Aug 27, 2021

Pentagon John Kirby Press Briefing Transcript August 27: Afghanistan & Taliban Takeover

Pentagon John Kirby Press Briefing Transcript August 17: Afghanistan & Taliban Takeover
RevBlogTranscriptsPentagon John Kirby Press Briefing Transcript August 27: Afghanistan & Taliban Takeover

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby held a news briefing on August 27, 2021 to provide an update on the situation at the Kabul airport and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Read the full transcript of the press conference here.

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John Kirby: (00:00)
Colleagues process Afghans in the Special Immigrant Visa Program and get onto their new life. I’m going to turn it over to him for just a second. He’ll have some opening comments and then we’ll go to Q&A. Just like we’ve done all week, I’ll moderate. I’ll call on you. Please when I do, before you ask your question of the General, identify yourselves and your outlet so he knows who he’s talking to. And then we do have a hard stop in 30 minutes at four o’clock. So with that, General, can you hear me okay?

General Glen VanHerck: (00:30)
John, I have you loud and clear. How me?

John Kirby: (00:32)
Good, sir. Good. Thank you so much. Thanks for joining us. And General, I’ll turn it over to you, sir.

General Glen VanHerck: (00:36)
Yeah. Thank you very much, John. It’s great to be with you in the press corps there today. Before I go on, I just want to remind everybody to keep those warriors and heroes that lost their lives yesterday in our thoughts and prayers, along with their families. Folks that continue to serve in Afghanistan and around the globe doing our nations business, we should keep them in our thoughts and prayers. Less than a month ago, I was with you there in the room talking about our Global Information Dominance Experiment 3, and today I’m here to discuss U.S. Northern Command support to Operation Allies Refuge. In addition to our no-fail mission of defending the Homeland, United States Northern Command provides defense support of civil authorities, or DSCA. Today, our DSCA operations range from providing COVID medical assistance, relieving pressure on the overburden medical systems in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama currently, while simultaneously supporting wild land firefighting in the Western United States.

General Glen VanHerck: (01:33)
Additionally, we’re providing support to the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection by conducting detection and monitoring and transportation support for the Southwest border mission. We’re also ready to conduct hurricane relief efforts if required. And of course, U.S. Northern Command is providing support within the continental United States for Operation Allies Refuge. On July 14th, the White House announced Operation Allies Refuge, which provides eligible Afghan nationals and their immediate families, with support of the U.S. Government, the opportunity to relocate to the United States. The Department of State subsequently activated the Afghanistan Coordination Task Force and requested the Department of Defense provide temporary support for up to 3,500 Afghan special immigrant applicants.

General Glen VanHerck: (02:22)
On August 15th, the Department of State requested and the secretary of defense approved additional support for Afghan Special Immigrant Visa applicants and other vulnerable Afghans. In response to this request, the U.S. Northern Command, we’re providing temporary housing, medical screening, transportation and other services for both Afghan Special Immigrant Visa applicants and at risk Afghans. U.S. Northern Command has been tasked to build capacities to support up to 50,000 Afghans. To do that, the Department of Defense under U.S. Northern Command has established task forces at Fort Lee in Virginia, Fort Bliss in Texas, Fort McCoy in Wisconsin and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey. And on August 25th, the secretary of defense authorized three additional military installations to provide support inside the United States for Afghan Special Immigrant Visa applicants, their families and other at-risk individuals.

General Glen VanHerck: (03:19)
This includes Marine Corps Base Quantico, and Fort Pickett in Virginia and Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. As of today, Fort Pickett has a capacity of 1000 Afghans, and we’re working with the other two installations, Holloman and Quantico, to finalize their final respective capacities. Additionally, while not a task force, U.S. Northern Command is supporting Operation Allies Refuge with services and additional forces, including assisting with managing the flow of evacuees at Dulles Airport and the Philadelphia International Airport in Pennsylvania. That airport is opening up today. Additional sites are possible. Here’s a snapshot real quickly of some of the numbers that you’ll see at the task forces.

