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.
I'm going to turn the -- we got the -- the general? – I’m going to turn the podium over to General Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command. He'll have some opening comments, and then he'll take some questions. We do have a hard stop at 5 o'clock, so I will not waste up any more time.
General, can you hear and see me okay?
GENERAL KENNETH F. MCKENZIE JR.: Hey, John. I can hear and see you just fine. How me? Over.
MR. KIRBY: Thank you, sir. Thanks for being here today, and I turn it over to you, sir.
GEN. MCKENZIE: Thanks, John.
Good afternoon, everyone.
I'm here to announce the completion of our withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of the military mission to evacuate American citizens, third-country nationals and vulnerable Afghans.
The last C-17 lifted off from Hamid Karzai International Airport this afternoon at 3:29 p.m. East Coast time and the last manned aircraft is now clearing the airspace above Afghanistan. We will soon release a photo of the last C-17 departing Afghanistan with Major General Chris Donahue and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ross Wilson, aboard.
While the military evacuation is complete, the diplomatic mission to ensure additional U.S. citizens and eligible Afghans who want to leave continues. And I know that you have heard -- and I know that you're going to hear more about that from the State Department shortly.
Tonight's withdrawal signifies both the end of the military component of the evacuation but also the end of the nearly 20-year mission that began in Afghanistan shortly after September 11th, 2001.
It's a mission that brought Osama bin Laden to a just end along with many of his Al-Qaida co-conspirators, and it was not -- it was a not a cheap mission. The cost was 2,461 U.S. service members and civilians killed and more than 20,000 who were injured. Sadly that includes 13 U.S. service members who were killed last week by an ISIS-K suicide bomber. We honor their sacrifice today as we remember their heroic accomplishments.
No words from me could possibly capture the full measure of sacrifices and accomplishments of those who served, nor the emotions they're feeling at this moment. But I will say that I'm proud that both my son and I have been a part of it.
Before I open it up for questions, I do want to provide some important context to the evacuation mission that we just completed in what was the largest noncombatant evacuation in the U.S. military's history.
Since August the 14th, over an 18-day period, U.S. military aircraft have evacuated more than 79,000 civilians from Hamid Karzai International Airport. That includes 6,000 Americans and more than 73,500 third-country nationals and Afghan civilians. This last category includes special immigrant visas, consular staff, at-risk Afghans and their families.
In total, U.S. and coalition aircraft combine to evacuate more than 123,000 civilians, which were all enabled by U.S. military service members who were securing and operating the airfield.
On average we have evacuated more than 7,500 civilians per day over the 18 days of the mission, which includes 16 full days of evacuations, and more than 19,000 on a single day. These numbers do not include the roughly 5,000 service members and their equipment that were sent to Afghanistan to secure the airfield and who will withdraw on the conclusion of our mission.
The numbers I provided represent a monumental accomplishment, but they do not do justice to the determination, the grit, the flexibility and the professionalism of the men and women of the U.S. military and our coalition partners who were able to rapidly combine efforts and evacuate so many under such difficult conditions. As such, I think it's important that I provide you with what I hope will be some valuable context.
When the president directed the complete withdraw of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in April, the team at U.S. Central Command began to update and refine our existing plan for a potential noncombatant evacuation operation, or a NEO, in Afghanistan.
We had a framework of plans that included numerous branches and sequels depending on the nature of the security environment. Over time we continued to refine our plans, which included the interagency, the international community and other combatant commands.
Plans such as this are built upon a number of facts and assumptions, and facts and assumptions change over time. While observing the security environment deteriorate, we continued to update our facts and assumptions.
As the security situation rapidly devolved in Afghanistan, we took a number of actions to position ourselves for a potential NEO based upon direction from the secretary of defense. We positioned forces in the region and put them on increased alert. We began to pre-position supplies, and we began some preparatory work on intermediate facilities in Qatar with the support of our gracious host nation.
When the evacuation was formerly directed on August the 14th, we began to carry out our plan, based upon the initial assumption that the Afghan security forces would be a willing and able security partner in Kabul, defending the capital or a matter of weeks, or at least for a few days. Within 24 hours, of course, the Afghan military collapsed completely, opening Kabul up to the Taliban's advance.
