Press Conference on Tropical Storm Henri and the Ongoing Evacuation Efforts in Afghanistan
delivered 22 August 2021
Good afternoon. After a series of meetings throughout the weekend with my national security team, I want to update the American people on our ongoing evacuation operation in Afghanistan.
But first, I just was briefed by the FEMA Administrator, who is here with me today -- Ms. Criswell -- about the flash flooding in Waverly, Tennessee, and surrounding areas in Tennessee.
I want to begin by expressing my deepest condolences for the sudden and tragic loss of life due to this flash flood.
I know we’ve reached out to the community and we stand ready to offer them support. I’ve asked the Administrator to speak to Governor Lee of Tennessee right away, and we will offer any assistance they need for this terrible moment.
Let me also say a few words about what is -- what is now Tropical Storm -- not hurricane -- Henri, which made landfall at approximately 12:15 this afternoon in Rhode Island.
Henri is impacting much of the Northeast right now, and I want to talk about our efforts to prepare and respond to this storm.
We have been closely monitoring Henri’s progress and making the necessary preparations. Fortunately, it’s no longer a hurricane; it’s been downgraded to a tropical storm. And we are taking it seriously, though, because of the size and the storm’s surge and the rainfall it’s producing. It’s also -- It’s also impacting an area of the country that has already experienced heavy rainfall over the past several days.
And while New Englanders are used to dealing with some tough weather, this storm has the potential for widespread consequences across the region, with significant flooding and power outages that could affect hundreds of thousands of people.
And so, we’re doing everything we can now to help these states prepare, respond, and recover.
I can’t think of anyone better to lead this operation than -- than Deanne Criswell of the -- of FEMA. She’s -- before she headed up FEMA, she led the emergency response in New York City, and she was one of the key federal officials leading our response to Superstorm -- Superstorm Sandy. She knows this area very, very well and knows what is needed better than anyone.
Yesterday, I talked with the Administrator and each of the governors in the key states most likely to be affected. I urged them to take advantage of the assistance FEMA can offer in advance and committed to doing everything we can to support their communities through the storm and afterwards.
FEMA has already pre-positioned resources in the region to speed our ability to respond, including food, water, and lifesaving communications equipment, as well as generators.
In close cooperation with the electrical sector, preparations are in place to address significant power outages. And resources and support is staged at the edge of this storm to be able to move quickly in to help.
Thousands of additional line crews and vegetation-clearing crews from other states and from Canada are already heading toward the impacted states in New England, ready to serve as -- move in as soon as it’s feasible.
They’ll clean up fallen trees, help local utilities repair damaged lines, and restore electrical service as fast as possible.
I want to thank these crews for their commitment to helping their fellow citizens in time of need.
I’ve already approved -- I’ve already approved emergency declarations for Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York, which activates funds and means we can -- we can get in there and help as soon as this extreme weather has moved through.
We don’t know the full extent of the storm’s impact today, but we are acting to prepare for and prevent damage as much as possible, and to speed help to affected communities so they can recover as quickly as possible.
I also want to encourage everyone to do their part to prepare. Follow the guidance from their local authorities. Some places have already had heavy rains and winds and dangerous storm surges.
Henri is going to continue to move across much of the Northeast, so it is important to monitor it closely and be prepared in your home and your community. Make sure you have the supplies for your entire household, including necessary medications and food, water, battery-powered radios in case of extended power hour -- power outages.
And don’t forget that you may need to seek shelter while you’re battling the Delta variant and the COVID-19. So, wear a mask and try to observe social distancing.
And to everyone across the country, don’t get caught by the next storm. Get vaccinated. Get vaccinated now. Protect yourself and your family against COVID-19. It’s going to be a vital part of emergency preparedness this year -- for the remainder of this year.
Now, let me turn to Afghanistan.
I’ve continued to make progress since I spoke to you on Friday. We have moved thousands of people each day by U.S. military aircraft and civilian charter flights.
A little over 30 hours -- in a little over 30 hours this weekend, we’ve evacuated an extraordinary number of people, as I will detail in a minute: about 11,000 individuals. That number will change day to day as the air and ground operations in Kabul vary.
Our first priority in Kabul is getting American citizens out of the country as quickly and as safely as possible. At my direction, the State Department continues to reach out to the remaining Americans we have identified by phone, e-mail, and other means to ascertain their whereabouts and their plans.
We’re executing a plan to move groups of these Americans to safety and to safely and effectively move them to the airport compound.
For security reasons, I’m not going to go into the detail of what these plans entail, but I will say again today that I have said before: Any American who wants to get home will get home.
