Sep 30, 2021
Pentagon John Kirby Press Conference Transcript September 30
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby held a press conference on September 30, 2021. He discussed Gen. Milley and Secretary Austin’s testimony on Afghanistan. Read the transcript of the news briefing here.
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John Kirby: (00:14)
Okay. Good afternoon, everybody. I think you know, I’m honored and privileged to be joined today by General Vanherck, commander of US Northern command and NORAD. The General’s got an update for you on his work for Operation Allies Welcome, and all the good work that we’re doing across bases here in the United States. The general will have some opening comments. I will turn it over him in a second, and then we’ll moderate questions and answers just like we’ve done before. I’ll go ahead and choose you. Please identify who you are and what outlet you’re with before you ask the general question. So he knows who he’s talking to, and we’ve got about 30 minutes for that, and then when that’s over, I’ll stay behind and we’ll do some other business of the day here from the podium. General, can you hear me and see me okay, sir?
General Vanherck: (01:03)
I have you loud and clear and I see you just fine, John.
John Kirby: (01:06)
I’ll turn the floor over to you, sir. Thanks again for joining us.
General Vanherck: (01:10)
Okay. Thank you, John. And good afternoon to all of you. Let me begin by just saying thanks for spending some time with me today and allowing me to talk about the amazing efforts that are taking place at eight respective task forces across this country, of the men and women at US Northern Command, along with our many partners, are proud to support Operation Allies Welcome, and I’m pleased to provide you with an update on the efforts today. As a lead combat and command for this operation, United States Northern Command provides oversight of DOD forces and activities in support of the Department of Homeland Security, the lead federal agency. While DOD is not responsible for the immigration process, we are working hand in hand with DHS and the other agencies to enable the process. We’ve built housing capacity, and we are providing our Afghan guests the environment they need while they work through the immigration process. Essentials such as a safe and secure environment, nutritious meals, warm clothing, primary medical care, and other services.
General Vanherck: (02:09)
Today, total capacity at the eight different installations is over 64,000, and our Afghan evacuee population is approximately 53,000. More than 10,000 DOD personnel are currently supporting Operation Allies Welcome. Since we last spoke my team and I have continued traveling to the DOD installations and task forces across this country. I have seen firsthand seven of the eight task forces and I plan to visit the eighth task force when I visit Camp Atterbury in the very near future. Following each visit, I walk away impressed with how well the soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, coast guard members, and the inner agency team are working together to insure our Afghan guests, as well as the personnel supporting the mission, feel safe, secure, and respected. Now, before I take your questions today, I want to briefly talk about three specific types of issues that have generated a fair amount of attention in the media recently.
General Vanherck: (03:05)
I want you to have the facts about the good and the dedicated efforts that respective task forces and our agency teammates to address those issues. So I want to insure you have that information straight from me. The three specific issues are the living conditions at each task force, the medical care and vaccination efforts that are underway with our Afghan guests, and then, finally, some of the law enforcement challenges we have seen and addressed at the task forces.
General Vanherck: (03:32)
First, let me talk about living conditions at the task forces. And I’d say they’re similar to, and in many cases, exactly the same as conditions provided to US service members during exercise and training missions. The task force has stood up to build eight small cities under emergency conditions, while it hadn’t been perfect. I have seen firsthand how committed our teams are to improving every single day.
General Vanherck: (03:56)
Our Afghan guests are living in a safe and secure environment with climate controlled billets, eating three healthy meals, and culturally appropriate meals, each day, including 24/7 grab and go options, and enjoying recreational, classroom, and other activities. While areas for improvement are identified, either by the Afghan guests or task force teams, we work with our inter agency partners, volunteers, and Afghan guests to address them quickly. My visit to Fort McCoy this past Sunday, which included interactions with the Afghan population, indicates they are grateful for the accommodations we’re providing while they work through the immigration process. Secondly, medical efforts truly have been a good news story and the health of our Afghan guests is a top priority. There are more than 1700 medical professionals and staff attending to the needs of the Afghan personnel. Afghan guests have access to necessary medical services, including essential family medicine, pediatric care, emergency medicine, basic laboratory, radiology, pharmacy services, primary dental care, psychosocial support, and mental health services.
General Vanherck: (05:04)
Additionally, the US government continues to take every precaution to stop the spread of COVID and other diseases consistent with CDC guidance. The task forces have undertaken vaccination campaigns and they are rapidly approaching 100% completion of all required vaccines for 100% of the eligible Afghans. 100% of the Afghans are COVID tested and 84% have received COVID vaccinations to date.
General Vanherck: (05:31)
COVID positivity rates are approximately 0.4%, well below rates across the United States. Our nation’s citizens should feel confident in the work that DOD, along with our contract medical partners, that we’re doing and will continue to do to enable our Afghan guests to be ready to begin their lives in America. Now, finally, there have been reports of various law enforcement challenges at a few of the task forces. We along with our federal, state, and local law enforcement partners take each report seriously, and the task forces work closely with the inter agency team to address them expeditiously and appropriately. The safety and security of all personnel at each task force and on each installation is paramount and we will continue taking all necessary measures to ensure the safety of not only our military and civilian members, as well as our Afghan guests.
