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Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby; General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. (USMC), Commander, U.S. Central Command
PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody. Today, the briefing will be -- belong to General McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command.
General, can you hear me OK?
GENERAL KENNETH F. MCKENZIE: John, I can see you and hear you fine.
MR. KIRBY: Thank you, sir.
The general will have some brief opening remarks. He will obviously address the events in Kabul today as well as the evacuation mission and where we are and where we're going. Then we'll take questions. I will moderate the questions, as we have done before. I will call on you. Please before you ask your questions, identify yourselves and your outlet so the general has an idea of who he is talking to. And just a reminder, we've got 30 minutes and we have a hard stop at 3:30.
So with that, General McKenzie, over to you, sir.
GEN. MCKENZIE: John, thanks.
It's a hard day today. As you know, two suicide bombers, assessed to have been ISIS fighters, detonated in the vicinity of the Abbey Gate at Hamid Karzai International Airport and in the vicinity the Baron Hotel, which is immediately adjacent. The attack on the Abbey Gate was followed by a number of ISIS gunmen who opened fire on civilians and military forces. At this time, we know that 12 U.S. service members have been killed in the attack and 15 more service-members have been injured. A number of Afghan civilians were also killed and injured in the attack. We are treating some of them aboard HKIA. Many other Afghan civilians have been taken out to hospitals in town. We're still working to calculate the total losses, we just don't know it -- what that is right now.
Their loss lays heavily on us all, and I'll talk a little bit more about that as we go through my prepared remarks.
We continue to focus on the protection of our forces and the evacuees as the evacuation continues. Let me be clear, while we're saddened by the loss of life, both U.S. and Afghan, we'll continue to execute the mission. Our mission is to evacuate U.S. citizens, third country nationals, Special Immigrant Visa-holders, U.S. embassy staff, and Afghans at risk.
Despite this attack, we are continuing the mission – the evacuation of (inaudible) – and, as of today, we have approximately 5,000 evacuees on the ramp at HKIA awaiting airlift. Since August the 14th we have evacuated more than 104,000 civilians from HKIA, over 66,000 by the United States and over 37,000 by our allies and partners. And that includes bringing out about 5,000 Americans.
As the Secretary of State said yesterday, we believe that there are about a thousand, probably a little more than a thousand American citizens left Afghanistan at this point. We are doing everything we can in concert with our Department of State partners to reach out to them and to help them leave if they want to leave. And, remember, not everybody wants to leave. Yesterday we brought in over 500 American citizens. It would be difficult to overestimate the number of unusual challenges and competing demands that our forces on the ground have faced. The threat to our forces, particularly from ISIS-K, is very real, as we have seen today.
I would also like to express the sense of profound pride I have in the in the creative, determined, and professional way that our forces have overcome those challenges and to deliver the results that we talked about in my opening portion of remarks – the number of people that we have been able to extract from Afghanistan.
It would also be remiss of me not to mention the tremendous contributions of our many coalition partners, and they stood with us on the ground at HKIA. And also the inter-agency and international partners who supported the evacuation. The many Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen who supported this operation downrange across the Central Command, the European Command, and the Northern Command areas of responsibility. Moreover, this evacuation could simply not have been done without the amazing flexibility of U.S. Transportation Command and the airlift provided by the United States Air Force. No other military in the world has anything like it. I'd also like to thank the host nations that have generously provided access to their facilities for the processing, the care, and the feeding of our evacuees.
I also need to acknowledge the temporary suffering that some of our evacuees have had to endure. Please know that we continue to execute our number one mission, which is to get as many American citizens and other evacuees as possible out of Afghanistan. We also continue to expand the capacity in our intermediate facilities to ensure safe, sanitary, and humane conditions for evacuees while continuing to look for alternate ways to expedite their processing and ultimate transfer to the United States or other destinations.
I'd like to close out my remarks today by just taking a moment to describe the heroism that our Marines, Soldiers, and Sailors are exhibiting. As they screen the people who are coming on to the airfield. This is close up work. The breath of the person you are searching is upon you. While we have over-watch in place, we still have to touch the clothes of the person that's coming in.
I think you all can appreciate the courage and the dedication that is necessary to do this job. And to do it time after time. Please remember that we have screened over 104,000 people.
Finally, I'd like to offer my profound condolences to the families of our servicemen and women and Afghan civilians who lost their lives today. We have put more than 5,000 U.S. service members at risk to save as many civilians as we can.
It's a noble mission. And today, we have seen firsthand how dangerous that mission is. ISIS will not deter us from accomplishing the mission, I can assure you of that. All Americans can and should be proud of the men and women of the armed forces who are facing these dangers head on with our international partners and all our other friends that are with us. And we appreciate your thoughts and prayers for all our service members who are carrying on this mission today.