We’ve also been evacuating the citizens of our NATO Allies and our partners, including their diplomats, their embassy staff who remain in Afghanistan and to get them back to their homes as well.
And as we do this, we’re also working to move our Afghan allies, who stood with us side by side, and other vulnerable Afghans such as women leaders and journalists, out of the country.
As of this morning, we have evacuated nearly 28,000 people since August the 14th, on both U.S. and coalition aircraft, including civilian charters, bringing the total number of people we have evacuated since July to approximately 33,000 persons.
In one 24-hour period this weekend, 23 U.S. military flights -- including 14 C-17s, 9 C-130 flights -- left Kabul carrying 3,900 passengers. We see no reason why this tempo will not be kept up.
During the same period, our military facilitated another 35 charter flights carrying an additional nearly 4,000 evacuees to other countries that are taking -- that are taking them out.
Altogether, we lifted approximately 11,000 people out of Kabul in less than 36 hours. It’s an incredible operation.
Let me be clear: The evacuation of thousands of people from Kabul is going to be hard and painful no matter when it started and when we began. It would have been true if we had started a month ago or a month from now. There is no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss, of heartbreaking images you see on television. It’s just a fact. My heart aches for those people you see.
We are proving that we can move, though, thousands of people a day out of Kabul. We’re bringing our citizens, NATO Allies, Afghanis who had helped -- in fact, has helped us in the war effort. But we have a long way to go, and a lot could still go wrong.
But to move out 30,000 people in just over a week, that’s a great testament to the men and women on the ground in Kabul and our armed services.
It also reflects a tireless diplomatic effort. In order to keep a steady flow of planes taking off from Kabul and maximize our evacuation capacity, we have quickly stood up an unprecedented global effort and established a series of processing stations in third countries.
In short, we’re not flying them directly to their country, we’re flying to these processing stations where we’re working with more than two dozen countries across four continents.
I’ve secured agreements -- we’ve secured agreements with the Gulf -- excuse me -- across the Gulf, in Central Asia, and in Europe, including processing centers in Qatar, Germany, Kuwait, Spain, and elsewhere that allows us to sort and process these evacuees.
This transit -- These transit centers provide a safe place for the SIV applicants and other vulnerable Afghanis and their families to complete their paperwork while we conduct security screenings and background checks before they continue on to their final destination in the United States or in another country -- one of our NATO Allies, as well.
And so, from Asia to Africa, from Europe to Western -- to the Western Hemisphere, nations are making generous offers to support resettlements efforts.
And I’ve been in personal contact with the leaders of many countries, including Qatar, Germany, Spain, Italy, the UAE, and others -- they’re making vital contributions -- to thank them for their support and to discuss how we can continue to coordinate our efforts in Afghanistan, moving forward. It’s the reason why I continue in contact with them.
And I want to, again, thank all of our partners for their continued -- continuing to stand together.
We’ve also activated the first stage of what’s referred to as the “Civil Reserve Air Fleet” to help with the onward movement of evacuees from these transit centers. Our military aircraft and others will get them to these centers, but then we’re going to get the Civil Reserve Fleet -- it’s a program that’s designed -- that was designed in the wake of the Berlin Airlift after World War Two -- to use commercial aircraft to augment our airlift capacity. This is a voluntary program for our commercial airlines, and we’re grateful for those airlines and the U.S. carriers who are supporting this.
This effort will only use three or four planes from each of the major carriers’ vast fleet of aircraft, so there should be no effect, or a minimal effect, on commercial air travel. And we’ll stay in close coordination with our partners to mitigate any impact.
These Civil Reserve flights will be helping facilitate the safe movement of people from staging locations and transit centers, like Qatar and Germany, to the United States or to a third country. None of them will be landing in Kabul. Now, the American aircraft part of this will not be going to any country but the United States.
As this effort unfolds, I want to be clear about three things.
One, planes taking off from Kabul are not flying directly to the United States. They’re landing at U.S. military bases and transit centers around the world.
Number two, at these sites where they’re landing, we are conducting thorough scrutiny -- security screenings for everyone who is not a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident. Anyone arriving in the United States will have undergone a background check.
Number three, once screened and cleared, we will welcome these Afghans, who helped us in the war effort over the last 20 years, to their new home in the United States of America. Because that’s who we are. That’s what America is.
You know, I’ve been touched by the outpouring of support that we’ve seen from communities and organizations across America mobilizing to support these efforts.
