good afternoon, everybody. I know we're starting just a few minutes late. We're
-- we are time-constrained today, so I'll pass it right over to the secretary
for opening comments. I will be moderating, please limit follow-ups if you can.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III:
Thanks, John. I'm going to speak briefly and then turn it over to the chairman
for an operational update. Let me start by saying that we remain laser-focused
right now on Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
And on doing everything that we can to continue evacuating Americans, allies,
Afghans who have worked alongside us and -- and also other courageous Afghans at
special risk. And to that end, I'm prioritizing three key concerns.
First, the safety and security of our people and the people that we're trying to
evacuate. As the chairman will brief you, the final elements of additional
military forces continue to flow in to Kabul with about 4,500 in place as we
speak. They are trained and equipped to defend themselves and their operations.
There have been no hostile interactions with the Taliban. And our lines of
communication with Taliban commanders remain open, as they should be.
focus is maintaining security at the airport itself. In concert with forces from
our allies, our troops have set up defensive's positions around the airport.
And the airport is able to function safely. Now, we don't take this for granted,
and I continue to be in daily contact with General McKenzie and commanders on
the ground to make sure that they have what they need to keep it safe. My third
area of focus, of course, is the pace. Increasing the flow of aircraft and
people out of Kabul.
Now, we've flown out several thousand since the 15th of August and our goal is
to be able to increase our capacity every day going forward. And as we build out
this capacity, we are working hand-in-glove with the State Department, which is
leading the whole of government effort to notify and process American citizens
who are leaving.
And to urgently identify and process Afghan applicants as well. We've dispatched
small military teams to two of the airport's gates to assist State Department --
the State Department counselor efforts as they evaluate and process individuals
seeking entry. And we expect to be able to augment that capability in the coming
This is truly a team effort across the interagency and throughout all of this
our U.S. service members are making exceptional efforts under challenging
circumstances. And showing their humanity and their compassion. So, I want to
thank them for their skill and their professionalism.
It's not lost on me that even as we conduct this very important mission. We also
continue to help our fellow Americans deal with a new surge in the pandemic and
the citizens of Haiti deal with an aftermath -- the aftermath of an earthquake.
Let me also thank General McKenzie and Rear Admiral Vasely, who is the commander
of U.S. Forces Forward. And Major General Donahue of the 82nd Airborne Division,
and Brigadier General Sullivan for their leadership at this critical time. It is
making an enormous difference, they know, as I do that there's a lot of work to
be done yet.
Now, all of this is very personal for me. This is a war that I fought in and
led. I know the country, I know the people, and I know those who fought
alongside me. And as I said, we have -- we have a moral obligation to help those
who helped us. And I feel the urgency deeply. So, I want to end with a word for
the force and our military.
I know that these are difficult days for those who lost loved ones in
Afghanistan and for those who carry the wounds of war. Especially now we mourn
those who made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan. And let me say to their
families and loved ones our hearts are with you. And the U.S. military stands as
one to honor those we've lost.
Now, Afghan war veterans aren't some monolith. I'm hearing strong views from all
sides on the -- on this issue. And that's probably the way that it should be.
What's important is that each of us will work our way through this in our own
way. And we need to respect that and we need to give one another the time and
space to help do it.
Our greatest asset as a nation is the extraordinary men and women who have
volunteered to keep us all safe and their families. We honor your service, we
understand your sacrifice, and we will never forget it.
And so, with that, I'm going to turn it over to General Milley, who can talk
about where we stand operationally.
GENERAL MARK MILLEY: Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you, Mr. Secretary.
What I'd like to do is give you an overall situation update as of today, and
what our next steps are. So, currently, the United States military is focused on
the specific mission of conducting a non-combatant evacuation operation from
This is likely to be probably the second-largest NEO conducted by the United
States. Our key tasks are to establish and maintain security at the Kabul
International Airport. Defend the airport from attack. Evacuate all American
citizens from Afghanistan who desire to leave this country. Evacuate any third
country national, or allies and partners as designated by the secretary of
state. Evacuate personnel with State Department-designated Special Immigrant
Visas. And evacuate any other evacuees that the State Department designates.
