|1:33 P.M. EDT |
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. So, joining me today is our National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, who will provide an update on Afghanistan and then take some of your questions.
And with that, I’ll turn it over to Jake.
MR. SULLIVAN: Thank you, Jen. And hello, everybody. I’m going to start with just an update, in terms of the President’s engagement today in engaging with his national security team, and then make a few comments, broadly, on the situation. And then I’ll be happy to take your questions.
This morning, the President spoke with his military commanders for an operational briefing on the security at the Hamid Karzai International Airport, commonly known as HKAI. He spoke with Secretary Austin, Chairman Milley, General McKenzie, Admiral Vasely, and myself. The President was briefed that DOD personnel have now secured HKAI, HKAI is open, and U.S. military evacuation flights are taking off.
Following this operational briefing with his military commanders, the President and the Vice President met by secure videoconference with their national security team to hear intelligence, security, and diplomatic updates on the evolving situation in Afghanistan. They discussed the status of ongoing evacuations of U.S. citizens, SIV applicants, and other vulnerable Afghans at risk, and how we would do this safely and efficiently and with the laser-focus of the team on monitoring for and preventing any potential terrorist threats at or around HKAI, including from ISIS-K.
They were joined by Secretary Blinken, Secretary Austin, Chairman Milley, Director Haines, Director Burns, myself, Ambassador Wilson, Ambassador Khalilzad, General McKenzie, and other senior officials.
Just to say a few words about where we come from and where we are: I want to start by saluting our troops and our civilian personnel at the Kabul Airport. I want to salute the Defense Department, the intelligence community, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and especially our country team in Kabul, who have been doing incredible work under very trying circumstances.
They have safely and effectively drawn down our embassy compound and retrograded our diplomatic personnel.
They have now secured the airfield and are conducting flights out of the country.
They are moving American citizens as well as Afghan nationals and third-country nationals.
They are facilitating flights for our allies and partners to get citizens and others out of Afghanistan.
These operations will continue in the coming days as we move to evacuate American citizens and Afghan nationals who worked with us, along with other vulnerable Afghans.
We are engaging diplomatically, at the same time, with allies and regional countries and with the United Nations to address the situation in Afghanistan.
We are in contact with the Taliban to ensure the safe passage of people to the airport.
We are monitoring for any potential terrorist threats, as I just mentioned, including from ISIS-K.
We intend to continue these operations over the coming days before completing our drawdown.
When you work on any policy issue — domestic policy, foreign policy, any policy issue — the human costs and consequences loom large. And we’re all contending with the human costs of these developments. The images from the past couple of days at the airport have been heartbreaking.
But President Biden had to think about the human costs of the alternative path as well, which was to stay in the middle of a civil conflict in Afghanistan.
There are those who argue that with 2,500 forces — the number of forces in country when President Biden took office — we could have sustained a stable, peaceful Afghanistan. That is simply wrong.
The previous administration drew down from 15,000 troops to 2,500. And even at 15,000, the Afghan government forces were losing ground.
What has unfolded over the past month has proven decisively that it would have taken a significant American troop presence, multiple times greater than what President Biden was handed, to stop a Taliban onslaught.
And we would have taken casualties. American men and women would have been fighting and dying once again in Afghanistan, and President Biden was not prepared to send additional forces or ask any American personnel to do that over the period ahead.
There have been questions raised about whether we should have drawn down our embassy and evacuated our Afghan allies earlier. These are reasonable questions.
We did dramatically accelerate the SIV process and move out a substantial number of SIV applicants and their families.
But the Afghan government and its supporters, including many of the people now seeking to leave, made a passionate case that we should not conduct a mass evacuation lest we trigger a loss of confidence in the government. Now, our signaling support for the government obviously did not save the government, but this was a considered judgment.
When you conclude 20 years of military action in a civil war in another country with the impacts of 20 years of decisions that have piled up, you have to make a lot of hard calls, none with clean outcomes. What you can do is plan for all contingencies. We did that.
The American forces now on the ground at HKAI are there because of contingency planning and drilling we did over the course of months, preparing for a range of scenarios, including dire scenarios.
President Biden ordered multiple battalions to be pre-positioned in theater, and he activated them for deployment before the fall of Kabul. He also put additional battalions on a short string here in the United States. Those battalions have now flowed in as well.
Yes, there were chaotic scenes yesterday. But as Admiral Kirby said, even well drawn plans don’t survive first contact with reality and they require adjustments. And we’ve made those adjustments.
We will stay in close touch with our allies and partners in the days ahead as we contend with the immediate need to complete the evacuation mission and as we deal with the broader challenges posed by the new reality in Afghanistan.
And we will remain persistently vigilant against the terrorism threat in Afghanistan and in multiple other theaters across multiple continents.
We have proven in other places that we can suppress terrorism without a permanent military presence on the ground, and we intend to do exactly that in Afghanistan.
And with that, I would be happy to take to take your questions.
Q So, I wanted to ask — the President yesterday said that the buck stops with him. I want to get an understanding of what did he mean by — what is he taking ownership of? Not just the decision to leave Afghanistan, but is he taking responsibility for the chaos that happened during the evacuations, for the decisions not to do evacuations sooner? For all — is he taking responsibility for that and for any bloodshed that may be happening right now? Is he taking responsibility for that?
MR. SULLIVAN: He’s taking responsibility for every decision the United States government took with respect to Afghanistan, because, as he said, the buck stops with him.
I am also taking responsibility and so are my colleagues: the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the directors of our intelligence agencies. We, as a national security team, collectively take responsibility for every decision — good decision, every decision that doesn’t produce perfect outcomes. That is what responsibility is.
Now, at the same time, that doesn’t change the fact that there are other parties here responsible as well who have taken actions and decisions that helped lead us to where we are. So, from our perspective, what we have to do now is focus on the task at hand, the mission at hand.
You mentioned chaos at the airport yesterday. At the end of the day, the question is: Can we effectively evacuate those people who we intend to evacuate? And that is what we are planning for and executing against, beginning today — where the airport is secure, the flights are going, the people are coming. And we will continue to do that in the days ahead.