General Vanherck: (06:22)
While we have seen a small number of incidents reported, you may not realize the reports are often coming from Afghan guests who are seeking out our service members and our law enforcement professionals at the task forces. While I’m obviously not condoning anything that diminishes good order and discipline at the task forces, that Afghans are reporting incidents is a good indicator of their commitment to keeping the community safe, as well as their confidence in our people. Our commitment to maintain safety and security for the entire population at each installation remains steadfast. Operation Allies Welcome truly is an unprecedented effort. The Afghan personnel I have met and spoken with throughout my visits are appreciative of our support, and are eager to begin their lives in America. I’m proud to be part of this whole of government effort and the entire United States Northern Command team is honored to support. So I’m ready to take your questions, John.
John Kirby: (07:20)
Thank you general. We’ll start with Lolita Baldor, AP.
Lolita Baldor: (07:25)
Hi General. Thanks so much for doing this. Can you give us a little bit more detail on some of the law enforcement issues? I mean, obviously a lot of us heard about the military service member who was apparently attacked. Do you have any more details on that as to whether or not anyone has been either detained or otherwise caught in regard to that? And then can you give us the numbers of violent or other incidents, law enforcement incidents, that you have seen and are they concentrated at one base or are they spread out? Just give us a bit more detailed picture of that.
General Vanherck: (08:06)
Yeah, thanks Lita. So there are two Afghan evacuees that are currently detained in federal custody. Those cases occurred, I believe at Fort McCoy. Those folks have been charged and will be charged through the federal process, not by the Department of Defense. What I would tell you is, for a population of approximately 53,000 personnel, I’ve done some research, and how that compares to populations across the United States. And what we’re seeing is law enforcement violations that are on par, and in most cases, significantly lower than the rates that we’re seeing in similar size populations across the United States. For example, in six weeks in Operation Allies Welcome, in a population of 53,000, there have been eight reported cases of robbery and theft. An average six week period in a similar place is in excess of 150. I’m extremely proud of our team. We have on average, more than 600 security and law enforcement professionals at each task force each and every day. If you look across, that is about three to four times the average of most cities around the globe, if you will. And so we’re taking this very seriously. We take every accusation or incident to heart and take action right away, not only with our DOD members, but primarily with our federal law enforcement, state and local law enforcement, Lita.
John Kirby: (09:54)
Have there been any more reports of security incidents involving attacks on service members or vice versa?
General Vanherck: (10:05)
No. I’m aware of one incident that I believe you’re referring to that occurred at Fort Bliss. I believe on the 17th of September, that is under FBI investigation. They’re the lead agency. And that’s the only one that I’m aware of.
John Kirby: (10:20)
[inaudible 00:10:24]. Can you give us an update on the situation with the measles and the number of cases, vaccination rate, and how much longer you expect that to hold up the processing?
General Vanherck: (10:37)
So I’m aware of 24 total cases of measles, twelve active cases. The vaccination rate is nearing or will be at 100% today for measles. The 21 day period varies depending on individual, and when they arrived, where they received their vaccinations. I expect, initially, completion of 21 day period to begin early next week.
John Kirby: (11:02)
Follow up, General. Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News. What’s the vaccination rate for the Afghans when it comes to the Corona virus>
General Vanherck: (11:12)
84%, Lucas, today.
How long are the Afghans going to be on US military bases?
General Vanherck: (11:21)
That’s a great question, Lucas. We’re prepared to be here as long as we need to, to conduct this mission. That’s best addressed by DHS, the lead federal agency. We stand ready to support. We’ll be ready if we need to support through the winter months and into the spring.
How about through the spring, General?
General Vanherck: (11:38)
Lucas, as I said, we’re ready to support as long as required or until the secretary of defense directs me to stand down support.
John Kirby: (11:47)
We’ll go back to the phones here, Jennifer Steinhauer from the New York Times.
Jennifer Steinhauer: (11:50)
Thank you. If I could follow up on that question, sir. Do you have a little bit of visibility into what the components are that are taking the longest to move on the evacuees out of these bases and into their permanent situations? Is it mostly security checks? Are you flagging anything of concern in the security component, or is it mostly the vaccination immigration process? What is it? It does seem to be taking quite a while.
General Vanherck: (12:17)
Well, thanks for the question. It is not the security checks, and it’s not the vaccination or the medical portion. We have 24,000 today that have completed the complete medical portion of it. I would defer to the relocation folks that have lead, some of our non-governmental agencies on specific details, but the assurances piece we’re very… Not we, but the lead federal agencies and the non-governmental organizations, are very conscious to ensure that each of the Afghan guests have a great place to land and have assurances for where they’re going to relocate to. So I understand that right now is the limiting factor on output.
John Kirby: (13:03)
Hey general, it’s Courtney Kube from NBC news. I just want to make sure I understand one thing. So flights are still not coming in, right, enough, because of the measles, and do you have any sense of when they’re going to restart? And I have one other question.