On August the 15th, in a meeting with Taliban senior leadership in Doha, I delivered a message on behalf of the President that our mission in Kabul was now the evacuation of Americans and our partners, that we would not tolerate interference and that we would forcefully defend our forces and the evacuees if necessary. The Taliban's response in that meeting was in line with what they've said publicly: While they stated their intent to enter and occupy Kabul, they also offered to work with us on a deconfliction mechanism to prevent miscalculation while our forces operated in close quarters. Finally, they promised not to interfere with our withdrawal.
It's important to understand that within 48 hours of the NEO execution order, the facts on the ground had changed significantly. We had gone from cooperating on security with a longtime partner and ally to initiating a pragmatic relationship of necessity with a longtime enemy.
And to that environment, Rear Admiral Pete Vasely and Brigadier General Farrell Sullivan of the Marines, and subsequently Major General Chris Donahue of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, deployed and employed their forces and did extraordinary work with the leading elements or reinforcement package to safely close the embassy in one period of darkness or one -- one evening, to establish a deconfliction mechanism with the Taliban, to establish security at the airport, and to bring in the rest of our reinforcements into the airport. They accomplished this difficult list of tasks within 48 hours of supporting the transfer of the embassy to the airport.
I visited Kabul on Tuesday, August the 17th, to see the work being done to establish security firsthand and to observe the transition to the evacuation. I left on a C-17 that brought more than 130 Afghans and American citizens out from Karzai International Airport to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Our men and women on the ground at the airport quickly embraced the dangerous and methodical work of defending the airport while conducting the hand -- the hand screening of more than 120,000 evacuees from six different entry points under the airfield. We also conducted three separate helicopter extractions of three distinct groups of civilians, including at least 185 American citizens, and with our German partners, 21 German citizens.
Additionally, U.S. Special Operations Forces reached out to help break in -- bring in more than 1,064 American citizens and 2017 SIVs, or Afghans at risk, and 127 third-country nationals, all via phone calls, vectors and escorting. We have evacuated more than 6,000 U.S. civilians, which we believe represents the vast majority of those who wanted to leave at this time.
It would be difficult to overestimate the number of unusual challenges and competing demands that our forces on the ground have successfully overcome. The threat to our forces, particularly from ISIS-K, was very real and tragically resulted in the loss of 13 service members and dozens of Afghan civilians.
I said this before, but I'd like to say it again, we greatly appreciate the contributions of the many coalition partners that stood with us on the ground at the Karzai International Airport. I'm just going to single out one nation as an example of the many, the Norwegians, who maintained their hospital at the airport. And they were absolutely critical for the immediate care of our wounded after the Abbey Gate attack. Even after the attack, they agreed to extend the presence of their hospital to provide more coverage for us.
Our diplomats have also been with us in Kabul from the beginning, and their work in processing over 120,000 people stands right beside that of their military partners. We were a team on the ground.
As I close my remarks, I would like to offer my personal appreciation to the more than 800,000 service members and 25,000 civilians who have served in Afghanistan, and particularly to the families of those whose loved ones have been lost or wounded. Your service, as well as that of your comrades and family members, will never be forgotten.
My heart is broken over the losses we sustained three days ago. As the poem by Laurence Binyon goes, we will remember them.
The last 18 days have been challenging. Americans can be proud of the men and women of the armed forces who met these challenges head-on.
I'm now ready to take your questions.
MR. KIRBY: Thank you, General.
We'll start with Lita at AP. We’re asking you to, because we're limited on time, please limit your follow-up so that more people can get questions asked. Go ahead.
Q: General, thanks for doing this.
Can you give us a sense of whether or not there were any American citizens or other civilians who were taken out on any of those last couple of C-17s that flew out this afternoon? And can you give us a picture of what you saw with equipment and other things getting either destroyed or removed at the airport before they left?
GEN. MCKENZIE: So, we, no American citizens came out on the last, what we call, the joint tactical exfiltration; the last five jets to leave. We maintained the ability to bring them in up until immediately before departure, but we were not able to bring any Americans out. That activity ended probably about 12 hours before our exit, although we continue the outreach and would have been prepared to bring them on until the very last minute. But none of them made it to the airport, and were able to be -- and were able to be accommodated.
GEN. MCKENZIE: We brought some of it out, and we demilitarized some of it. Let me give an example of something that we demilitarized.
You're very much aware, of course, of the rocket attack that occurred yesterday, where five rockets were fired at -- at the airfield. Our C-RAMs were very effective in -- in engaging the two rockets that did fall on the airfield, and we believe they probably kept them from doing more significant damage. We elected to keep those systems in operation up until the very last minute.