Q Yeah. What is President Biden’s response to the people of Afghanistan who are now in the hands of the Taliban terrorists and feel abandoned by the United States, or to those in Taiwan and elsewhere that are fearful that the U.S. will abandon them to the aggression of China?
And a follow-up to that is: What is President Biden’s response to people in Israel and other countries who might also believe the U.S. will abandon them to terrorists?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, to the first question, President Biden and all of us, as I said in my opening comments, are heartbroken by the human consequences that have unfolded and could continue to unfold in Afghanistan.
We believe passionately in human rights and human dignity, and we want to work with the international community to advance that wherever we can.
But President Biden was not prepared to have American men and women continue to fight and die in the civil war of another country in order to achieve that. We will use every other tool at our disposal to achieve that, and we will do so day after day, month after month in the period ahead on behalf of the people of Afghanistan.
To your question about allies: We gave 20 years of American blood, treasure, sweat, and tears in Afghanistan. We gave them every capacity, in terms of training and equipment, to stand up and fight for themselves. And at some point, it was the time for the United States to say that the Afghan people had to stand up for themselves.
We believe that our commitments to our allies and partners are sacrosanct and always have been. We believe our commitment to Taiwan and to Israel remains as strong as it’s ever been.
Keep in mind that, with respect to Afghanistan, we said back in 2011 that we would be out in 2014. We stayed another seven years — far and above and beyond the commitment that we made more than a decade ago.
And the last thing that I would say is that President Biden is laser-focused on accomplishing the core national security objectives of the United States. And when it comes to Afghanistan, that was getting bin Laden and degrading al Qaeda. We accomplished that, and he believes it was time for our troops to come home.
Q So, just now, Jake, you described a kind of choice that the President — that was in front of the President: either save the — you know, save the folks, the allies in Afghanistan, the folks that helped the United States through the last two decades, or sacrifice more American young men.
I think the question out there on Capitol Hill and around Washington and elsewhere is: Wasn’t there another choice? Wasn’t there a way you could have ended — President Biden could have ended the war in the way that he wanted to end the war so that Americans don’t sacrifice further lives for this war, but, at the same time, do a better job of either ignoring Ghani’s, you know, request to — to not start evacuations or, you know, figuring some way that we wouldn’t end up in a situation where there’s masses of people crushing through the airport and the execution of the last four, five, six days that has seemed, to just about everybody, as not — I mean, as not the way a competent administration — you know, not the result that a competent administration, you know, has in the end?
So, was it — isn’t that a false choice? And why couldn’t you do both?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, first, what I would say is that we were clear-eyed going in when we made this decision that it was possible that the Taliban would end up in control of Afghanistan. We were clear-eyed about that.
Now, as the President said in his remarks yesterday, we did not anticipate that it would happen at this speed, though we were planning for these potential contingencies.
The reason I say that at the outset — that we knew it was possible they could take over and that had to be built into our calculus in making the determination, as the President did, to draw down our forces — is because once the Taliban came into Kabul, we were going to be faced with a situation — no matter if there were still U.S. troops on the ground or no U.S. troops on the ground — of dealing with a significant number of people wanting to come to an airport to try to get evacuated.
I’ll give you an example: We communicated with American citizens for weeks, telling them to get out of the country. We offered financial assistance for those who wouldn’t be able to afford to get on flights themselves. Many chose to stay right until the end, and that was their choice. We now are faced with a circumstance where we have to help evacuate those. That’s our responsibility as the U.S. government.
But the point I’m making is that when a civil war comes to an end with an opposing force marching on the capital, there are going to be scenes of chaos, there are going to be lots of people leaving the country. That is not something that can be fundamentally avoided.
And so, while it is a point for reasonable debate, in my view, as to how to think about the right moment to signal a complete loss of confidence in a government or not and which is going to lead to more suffering and death or not, the fact is that we made the judgments we made based on the information we had at the time, while preparing for the alternative contingency, which was having to flow in these troops to be able to get out folks in a mass evacuation.
Q Thank you, Jake. Do you believe that the mission could be completed by August 31st? As the National Security Advisor, what do you see the scenario on September 1st? Do you think the Taliban of 2021 is different than 2001? Do you see analogous situation to Iraq, where a new terrorist organization would be born — like ISIS out of the (inaudible) in Iraq, for example?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, just on the last point: It’s fairly well documented that the Taliban and ISIS-K fight one another, struggle against one another. So, I do not foresee a symbiotic relationship there — though these are dynamics scenarios, so we will have to see how it plays.
We are working day by day to get as many people out, so I’m not going to speculate on the timetable question that you just laid out.
And then finally, on what we expect from the Taliban going forward, that is something that will have to be watched and observed over time. Whether in fact they are prepared to meet their obligations to the basic human rights and human dignity of people, to the safe passage of people to the airport, to the fair and — fair and just treatment of civilians, that is something they’re going to have to show.
I come at this with no expectations, but only a sense that they will have to prove to the international community who they ultimately are going to end up being.
Q Thank you, Jake. Can you tell us what is it exactly — the commitment that you have secured from the Taliban, regarding the safe passage of Americans as well as the tens of thousands of vulnerable Afghans?
MR. SULLIVAN: The Taliban have informed us that they are prepared to provide the safe passage of civilians to the airport, and we intend to hold them to that commitment.
Q Do you believe them?
MR. SULLIVAN: Yes. (Calling on another reporter.)
Q Just for clarity on that, is there some deadline that’s been set? Has the Taliban given assurances that this will go until August 31st? Is the deadline before that or after that? For clarity on what you just said.
MR. SULLIVAN: Until — we believe that this can go until the 31st. We are talking to them about what the exact timetable is for how this will all play out. And I don’t want to negotiate in public on working out the best modality to get the most people out in the most efficient way possible.
Q So let me — let me —
Q Jake, can I follow on that?
MR. SULLIVAN: Yes.