The president of the United States made a decision to withdraw U.S. forces from
Afghanistan on April 14th. Since that date we conducted a deliberate and
responsible drawdown of U.S. forces to less than a thousand with the specific
task of securing the U.S. embassy and our diplomatic presence in Afghanistan.
Since then, the security situation rapidly degraded. Today, the situation is
still very dangerous, very dynamic, and very fluid. And all of us can be proud
for the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who are executing this mission.
They are currently in harm's way. That needs to be our focus. There will be
plenty of time to do AARs, but right now our mission is to secure that airfield,
defend that airfield, and evacuate all those who have been faithful to us.
There will be many postmortems on this topic, but right now is not that time.
Right now there are troops at risk and we are the United States military and we
fully intend to successfully evacuate all American citizens who want to get out
of Afghanistan, all American citizens who want to get out of Afghanistan. They
are priority number one. In addition, we intend to evacuate those who have been
supporting us for years and we're not going to leave them behind. And we will
get out as many as possible. Our troops in Kabul are taking high risks to
accomplish that mission. Every minute these troops are on the ground making
difficult decisions with incredible skill, incredible bravery, and incredible
Currently, the security situation at the airport is stable. However, there are
threats and we're closely monitoring those at any moment they could happen. We
can identify them. If we identify them we will take immediate military action
without hesitation, and according to our rules of engagement. And the Taliban
and every other organization in that country knows it. The Taliban are in and
around Kabul right now, but they are not interfering with our operations.
Through the State Department, the Taliban are facilitating safe passage to the
airport for American citizens, that is, U.S. passport holders.
We also have a risk, as you saw the other day, of unarmed innocent civilians
massing on the airfield where they became a safety hazard to our airplanes our
aircrews, and also to themselves. And we currently have that situation under
control inside the airfield. There's many other risks out there. And the troops
are dealing with those every single day in this volatile environment, which can
and likely will change rapidly.
Let me make one comment on the intelligence, because I am seeing all over the
news it that there were warnings of a rapid collapse. I have previously said
from this podium and in sworn testimony before Congress that the intelligence
clearly indicated multiple scenarios were possible. One of those was an outright
Taliban takeover following a rapid collapse of the Afghan security forces and
the government. Another was a civil war. And a third was a negotiated
However, the timeframe of a rapid collapse, that was widely
estimated and ranged from weeks to months and even years following our
departure. There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse
of this army and this government in 11 days. Central Command submitted a variety
of plans that were briefed and approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the
Secretary of Defense, and the President. These plans are coordinated,
synchronized, and rehearsed to deal with these various scenarios. One of those
contingencies is what we are executing right now. As I said before, there's
plenty of time to do AARs, and key lessons learned and to delve into these
questions with great detail. But right now is not that time. Right now, we have
to focus on this mission because we have soldiers at risk. And we also have
American citizens and Afghans who supported us for 20 years also at risk. This
is personal, and we're going to get them out. And we, in uniform, have a deep
commitment to this mission.
Now, let me give you an operational update. The security situation, as I said,
is currently secure at this time. And since 12 August, we've deployed 12 -- or
correction, two United States Marine battalions, one battalion from the
Minnesota National Guard, all three of those were pre-positioned in theater,
CENTCOM AOR, as part of the contingency planning. In addition to that, we
alerted, marshaled, and deployed the 82nd Airborne Division headquarters and a
brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, consisting of three airborne infantry
battalions and associated enablers.
And finally, there was an infantry battalion from the 10th Mountain Division,
securing the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. In addition, we are operating on the ground
with a variety of Special Operations Forces. That in combination with the ground
forces, we have some of the best soldiers and Marines the world has ever seen.