It's a complex procedure -- it's a complex and time-intensive procedure to break down those systems. So we demilitarized those systems so that they'll never be used again. And they were just a -- we felt it was more important to protect our forces than to bring those systems back.
We have also demilitarized equipment that we did not bring out at of the airport that included a number of MRAPs -- up to 70 MRAPs that we demilitarized that will never be used again by anyone; 27 Humvees, that little tactical vehicle, that will never be driven again.
And additionally, on the ramp at -- at HKIA are a total of 73 aircraft. Those aircraft will never fly again when we left. They'll never be able to be operated by anyone. Most of them were non-mission capable, to begin with, but certainly they'll never be able to be flown again.
MR. KIRBY: David.
Q: General, David Martin with CBS.
Was there any attempt to interfere with the final flights out, either by the Taliban or by ISIS or any other group? And did -- at the end, did Americans just vacate the premises, or did they turn it over to the Taliban?
GEN. MCKENZIE: Oh, we know that ISIS-K has worked very, very hard to strike us and to continue to strike us.
We feel that the strike we took yesterday in Kabul actually was very disruptive to their attack plans and threw them off stride. And I think that was one of the significant reasons why they were not able to organize themselves and get after us as we conducted the final withdrawal.
I will tell you, the Taliban had been very -- very pragmatic and very business-like as we have approached this withdrawal. We did not turn it over to the Taliban. General Donahue, one of the last things he did before leaving was talk to the Taliban commander that he had been coordinating with, as soon as -- at about the time we were going to leave, just to let him know that we were leaving.
But there was no discussion of turning anything over, of that at all.
MR. KIRBY: Jen?
Q: General McKenzie, Jennifer Griffin from Fox News.
If I could just have you reflect personally, after 20 years of war you've served there, you've now watched the last troops leave, you've lost troops in recent days, how did it feel leaving Afghanistan to the very group that you overthrew 20 years ago, the Taliban?
GEN. MCKENZIE: Well, as I sort of said in my remarks, as you know, I've been there a couple times. My son's been there a couple times. So -- and it was very -- I was very conflicted actually. But I would tell you, I was pretty much focused on the task at hand.
I'll have days ahead to actually think about that, but there was just so much going on in this headquarters and we were so completely focused on getting our troops out and in the days before, getting -- you know, getting our citizens out, and vulnerable Afghans to the best of our ability, that I did not have a lot of time for reflection.
I'm sure I will do that in the future, but right now, I'm pretty much consumed with the -- with the operational task at hand.
That's a huge question, and I -- and I am going to be thinking about that in the days ahead.
Q: Your message to Americans and Afghan allies who were left behind?
GEN. MCKENZIE: So, the military phase of this operation has ended. The diplomatic sequel to that will now begin. And I believe our Department of State is going to work very hard to allow any American citizens that are left -- and we think the citizens that were not brought out number in the low -- very low hundreds. I believe that we're going to -- we're going to be able to get those people out, and I think we're also going to negotiate very hard and very aggressively to get our other Afghan partners out.
The military phase is over, but our desire to bring these people out remains as intense as it was before. The weapons have just shifted, if you will, from the military realm to the diplomatic realm, and the Department of State will now take the lead on it.
MR. KIRBY: Nancy?
Q: (inaudible) Can you clarify just a couple points, can you tell us how many people were on that final C-17 flight? Can you tell us where that flight is headed?
And you mentioned that General Donahue talked to his Taliban essential, essentially his Taliban counterpart. Can you give us any sense of what role the Taliban played from a security perspective to allow the U.S. to safety depart Kabul?
GEN. MCKENZIE: Yes, so I'm not going to be able to answer the first two questions because those operations are still concluding, as to where those aircraft are going and the -- and the exact disposition of our forces on the aircraft.
I can tell you this, though, about what the Taliban has done. They established a firm perimeter outside of the airfield to prevent people from coming on the airfield during our departure. And we -- we've worked that with them for a number of days. They did not have direct knowledge of our time of departure. We choose to keep that -- we chose to keep that very -- information very restricted. But they were actually very helpful and useful to us as we closed down operations.
MR. KIRBY: I want to go to the phones. I haven't done that yet. Dan Lamothe?
Q: Hey, thanks for -- thanks for calling on me.
General, can you -- can you give us a -- I guess, a deeper level of detail on what this last day looked like in terms of number of flights, number of people you had on the ground to start with, who might have been on the last plane, particularly senior leaders, and kind of just how this all played out?
GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure.