Q Thank you, Jake. I have a question about that. Yesterday, President Biden said that the United States military cannot sacrifice — sacrifice where there is no national interest. If the same (inaudible), would the U.S. withdraw troops from its allies, including South Korea? What (inaudible)?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, the President, as he has said repeatedly, has no intention of drawing down our forces from South Korea or from Europe, where we have sustained troop presences for a very long time — not in the middle of a civil war, but to deal with the potential of an external enemy and to protect our ally against that external enemy. So, it is a fundamentally different kind of situation from the one we were presented with in Afghanistan.
MR. SULLIVAN: Yes.
Q Thank you. The President, yesterday, said the situation in Afghanistan unfolded more quickly than anticipated. You said it yourself just a few moments ago. But numerous officials have told ABC that there were key intelligence assessments warning the Taliban could overwhelm the country and take the capital within weeks. Did the White House disregard that intelligence and push ahead?
MR. SULLIVAN: I’m not actually familiar with the intelligence assessments you’re describing. But I also don’t want to get into specific intelligence products. And one thing I will not do from this podium or anywhere else is talk about what a different component of the interagency did or didn’t do because, from my perspective, we are one team with one mission, trying to execute and do so in the best interests of our interests and values.
So I will leave it at that.
Q Jake, in the last few days —
MR. SULLIVAN: Yes.
Q If that mission is not complete by August 31st and there are Americans and Afghan allies who remain there, will U.S. troops stay until everyone is out, or will they leave?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, I’m not going to comment on hypotheticals. What I’m going to do is stay focused on the task at hand, which is getting as many people out as rapidly as possible. And we will take that day by day.
Q So you can’t commit to —
MR. SULLIVAN: Yes. (Calling on a reporter.)
Q — bringing back every American home?
Q There’s a large — there’s a large number of —
Q Jake, you — you said that —
Q There’s a large number of Christian missionaries and aid workers that are particularly vulnerable because they’re known to be Christians. Is there any plan to get them to the airport and get them out?
MR. SULLIVAN: We are working with a variety of different types of groups — journalists, aid workers, NGO workers, and so forth — to help facilitate their departure from the country.
Q Jake, you talk about these contingencies plans, but the President of the United States left White House on Friday. When did your administration know that another 6,000 troops were going to be needed for this withdrawal?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, on Wednesday evening, the President convened the principals — this is last Wednesday evening — to discuss the deteriorating situation on the ground in Afghanistan. He posed the question as to whether we had to flow more forces in, from the point of view of a contingency, to draw down our embassy and to secure evacuation.
Thursday morning, he gave the order to begin flowing those forces in.
And then, as we watched the situation unfold over the course of the coming days, we determined that we would go from step one of that contingency plan — which was about 3,000 troops — to step two of that contingency plan, which was about 6,000 troops.
Q If he had flown them in, why did he leave the White House? If on Thursday he knew, why did he leave the White House on Friday?
MR. SULLIVAN: The President worked throughout the entire weekend. I was intimately familiar with his working habits over the course of the weekend because I was on the phone with him constantly; Secretary Austin was on the phone with him; Chairman Milley, Secretary Blinken, the team in country.
So, he was monitoring developments hour by hour throughout that entire time and has been making a series of decisions about troop deployments; giving us direction and guidance about how to take the shape of this mission and make sure that we’re executing it; and, at every turn, asking our military — who is leading this mission and executing this mission with bravery and valor — “What do you need? I will get you anything you need.” He asked that question multiple times every single day. So President Biden has been deeply engaged in this.
Q Jake, last week —
Q Jake — sorry. There’s a lot of anger in Australia this morning about the way this has played out. We’ve got citizens and then, of course, so many Afghans who have helped the Australian Forces and helping the U.S. mission over the past 20 years.
Does the administration accept some responsibility? Or perhaps, what would be your response to those people who are trapped and some are fearing execution because of the exit strategy or perhaps lack of competent exit strategy?
MR. SULLIVAN: We do take some responsibility for our allies and partners in Afghanistan. In fact, as I said in my opening comments, we are working to facilitate flights — and have already done so — for countries that have lined them up and gotten their citizens to the airport.
And we will be eager to work with Australia to help get out Australian citizens and other individuals who the Australians would like to see get out.
Q Jake, what do you say to the next generation of Afghan women and children — young girls who face fundamentally different human rights moving forward?
MR. SULLIVAN: I say that truly, deeply my heart goes out to Afghan women and girls in the country today under the Taliban. We’ve seen what they’ve done before. And that’s a very hard thing for any of us to face.
But this wasn’t a choice just between saving those women and girls, and not saving those women and girls. The alternative choice had its own set of human costs and consequences, as I said. And those human costs and consequences would have involved a substantial ramp-up of American participation in a civil war, with more loss of life, more bloodshed, families here in the United States who would be asking a different form of the question you just asked.
These are the choices a President has to make. And it doesn’t mean, because we don’t have forces in that country, that we’re not going to fight on behalf of women and girls and human rights and human dignity. We are. We do in many other countries where we don’t have active military participation, and we’ll do it in Afghanistan too. And we will attempt to use every measure of tool and influence we have, along with our international allies and partners, to alleviate the burden that those women and girls will face in the days ahead. We are absolutely resolutely committed to that.
Q Do you recognize the Taliban as the legitimate governing power in Afghanistan now?
MR. SULLIVAN: Right now, there is a chaotic situation in Kabul where we don’t even have the establishment of a governing authority, so it would be really premature to address that question.
Ultimately, it’s going to be up to the Taliban to show the rest of the world who they are and how they intend to proceed. The track record has not been good, but it’s premature to address that question at this point.
Q Jake, you said that the Taliban is committed to safe passage to the airport, but our reporting is that they’ve set up checkpoints outside the airport, people are being beaten and whipped when they try and cross these checkpoints, and that some of the evacuation flights are leaving nearly empty as a result. What assurances do you have specifically about these checkpoints, and when do you expect them to stop doing those?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, two things about that. First, the earliest evacuation flights in any evacuation tend not to have every seat filled because the process of getting any evacuation underway has a throughput issue. So, we believe that that is being resolved with each successive flight, and we will be putting 300 passengers on your average military cargo plane heading out of the country, one after another — hot onloading and hot offloading.