John, I'm now ready to take questions.
MR. KIRBY: Thank you, General, we'll start with the Lolita.
Q: Thank you, General McKenzie. Lolita Baldor with AP. Thank you for taking the time to do this. Can you give us your assessment of the ISIS threat going forward? What are you seeing on the ground now? Does this cut the evacuation short do you believe?
And are people able to get on to the airport now? And then finally, the President has warned that any attacks against the U.S. would be answered. Will this attack be answered militarily by the U.S.?
GEN. MCKENZIE: A number of questions there, let me try to take them in order. So first of all, the threat from ISIS is extremely real. We've been talking about this several days. We saw it actually manifests itself here last few hours, with an actual attack. We believe that is their desire to continue those attacks. And we expect those attacks to continue.
And we're doing everything we can to be prepared for those attacks. That includes reaching out to the Taliban. Who are actually providing the outer security cordon and around the airfield to make sure they know what we expect them to do to protect us. And we will continue to coordinate with them as they go forward.
We are continuing to bring people on to the airfield.
We just brought a number of buses aboard the airfield over the last couple of three hours. So, we continue to process and will continue to flow people out. The plan is designed to operate while under stress and under attack. And we will continue to do that. We will coordinate very carefully to make sure that it's safe for American citizens to come to the airfield. If it's not, we'll tell them to hold and then we'll you know, we'll work other ways to try to get them to the airfield.
But I think our mission remains we're still committed to flying people out up until we terminate operations at some point, you know, towards the end of the month. And, but I think we have the ability actually to do all of those things as we go forward.
Let me just come back one moment. And you talked about going after ISIS? Yes, if we can find who's associated with this, we will go after them. We've been clear all along that we're going to retain the right to operate against ISIS in Afghanistan. And we are working very hard right now to determine attribution. To determine who is associated with this cowardly attack.
And we're prepared to take action against them. 24/7, we are looking for them.
MR. KIRBY: David.
Q: General, David Martin, with CBS. 27 casualties is a terrible number. 12 dead. Could you explain the circumstances of these attacks? Which resulted in such high casualties for the US?
GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure, David. So first of all, you will understand that we're still investigating exact certain circumstances. But what I can tell you is this. The attack occurred at a gate. And at the gate we have to check people before they get onto the airfield. We have to ensure they're not carrying a bomb. Or any other kind of weapon that could ultimately make its way onto an aircraft.
So that requires physical screening. You can't do that with standoff. You ultimately have to get very close to that person. So, while the airbase itself is surrounded with T-walls, we’re well bunkered in and we've done a variety of things to protect ourselves.
At these interface points, these gates where people actually come on the airfield. There's no substitute for a young man or woman – a young United States man or woman – standing up there conducting a search of that person before we let him on. Now, the Taliban have conducted searches before they get to that point. And sometimes those searches have been good and sometimes not. I will simply note that before this attack, we had passed 104,000 people through.
So, this attack is one to many. But we will -- we'll evaluate what happened. We'll find ways to always get better. But the key thing is, you don't want to let somebody on an airplane carrying a bomb because that could result even massive loss of life. If an airplane were to be destroyed. So, you got to do the searches.
We work with our Afghan partners on the ground -- the NSU elements -- to conduct those searches. But ultimately, Americans have got to be in danger to do these searches. There's really – there's really no other way to do it. And, again, I cannot tell you how impressed I am with the daily heroism of the men and women that are out there doing this work. Typically, Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines that are doing that work. And they're right up close to 1,000s of people that are flowing through the airfield.
You've all seen the images. And be able to get up and do it day after day is remarkable. And this time, it looks like somebody got close to us. We'll find out why we'll try to improve our procedures.
It is 12 service members dying, nobody feels that more closely, more directly to me and everyone else in the chain of command.
And we recognize that we need to continue to evaluate our procedures as we go forward. Same time, there's a tension there. We have to continue to let people on the airfield. Because that is why we are there. We're not there to defend ourselves. We're there to defend ourselves while we process American citizens first, but also, the other categories of people that I've mentioned – get them to a place where we can fly them out to a safer, better future.
Q: But just to be clear, this suicide bomber was going through the gate being searched, checked, by U.S. service members when he detonated his vest?
GEN. MCKENZIE: David, that's that would be my working assumption. I know this he did not get inside the, he did not get on the installation. It was at the interface point where they try to come in with this attack occurred. And we just don't know more. Right now, we're gathering that information. As you will understand what we're investigating that.