In total, there are 20 U.S. maneuver companies currently on the ground with
about 4500 troops, and the flow continues. The President has authorized, as you
all know, up to 6000. On top of them as the United States Navy and Air Force. We
have multiple squadrons of F-18s, AV-8s, F-16s, AC-130s, B-52s, and MQ-9s. We
have a significant amount of rotary-wing aviation on the ground, including
attack and lift helicopters. In addition, we are working with our allies and
partners through our British infantry rifle companies, along with British
special forces on the ground working with us. There's also a Turkish security
force; there are other international Special Operations Forces. This force is
capable of extracting a significant amount of people on U.S. Air Force aircraft.
Right now, we're averaging about 20 sorties of C-17s every 24 hours. We have the
capability to significantly increase that throughput as the Department of State
makes evacuees available.
As the Secretary said, we've already evacuated approximately 5000 people, and we
intend to increase it. In addition to the military airflow, has a variety of
commercial and charter flights, taking out evacuees, and we have various other
countries and NGOs. The military side of the airfield is open, and the civilian
side of the airfield is also open. And we intend to keep them both open for
military, commercial, and charter flights. One caveat on the civilian side,
however, is that the airframes have to come in by visual flight rules only. And
a NOTAM has gone out to all the aircrews. The State Department is working to
rapidly increase the flow of passengers available to get out on the aircraft,
and we are fully supporting them with our military personnel at the entrance
gates. In this highly dynamic environment, there's a number of unexpected
challenges that can and likely will continue to occur, and we rely heavily on
the talent, skill, and training of our troops. We've got great people across all
the ranks and services out there right now on this mission. In addition to
Afghanistan, which is clearly our main effort, we're also conducting
humanitarian assistance operations in Haiti in the aftermath of a 7.2 magnitude
earthquake with a significant loss of life. On the West Coast, we're fighting
wildfires, and we continue to conduct COVID support and other Operations around
As we reflect on these difficult and challenging times, every soldier, sailor,
airman, marine, Coast Guardsman was fought or conducted operations in
Afghanistan. Almost 800,000 should hold their head high. For more than 20 years,
we have prevented an attack on the U.S. homeland. 2448 lost our lives, 20,722
were wounded in action, and many others suffered the unseen wounds of war. To
each of them, I want you to know, personally, that your service matter, as the
Secretary said, for both he and I, this is personal. And I know it's personal
for each and every one of you. Thank you.
OK, we'll go to questions.
QUESTION: Thank you, John. I have a question for each of you gentlemen, if I may. Mr.
Secretary, you mentioned the urgency of ramping up the pace of the evacuation.
So you have a safe passage agreement with the Taliban. But in fact, in some
cases, American citizens, Afghans who are at risk or who are being advised to go
to the airport, are unable to get into the airport because of Taliban
checkpoints and so forth. So are you considering other ways that you can get
around that problem by, for example, sending forces out beyond the airport to
collect people and bring them, escort them into the airport?
If I may ask General Milley. With the rapid collapse of the Afghan forces, there
are large amounts of weaponry that are kind of out there now that were either
surrendered or abandoned by the Afghan forces or otherwise captured by the
Taliban. Are there ways you can -- are you considering ways that you might
destroy some of that equipment to avoid a falling into the Taliban's hands?
SECDEF AUSTIN: Thanks, Bob. In terms of whether or not we intend to send forces
outside of the airfield to -- to collect up American citizens or Afghans who
were special immigrant visa applicants. The forces that we have are focused on
the security of the airfield. And you know how important that is, and you know
what happens if we -- if we lose the ability to provide that security. And so I
don't want to detract from that, and -- and we have to make sure that we can not
only secure the airfield but, as the chairman said, defended as well because
there are a number of threats still in the -- in the environment.
I certainly don't want to do anything to make the airfield less safe, and we
won't do that. But we will continue to coordinate and deconflict with -- with
the Taliban and make sure that those -- those -- those people that need to get
to the airfield, have the right credentials to -- to ensure passage and the
Taliban has been checking those credentials. And if they have them, they have
allowed them to pass, so.
GEN. MILLEY: And on the equipment, we obviously have capabilities, but I'd
prefer not to discuss any Operations other than what we're doing right now in
order to get our evacuation out and get that complete. And then there'll be
another time when we can discuss future Operations.