General Vanherck: (13:19)
Hey Courtney. So I would anticipate that flights will start here in the very near future. I don’t have any confirmation on an exact date for you, but potentially next week, we could see something because of the 21 day dates that overseas are complete with their vaccination process.
And then just to be clear. So there’s currently 53,000 evacuees on military installations. Do you have any sense of a daily cost of how much this is costing to house and care for these people or weekly or monthly? Is there any estimate for cost?
General Vanherck: (14:00)
Courtney? I don’t. I would defer to the OSD comptroller for-
General Vanherck: (14:03)
Courtney, I don’t. I would defer to the OSD controller for a question like that. I’m not sure what the cost is.
Courtney Kube: (14:09)
[inaudible 00:14:09] Will that be reimbursed by the federal government, or is that going to be a cost that continue to be born by DOD? Do you know?
General Vanherck: (14:17)
I don’t know if you’re asking me, Courtney. That financial aspect is not in the combatant commander’s lane.
John Kirby: (14:25)
Question for the record, and get back to you.
Courtney Kube: (14:26)
John Kirby: (14:28)
[inaudible 00:14:31] if you don’t mind, just to confirm that the refugees are offered halal meat and they are offered also a place for prayers.
General Vanherck: (14:41)
That is correct. Halal meals are provided three times per day, plus the 24 hour option for grab and go, and we have set up places for worship and prayer for each of the task forces.
John Kirby: (14:56)
Thank you General. On the US missile defense against North Korea, you said that last time you are ready 24/7 365, if North Korea decides to launch ballistic missiles. How is the United States missile defense capability against North Korea’s hypersonic missile launch this week?
General Vanherck: (15:29)
I’m aware of the reference you’re making. I understand the intelligence community is still making an assessment of the North Korean claim to have tested a hypersonic. We’ll just have to see that capability right now. It would be my assessment that the homeland would be safe and secure from a hypersonic capability as North Korea claims they have tested.
Travis Trenton: (15:59)
Thank you General. Travis Trenton with military.com. Could you give us some sense of the processing rate. How many of these Afghan refugees are moving off installations into society per day? Or give us some sense of that.
General Vanherck: (16:14)
Yeah. That’s best answered by homeland security. What I can tell you is there’s approximately 4000 that are complete with the process pending resettlement at this time, with assurances for relocation.
John Kirby: (16:32)
Back to the phones. Tony, do you have a question for the General?
Tony Capaccio: (16:41)
General, yeah. Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg. I did have one question. Were the biometric screenings that were done in Afghanistan, have those aided in getting the people who are coming here a proper identification?
General Vanherck: (16:54)
Tony, again, that’s best for homeland security. I understand that biometric screening, biographical screening continues even after they arrive at the taskforce locations, but to specifically answer your question, I can’t do that. You need to refer that to DHS.
Tony Capaccio: (17:12)
Okay, fair enough. Thanks.
John Kirby: (17:16)
Thank you. So, when you said that there were 4000 complete with the process pending for resettlement, that 53,000 number, is that the total amount of Afghan evacuees? That doesn’t include any that have been resettled so far, none have been resettled? Am I interpreting you right?
General Vanherck: (17:35)
That’s not correct. I apologize if I misled you. So far resettled is over 2600 or so, of which more than half of those have been resettled through either the SIV process or the refugee process at this time.
Okay, thank you. And you said your total capacity now was 64,000. When you talk to your UCOM and your CENTCOM counterparts, how many total more Afghans are you expecting?
General Vanherck: (18:04)
What we’re seeing in the UCOM and CENTCOM AORs right now is slightly over 14,000 that are still remaining to come forward to the eight taskforces. So, when you do the math, you see that we’re relying on the output to ensure that we have enough capacity for the additional remaining Afghans coming this way.
John Kirby: (18:27)
Back to the phones. Tara, did you have a question?
Lolita Baldor: (18:30)
Yes. General, on the security clearance process, how many of the Afghans have completed and are completely cleared to resettle? And as you said, it’s a question of having a spot for them to resettle to.
General Vanherck: (18:49)
I don’t have the specific number, but I believe it’s slightly over 4000 at this time have completed medical, all their screening processes and are pending assurances for relocation.
Lolita Baldor: (19:02)
And then of all of the Afghans that are still undergoing the security clearance process, or the vetting process, how many total have been pulled for additional screening because something popped red?
General Vanherck: (19:20)
Yeah, I don’t have that number. I would defer that to DHS again. And I’m not aware of any significant problems that we’ve had once they have arrived at any of our taskforces.
Lolita Baldor: (19:34)
Okay, and then just to follow on my colleague Lucas’s question, when the bases were first preparing to receive Afghan evacuees, there was a General thought that this would be a very short process. Maybe 10 days, maybe two weeks before they went through, and obviously the numbers are far greater and it’s taking a much longer time. What kind of planning discussions have there been, if this needs to be a longterm solution, if there isn’t somewhere for some of these evacuees to go and they are reliant on DOD to provide a longterm housing solution for them?