Second, in terms of people being turned away: By and large, what we have found is that people have been able to get to the airport. In fact, very large numbers of people have been able to get to the airport and present themselves.
There have been instances where we have received reports of people being turned away or pushed back or even beaten. We are taking that up in a channel with the Taliban to try to resolve those issues. And we are concerned about whether that will continue to unfold in the coming days.
As things stand right now, what we are finding is that we are getting people through the gate, we are getting them lined up, and we are getting them on planes, but this is an hour-by-hour issue. And it’s something we are clear-eyed about and very focused on holding the Taliban accountable to follow through on its commitment.
MR. SULLIVAN: Yes.
Q Thanks so much. You’ve talked about your confidence in the contingency planning. And I’m wondering if, in hindsight, looking at the planning and execution, what this administration would have done differently knowing what it knows now?
MR. SULLIVAN: It’s a good question, and it’s one that we will conduct an extensive “hotwash,” as we say. We will take a look at every aspect of this from top to bottom.
But sitting here today, I’m spending every hour I have focused on how we execute the mission we have before us, which is getting all of these people out.
Q Jake, two questions for you. One, has the President spoke to any other world leaders since Kabul fell to the Taliban?
MR. SULLIVAN: Sorry, I was looking at the wrong person.
He has not yet spoken with any other world leaders. Myself, Secretary Blinken, several other senior members of the team have been engaged on a regular basis with foreign counterparts, and we intend to do so in the coming days.
Right now, the main issue is an operational issue. It’s about how we coordinate with them to help them get their people out. And we are operating through logistical channels and policy channels to try to make that happen.
Q And Jake —
MR. SULLIVAN: Yes.
Q — just to follow up on that: You just said that you will conduct a review of what went wrong here on the U.S.’s response. I know you said there are other additional factors, like what happened on the ground in Afghanistan that led to this. Will you publicly disclose what went wrong and who misjudged the intelligence here for how quickly the Taliban could take over?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, first, I didn’t describe that we were doing a, quote, “what-went-wrong” review. What I said is we’ll do a hotwash; we’ll look at everything that happened in this entire operation from start to finish. In the areas of improvement — where we can do better, where we can find holes or weaknesses and plug them, as we go forward.
And of course, we intend, after we’ve had the opportunity to run that analysis, to share that with people.
Q Follow on that?
Q Thank you, sir. You noted that you had encouraged Americans on the ground there to leave and that many chose not to. I just wanted to follow up on Weijia’s question. Will the U.S. government commit to ensuring that any Americans that are currently on the ground in Afghanistan get out?
MR. SULLIVAN: That’s what we’re doing right now. We have asked them all to come to the airport to get on flights and take them home. That’s what we intend to do.
Q How do Americans trust Taliban for safe passage, now, Jake?
Q What is the status of the —
Q Former —
MR. SULLIVAN: I’m sorry?
Q Former officials from multiple administrations — the Obama administration, the Bush administration — have said they are certain Afghanistan will become a safe haven for terrorists. I know you and the President have disputed that. What do you think those officials are getting wrong?
And can you ensure that Americans are safer today because of your actions than we were several months ago?
MR. SULLIVAN: I want to be very clear about what our position is. Our position is that we are going to have to deal with the potential threat of terrorism from Afghanistan going forward, just as we have to deal with the potential threat of terrorism in dozens of countries, in multiple continents around the world.
We have to deal with the threat of terrorism in Yemen and Somalia and Syria. We have to deal with the threat of terrorism across the Islamic Maghreb. We have to deal with al Qaeda and ISIS-K. And we have to do so using a wide variety of tools: intelligence capabilities, defense capabilities, and — yes, in some cases — the support we can provide to local partners to help them deal with the challenge.
And what we have shown is, in many of the countries I just mentioned, among others, we have been successful to date in suppressing the terrorist threat to the U.S. Homeland in those countries without sustaining a permanent military presence or fighting in a war. And that is what we intend to do with respect to Afghanistan as well.
So, this is not a question about whether we’re clear-eyed about the terrorist challenge from Afghanistan. It is about whether the terrorist challenge in 2021 is fundamentally different from the terrorist challenge in 2001.
We believe it is fundamentally different. And we need to be postured effectively to deal with the terrorism challenges we find it today as opposed to 20 years ago.
Q Thanks, Jake. I’m just wondering: Can you shed light on the decision to leave behind Black Hawks and other equipment — how that fits in with the contingency plan the U.S. had?
MR. SULLIVAN: Leave behind?
Q Black Hawks and other equipment. Why give the Taliban access to state-of-art equipment that they could either use to bolster their own defenses or to sell off to other countries?
MR. SULLIVAN: This is a, I think, a very good example of the difficult choices a President faces — and a Secretary of Defense and a Secretary of State and a National Security Advisor face — in the context of the end of a 20-year war.
Those Black Hawks were not given to the Taliban. They were given to the Afghan National Security Forces to be able to defend themselves — at the specific request of President Ghani, who came to the Oval Office and asked for additional air capability, among other things.
So, the President had a choice. He could not give it to them with the risk that it would fall into the Taliban’s hands eventually, or he could give it to them with the hope that they could deploy it in service of defending their country. Both of those options had risks; he had to choose. And he made a choice.
And from the point of view of that particular, narrow example to a for- — a much wider range of examples that we contend with — at the end of the day, what the President has focused on all the way through here is trying to take the information that’s been presented to him — the risks, costs, and benefits — and make decisions that were in the best national security interests of the American people. He has tried to do that. He talked about that at length yesterday.
And from that perspective, he believes the decision he made in this context was the right decision.
MR. SULLIVAN: Yes.
Q Thank you. The President has not been shy about undoing many of the previous President’s policies — many of them. Why not undo this one, particularly since the Taliban have abrogated already what they agreed to back in Doha with President Trump?