General Glen VanHerck: (04:01)
So Task Force Eagle at Fort Lee, Virginia stood up in July and currently has a capacity for 1,750. To date, Task Force Eagle at Fort Lee has supported 1,647 Afghan Special Immigrant Visa applicants and their families, nearly half of whom have completed the process and have moved on with the support of the Department of State, non-governmental, inter-governmental organizations and volunteer organizations. Task Force Bliss at Fort bliss, Texas currently has a capacity of 5,000 and received first flights with vulnerable Afghans on Saturday, August 21st. The base has supported to date 2,160 Afghans, housed in a mix of hard and soft structures. Final capacity’s expected to be at least 10,000. Task Force McCoy, Fort McCoy, Wisconsin currently has a capacity of 10,000 and received their first flights with at risk Afghans on Sunday, August 22nd. To date, Task Force McCoy has supported 2,383 Afghans who are being housed in hard structures with shower and bathroom facilities located in each building.

General Glen VanHerck: (05:10)
Task force Liberty at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey currently has a capacity of 3,500 and received its first group of Afghans Wednesday, August 25th. To date, Task Force Liberty has supported 1,192 Afghans who are being housed in a mix of hard and soft sided structures. Final capacity at Task Force Liberty is expected to be at least 10,000. So today, our total capacity at these four installations is approximately 21,000 and growing. We’re steadily working to increase capacity to the 50,000 number by September 15th. The number of military installations supporting this effort could increase in the future. The requests for assistance from the State Department specifically requested that the Department of Defense provide culturally appropriate food, water, bedding, religious services, recreational activities and other services, such as transportation from the port of entry to the location of accommodations, and some medical services as well.

General Glen VanHerck: (06:16)
My team of military civilian and contract personnel are working closely with the numerous agencies, both government and non-government, to ensure further requirements and additional capabilities are available for vulnerable Afghans. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security is working to conduct a screening and security vetting for all Special Immigrant Visa applicants and other vulnerable Afghans in the fastest way possible, consistent with the dual goals of protecting national security and providing protection for vulnerable Afghans who supported the United States. That process involves biometric and biographic screenings conducted by intelligence, law enforcement and counter-terrorism professionals from across the inter-agency community. We are working around the clock to vet all Afghans being evacuated before allowing them into the United States.

General Glen VanHerck: (07:07)
During recent visits to Fort Lee, Fort McCoy and Fort Bliss, I saw the operation firsthand, and I’m proudly watched our U.S. personnel operating with compassion as they helped Afghans and their families who have done so much for the United States and our allies through two decades of conflict. I also talked with some of the Afghans in each location. During a conversation I had with one Afghan family, I asked if they had what they needed, if they were doing okay, getting enough to eat and getting enough to sleep? The father thanked me saying they had what they needed and that it was the first time in a long time that he has slept without being afraid for his family’s safety. So thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines are working across the United States to complete this incredibly important mission to provide our Afghan colleagues a safe harbor while they finalize their immigration process. I’m also grateful for the support of the community-

General Glen VanHerck: (08:03)
Process. I’m also grateful for the support of the community surrounding each of our bases and for the volunteers and others who are aiding in all of these efforts. Together, we are honoring our commitment to our Afghan partners and their families. And I look forward to taking your questions. Thank you.

Jon Kirby: (08:15)
Thank you. Let’s start with Lita.

Lita Baldor: (08:19)
Hi, General. Lita Baldor with the Associated Press. I have one quick numbers question for you and then a second. Can you tell us how many evacuees have gone through Dulles? The governor said today the number is 14,000. We were told earlier there was about 7,000 SIV. Can you square those numbers for us? And then I have a follow-up.

General Glen VanHerck: (08:45)
Lita, unfortunately, I don’t have a specific number for you. State Department would be best to answer that. I can tell you what has come to us. And that’s 6,578 at four separate locations. I will tell you what we’re seeing is of those that do arrive at Dulles, about 40% or so have been coming to us. Others have been [inaudible 00:09:06] and in other status, such as having a green card already, where they could move on from Dulles.