General Vanherck: (20:11)
Yeah. So, two points to that. First, like I said, we remain ready to do this until the mission is complete. The numbers I think you’re referring to were likely numbers that came out of our initial housing of Afghan SIV applicants, as they came into Fort Lee, where we were averaging about five to seven days or processing time, because they were further along in the process. I’ll have to defer to the state department on the total numbers, but the numbers of SIVs and where they are in the process makes it a shorter process for them. If you’re just at the beginning of the SIV process, or not in the process and you’re a P1 or P2 in the refugee process, now that’s a separate way to go forward for how they’re going to move onward to be a settlement into the United States. Does that make sense to you?
Lolita Baldor: (21:12)
Yes, thank you.
John Kirby: (21:14)
Alex Marquardt: (21:15)
General, this is Alex Marquardt from CNN. I was speaking with a senior Afghan General who’s here in the States, and he was feeling like he deserved some preferential treatment, if you will. I was wondering if the conditions, the lodgings, the food for all Afghans, is it completely egalitarian? Are all conditions the same? Are any priorities given to anybody?
General Vanherck: (21:42)
They’re all the same. I’m not aware of any priority being given over any Afghan based on prior position, job or anything.
Alex Marquardt: (21:51)
Can I just follow up on Lucas’s questions as well. You said that 84% are vaccinated for COVID. Is there any notion of vaccination hesitancy among these Afghan arrivals, or is that not even a factor because they have to be vaccinated?
General Vanherck: (22:06)
I’m not aware of any hesitancy. The vaccination protocols are part of the process for clearance and onward movement.
John Kirby: (22:18)
There’s time for just a couple more. Nazira?
Nazira Karimi: (22:19)
Nazira Karimi, Afghan Journal. I would like to ask in these camps, any Afghan government officials among of these refugees to arrive at the United States?
General Vanherck: (22:33)
I’m not aware specifically. I would defer you to either DHS or state department for any specifics on any prior Afghan officials.
John Kirby: (22:44)
All right, Lucas, you get the last one at the General. Go ahead.
Just to follow up my colleague Alex’s question, is the coronavirus vaccine mandatory for the Afghan refugees, General?
General Vanherck: (22:54)
I’d have to go check, but I believe it is, Lucas, as part of the protocols for onward movement.
Why is it 84% of Afghan refugees have the coronavirus vaccine but 100% have the measles?
General Vanherck: (23:07)
That’s correct today. We’re continuing to work through the vaccine regimen. The measles took priority because of the transmission rate of the disease, if you will. So, we made sure that we got 100% through as quickly as possible.
Courtney Kube: (23:26)
John Kirby: (23:26)
Go ahead and ask. Go ahead, Courtney.
Courtney Kube: (23:30)
He’s still talking.
John Kirby: (23:33)
[crosstalk 00:23:33] General, do you have us?
General Vanherck: (23:45)
Yeah, I do. I responded back for something I wanted to remind Lucas, is that the COVID positivity rate is 0.4%. Less than 1%. So, we haven’t had significant challenges. I will tell you that the taskforce’s concern is primarily flu outbreak at this point, and we’re working hard to get the flu vaccine as well across all of the Afghans.
John Kirby: (24:15)
Courtney, did you have a question?
Courtney Kube: (24:18)
General Vanherck, it’s Courtney Kube, just one quick clarification. Is the 84% two shots of the COVID vaccine or one?
General Vanherck: (24:25)
Courtney, I’ll have to go confirm that, but I believe we’re giving Johnson and Johnson and those are single shot vaccines.
Courtney Kube: (24:33)
John Kirby: (24:34)
Okay, General, thanks so much for your time. I’m going to turn it back over to you, if you have any closing thoughts.
General Vanherck: (24:38)
Yeah. Thanks John, and thanks to all of you for being here and taking some time to tell a little bit of the story that’s ongoing. I’m incredibly proud of the entire DOD team and the inter agency team for the work that they’re doing. We continue to strive to be the best that we can going forward, and we look forward to continuing to be part of the solution for the 60 some odd thousand that will eventually be here, to move them on. I continue to be focused on being as transparent as possible with you. That can be indicated by the media at Fort McCoy today. We’re happy to do that, we look forward to continuing to be transparent with you. And thanks for the opportunity, John.
John Kirby: (25:22)
Thank you, General. Appreciate your time today. Okay. I’ll go ahead and get onto some other things as well. I think you saw that today the department of defense released the calendar year 2020 annual suicide report. We continue to take action to prevent suicides, while supporting our military members and their families. As the secretary has said, every death by suicide is a tragedy. The current year 2020 suicide report presents recent suicide data for service members and their families, and describes current and future efforts on the way to combat suicide. This is a paramount challenge for the department. We must redouble our efforts to provide all of our people with the care and the resources they need to reduce the stigmas and barriers to that care, and to ensure that our community uses simple safety measures and precautions to reduce the risk of future tragedies, and we’ll continue to work closely and urgently in close collaboration with our partners at the department of veteran affairs.