MR. SULLIVAN: You’re referring to the agreement that President Trump made with the Taliban in February of 2020, which set a deadline: Be out by May 1st, 2021. Walking away from that was not just kind of a cost-free proposition for the United States. On May 2nd, the Taliban offensive was going to start; the Taliban onslaught was going to happen.
And the question facing the President was: Would increasing numbers of American troops be in the teeth of that offensive, or would we draw a bit down and try and give all the capabilities necessary for the Afghan government and the Afghan Army to step up to bat? That is the decision that he took. That is the situation that he was placed in with a mere 2,500 troops in country when he took over.
This was a choice between dramatically ramping up forces to fight or drawing them down to end our military involvement. And that’s the choice that he made.
Q Thanks, Jake. The President said yesterday that he urged Afghan leaders to engage in diplomacy and seek a political settlement with the Taliban, but, quote, “This advice was flatly refused.” Does the President feel he had a willing partner in President Ghani?
MR. SULLIVAN: Look, I would just say: The President was reporting the facts as they unfolded. I’m not going to characterize anything about President Ghani at this point, who is no longer a factor in Afghanistan. And I don’t think there’s much merit in me weighing in more deeply on him.
Q Mr. Sullivan, sorry to labor the point here, but we’re speaking to Afghan citizens who supported the American mission in Afghanistan who are now terrified for their lives. Can you confirm that when it gets to August 31st — when your troops leave — will you abandon them or will you stay and save them?
MR. SULLIVAN: Our plan is to safely evacuate the people who worked with the United States, who are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas — which is a generous program set up on a bipartisan basis by our Congress. We have identified those individuals and families. We are making provision to have them come to the airport and get on evacuation flights out of the country. That is what we are going to do between now and the end of the month.
Q Thank you, Jake. One question, going back to President Ghani: Have any top officials of the Afghani government — the former Afghani government made requests for asylum in the United States? And would President Ghani and Vice President Abdullah, among others, be welcomed in the U.S.?
MR. SULLIVAN: I’m not familiar with any such requests, and I’m not going to get into hypotheticals.
Q Thanks, Jake. With the President at Camp David, can we — the American people — expect to hear from him in the coming days as the operation to get people out continues?
MR. SULLIVAN: I’ll leave it to Jen to answer that. But yes, you will hear from him in the coming days.
Q Jake, thank you. The President — thanks for taking my question. President Biden was expected to repair the damage caused by the previous administration to NATO. The way the withdrawal was carried out added new strains to the Alliance. How severe is this damage? And what you would tell your Allies?
MR. SULLIVAN: President Biden has a long and deep history of solidarity and commitment to the NATO Alliance. He’s — commitment to Article 5 is rock solid and sacrosanct.
We just had a very successful NATO Summit where we committed to a new Strategic Concept and a new way forward on the emerging threats we’re going to face.
He believes in his personal bonds with the leaders of NATO, and he believes in the institutional bonds between the United States and NATO.
And I would just note, also, that our Secretary of State and our Secretary of Defense went to repeated ministerial meetings of NATO for consultations on this decision, and ultimately secured an agreement of the North Atlantic Council for it to be carried out along the timetable that was laid out. All of the Allies signed up to that.
What the President also committed to was making sure that every last NATO troop on the ground in Afghanistan — and there were more NATO troops in Afghanistan than American troops when Joe Biden took office — would get out safely and securely without incurring a single casualty. And he executed that.
And then, finally, he’s committed to facilitating the flights of our NATO Allies and partners to get their civilians out and to get others out. And he is in the process of doing that. In fact, planes from NATO countries have landed and taken off with their personnel over the course of the past 24 hours.
Q Mr. Sullivan, I think your previous answers are not enough to assure U.S. allies and partners because, first, Korean War broke out as a civil war. If U.S. — the United States commit only to places that — without civil war, how can you assure allies that the United States will defend them in a crisis that can be described as a civil war?
For example, if the People’s Republic of China attacks Taiwan, the Chinese can argue that it is a civil war among the Chinese. And how can you just — how can you justify the U.S. involvement in Taiwan and South Korea?
And I also understand the United States did not want to make a sacrifice, but, at the same time, leadership requires sacrifice. And how can you just claim to be a global leader without making sacrifice?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, I want to start where your question ended, because the United States made an extraordinary sacrifice in Afghanistan: 2,448 Americans lost their lives in Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of Americans were injured in the war in Afghanistan over 20 years trying to help that country stand up and being able to defend itself. The United States spent more than a trillion dollars of its resources in Afghanistan.
The amount of sacrifice and solidarity and commitment to Afghanistan, trying to give it a chance, was immense. And it wasn’t just the United States; many other countries joined us and had their own sacrifices —
Q But so —
MR. SULLIVAN: Excuse me, let me — let me just finish answering the question.
Q But what is your response to the civil war —
MR. SULLIVAN: And so — so, the idea that there was a lack of sacrifice on the part of the American people is belied by the rows of headstones over at Arlington National Cemetery where people have come home.
MR. SULLIVAN: When it comes to Taiwan, it is a fundamentally different question in a — in a different context.
Q The Korean War was a civil war, and the United States (inaudible).
MR. SULLIVAN: And so from our perspective, what we need to focus on —
Q How is this different?
MR. SULLIVAN: Well, I’m sorry. I’ll take the next question if you won’t let me answer.
Q Jake —
MR. SULLIVAN: Yeah.
Q So what’s your take on the conference earlier by the Taliban, especially the comments that they made about protecting women’s rights? Do have any trust in the fact that they’re going to hold up to that?
MR. SULLIVAN: Like I’ve said all along, this is not about trust; this is about verifying. And we’ll see what the Taliban end up doing in the days and weeks ahead. And when I say “we,” I mean the entire international community.
Q The Biden administration has talked a lot about evacuating Americans and Afghans who helped the U.S. in the war, but there were many foreign nationals, including many Africans, who were there. What is the administration doing to evacuate them safely?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, the United States is also focused on helping third-country nationals get out of the country safely.