So many of these Afghans stood bravely by U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And now the United States, including veterans groups, refugee resettlement agencies, religious organizations, and so many others, are standing with our Afghan allies. It exemplifies the best of America.
And I want to say, again, just how difficult this mission is and how dangerous -- the dangers it poses to our troops on the ground.
The security environment is changing rapidly. There are civilians crowded at the airport, although we have cleared thousands of them. We know that terrorists may seek to exploit this situation and target innocent Afghans or American troops.
They’re maintaining constant vigilance to -- we’re maintaining the constant vigilance to monitor and disrupt threats from any source, including the likely source being ISIS -- ISIS-K, the Afghan affiliate referred to as “ISIS-K.” But we are under no illusions about the threat.
I said on Friday, ISIS-K is a sworn enemy of the Taliban, and they have a history of fighting one another. But every day we have troops on the ground, these troops and innocent civilians at the airport face the risk of attack from ISIS-K from a distance, even though we’re moving back the perimeter significantly.
We’re working hard and as fast as we can to get people out. That’s our mission. That’s our goal. And our determination to get every American citizen home and to evacuate our Afghan allies is unwavering.
We continue to see not only the enormous scope and scale of the effort, we will see the individual lives that are affected. The families that are desperate to get home to their loved ones in America. The communities of veterans who have mobilized to try and help their former interpreters get to safety. The frightened Afghans who aren’t sure what to do.
To state the obvious, it’s heartbreaking. We’re all seeing it. We see it. We feel it. You can’t look at it and not feel it.
Nothing about this effort is easy, but the women and men of the United States Armed Forces are acting bravely and with professionalism and with a basic human compassion.
I want to offer my profound thanks to our service members on the ground in Kabul, and to all those at U.S. bases around the world who are welcoming and caring -- and caring for these evacuees.
And to all the diplomats and civil servants who are working around the clock to rescue American citizens, the citizens of our Allies, our Afghan partners, vulnerable Afghans -- such as women leaders and journalists -- what we are doing is extraordinary, and you have to think of the -- of all they’re doing. It’s thanks to the people who, from all over the world, who are helping this effort.
I just want to thank you, and I’ll keep you informed every day as we move forward.
May God protect our troops and our diplomats and -- who are serving in harm’s way.
Now I’ll take a few questions.
Darlene, from the Associated Press.
Question: Mr. President --
President Biden: Yes.
Question: Thank you. We’re nine days away from the August 31st deadline. Will you extend that deadline? Or what -- what is your thought process on extending the evacuation operations?
President Biden: There’s discussions going on among us and the military about extending. Our hope is we will not have to extend, but there are going to be discussions, I suspect, on how far along we are in the process.
President Biden: Mario Parker, Bloomberg.
Question: Thank you, Mr. President. Just to piggyback off the August 31st deadline, you told the G7 in Cornwall -- you promised them support, back in June. If they ask for a larger -- or a longer American presence past the August 31st deadline, what will you tell them on Tuesday, sir?
President Biden: I will tell them that we’ll see what we can do. Look, we are working closely with the G7. I’ve spoken with most of the leaders of G7. I’ll be doing a conference with them, I think, Tuesday -- I’m not certain -- and we’ll have that discussion.
But we are -- we already have helped get out diplomats from other countries. We’ve already helped get out citizens from other countries, and we’ll continue to do that.
Question: And, Mr. President, it sounded like that the -- you’ve extended operations into Kabul, outside of the airport. Is that correct?
President Biden: What I’m not going to do is talk about the tactical changes we’re making to make sure we maintain as much security as we can.
We have constantly -- how can I say it? -- increased rational access to the airport, where more folk can get there more safely. It’s still a dangerous operation.
But I don’t want to go into the detail of how we’re doing that.
Andrew from the Wall Street Journal.
Question: Thanks, Mr. President. Our reporting on the ground shows that Afghans with the proper paperwork are still having trouble getting to the airport. Some say they feel abandoned by the U.S. U.S. embassy staff still haven’t -- some U.S. embassy staff that are Afghan haven’t be able to -- haven’t been able to make it into the airport as well. Why isn’t the U.S. doing more to allow Afghans into the airport -- to ensure access to the airport? And are you still opposed to setting up an extended perimeter around the airport to help ease that access?
President Biden: Number one, I think you’re going to see they’re going to get out.
Number two, we have made a number of changes, including extending the access around the airport and in the safe zone. And we’ve done a number of things, again, I don’t want to get into detail about.