QUESTION: I would like to press both of you on the same points. General Milley, you say
in your statement that one of your tests is to evacuate all American citizens
from Afghanistan who desires to leave. There are Americans clearly all over
Kabul; there may be Americans in other parts of the country. How can the U.S.,
the Pentagon, live up to that task of evacuating all Americans? Because we
continue to see the violence just outside the airport. And how would you get
them and what -- around the country unless you go get them?
GEN. MILLEY: Well, two things. One is State Department, as you know, as I've
said, is working with the Taliban to facilitate safe passage of American
citizens, U.S. passport holders, to the airport. And that's the primary means,
and under the current conditions, that's the primary effort. We have the
capability to do other things if necessary.
QUESTION: Well, can I ask you what that means? Because you also said there were
international Special Forces there that have the capability to extract. And
those words suggest very clearly, in the military realm, you would go get
GEN. MILLEY: Well, that would be a policy decision. And if directed, we have
capabilities that can execute whatever we're directed.
QUESTION: Thank you.
SECDEF AUSTIN: And I would draw a distinction between extracting someone in
extremis condition or circumstance versus going out and collecting up large
numbers of American citizens.
QUESTION: Do you have the capability to go out and collect Americans?
SECDEF AUSTIN: We don't have the capability to go out and collect up large numbers
Luis, go ahead.
QUESTION: For both of you, if I could. You have 5000 U.S. military personnel on the
ground securing the area. You have small groups, potentially of Taliban fighters
outside there, who are holding up, potentially the second-largest NEO that could
be undertaken. You have the capability to get there, but how do you get those
people inside so that they can actually get on those planes? And both of you
have served in major command roles inside Afghanistan. Did you not see the
possibility that the Afghan security forces were not up to this fight?
SECDEF AUSTIN: We continue to work with -- with the State Department officials on
the ground to improve the procedures, you know, at the entry points to make sure
that we can speed up the process of getting people in and move them onward. And
so status deploying more consular officers to be able to help with that, as
we've stated -- or as I stated earlier, we're going to push more military
assistance down to the entry points to facilitate these efforts. But we're
really working hard to get as many people through as possible. And quite
frankly, we're not -- it's obvious we're not close to where we want to be in
terms of getting the numbers through. So we're going to work than 24 hours a
day, seven days a week. And we're going to get everyone that we can possibly
evacuate evacuated. And I'll do that as long as we possibly can until the clock
runs out or we run out of capability.
QUESTION: Or no, so about the Afghan security forces. Did you feel that they were ever
up to this fight? Or did you not see this coming, that they were not up to the
GEN. MILLEY: Well, I stood behind this podium, and it said that the Afghan
security forces had the capacity, and by that, I mean, they had the training,
the size, the capability to defend their country. This comes down to an issue of
will and leadership. And no, I did not, nor did anyone else see a collapse of an
army that size in 11 days.
QUESTION: Thank you. So August 31 is the end date. At what point does the military need
to start thinking about and carrying out its own retrograde to meet that
deadline? And secondly, do you believe, or do you regret, not starting the
evacuation of a bit earlier even by a day or two? Sort of getting ahead of the
SECDEF AUSTIN: So that's a great question. At what point do we start thinking
about having to retrograde our own capabilities. That's -- that's actually the
point before we put them in there. We know that we got to have the right mix of
capabilities on the -- on the ground. We don't want to put excessive materials
on the ground that are not relevant to what we're doing. And, you know, we have
to develop a detailed plan and to -- to retrograde our equipment and our people
and synchronize that plan with our efforts to get as many people out as fast as
we can, you know, with the time that we have available. So, that -- that -- that
work is -- is something that we started thinking about very early on, and that's
something that we'll continue to think about and develop detailed plans for.
QUESTION: And regretting not starting the evacuation even a few days earlier?
Who's that for, Idrees?
QUESTION: Either one.