John Kirby: (26:23)
Also this morning, Joining Forces and the national security counsel staff released the White House report on strengthening America’s military families, and that was signed by the president and the secretaries of 15 executive departments, including the secretary of defense. The report outlines the first round of administration wide commitments and proposals to support military and veteran families, caregivers and survivors, and that full report can be found at www.whitehouse.gov/joiningforces. And I encourage you to go take a look at that. And with that, we’ll take questions. Lita, did you have one for me?
I’ll let someone else go, since I already had a shot.
John Kirby: (27:05)
Okay. You all right?
Speaker 1: (27:08)
I was just trying to see where we would hear Lita.
John Kirby: (27:10)
Oh, okay. Laura?
General Milley during his testimony earlier this week said that the US lost the war in Afghanistan and called it a strategic failure. So, can you tell me, does the department agree with that assessment?
John Kirby: (27:26)
Well, I think I would point you towards what the secretary said in his opening statement, and throughout two days of congressional testimony, that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we prevented another attack like 9/11 on American soil, and that we significantly degraded Al-Qaeda capability, and that other progress was made inside Afghanistan. But he also said, and I thought was very frank about some of the tough questions that he thinks we need to consider and ask ourselves going forward now, that-
John Kirby: (28:03)
… that we need to consider and ask ourselves going forward now that these 20 years of war is over and it’s going to take some time to go through that. But take a look at the strategy or strategies that we had, being humble to take a look at our ability to stand up State institutions in a country like Afghanistan and whether that was done the best way it could be or appropriately. So I think the Secretary was very Frank about all the things that we need to consider as we look back at 20 years of war, not just look back at the last two months.
And then just to followup on a different question. Is the DODIG considering a probe into the SIV program and the department’s role in that?
John Kirby: (28:46)
I’m not aware. And I’d point you to the DODIG, it’s an independent entity, so I wouldn’t be able to speak for them anyway. Nasser?
Thank you, John. There is many reports of Taliban killing Afghan commandos, all the U.S. operation that work very hard with them, but [inaudible 00:29:04] that Taliban tortured them and killed them. Do you have any plan [inaudible 00:29:09] a new plan to bring them into the United States, [inaudible 00:29:13].
John Kirby: (29:12)
Again, I’d point you to what the Secretary testified to over the last few days. That just because the military footprint in Afghanistan has gone, doesn’t mean that the effort to bring our Afghan allies and whatever Americans still want to come out, that still continues. So we’re going to continue to work at that in concert with the State Department and with a nonprofit and other civilian led opportunities as well. Janey?
Thanks John. K-I-D-D. On the KIDD, [inaudible 00:29:46] defense dialogue, was held in Seoul this week, 27 and 28. What was discussed and [inaudible 00:30:02]?
John Kirby: (30:10)
So, what I can tell you is that we did have a good session, a good set of meetings. As you know this is a regularly occurring set of talks. And I think without getting into too much detail, I mean, the whole panoply of issues regarding our alliance and trying to make sure that that alliance stay strong were all discussed.
And also, North Korea continues [inaudible 00:30:40]. What is the United States analysis of North Korea’s hypersonic missile launch? [inaudible 00:30:54] for this missile launch, for this week?
John Kirby: (30:59)
Yeah, so again, I’d point you back to what the General said. We’re aware of the missile launch and we’re consulting closely with our allies and partners. While we’ve assessed that this event does not pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel or territory or to our allies, it does highlight the de-stabilizing impact of the DPRK’s illicit weapons program, and nothing changes about our commitment to our Alliance with both Japan and South Korea.
And the United States recognized this missile is the hypersonic missile, no?
John Kirby: (31:37)
We’re still assessing the specific nature of this launch event, and I won’t go beyond that. Okay. Yeah.
Speaker 2: (31:44)
Thank you. You said either last week or two weeks ago that Secretary Austin was open to relocating the families affected by the August 29th strike. Is there any update on that or on the payments to the families?
John Kirby: (31:55)
I don’t, and I think you heard General McKenzie and the Secretary speak to this yesterday. The Secretary made it clear in testimony that he does support the relocation of the family back to the United States if that’s something that they want to do. I don’t have any update for progress on that. And I think you heard General McKenzie say yesterday that we’re still working through the payments and what that would look like, how that would be effected. And we here at OSD and in our policy shop are assisting in that effort as well, but I don’t have any specific updates for you. Alex?
Alex Marquardt: (32:30)
On those payments, John, when it was first mentioned, I mean, it’s been a couple of weeks since it was first mentioned. What are the challenges, if you could just get into why is it complicated to figure out how a payment is made, how much is made? That seems like a much easier thing to do than to relocate a family from Afghanistan.
John Kirby: (32:49)
Well, I don’t know whether it’s easier or not Alex. I think not only do you have to work out the communications with the recipients and making sure that you’re talking to the right people and that they, whoever it is you’re talking to are empowered by the family to make decisions on their behalf. And then, you make an assessment about what the proper amount is and then how that amount would be transmitted to the family. And those discussions are ongoing.