Lita Baldor: (09:13)
Thank you. And my follow-up is, can you give us an assessment of both the security risks as well as the COVID risks? As you’re doing, and everyone is doing these screenings, what security risks are you seeing? Are you seeing a number of people who are showing up on lists? And then what about COVID? How is that testing going and what are the threats at the bases for COVID?

General Glen VanHerck: (09:38)
Thanks, Lita. So for security, I would defer to DHS who runs that operation. I’m very comfortable. We’ve worked, streamlined that operation. As I said in my opening comments, we’re doing biographical and biometric testing across the various agencies of the inter-agency to include our counter-terrorism and intelligence communities. What we’re seeing is folks coming across cleared by that process, which I’m comfortable with. With regards to COVID, the Afghans coming from the Middle East into our locations that we have stood up are all being tested, actually multiple times. We test them 100% upon arrival at each location. They’re getting tested at Dulles as well. And en route, they get tested. I’ll give you some numbers. We are seeing so far to date, when I was at Fort McCoy on Wednesday, only three out of more than 1,300 had tested positive. When I went to Fort Bliss the same day, one out of more than 1,200 had tested positive for COVID. I hope that helps.

Lita Baldor: (10:42)
Thank you.

Speaker 1: (10:43)
What was the last number?

Jon Kirby: (10:45)
One out of 1,200. Jen?

Jennifer Griffin: (10:49)
Hi, General VanHerck. It’s Jennifer Griffin with FOX News. I just want to go back a little bit to numbers. What percentage would you say of the people who are processing onto these bases are SIV holders or applicants, or are you also housing people who apply for refugee status? Just trying to understand the breakdown of who is on these bases. And then secondly, there are reports from Dulles that some of those, some of the commercial flights that have come in have had to keep people on the tarmac onboard planes for up to 10 hours while screeners come on board. Is anything being done to rectify that? Is that a DHS issue or are you aware of that issue at Dulles?

General Glen VanHerck: (11:38)
Thanks, Jennifer. On the SIV numbers, I’d defer to the State Department. I don’t have that exact number in front of me. What I would tell you is the SIV numbers have not been in excess of 50%, but I don’t have the detail right now. With regards to the problems you’re describing at Dulles, I am aware of the longer waits that you described. We worked very hard over the last couple of days to make the process as efficient and effective. When I say we, DoD worked with the process owner, DHS to streamline this, specifically Customs and Border Protection, along with TSA, who owns that process, if you will. Some of the challenges were being use of the proper vetting authorities, if you will, to ensure that we looked at the same ones and that they were coming across, we knew exactly who was certifying that.

General Glen VanHerck: (12:32)
And that’s Customs that was certifying it across to the other side. What was happening is if the improper system was utilized, they were being flagged as red on the receiving end at Dulles. That should actually give you comfort, Jennifer, that we’re not leaning towards more conservative and pushing them out, but actually ensuring verification. That led to the delays that you’re talking about. When I took the brief this morning, we had no airplanes on the ramp waiting at Dulles for processing through Customs. And I don’t have an update for you right now, but I believe we’re in a good position, Jennifer.

Jon Kirby: (13:10)

Tara Copp: (13:11)
Thank you, General. Tara Copp with Defense One. Following up on Jen’s question, can you talk about the challenges that you’ve had with the DoD and DHS systems, the biometric systems actually being able to pass that information in a timely manner and explain a little bit more about how all of the different flagging red that you’ve seen because names were passed through different systems?

General Glen VanHerck: (13:41)
I really can’t answer that question. That’s a question for DHS and I apologize. I just don’t have that information.

Tara Copp: (13:48)
To follow up a little bit more humanitarian, with all of the thousands of Afghans that are going on to these bases, many of them left their country with very little and probably have different levels of means to start life over here, how long is DoD prepared to house and feed these refugees?