But right now, our focus, really, we have other active threat strains, extremely active threat strains, against the airfield. We want to make sure that we've taken the steps we need to take to protect ourselves there. Our focuses on that over the next few hours and day or two we'll learn a lot more about what happened here. And I'm sure we'll be able to share that with you.
But right now, our focus is actually going forward ensuring that another attack of this nature does not occur. Because as you know, typically the pattern is multiple attacks. And we want to be prepared to be ready to defend against that.
MR. KIRBY: Courtney.
Q: Hey General Mackenzie, it's Courtney Kube from NBC News. Can you tell us a little bit more about the -- these extremely real additional threats from ISIS? Is it concern about more suicide attacks? And also, about some of the steps that you may be taking to mitigate future attacks? I mean, would it include putting U.S. troops or Marines outside the gates or outside of the airport for additional perimeter security? And then finally. With all of this, is there any discussion about sending any additional U.S. troops to Kabul airport for additional security measures?
GEN. MCKENZIE: Let me actually answer the last part of your question first. We assess we have the forces we need to protect ourselves there. I'm always in a constant dialogue with the Secretary. If I needed anything else, I'd be talking to him immediately. But I think we have what we need to protect ourselves.
So, let's talk a little bit about the threat strains. So very, very real threat strains. Very, very, what we would call tactical – that means imminent – could occur at any moment. And they range from rocket attacks. We know that they would like to lob a rocket in there, if they could. Now we actually have pretty good protection against that we have our anti-rocket and mortar system, the gun systems – that those of you who've been out there are very familiar with – that are pretty effective against these kinds of attacks. We have well positioned around the boundary of the airfield. We feel that would be, we will be in good shape should that kind of attack occur.
We also know they aim to get a suicide vehicle-borne suicide attack in if they can. From a small vehicle to a large vehicle, they're working all those options.
And then we just seen their ability to deliver a walk-in. A vest wearing suicide, a suicide attacker.
All of those things we look at.
Now, the other thing we do is, we share versions of this information with the Taliban. So that they can actually do some searching out there for us. And we believe that some attacks have been thwarted by them. Again, we've been doing this for a long, we've been doing this since the 14th.
This is an attack that's been carried out. We believe it's possible that others have been thwarted. We cut down the information we give the Taliban, they don't get the full range of information we have. But we give them enough to act in time and space to try to prevent these attacks.
The other thing we tried to do is we tried to push out the boundary even further so that we don't get large crowds massing at the gate. Clearly at Abbey Gate today, we had a larger crowd there that we would like, which goes show you that the system is not perfect.
But we have gained large elements of standoff at other gates. And we want to keep that kind of standoff in place. As you know, standoff for attacks like this is always the best defense. Unfortunately, we just don't have the opportunity, given the geography of the ground that we're on, to always gain that kind of standoff.
So, we take – let me close up your question by saying – we take the threat of these attacks very seriously. We're working very hard.
We were doing a variety of things. We got, as you know, we have AH64 attack helicopters on the ground that we're flying to take a look. They have very good thermal and optical imaging systems. We got aircraft overhead that have also had very good imaging systems. We have unmanned aircraft, M29s, that have the ability to look. All of these systems are being applied in defense of the airfield. All of on a continual basis. All of them vectored by the intelligence that we receive. And that we and then we also use the Taliban as a tool to protect us as much as possible.
MR. KIRBY: I'm going to go to the phones haven't done that yet. Alex Horton, Washington Post. Alex, you there?
Q: Yes, unmuting. Hey General, this is Alex Horton with the Washington Post. Thanks for doing this. Can you give us a sense of where you are in casualty notification for these folks on the ground? You know, how long do you expect it to take given that it's a large number?
And also, can you tell us a little bit about, you know, how the forces have reacted? You said that you introduced a little, probably more standoff at this point. But what are other measures are taken to increase security after the attack?
GEN. MCKENZIE: First off, I actually reported these cases for notifications of casualties, (inaudible) provide. And I believe that process is ongoing, but I just I do not have visibility on it. My visibility is fully forward against the day-to-day practical threat that we face in the fear. But there are other people who can probably the answer, answer that question for you. I'm just I'm just not that person, Alex.
So, in terms of practical things that we're doing. OK, again, we've reached out to the Taliban. We tell them you need to continue to push out the security perimeter. We've identified some roads that we would like for them to close. They've identified that they'll they will be willing to close those roads.