John Kirby: (33:20)
It’s not that because we haven’t done it yet that it’s some sort of hyper-complicated process. It’s just that we’re working our way through that, and we want to do it the right way. We want to make sure that it’s done with sincerity and solemnity and in the appropriate manner and so, we’re still working that through.
Alex Marquardt: (33:42)
Obviously an extremely sensitive process. What has been done in the past, how does it typically work? Because I imagine it’d be difficult for the U.S. military to say, “This is an amount that we think would be appropriate,” or is it the U.S. side that would make the first step, is it the family side that would make the first suggestion?
John Kirby: (34:01)
Yeah, I’m not an expert on the payment process. So I better take the question rather than try to speculate here and I’ll see if I can get you a process oriented answer. My guess would be that it’s different for each situation and with each family. But let me take the question without speculating and we’ll see if we can get you a better process oriented answer. Carla?
Thank you. With the testimony yesterday Secretary Austin was talking about explaining how a NEO, an evacuation couldn’t start until the State Department, assuming the ambassador started it and then, Milley was asked about the question again, and he asked, “Should the NEO have started earlier?” And he said, “That’s a valid question that we need to look into.” Was this building, was the Pentagon pressuring the State Department, Secretary Blinken or the Ambassador to start a NEO earlier and if so, at what date was that?
John Kirby: (34:54)
So a noncombatant evacuation does have to be called by the State Department. That’s doctrine. That’s the policy. That’s the way it works. And as you heard the Secretary say yesterday, we were in constant communication with our State Department colleagues throughout August about that, and other issues, of course, particularly in terms of moving people out of the embassy. So there was a lot of communication with the State Department, this was one of many topics that was frequently and routinely discussed with the State Department. And I think you also heard the secretary say yesterday that while we certainly had a view, we respected the fact that they too had a view.
John Kirby: (35:33)
Remember, that right up until it was clear that we were going to have to leave because of the fall of the Ghani government, the State Department had been given a mission by the President of the United States to maintain a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. In fact, our role in that was to get down to a level of force commensurate with what would be required to protect and defend the work of our diplomats, but their mission in Afghanistan, while ours was ending from a combat training, advisor, assist perspective.
John Kirby: (36:07)
The plan had been that their mission would continue, and that means maintaining an embassy, populating that embassy, continuing the programs and initiatives that we had done, because again, until the very end, as the Secretary said, we were working with the democratically elected partner in the Ghani government. And so, the State Department had different equities. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. So there was constant communication between the two departments about what an evacuation operation might look like and when would be the right time to do that. Yeah.
Speaker 3: (36:43)
Thank you. I wanted to ask you about last week’s quad summit coming together, the four countries together. How does it help you in addressing the challenge posed by China in the Indo-Pacific region?
John Kirby: (36:54)
There are lots of outcomes to the quad relationship and they don’t all have to do with China. So I think that’s an important thing to State upfront. It’s not that the quad exists simply to counter China or their influence. Now, obviously, what China’s doing in the Indo-Pacific region, the aggressiveness, the coercive nature with which they try to press their claims certainly is a frequent topic of discussion with all our allies and partners and certainly, inside the quad. What the quad arrangement gives us is a terrific, another terrific opportunity to work multilaterally on all initiatives that can help create what we really want here, which is a free and open Indo-Pacific region. And there’s a lot that goes into that and not all of it has to do with China. Travis?
Speaker 3: (38:03)
I have one more question on the hearings on the hill this week. There were questions about Pakistan and this link with Taliban and ISI, both secretary defense, and these two journals said they wanted to discuss not in the closed setting. What is so unknown thing that you don’t want to discuss about the relationship Pakistan has with Taliban and ISI?
John Kirby: (38:25)
I think they were referring to specific issues regarding the threat of terrorism and particularly, along that border that they felt would be better done in a classified setting. And I’m not going to talk about those kinds of issues here from the podium. I would just say what we’ve said before. I mean that as a neighboring nation and an important neighboring nation, Pakistan certainly has equities and responsibilities with respect to terrorism in that part of the world. And we’ve been very honest about our concerns with Pakistan for a long time about the safe havens that exist on their side of the border, along that spine.
John Kirby: (39:09)
And those concerns are still valid today. And we continue to have candid conversations with Pakistani leaders about our concerns in that regard. And I would remind, and I think it’s important to continue to remind that the Pakistani people, likewise, have been rendered victim by terrorist threats that emanate from those groups and along that same border, but the specifics, I’m certainly not going to say from the podium here what the Secretary and the Chairman might want it to have conveyed in a classified setting. Travis?
Travis Trenton: (39:47)
Thanks, John. Back in June, the Deputy Secretary had ordered that the UAP taskforce be formalized and that the department create a process for collecting and compiling all that information. Do you have any update on that process?
John Kirby: (40:02)
I do not, but let me take the question and we’ll see if we can get you an update. I don’t have anything updated.
Travis Trenton: (40:10)
And if I could just followup. Once that process is complete, do you anticipate that some of that information in some form is going to be released to the public, or do you believe that it’s going to be mostly classified information?