Q Back in the spring, you and several administration officials committed that civilian and humanitarian aid would continue into Afghanistan. Now that the Taliban has taken over the government, does that just completely stop? Is there a possibility that that would restart at some point?
MR. SULLIVAN: We will have to take a hard look at how we proceed with any — on any basis at all.
And as I said to one of your colleagues earlier, it’s premature to answer those questions. That’s something we will have to take a look at after we get through the immediate task of this mission.
Yeah, in the back.
Q What is —
Q Thank you, sir.
Q What is the status of the Afghan Security Forces and the U.S. relationship with them?
MR. SULLIVAN: I’m sorry, can you repeat the question?
Q What is the status of the Afghan Security Forces and the U.S. relationship with them?
MR. SULLIVAN: The Afghan Security Forces appear to have, essentially — you know, no longer operate as a coherent entity. They essentially have given way to Taliban physical security control over the major population centers.
Q What is the future of the relationship with them?
Q Follow-up question on — follow-up question about the Taliban saying they’ll respect the rights of Afghan women. What tools does the United States have to hold them to this pledge? And if not, what does the U.S. plan to do?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, standing here today, I am not going to go into the full plano- — panoply of things that we can do, but there are obviously issues related to sanctions, to marshalling international condemna- — condemnation and isolation, and other steps as well.
But the reason I don’t want to go into great detail on it is, I want to be able to have our team communicate directly to the Taliban both what the costs and disincentives are for certain types of action and what our expectations are. That is a conversation that we will intend to have, and I think many other countries, including likeminded allies and partners, will be having that as well.
Q Thank you, sir. President Biden said that there were very few national security interests for the United States in maintaining some peace in Afghanistan. Could — would you actually reiterate that today? Would you say that there is no interest for us having some presence on the borders of Iran, on the borders of Pakistan, on the borders of — near China? Would you — or Tajikistan? Would you say that we’re — that we should just give that up?
MR. SULLIVAN: I would say that the President does not believe that the United States should be fighting and dying in a war for the purpose of sustaining American military boots near Tajikistan or Pakistan or Iran.
No, I would say that that is something that is not — we — what — what you just laid out as a national security interest, we would not agree that it is right to ask American soldiers to risk their lives for the purpose of maintaining a presence near Tajikistan.
Q But —
MR. SULLIVAN: Yes.
Q Thank you. What happens to the billions of dollars’ worth of weaponry that the U.S. gave Afghanistan? Does the U.S. have a plan for that, or does it remain in the Taliban (inaudible)?
MR. SULLIVAN: We don’t have a complete picture, obviously, of where every article of defense materials has gone, but certainly a fair amount of it has fallen into the hands of the Taliban. And obviously, we don’t have a sense that they are going to readily hand it over to us at the airport.
Q Thank you, Jake. Has the President seen these images of what looks to be people flying off an airplane yesterday? And then what was his reaction to those images?
MR. SULLIVAN: The President, as he said in the remarks — in his remarks yesterday, has seen — these images are heartbreaking.
And as I’ve said repeatedly today, the human toll of the end of this conflict in this way is real and it’s raw. And it’s hard for any of us. You guys are journalists. I work in government. But, you know, we’re also people. And this is — this is tough stuff. There’s no doubt about it.
But these are hard choices, too. And at the end of the day, the President had to make a hard choice about whether to avoid some of those human costs — the United States continues to send thousands of troops to fight, and some of them die and take casualties — that is the decision that he was not prepared to take.
Q Thank you, Jake, for the question. I just want to get your reaction to the Special Inspector General Report on Afghanistan. I know this was planned before the fall of Kabul, but I just want to get your response to that.
And also, how are you going to ensure that Americans and other people who are refugees, perhaps, have safe passage to the airport? I know you talked about securing the airport, but how are you going to ensure that they can actually get there?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, as I’ve said before, we have been working, engaging, coordinating with Taliban elements on the ground to ensure safe passage. We will continue to work that issue, day by day, until we’ve completed our mission.
And what was — what was your first question?
Q Yes. I just want to get your reaction to the Special Inspector General Report on Afghan Reconstruction that, basically, essentially said that administrations were not prepared to come up with a concrete plan for the reconstruction of Afghanistan?
MR. SULLIVAN: Look, one of the findings of that report was that 20 years, hundreds of billions of dollars spent, a huge number of forces trained, a huge amount of capabilities provided, a huge amount of advising and assisting — and you had a security force that, at the end of the day, was not prepared with the will to stand up and fight for itself. And that is the collection of decisions taken over the course of many years.
Q Jake, thank you. While we have you, can you address the situation in Haiti? Two questions regarding that: Will a U.S. military presence be necessary to secure the road between Port-au-Prince and the disaster zone for humanitarian aid?
And then, secondly, does the earthquake in Haiti affect the administration’s view that elections should be held there this year?
MR. SULLIVAN: So, on the second question, it’s too early to tell what the impact on the political process of the earthquake is. We are in the process of assessing that.
On your first question: Right now, what we’re focused on is getting a USAID DART team that’s been deployed out and active in helping address this. We’ve got U.S. Coast Guard elements. And SOUTHCOM has mobilized with logistical and other support to be able to provide the kind of emergency response that is necessary in a human tragedy and catastrophe like this.
There are no current plans to speak of to deploy U.S. military personnel to Haiti.
Yes. And I’ll make this the last one.
Q Thank you, Jake. You said it’s too early to say whether the U.S. will recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan. Are there any steps you’re taking in the meantime around sanctions or foreign currencies or anything?
Is there a chance that if they do take power, that they’d be able to tap into quite a fair bit of money that the U.S. might want to head off the possibility of? Are there any steps you’re taking in that regard, sort of, preventatively, I suppose?
MR. SULLIVAN: We’re working on those options right now. I don’t want to get ahead of the President’s decision-making on them. And I’ll — I’ll leave it at that.