Because we assess the threat of a suicide-borne vehicle threat is high right now. So, we want to reduce the possibility of one of those vehicles getting close. And so, we're actually moving very aggressively to do that. We talked a little bit about the Over-watch that we have in place, but I'll review it again. We have our unmanned aircraft, our mq9s and other unmanned drone systems. That have very good optical and other means of looking down.
So, we look at what's happening around the gate. We try to identify patterns, and we got highly trained people to take a look at that. We also have our aircraft that we fly locally – the AH64s that I mentioned a few moments ago, as well as other manned aircraft that come off the USS off the carrier that we have off the Makran Coast.
As well as U.S. Air Force aircraft that we bring up from out of Afghanistan. Everything ranging from F15s, to AC130 gunships. And as you know, the AC130 gunship has a very highly capable targeting system. And it's also very visible platform. And we know, we know from long experience, that visible demonstration of these kinds of ISR tends to dissuade the attacker because they know that if we can see them do it, we're going to strike them immediately.
So, we will be prepared to do that, should it become necessary to defend the base. We're looking very hard. We assess we are in a period of heightened warning right now. And we're working through that as aggressively as we can. Over.
MR. KIRBY: Gordon.
Q: Gordon Lubold from the Wall Street Journal. Can you tell us if you think that your recommendation for staying potentially after August 31 would change because of this threat stream or are you concerned about the threat stream? And also, you know, the U.S. military and the Taliban have been coordinating very closely on various things, do you still trust the Taliban and is it possible that they let this happen?
GEN. MCKENZIE: So as to whether or not they let it happen? I don't know. I don't think it was anything to anything to convince me that they let it happen. As to whether or not I trust them, that's not necessarily – that's a word I use very carefully. You've heard me say before, it's not what they say. It's what they do.
They have a practical reason for wanting us to get out of here by the 31st of August. And that's they want to reclaim, they want to reclaim the airfield. We want to get out by that day too if it's going to be possible to do so. So, we share a common purpose to that.
As long as we've kept that common person purpose aligned, they've been useful to work with. They've cut some of our security mitigates – some of our security concerns down. And they've been useful to work with going forward.
Now, long term, I don't know what that's going to be. I will tell you this. Anytime you build a noncombatant evacuation plan like this, you bring in forces, you expect to be attacked. So, we expected, we didn't – we thought this would happen sooner or later. It's tragic that had happened today is tragic. There was this much loss of life, we are prepared to continue the mission.
I've had a great opportunity to have dialogue with my chain of command on it. And I'm not going to be able to share with you what my advice has been as you know and understand Gordon. But I think we can continue to conduct our mission. Even while we're receiving attacks like this. Over.
MR. KIRBY: Eric.
Q: Eric Schmitt with the New York Times. Even before today's attack, you were just four days or so from us from leaving. How soon will you have to start diminishing the evacuation flights if indeed those will continue to make space and time for the military retrograde, that is the withdrawal of our many troops there and our equipment?
GEN. MCKENZIE: So, Eric, without getting into specifics. I would tell you that the plan is designed to maximize throughput of evacuees even as we begin to prepare to draw down the force on the ground. So, we recognize there's a need to balance the two. So, we're not going to get to a point where suddenly when we turn off the spigot.
It will draw down as we get closer to the end date. It's not useful for me to share that date with you right now. We will begin to draw down those flights. But we will do it at some point. At the same time. I want to emphasize again. The plan is designed to maximize pushing people out even as we reconfigure the force, continue to defend ourselves, and get ready to bring out our own equipment military; ultimately our own military personnel.
Q: And General, if I could just follow up follow up on that. Will you have to also develop alternative routes beyond those that you already have to get the remaining Americans in Kabul who want to leave safely to the airport?
GEN. MCKENZIE: So, I would tell you that we have worked over the last week. We have brought in hundreds of Americans by working alternate routes to get them in. By establishing contact with them, by directing them down steady, different ways to get to the airport.
Our task force, our JSOC element, does that on the ground, very effectively in coordination with Admiral Baisley, who's the overall commander there. So, we continue to do that. That's not something that we're beginning now. We've done that all along. And we will continue to do that up until the last moment.
MR. KIRBY: Jennifer.
Q: General, Jennifer Griffin, Fox News. Can you say was there one or two suicide bombers at the Abbey gate? And can you say for certain that it was a male bomber? And can you give us any more details about the second explosion that occurred at Baron Hotel? Was that a VBID? Was that a car bomb? Or was that also a suicide bomber?
Finally, there are State Department employees who are side by side with U.S. Marines at that gate. Were there any other U.S. citizens killed in the attack? And why were the Marines so close together that so many were killed in one strike?