SECDEF AUSTIN: You know, we make plans for a number of things, and clearly, as the
chairman pointed out, we -- as we did detailed planning throughout, we recognize
that there might be a -- a -- a point in time when we have to conduct a NEO. So
we've positioned all the -- all the right forces in theater to be able to do
that. We put forces on standby in the United States to support that. And of
course, you know, we -- we also did -- were in support of the -- of the
State-led SIV -- SIV applicant process throughout. So in terms of, you know,
doing everything that we could as -- at the -- at the right time, I think -- I
think we have been -- been pretty prudent in terms of thinking ahead and
planning for contingencies. And we're executing a -- a -- one of those plans
right now, so.
QUESTION: This question is for both of you, and I'd like for both of you to answer. It
seems like -- I know, we keep harping on the same thing, but it feels like the
video is not matching the audio right now. It's barring -- it -- it seems to me
like barring a lobotomy by the Taliban; you have three pathways ahead of you.
One, you can expand the perimeter and establish a corridor into Kabul to get our
Afghan allies out. Two, you could extend the August 31 deadline of withdrawing.
Or three, you can just leave the tens of thousands of Afghans who've helped us
over the past 20 years behind. Which one is it going to be?
SECDEF AUSTIN: First of all, as I said, we're going to evacuate everybody that we
can physically possibly evacuate. And we'll -- we'll conduct these -- this
process for as long as we possibly can. We will continue to deconflict issues
with -- with the Taliban. And we will stay focused on securing the -- the
airfield. We cannot afford to either not defend that airfield or -- or -- or not
have an airfield that secures where we have hundreds or thousands of civilians
that can access the airfield at will and put our forces at risk.
QUESTION: But that doesn't answer the question. I mean, you're still saying you're
focused on the airfield. These -- these people can't get into the airfield.
SECDEF AUSTIN: Well we're going to do everything we can to continue to try to deconflict and create passageways for them to get to the airfield. I don't have
the capability to go out and extend operations currently into Kabul. And where
do you take that? I mean, how far can you extend into Kabul, you know, and how
long does it take to flow those forces in to be able to do that?
QUESTION: So it sounds like you're saying this depends on diplomacy with the Taliban,
that's it. That's our only option is getting them to agree to do this.
GEN. MILLEY: Well let me add something here, Helene. We've got a couple entry
control points set up. A north one, east one, and a third one at abbey gate.
They're currently manned with consular officers, marines as all part of the
perimeter. Messages have gone out by various means of communication from the
State Department to American citizens and others, and they're being told to go
to those gates.
Right now we're processing at about -- I think the last report was about 120,
130 an hour, something like that at the north, about 340, 350 an hour, something
like that at the south gate. So right now there's a steady flow of people.
Now, as that goes on I think those numbers will continue to grow and as those
messages go out, and I would tell you that for the American citizens, passport
holders and the Taliban and the State Department working on -- I got it, but
they're working out a facilitation measure, so those numbers are likely to grow.
For the others, State Department is still working through exactly getting the
procedures for the evacuees to get to the airfield.
We'll go to Jen.
QUESTION: Defense Secretary Austin, how many U.S. taxpayer-funded military aircraft
have been flown out of the country, and what are you doing to get those back?
We've heard of Afghan pilots taking those planes to third countries. And General
Milley, you talk about the intelligence reports and you said there wasn't
anything suggesting 11 days that Kabul would fall, but you do mention there were
some reports suggesting it could fall apart in weeks. If so, why did you abandon
the Bagram Airfield? Why did U.S. military pull out given the uncertainty?
GEN. MILLEY: Yes. Oh, go ahead, Secretary.
SECDEF AUSTIN: Jen, in terms of the aircraft that have been flown out that you --
that you mentioned earlier, I have received reports of a number of aircraft that
were flown into Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Exactly how many, you know, I don't
have firm numbers on.
In terms of what we're doing about them currently, right now, Jen, we're focused
on the airfield and getting people out safely. And so, we're going to take that
issue up at a later date, and we're going to continue to try to gain greater
fidelity on the issue as well.
GEN. MILLEY: On your question of Bagram, securing Bagram, you know how big
Bagram is. You've been there many times. Securing Bagram is a significant level
of military effort of forces, and it would also require external support from
the Afghan Security Forces.