Q If you are working on those options, doesn’t that then speak to a doubt that you might ever recognize them? And if you don’t ever recognize them, how can you be — how can you ensure that the President’s promise of aid continuing to the Afghan people will be enacted?
MR. SULLIVAN: Well, so I don’t want to get into hypotheticals, but I would point out that there are a range of different diplomatic relationships the United States has with countries around the world, including some in very difficult or nonexistent relationships with governments where we still provide forms of aid to people.
And I will leave it at that because we’re not at a point yet where we can speak directly to how things will play out in Afghanistan, but that’s at least a partial answer to your question.
I know you guys have many more questions, but I think probably your patience with me is also wearing a bit thin, so I will leave it at that and get back to work. Thank you.
Q Thank you, Jake.
MS. PSAKI: COVID safe.
I just have a couple of additional updates for you — some of which was provided by the Department of Defense this morning, but I wanted to make sure you all had this information as well.
As you may have seen, the airport — and as Jake noted — is currently open for military flight operations, as well as limited commercial flight operations. And throughout the night, nine C-17s arrived delivering equipment and approximately 1,000 troops.
Additionally, seven C-17s have departed. These flights lifted approximately 700 to 800 passengers, and we can confirm 165 of these passengers are American citizens; the rest are a mix of SIV applicants and third-country nationals.
And I would also note that, in addition, our — the intention is to have additional flights out this morning. There’s obviously going to be operational updates that will be provided on a regular basis by the Department of Defense. But as you saw them brief out, our focus over the last 24 to 48 hours has been securing the airport and ensuring that we can begin to expedite flights of both American citizens, SIV applicants, and others out.
I also just wanted to note that, this morning, on a different topic, Biden administration officials joined a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors to discuss our eviction prevention efforts. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky provided an update on the state of the pandemic, and Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta reiterated ways that mayors across the country can work closely with state and local courts to set up eviction diversion programs in their cities.
This meeting is just the latest in our efforts to communicate and work with local officials to ensure we’re getting assistance out to keep people in their homes.
I know we’ve been here a while, but I know there are lots of topics out there. Go ahead, Josh.
Q Thanks, Jen. With regard to the booster shots, how many shots does the U.S. have available for boosters? And will supplying boosters have any impact on U.S. vaccine donations around the world?
MS. PSAKI: So, let me first note that, tomorrow, the COVID-19 team and our health and medical experts will host a briefing and will discuss next steps as it relates to boosters.
I would also note for your planning that you can expect to hear from the President on this topic as well following their briefing. So, I will leave it to them to provide additional details and to answer what, I know, are your good questions about data and an understanding of what leads to decisions along those lines.
On the supply component of that, I’m sure they will address that, Josh. But one of the things we have said repeatedly — and I will note, I said back in May; Jeff Zients said again in July — is that part of our operational focus was ensuring we had enough supply to provide booster shots should that be a decision made by the FDA.
So that has been in our planning processes for months now. And certainly we’ve planned for this contingency, and we’ll wait for a formal announcement.
Q Does the President plan and the First Lady plan to get booster shots?
MS. PSAKI: Certainly, if they are recommended. Once a formal announcement or briefing is done, they will certainly plan to follow the guidelines, of course.
Q And what’s the rest of the — his week look like? I mean, he’s up at Camp David now. Is he still going to Wilmington? What — what’s the schedule?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I know — I think Rachel asked this earlier. So, the President will return to the White House. I don’t have an exact time for you.
But tomorrow, he will both be doing an interview with George Stephanopoulos for ABC, and he will also — where he will, of course, I’m certain, be speaking to the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. He’ll also be delivering some remarks on COVID as well.
In terms of additional portions of the schedule next week, we’re still working those through, so I don’t have an update for you at this moment in time.
Q Thank you. On COVID, is the White House concerned that moving forward with boosters could make it that much harder to get more unvaccinated Americans to get that initial shot?
MS. PSAKI: Well, one of the pieces that I expect our COVID team to speak to tomorrow is our operational plans as it relates to ensuring we are making sure everybody is vaccinated and following FDA and CDC guidelines.
I think we — what you can expect to hear from them is that we are going to follow some of the best practices we have used to date, which is providing access, providing information.
And right now, we’re in a place where we have — we are focused on providing access, of course, to vaccines around the country and communities around the country through a range of mechanisms. So, we’re actually at an easier operational point in this regard than we were several months ago.
But, yes, we understand it’s going to take a significant operational focus, educational focus, and, you know, PR focus to get the information out once it’s finalized.
Q Thank you. And one more on Afghanistan. Has the President or any administration official been in contact with former Pre- — Afghanistan President Ghani?
MS. PSAKI: Not that I’m aware of.
Q Jen, thank you. You mentioned at the top that about 700 people have been evacuated in the past 24 hours. Pentagon officials, including Press Secretary John Kirby, expect that number to increase —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — to 5- to 9,000 a day. Can you talk about what needs to happen between now and then to ramp the number up and when you expect to hit it?
MS. PSAKI: Sure, Weijia. It’s a good question. I think what — what I had been referring to, just a few minutes ago, was the fact that our focus has been on securing not just the perimeter of the airport, but also operational capacity at the airport, which, of course, is a Department of Defense operation they’re overseeing, in coordination with the State Department.
And so, because we’ve had success in that regard, we are hopeful and expect to expedite additional flights out. So that was not the place where we were at this time yesterday.
And given we’ve made progress in this regard, we are hopeful to increase the number of people — American citizens, SIV applicants, and others — that we can get out of the country.
Q I mean, it’s our understanding that Americans have been called to the airport, but it’s up to them to travel there at their own risk. Why isn’t the U.S. providing any support, any transportation for them to get to Kabul?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would just go back to what our National Security Advisor discussed, as it relates to the Taliban and discussions with them about safe passage for people who are coming to the airport.
We’ve also seen — I don’t have an exact number for you; I’m sure the Department of Defense and State Department can provide that — but a large number of American citizens and others making their way successfully to the airport over the course of the last 24 hours.