GEN. MCKENZIE: So, we think one suicide bomb at Abbey gate. Don't know if it's male or female just don't have that information. Don't know much about the second bomb. Except one went off in the vicinity of the Baron Hotel. Which as you're aware is a deeply bunker structure. And as far as I know, no, there were no UK military casualties. As a result of that.
There may have been Afghan casualties. And I'm sure there were Afghan casualties. But it will take us a little bit of time to actually learn how many Afghans casualties. We took some of them onboard the installation. Many of them were taken to hospitals out in town. So, I'm what I see is what I what I get an open-source reporting about the nature of those casualties, but we're trying to gather more information about it.
So, the last point I would tell you I don't know, I don't know the size of the bomb. And the size of the bomb is directly related to how many people are going to be affected by the blast radius of the weapon. And so, I, we're going to investigate that.
As I've noted before, you're at the interface point there at these gates. Somebody has actually got to watch someone else in the eyes and decide that they're ready to come in. And so, we will find out exactly what happened. But beyond that, I would not want to speculate at this time. Jennifer, thank you.
Q: Any other American citizens from the State Department who were killed?
GEN. MCKENZIE: None that I'm aware of now.
MR. KIRBY: OK, I need to go back to the phones. Lara Seligman.
Q: Hi General, thanks so much for doing this. A couple questions. First of all, can you tell me if, we've heard reports of a third and possibly a fourth attack in Kabul today, can you confirm those? And then also, can you tell us how exactly are you still conducting these evacuation flights? Are you concerned about MANPADS and other threats to the aircraft?
GEN. MCKENZIE: Lara first of all, we've had indications of other attacks in Kabul. But we have not been able to run that information down. So, we see if we, you know. We did open-source reporting on it. But I can't confirm that there have been other attacks in Kabul away from HKIA today. We continue to take a look at that very hard.
I will tell you this, the safety of our aircraft coming in and out is of paramount importance. Because obviously you have the opportunity there to -- for 450 or more people to die if you have a significant mishap with the aircraft. We know that ISIS would like to get after those aircraft if they can. We don't know that they, we don't believe they have a (inaudible) capable of doing it.
They have taken shots at our aircraft on occasion without effect. We think that's going to continue. And we will, but as you know military aircraft have a variety of self-defense systems. Which more vulnerable actually are the charter aircraft and other aircraft that are coming in that do not have those do not have those systems.
So, we with our ISR we look very carefully at the approach pattern and the departure pattern of that runway to see what we – you know, to see if we see any sign of something that might pose a threat to aircraft. That's one of the things that we look at religiously at throughout the day and throughout the night, as we conduct – as we conduct operations. Because really, the aircraft's the only way we're going to get people out of there. So we are keenly sensitive to threats to our aircraft.
MR. KIRBY: OK, we're going to take one more question ...
Q: Well, if I could...
MR. KIRBY: I'm sorry, guys. Guys, we got to keep moving. We're gonna take one more question and then give the General a chance to close out.
Q: General, I know it's still early, but at this moment in time, how do you believe the suicide bombers made it through several checkpoints – whether it was Taliban or Afghan forces to the Marines? Do you believe it was – it was a failure, or they were able to somehow evade them and make it to the Marines?
GEN. MCKENZIE: Well, clearly, if -- if they're able to get up to the Marines who did the screening at the – at the entry point of the base, there's a failure somewhere. It was a failure by – well, you know, the Taliban operate with varying degrees of confidence. Some of those guys are very scrupulously good; some of them are not. I just don't know the answer to that question. And but we will – you can be assured we're going to continue to take a look at it and try to make all our – all our practices better as we go forward.
MR. KIRBY: OK, General. General, sir, we're gonna let the General – we're gonna let the general closeout. General, sir, for any closing thoughts you might have, sir?
GEN. MCKENZIE: Hey, John, thanks. Again, I would just like to say today's a hard day. But I – but I – the thing I come back to is the remarkable professionalism that the force on the ground is showing. As I've noted before, ultimately, at these screening points, in particular, you got to get very up close and personal to the people that you're bringing out. There's no way to do that safely from a distance.
And we should all just bear in mind that – that we've been doing it for well over a week. We brought 104,000 people out; that's a tremendous number of contacts that every individual Marine, Soldier, or Sailor has had to have, as we bring people aboard the airfield. It's a very heavy heart, you know, that we – that I – that I do this conversation with you today. Nobody feels it more than me or the other members of the chain of command. We'll do everything we can to improve our practices there, to make sure it's as safe as possible for our – for our folks on the ground that are doing this dirty, dangerous work.
John, thanks very much.
MR. KIRBY: Thank you, General. Thank y'all, appreciate it.