Our task given to us at that time, our task was protect the embassy in order for
the embassy personnel to continue to function with their consular service and
all that. If we were to keep both Bagram and the embassy going, that would be a
significant number of military forces that would have exceeded what we had or
stayed the same or exceeded what we had.
So we had to collapse one or the other, and a decision was made. The proposal
was made form CENTCOM commander and the commander on the grounds, Scott Miller,
to go ahead and collapse Bagram. That was all briefed and approved, and we
estimated that the risk of going out of HKIA or the risk of going out of Bagram
about the same, so going out of HKIA -- was estimated to be the better tactical
solution in accordance with the mission set we were given and in accordance with
getting the troops down to about 600, 700 number.
Okay, we've got two more and I haven't got to the phones at all, so we'll
go to Dan Lamothe from The Washington Post.
QUESTION: Yes. Thank you. Thank you. General, just to follow up on the Bagram versus
HKIA question, HKIA has a stable runway with the commercial airport making it
much more difficult to defend that runway. We've already seen that this week.
Bagram has two runways. It would have been a lot easier to protect people once
inside. Is there any thought of retaking Bagram in order to expedite this
evacuation? And if not, why not?
GEN. MILLEY: I won't -- good question. Great question, but I'm not going to
discuss branches and sequels off of our current operation. I'll just leave it at
OK, and I think the last one for the day will go to you, Courtney.
QUESTION: You know, General Milley, you keep saying that the known expected collapse of
the Afghan government and military in 11 days, but in reality is the Taliban
offensive began weeks ago. They were threatening Kandahar a month ago already.
So the question is if you both think you had such a moral obligation to these
Afghans – Afghans who supported the military and State Department for 20 years,
should you have pushed harder when the Taliban offensive began to get these
people out and the U.S. -- they wouldn't be in this situation that they're in
And then also if there is this U.S. military-Taliban deconfliction process
that's going on right now, how does -- have you been asking them to allow the
Afghans through and have they -- has the Taliban denied that request? Is that
why there's not some effort? The State Department put out a -- the Embassy put
out a statement today saying that there was -- that the U.S. couldn't provide
any safe passage for these Afghans. Is that because the Taliban won't allow that
in the deconfliction?
SECDEF AUSTIN: There's a -- it's a pretty -- it's a very dynamic environment as
you would imagine, and of course there have been things that have occurred that,
you know, we do hear reports of people getting turned away from -- by
checkpoints. We've gone back and tried to -- and reinforce to the Taliban that
if they have credentials they need to be allowed through.
And so, that's working better than it was. And quite frankly, we have, you know,
the major issue right now is processing the people who are there as fast as we
possibly can. It's not a dearth of people getting there. It's just being able to
move the folks that are there through so that -- so they can get them on
But there have been some unfortunate incidents that I've learned about, and we
continue to work to try to deconflict and make sure that there is safe passage
for the people that are trying to get to the airport.
QUESTION: Have you asked the Taliban or has the military asked the Taliban to allow
these Afghans through and they've declined?
SECDEF AUSTIN: We continue to work that. Yes, we have. We have gone back and
emphasized that people who are trying to get to the airport and have the right
credentials need to be allowed to.
QUESTION: Because right now the airport represent safety to a lot of these people, and
if the Taliban are in Kabul they're worried that the longer they wait to get
there, to the secure airport, you know, even if it means they wait there several
days to get on a flight, so that's why there's this -- you know, this fanaticism
to get them through. And then also if you could also address the question of
should you have pushed harder when it was clear that the Taliban offensive was
gaining a momentum, you know, a month ago down towards Kandahar and other
GEN. MILLEY: Well like I said up front there's going to be plenty time for AARs.
Right now, focus on the mission, focus on people getting out, American citizens,
the SIVs, others, Afghans at risk. There's going to be plenty of time to talk
about regrets and pushed harder and all these other kinds of things, intel
assessments, etc. Plenty of time to do AARs. Right now's not that time.
Thanks, guys. We're going to have to go. Appreciate your time, thank you