So let me actually begin with the back end of your question.
On the last airplane out was General Chris Donahue, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division and my ground force commander there. And he was accompanied by our charge, Ambassador Ross Wilson. So they came out together. So the State and Defense team came out on the last aircraft and were, in fact, the last people to stand on the ground and step on the airplane.
So what has happened over the last 12 or 18 hours is we -- first of all, we were intent on maintaining the ability to bring out Americans and other -- and other Afghans as long as we could. So we kept that capability until just a few hours ago. And we were able to bring out some people earlier in the day, although, as I've noted earlier, we had to cut it off sometime before this operation began. But we were intent on maintaining that capability.
We were also intent on maintaining our force protection, because the threats from ISIS were very real, very concerning. And so, we did a number of things.
We had overwhelming U.S. airpower over head should there have been any challenge to our departure. And again, there was absolutely no question: We were not going to be challenged by the Taliban. We were -- if we were going to be challenged, it was going to be by ISIS. And I think some of the things we'd done yesterday, particularly the strike, and other things we'd done had disrupted their ability to conduct that -- to conduct that attack planning.
But they remain a very lethal force and I think we would assess that probably there are at least 2,000 hardcore ISIS fighters in Afghanistan now. And, of course, many of those come from prisons that were -- that were opened a few -- a few days ago. So that number is up and is probably as high as it's ever been in quite a while, and that's going to be a challenge for the Taliban, I believe, in the days ahead.
MR. KIRBY: Idrees.
Q: Thank you, General.
A few quick questions. There are about 500 Afghan soldiers who are protecting the perimeter. Did you evacuate them and their families?
And secondly, just on the airport, now that you've departed, do you believe it can take on civilian aircraft pretty soon or will it require some type of repair or expertise?
GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure thing.
To the best of my knowledge, which is actually pretty good, I believe we brought out all the Afghan military force who were partnered with us to defend the airfield and their family members. And I believe that -- that has been accomplished.
We need the airport to be operational and we need the airport to be operational quickly for civilian -- you know, for civilian traffic. So we're going to do everything we can to -- to help with that.
Let me give you an example. One of the things we did not demilitarize as we left were those pieces of equipment that are necessary for airport operations, such as the fire trucks and front-end loaders, things like that. We left that -- we left that equipment. So that is available to allow that airport to get back and get operating as soon as possible. And it needs to get operating as soon as possible.
MR. KIRBY: Luis?
Q: General, today is August 30th and the deadline has repeatedly been said that it was going to be August 31st. Do you think that there may be some people who had some false hope that they had at least one more day before this happened? And can you explain the tactical decision as to why you are completing this mission on the 30th as opposed to the 31st?
So it's actually the 31st in Afghanistan as we take a look what day of the week -- at what day of the month it is. It's the 30th here, 31st in Afghanistan. So we actually went out on the 31st, not the 30th if you look at Afghan time.
Look, there's a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure. We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out. But I think if we'd stayed another 10 days, Luis, we wouldn't have gotten everybody out that we wanted to get out, and there still would have been people who would have been disappointed with that. It's a -- it's a tough situation.
But I want to emphasis again that simply because we have left, that doesn't mean the opportunities for both Americans that are in Afghanistan that want to leave and Afghans who want to leave -- they will not be denied that opportunity. I think our Department of State's gonna work that very hard in the days and weeks ahead.
MR. KIRBY: Courtney?
Q: Just one clarification, General McKenzie. It’s Courtney Kube from NBC news. So were there any evacuees left at the airport when the last U.S. military flight left?
GEN. MCKENZIE: There were no evacuees left at the airport when the U.S. last flight left.
Q: Thank you.
And then just on the Taliban, you know, you've talked about their pragmatic ways of operating with the U.S. military here. Do you see a role for the U.S. military to have open conversations with the Taliban, even potential coordination, going forward; in particular, with this growing and now accentuated threat from ISIS?
GEN. MCKENZIE: Well, I'll tell you, my -- my dealing with the Taliban and my -- the dealings of my commanders on the ground with the Taliban revolved around our determination to execute this operation, and the very flat statement we made to them that if we -- you know, "If you challenge us, we're going to hurt you." And I think they recognize that. And for their own purposes, this is something they wanted to have happen, too.
I can't foresee the way future coordination between us would go. I would leave that for -- for some future date. I will simply say that they wanted us out; we wanted to get out with our people and with our -- and with our friends and partners. And so for that short period of time, our issues -- our -- our -- our view of the world was congruent, it was the same.