General Glen VanHerck: (14:10)
So we’re prepared to house them and feed them as long as it takes to get them through the process and as long as the secretary approves that. I agree with you. They’re coming here, starting over with what they bring with them. We’ve been incredibly well supported by the local communities, by the non-governmental organizations, et cetera, that have jumped in to help these families with things of need, such as diapers, formula, clothing, you name it. You see the gamut when you’re talking these large numbers and we’ve been tremendously blessed to have great support.

Tara Copp: (14:46)
Are you willing to host as they go through the process, what do you mean by the process? If they don’t have a place to go, how long can they stay on base?

General Glen VanHerck: (14:57)
Well, they’ll stay on base until they complete the special immigrant visa processing process, which is owned by the State Department with the support, we provide medical support. We provide contract medical support as part of that. So each of the applicants will go through a screening process, such as screening for diseases, vaccinations. If they need vaccinated, we’ll have the International Migration Organization come in towards the end of the process and work with them on where they need to be relocated. Many of them have family already here in the United States, or they’ll be relocated to places where there’s already Afghan populations, et cetera. What we saw at Fort Lee with those that already had some type of a special immigrant visa processing is that was taking about five to seven days. We won’t know exactly how long that’s going to take until the State Department and everybody is on the ground full up and we’re ready to begin processing. Remember, we’ve only been at this for a few days. And so at each location, we’re going to spin up rather quickly here and begin that-

General Glen VanHerck: (16:03)
… each location, we’re going to spin up rather quickly here and begin the application and the process for a special immigrant status.

John Kirby: (16:10)

Oren Lieberman: (16:11)
Oren Lieberman from CNN. The SIV application process, the screening process is a long process. What happens if at some point while somebody is on a military base, they fail that screening? Are they going back to Afghanistan, or what’s the plan there? Then John, are you also taking questions?

John Kirby: (16:26)

General Glen VanHerck: (16:29)
I would defer you to the Department of the State for that. That’s really their area of expertise. We’re prepared to continue this support until we get through this process in support of the state department.

Oren Lieberman: (16:44)
There must be a plan here if somebody fails a screening process and is already on a US military facility.

General Glen VanHerck: (16:50)
So let me go back, Oren. So they have gone through the screening process before putting feet in the continental United States from a security perspective. When they are through customs, they are paroled into the United States of America, and if they have relatives, theoretically, they can go with those relatives. What we’re doing is helping them get through the screening process, and so we provide all of the governmental organizations to support that, the medical process, et cetera. So we are not doing security screening in support of State Department. This is part of the application for special immigrant status. I hope that clarifies it. Thank you.

John Kirby: (17:36)

Tony Capaccio: (17:37)
Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg News. Do you have a breakdown by gender roughly of how many women, girls, boys, and men have been processed by DOD? It begs a lot of questions in terms of separate facilities. Then I had a second question about culturally appropriate food. Are we talking MREs or humanitarian MREs or local kitchens being hired up to cook?

General Glen VanHerck: (18:02)
Thanks, Tony. So we’re seeing about 50/50 male, female. That can change back and forth. We’re seeing about 15% with children. We’re seeing a lot of the females who are pregnant. So I don’t have a specific detail for what you asked about for the total number with the children, male, female, et cetera, but that gives you an idea. We’re seeing right now 513 children at one location for a total of about 30% of the location.

General Glen VanHerck: (18:32)
But with regards to your second question, we contract to provide support of meals, multiple meals for large windows. So for example, we’ll provide a breakfast meal for Halaal for they’re culturally appropriate for a three-hour window. We’ll shut down for a second, and when I say we, it’s the contract support at each location. Then we’ll spin up for a lunch meal, and we’ll do the same for the dinner. Most locations I believe will have or do have a 24-hour grab and go culturally for the Afghans as well. I hope that answers your food question.