John Kirby: (40:19)
About the process itself?
Travis Trenton: (40:21)
No, the reports themselves, once there’s a system to collect those [crosstalk 00:40:25].
John Kirby: (40:25)
We’ll be as transparent as we can be, Travis, but obviously, we also have an obligation to protect sensitive information, classified information. And so, like with any other program that we’re evaluating here at the Pentagon or initiating, we’ll have to balance the very real rights and responsibilities to be transparent with our rights and responsibilities to protect national security information. So it’ll be a balance. I’m not going to commit right now to releases of any specific nature. And Nasser.
One more question John. One question, the Taliban warned United States that not use Afghanistan [inaudible 00:41:13] two days ago. They warning, yes.
John Kirby: (41:16)
We’ve already addressed this. I don’t have anything additional to add. We believe we have the authorities that we need to continue to protect the nation.
Okay. And the second question, do you support Afghan government and exile by Ghani?
John Kirby: (41:28)
That’s a question for the State Department Nasser and not for the Defense Department. Yeah, back there.
Speaker 4: (41:33)
John, before [inaudible 00:41:35] question, you mentioned that you have degraded Al-Qaeda and that also, you prevented another 9/11, and also, some other achievements in Afghanistan. Can you talk about those other achievements as we have seen pretty much everything has been reversed by the Taliban?
John Kirby: (41:56)
Well I think you heard the Secretary talk about this in his opening statement. There’s been progress in Afghanistan that he …
John Kirby: (42:03)
… Progress in Afghanistan that he believes the international community should work hard to preserve. A lot of that had to do with rights for women and girls, and we’re already seeing them erode some of those. Education, commerce, and business. Great progress in Afghanistan economically. Flying over Kabul in March, it was a stunning what a bustling city that it had become. Afghanistan is not the same Afghanistan that the Taliban took in 1995, and certainly isn’t the same Afghanistan that it was in 2001.
John Kirby: (42:39)
It’s a very young now population, very tech savvy, very connected to the outside world, and the Taliban, if they’re sincere about what they claim they desire, which is some sort of sense of international legitimacy and international support which they’re going to need certainly from an economic perspective, then they would do well to maintain some of that progress and to abide by some of their own promises about maintaining some of that progress.
Speaker 5: (43:14)
Is Johnson & Johnson vaccine being administered to the US DOD personnel, sailing and military?
John Kirby: (43:19)
Some. Yeah. We have used the Janssen vaccine particularly overseas and for troops deployed. Again, one of the advantages of it is that you only need one shot. So for some deployed units, it made the most sense so that they could get one vaccine and be done. Yeah.
Alex Marquardt: (43:38)
On the suicide report, John, the rate from 2015 to 2020 was over 40%, which is pretty staggering. And yet it wasn’t clear from the report, and I tried to ask during the briefing earlier but I wasn’t able to, to what the defense department attributes that 40% jump. We did hear from the secretary of the army saying that there is no clear reason. But for a figure that big, do you think that there would be some real factors there? And they did say earlier today that COVID was not one of them in the past year, at least.
John Kirby: (44:12)
Yeah. I don’t know that I’m able to give you a better answer, Alex. It’s a fair question. And I think one of the things that is bedeviling about suicide is that it’s often very hard to connect dots in causality. What leads somebody to make that decision. Often you never really know. So it’s difficult to denote specific causality with suicide on an individual basis, let alone an institutional basis. And I think that’s why it’s so difficult for us to speak to it with any specificity, except to say that obviously we take this very, very seriously.
John Kirby: (44:55)
Nobody wants to see the numbers that we reported out today, and we continue to look for ways to get smarter about prevention. And I know that they detailed for you some of the things and the initiatives that the department is doing, and we’re going to continue to refine them, review them, change them, adapt them as we need to going forward. Laura.
Yeah. So earlier today, the Taliban accused the US of violating the withdrawal agreement by continuing to fly drones over Afghanistan, and warned us against doing that in the future, warned of consequences. So what is your response to that, and how do we continue counter-terrorism operations without flying drones over Afghanistan?
John Kirby: (45:35)
So two very distinct questions. One, I’ve not seen this comment. All I would say is that, as I said the other day, we have the authorities that we need to continue to defend our interests and the security of the American people there and around the world, and we’re going to do that. The second thing that I pointed too, Laura, is that over-the-horizon operations don’t always have to include unmanned aerial assets. And they don’t. That we use unmanned aerial assets clearly is true, and the secretary cited one that was just a week or two ago in Syria, but over-the-horizon doesn’t have to mean unmanned.
John Kirby: (46:20)
It doesn’t even always have to mean aviation. Over-the-horizon, as the secretary defined, it means that the strike assets and the target analysis comes from outside the country in which the operation occurs. And we can do that in a variety of means.
This was on their official Twitter account. So is this something that you would be concerned about? The saying that this violates the withdrawal agreement?
