General McKenzie: (26:01)
John, it’s been a long day and much longer actually for our forces that are coming out. The operation’s gone smoothly so far and just look forward to recovering the force completely, getting everybody home.
John Kirby: (26:16)
Thank you, general. Thanks for your time. Thank you all, have a nice afternoon.