Finally, I do believe the Taliban is going to have their hands full with ISIS-K. And they let a lot of those people out of prisons, and now they're going to be able to reap what they sowed.
MR. KIRBY: Tara.
General McKenzie, Tara Copp with Defense One. can you assure the American public that every single U.S. servicemember is now out of Afghanistan?
GEN. MCKENZIE: Every single U.S. servicemember is now out of Afghanistan. I can say that with 100 percent certainty.
MR. Kirby: Carla.
Q: Sir, really quickly, just to clarify. you mentioned 123,000 out of Afghanistan. Earlier this morning, we heard 122,000. So can we assume that that was 1,000 Afghans that came out in these -- some of these final flights?
And then I have a quick follow-up.
GEN. MCKENZIE: We brought about 1,000 Afghans -- I think over 1,500 out in the last 24 hours or so. Now, the exact number, I'm sure, was probably -- that -- that computation is probably going to change a little bit in the days ahead. I don't think it's going to change much.
But yes, we brought a number of Afghans out here at the very end.
Q: And then, sir, how would you characterize this evacuation mission? Because on the one hand, 123,000 people got out. On the other hand, of course, you have -- you lost 13 Marines, more than 100 Afghans died, and there're still potentially tens of thousands of SIVs, P-1s, P-2s, and others that wanted to get out that did not get out, as you said.
So, how would you characterize this mission?
GEN. MCKENZIE: Well, first of all, the 11 Marines, the soldier and the sailor that we lost, I will never forget that. That -- that will -- that will be with me, and I know every other commander involved, for the rest of our lives. We've all lost -- we've all lost people before, and it's never an easy thing.
You would like to bring out everybody that wanted to come out; we're not able to do that. The situation wouldn't allow it.
I think we did a very good job of getting everybody that we could get -- that we could get out, given the unique challenges of the tactical situation on the ground. The fact that really not -- not all Americans wanted to leave. There were Americans that for a variety of reasons, want to stay for a while. I think we'll go back, and they'll have the opportunity to -- they'll have the opportunity to revisit that and come out if they want.
I think it's just important to -- to note that we shouldn't look on this as the end of that engagement about people in Afghanistan. I am confident that that engagement is going to continue through a variety of venues. And it won't just be the United States that's going to be engaged in this. I think our international partners are also going to be very engaged on this as well going forward.
MR. KIRBY: Yeah, we've got two more. I'm afraid that we'll go to the phones again. Jack Detsch?
Q: Thanks. Thanks, General McKenzie.
I'm kind of curious just how American citizens are going to be expected to get to the airport and what the continuing terror threat will be just in the coming days and -- and what the evacuation picture is going to look like for them.
GEN. MCKENZIE: Well, I think that the -- the terror threat is going to be very high. And I don't want to minimize that. But I think what we'll do is we will work with the Taliban and work with the next governor of Afghanistan, whatever his characterization is going to be in order to ensure that our citizens are protected and that they have an opportunity to -- to leave.
As you know, we still held a variety of significant leverage over whatever future government exists in Kabul, and I -- and I have no doubt that the Department of State will fully exercise that leverage.
Q: Do you have any confidence in their ability to secure the city right now, the Taliban?
GEN. MCKENZIE: I think they're going to be challenged to secure the city.
I do know this, just speaking purely practically, as a professional. They helped us secure the airfield. Not perfectly, but they -- they gave it a very good effort, and it was actually significantly -- significantly helpful to us, particularly here at the end.
MR. KIRBY: Last question for today. Meghann?
Q: Are there any U.S. - sorry. This is Meghann Meyers at Military Times. Are there any U.S. aircraft still doing overflights of Afghanistan, either Kabul or otherwise, looking out for potential threats?
GEN. MCKENZIE: So, as we have said for quite a while, we always reserve the opportunity to go after in the CT realm, the counterterrorism realm, Al-Qaida and ISIS when those targets prevent -- present themselves. So we will always retain the ability to do that.
MR. KIRBY: Okay, that's about all the time we have. General, any concluding thoughts you might want to add?
GEN. MCKENZIE: John, it's been a -- it's been a long day, and much longer, actually, for our forces that are coming out. The operations have gone smoothly so far. And I just look forward to -- look forward to recovering the force completely, getting everybody home.
MR. KIRBY: Thank you, General. Thanks for your time.
Thank you all. Have a nice afternoon.