John Kirby: (46:45)
What we’re concerned about is making sure that this country can’t be attacked again from Afghanistan, and we’re going to maintain, as the secretary said yesterday, a laser focus on that. Yeah, Lucas.
John, there’s a report in Reuters that the Afghan Central Bank drained its cash before Kabul fell. Can you confirm that?
John Kirby: (47:02)
I can not.
… Be an indication that some people knew that the Afghan government was going to collapse if they’d taken all the cash… [crosstalk 00:47:09].
John Kirby: (47:09)
Lucas, I can’t confirm it, so I can’t speculate.
Can you confirm that the suicide bomber who killed 13 American troops was once a prisoner at either Bargram air base or another prison in Kabul or somewhere in Afghanistan?
John Kirby: (47:21)
I’m not able to confirm that.
Are you concerned that this a suicide bomber could be a former prisoner?
John Kirby: (47:28)
Our concern is that we lost 13 men and women at the Abbey Gate on the 26th of August, and our concern is that we continue to make sure that we take care of and support their families. I can’t confirm this report, so I’m not going to characterize it or qualify it right now.
[inaudible 00:47:51] is investigating?
John Kirby: (47:52)
I don’t know of any investigation into this, Lucas. That would be a question really for the intelligence community, and I don’t know of any formal investigation into this. But clearly, if we get to a point where we know more and can speak about it more, we would certainly do that.
Do you think this is this something the US Military should look into since this bomber killed 13 Americans troop?
John Kirby: (48:14)
I think it’s fair to say, Lucas, that we want to know as much as possible about that deadly attack, and yes, we are looking into learning as much as we can about the bomber himself, and about the chain of events which led to that very deadly day.
Just confirm the military is not investigating this attack.
John Kirby: (48:31)
I know of no investigation into this, Lucas. Irea.
Thank you, John. One question about China. The Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Dr. Michael Chase, met [inaudible 00:48:43], his Chinese counterpart, this week. Was there progress made to have a secretary level engagement in the future?
John Kirby: (48:52)
I think we saw that we gave a readout out of that meeting. I won’t go beyond that. I have nothing on the schedule to announce with respect to the secretary’s engagement. This was an important first step in the communications process, and again, as we read it out, we found that exchange to be productive. And I won’t go beyond that today. Yeah.
Speaker 3: (49:17)
One more question. Last week when India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi met the president in the Oval Office, President Biden announced the launch of a new chapter in the history of India US relationship. I haven’t seen that chapter. You might have. What is the defense perspective in the chapter? The few sections or difference.
John Kirby: (49:35)
I’d point you to the White House for that. We have a strong defense partnership with India. One of the secretary’s first stops overseas was to New Delhi, and we’re going to continue to explore ways to improve that and deepen it. But I don’t have anything beyond that to say. I haven’t gone to the phones. Tara, did you have a question for me?
Lolita Baldor: (49:55)
I did. Thank you so much. I wanted to ask a follow-up to Laura’s question. At yesterday’s hearing when representative Kim asked the secretary under what authorities the US would continue to fly aircraft, whether they’re manned or droned, over Afghanistan, the secretary said he would have to provide those details in closed session. I’m just wondering why would those authorities need to be classified if they’re not AUMF or maybe not Article Two? What are they? And does that mean potentially that DOD is no longer conducting these strikes; that they’re maybe being done under Title 50 or no longer Title 10?
John Kirby: (50:35)
Again, I won’t speak to what the secretary conveyed or plans to convey in a classified setting. Again, we have the authorities that we need, and as a matter of domestic law, the president has authorized United States Forces strike ISIS-K targets in Afghanistan pursuant to the 2001 AUMF.
Lolita Baldor: (51:02)
Over-the-horizon is being taken under AUMF; those are the authorities that are being used. Just to clarify, what authorities are being used and cited for the continuing over-the-horizon attacks?
John Kirby: (51:14)
As I just said, Tara, as a matter of domestic law, the president has authorized US Forces to strike ISIS-K targets in Afghanistan, pursuant to the 2001 AUMF. Tony, did you have a question for me?
Tony Capaccio: (51:28)
Yeah, John. A quick question. The conversation between Michael Chase and his PLA counterpart, can you give us any sense of the substance and the tone of the conversations, and was a potential trip to China by the SecDef discussed?
John Kirby: (51:43)
I won’t go beyond the readout, Tony. What I can say is that the discussion was professional, and as I mentioned earlier, productive, in terms of establishing and having that first contact between the Office of the Secretary in China, and we’ll see where it goes from here. But I wouldn’t speculate beyond that.
Tony Capaccio: (52:09)
Well, can I just ask you, was there any discussion of improving the technical communications links between DOD and the PLA, just that aspect of it?
John Kirby: (52:17)
And I won’t go beyond the readout, Tony, but it’s effacive to say that the secretary believes that an open channel of communication is important, he encourages that, and as I said before, I think I mentioned this last week, there’s lots of vehicles for that, and we want to make sure that that line of communication stays as open as possible so that we can reduce the risks of miscalculation and rising tensions. Okay. Thanks everybody. Appreciate it. Have a good day.