But the fact is that more and more of the groups we urgently want to get out of Afghanistan, starting with American citizens and the folks who worked in the embassies and personnel with our allies, as well as the Afghans who helped them and worked in those embassies, as well as those who helped them on the battlefield as well -- we are working diligently to make sure we’ve increased the ability to get them out. We’ve changed the gate operations and a whole range of things. And that’s why we’ve been able to significantly increase the number of people we’re getting out.
Question: And will the Taliban agree to an extension past August 31st? Have you discussed that with them?
President Biden: We’ve discussed a lot with the Taliban. They’ve been cooperative in extending some of the perimeter. That remains to be seen whether we ask that question.
Ed, fire away.
Question: Thanks, Mr. President.
President Biden: I don’t want you jumping over that [inaudible].
Question: Just following up on Andrew’s question. Because the United States is now negotiating with the Taliban over airport access and such, do you now trust them?
And then a question on the public response. A new poll, out today shows Americans wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan, but they disapprove of the way you’ve handled it. The poll also found that based in part of what transpired over the last week, a majority of Americans -- and forgive me, I’m just the messenger -- no longer consider you to be competent, focused, or effective at the job.
President Biden: I haven’t seen that poll.
Question: It’s out there, from CBS this morning. What would you say to those Americans who no longer believe that you are doing the job?
President Biden: Look, I had a basic decision to make: I either withdraw America from a 20-year war that, depending on whose analyses you accept, cost us $150 million a day for 20 years or $300 million a day for 20 years; who -- and I -- you know I carry this card with me every day -- and who -- in fact, where we lost 2,448 Americans dead and 20,722 wounded. Either increase the number of forces we’d keep -- we keep there and keep that going, or I end the war. And I decided to end the war.
As I said the other day: You know, the only reason we were in Afghanistan is this is the place from which bin Laden attacked the United States of America. Had this been in another Middle Eastern country where he could have easily had moved from, we would have never gone to Afghanistan.
So, the question is, when is the right time to leave? Where are our national interests? Where do they lie?
And the idea that we are in a situation where we cannot recognize that terrorism has metastasized around the world, and the need for us to focus in other parts of the world which create an even greater danger of an al Qaeda-like operation beginning, it can’t be ignored. And we are, as you well know -- because you follow this -- we are in a number of places where we’re doing that without permanent basing American forces there.
So, I -- I think when this is over, the American people will have a clear understanding of what I did, why we did it.
And -- But, look, that’s the job. My job is to make judgments. My job is to make judgments no one else can or will make. I made them. I’m convinced I’m absolutely correct in not deciding to send more young women and men to war, for a war that, in fact, is no longer warranted.
Question: On the question of the Taliban though, do you have a -- do you trust them now? Do you have [inaudible]?
President Biden: I don’t trust anybody, including you. I love you, but, you know, there’s not a lot of people I trust to -- Look, the Taliban has a -- the Taliban has to make a fundamental decision: Is the Taliban going to attempt to be able to unite and provide for the wellbeing of the people of Afghanistan, which no one group has ever done since before dealing -- for hundreds of years. And if it does, it’s going to need everything from additional help, in terms of economic assistance, trades, and a whole range of things.
The Taliban has said -- we’ll see whether they mean it or not -- they’re seeking legitimacy. They’re seeking legitimacy to determine whether or not they will be recognized by other countries.
They have told other countries, as well as us, they don’t want us to move our diplomatic presence completely. But they -- So, all of this is all just talk now. All just talk now.
And so, so far, the Taliban has not taken action against U.S. forces. So far, they have, by and large, followed through what they said, in terms of allowing Americans to pass through, and the like.
And I’m sure they don’t control all of their forces. It’s a ragtag force. And so, we’ll see. We’ll see whether or not what they say turns out to be true.
But the bottom line is this, folks: Look, at the end of the day, if we didn’t leave Afghanistan now, when do we leave? Another 10 years? Another five years? Another year?
I’m not about to send your son or your daughter to fight in Afghanistan. I don’t see where that is in our overwhelming interest.
And to talk about how our interests are going to be impacted: Let me tell you, you’re sitting in Beijing or you’re sitting in Moscow -- are you happy we left? They’d love nothing better for us to continue to be bogged down there, totally occupied with what’s going on.
So, the idea this is -- I think that history is going to record this was the logical, rational, and right decision to make.
So, thank you all so very much. Thank you.
Question: Do you support the sanctions against the Taliban? The British are -- the British are calling for sanctions. They’re going to discuss sanctions on Tuesday. Would you support sanctions against the Taliban under certain conditions? On Friday, you mentioned “harsh conditions” if they misbehaved.
President Biden: The answer is “yes.” It depends on the conduct.
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