John Kirby: (19:09)
[inaudible 00:19:09] Laura Seligman, Politico.

Laura Seligman: (19:14)
Hi, John. Thanks for taking my question. I wanted to ask, first of all, Ned Price earlier said that he didn’t know how many SIVs have been evacuated. Can you square that, General, with the numbers that you gave earlier? Is there a discrepancy between the ones that have been evacuated and the total number of people that have come to the United States? What is the difference there, and what is it that we’re missing?

General Glen VanHerck: (19:46)
Right. Laura, you need to ask the State Department. I don’t have that data for you. That’s a question for them.

Laura Seligman: (19:54)
As a followup, how many SIVs and other Afghans do you estimate are still at the Kabul airport, awaiting a flight out?

General Glen VanHerck: (20:06)
I’ll defer to General McKinsey and the forces for it. I don’t know that answer. The State Department or CENTCOM may have that answer for you, Laura.

John Kirby: (20:14)
Today it was about between three and 5,000 earlier today. But as we have talked about before, this is a snapshot in time, and it literally changes by the hour. But the last thing that I saw was somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000. But again, changes hour to hour. Courtney.

Courtney Kube: (20:33)
Hey, General VanHerck. It’s Courtney Kube from NBC News. I just have a couple of clarifications. So when you talk about how these individuals have already gone through the screening process before they even set foot here in the United States, does that mean that their names have already been run through the national counter-terror database?

General Glen VanHerck: (20:51)
Courtney, thanks. It is my understanding that each one of them and their names and their biographical data and their biometric data has been run through the established databases.

Courtney Kube: (21:03)
Second, you also mentioned some of the medical support that the military is providing, including vaccinations. Does that include COVID vaccines at the bases? Are those mandatory or optional?

General Glen VanHerck: (21:15)
The vaccines are offered to them. They’re offered at Dulles. We offer them as well at the task force locations. They are not mandatory. We see many of them are taking the vaccine if they’ve not already had it.

Courtney Kube: (21:30)
On the paperwork that they’re getting assistance for their SIV paperwork, is there any us military component? Do you have any military members who are assisting with that paperwork?

General Glen VanHerck: (21:42)
So the paperwork on our end for accountability purposes, where they arrive at the task forces, we absolutely are part of that paperwork process to ensure accountability, to provide security, et cetera for them at each of those locations. Prior to arriving at our taskforce locations, we are not directly involved with the paperwork process. I don’t know the role in CENTCOM of any of their forces. I’d defer you to General McKinsey on questions for any DOD members forward.

Meghann Myers: (22:17)
General VanHerck, it’s Meghann Myers from Military Times. I wanted to ask why these particular bases were chosen for SIVs. Was it because of space reasons, hard and soft, new buildings, or was it because of proximity to Afghan communities in the area, where some of them might end up being resettled?

General Glen VanHerck: (22:37)
It was not necessarily for the specific location to an Afghan community. The department took a look at each location to ensure they had sufficient capacity, that there was capability in the region to support that. The limits of readiness and training for the local infrastructure in the bases was also a consideration. Those were all provided by the services. The services provided within the recommendations for the department, they took a look at each location and offered up those installations for approval by the department.

John Kirby: (23:14)
We’ll take one more. Then we’re going to let the general close it out. Therese.

Therese Garnier: (23:18)
Yes. Hi, General VanHerck. My name’s Therese Garnier with Newsy. For the children that are on base, are there any educational classes being provided for them? If not, are those children able to go to the CDCs on base to help kind of with babysitting and kind of educating them on American ways and whatnot?

General Glen VanHerck: (23:41)
That’s a great question. So to answer the last part first, currently, I’m not aware of any of them using CDCs on base, but what I would tell you, there’s an outpouring of support in the local areas, local communities, organizations, non-governmental that have showed up at each location to provide coloring books, books to read, educational opportunities.

General Glen VanHerck: (24:03)
… books to read, educational opportunities, sports. At Fort Bliss when I was down there, the soldiers has built soccer goals and set up soccer areas for them to practice and play soccer to keep them occupied, so that’s a great news story.

John Kirby: (24:19)
Okay, General, sir, I’m going to turn it over to you for any closing thoughts you might have.

General Glen VanHerck: (24:23)
Thanks, John, and for everybody in the room and on the phone, it’s a privilege to talk to you today. It’s really a privilege to be executing this mission for those that have helped us for oftentimes a couple of decades. We continue to look forward to supporting them. We’re prepared to do this as long as it takes to ensure that we get them settled back in the United States of America. I’m really proud of the soldiers, sailmen, airmen and marines, coastees. I’ve got coastees here working for us, guardians, you name it. We’re working very hard. Every time I look at them in the eye, and I talk to them, you cannot imagine how proud and privileged they are to support this mission, and they tell me that all the time when I’ve been out on circulation. I feel the exact same way. We look forward to continuing to make this a successful operation, so thanks for letting me tell the story.

John Kirby: (25:17)
General, appreciate your time this afternoon. Okay, I got time to take a few on my own.

Speaker 2: (25:26)
Just two quick things [inaudible 00:25:27] popped up on social media in the past hour or so. Firstly, have the Taliban entered or taken control of any parts of the military section of HKIA that you’re aware of?

John Kirby: (25:39)
The Taliban are not in control of any part of Hamid Karzai International Airport. I saw that report too, it’s false.

Speaker 3: (25:46)
Including any of the gates? [crosstalk 00:25:47]

John Kirby: (25:47)
They are not in charge of any of the gates. They’re not in charge of any of the airport operations. That is still under US military control. [Lida 00:25:57]

Speaker 4: (25:58)
John, can you give us any further details on the attack at this point, anything about whether the marines noticed the attacker coming, anything about the firing of the shots? Has any of that been cleared up at this point?

John Kirby: (26:17)
I don’t have any additional details from what General McKenzie laid out yesterday. Again, we’re going to do the forensics on this and try to learn as much as we can. When we have some verifiable context to be able to talk to you about that, we’ll do it, but we’re still digging into it right now.

Speaker 4: (26:33)
One other thing. Do you have any timing on when you believe the aircraft with the remains will arrive at Dover?

John Kirby: (26:43)
I don’t. The services are in contact with the families, and they’ll notify the families through the casualty assistance case offers, and I think I want to respect that process. As you know, sadly from covering this for so long, Lida, usually the process doesn’t take that long.

Speaker 4: (27:09)
Will the President and Secretary go to Dover to meet the families of the fallen?

John Kirby: (27:14)
I don’t have any scheduled announcements to make, but we’re all mindful of the importance of any return of fallen members and certainly these included, but I just don’t have any things to announce from the scheduled perspective. Tony.

Tony: (27:32)
Do you have any status report on the 17 wounded at [inaudible 00:27:34] in terms of whether they’re mostly stable or out of danger?

John Kirby: (27:38)
I don’t have any update on the wounded. The last count I had was that 20 of them gone to [inaudible 00:27:45]. The remaining, there was some additional wounded, but that they were treated onsite and returned to duty. I don’t know what the status is, and as you know, Tony, we don’t usually get into the details of wounded even anonymously. We just don’t typically talk about that.

Tony: (28:03)
Well, it’d be useful if you could give a sense of whether most are stable or [inaudible 00:28:05]. [crosstalk 00:28:06]

John Kirby: (28:07)
I’m not going to promise that, Tony. We just don’t talk about the status of wounded as I think you can understand. I mean, there’s real privacy issues there that we want to be mindful of.

Tony: (28:16)
[inaudible 00:28:16]

John Kirby: (28:16)
Yeah. Okay, thanks. We’ll see you. I’m planning to do this again tomorrow morning, so I’m shooting for around 11:00 in the morning tomorrow for a regular update General Taylor, and then we’ll see what the rest of the weekend looks like. All right, thank you.

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