Q And then just one more. I know we all tried to ask Jake this question, but can you offer any guarantee to the Americans and Afghan allies that if they remain there past the end of the month, U.S. troops will help them evacuate —
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think —
Q — past the end of the month?
MS. PSAKI: — Weijia, our focus right now is on doing the work at hand and on the task at hand — and that is, day by day, getting as many American citizens, as many SIV applicants, as many members of vulnerable population who are eligible to be evacuated to the airport and out on planes. And we’re going to do that in an expeditious fashion. That is the focus of the President, of our Secretary of Defense, of our Secretary of State, and everybody on our national security team.
So that — that is where we will keep our efforts.
Q Thank you. There’s been some criticism from Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill — Mark Warner, Bob Menendez — saying — Menendez saying, “I’m disappointed that the Biden administration clearly did not accurately assess the implications of a rapid…withdrawal.” What is the White House’s response to those lawmakers?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would first say that we did assess early on, when the President asked for a clear-eyed assessment, that there would be impacts and there would be consequences of making the choice he made. He also acknowledged yesterday — and I would just reiterate — that this did happen more rapidly than we anticipated here — than anyone anticipated. I think that accounts for members of Congress and people who are on the ground in Afghanistan.
And what our effort is now — is focused on moving as many people out as we can from the country.
But I would also note and reiterate to any — anyone who’s a critic that any President has to make difficult choices as Commander-in-Chief, as Jake Sullivan just said. And the President made the choice that he was not going to ask U.S. men and women — servicemen and -women to fight a war that the Afghans were not willing to fight for themselves.
It does not mean there aren’t going to be impacts that are gut-wrenching, that are heart-wrenching, that we’re all watching transpire over the last couple of days. But these are the difficult choices you have to make as Commander-in-Chief, and that’s the choice he made.
Q And does he still have confidence in his intelligence teams?
MS. PSAKI: He certainly does. He works in lockstep, and he’s been briefed on a regular basis, as Jake just outlined — multiple times a day sometimes — by members of his national security team. And we’re working in close coordination to get the job done each day.
Q Sort of to follow up on Kaitlan’s question about criticism from people who are your allies or your friends: David Axelrod has called you the “best press secretary” in his lifetime, I think —
MS. PSAKI: My mom would like that. (Laughter.)
Q Okay. But he’s also said that the events of the last weekend are in- — and this is paraphrasing here, but indefensible, I think. He said you “can’t defend” them.
And he has basically said that you guys should acknowledge that it was a failure and be willing to say that the events of the last several days were a failure, even as you, maybe, you know, defend the broader question of the drawdown in Afghanistan. Why aren’t — what do you say to David Axelrod, who is such a fan of yours?
MS. PSAKI: Mutual. There are a few people I respect as much as David Axelrod in the world of politics. He’s brilliant. He’s also a great human being.
But he would be the first to say that there is a difference between being on the outside and speaking on television, and being on the inside and the difficult choices that you have to make.
And, as I’ve noted and as Jake noted, even as we’re watching, over the last couple of days, heart-wrenching, gut-wrenching footage, photos — you referred to some of them, Mike — the President stands by his decision because he knows it’s the — in the interest of the United States, our national security, and the American people. And he’s not going to ask mothers and fathers to send their children to fight a war the Afghans won’t fight for themselves.
And that does not mean that there aren’t chaotic moments; there are. That does not mean there aren’t moments that we may look back and, you know, take a look at approaches and how to address things moving forward. Of course. That’s a part of how you assess governing and how you assess operations moving forward.
But right now — and he would be the first — he spent, as you well know, an important role, a vital role advising President Obama — to acknowledge that when you’re in government, you’re faced with difficult choices. The President is faced with difficult choices, so are members of his team. And what you have to always make the decisions based on is what’s in the interest of the American people.
Q Does the President believe that his orders were executed as intended? In these past couple of days, obviously those images that we’ve all seen — I mean, is he assessing blame at all for that? And is he just — does he feel like he ordered the military to do certain things and they did it as intended?
MS. PSAKI: Well, his order was to deploy additional military — military men and women to go to Afghanistan to help evacuate American citizens, SIV applicants, and others safely out of the country — some to the United States — and to help our partners and allies around the world as well.
We are effectively doing that. And the photos we’re seeing of chaotic moments, no doubt — at the airport — are of many Afghans who want to get out of the country. We certainly understand that as well.
And as Jake just said, when you’re at a point where things are happening more quickly than anyone would have anticipated — not just people in this White House, but certainly people in Afghanistan, people in the international community, probably people in Congress — then you’re going to have some chaotic scenes.
But the President is confident in his national security team and their ability to get the mission done and get the mission accomplished.
And as I just noted earlier, right now, the airport is secure. We’re working to expedite flights and get more people out of the country.
Q And then, just to follow on– the President has been quite clear that he does not have any trust in the Taliban. And so I — I guess Jake kind of went about this in a couple of different ways, but do you guys have any assurances that the Taliban is clearing the safe passage to the airports? And what are the consequences to them if they do not?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the consequences are the full weight and force of the United States military. And I think we’ve made that clear. But right now — and we’re not trusting, we’re not taking their word for it — we are watching closely, we are in close contact, and we are certainly assessing whether they are going to abide by their commitments and by their actions.
Q Jen, how many Americans are in Afghanistan, both inside Kabul and outside Kabul? And should they get priority on evacuation flights? John Kirby said that it’s going to be a mix of SIV applicants and Americans, but should those remaining American citizens get priority? And how many are there in the country right now?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we are prioritizing a number of groups: American citizens; embassy employees and their families; our locally employed staff; SIV holders and applicants; Afghans who would be eligible for P-1/P-2 refugee programs, which includes, by the way, translators who may have assisted media organizations and others.
We are — there have been — how the process works, I should say — I’ll tell you — is that there are individuals who will self-identify as American citizens — that number is around 11,000. Beyond that — around the country — beyond that, though, there are individuals who may not have self-identified, who may come and request assistance and come to the airport.
We’re going to work to assist, of course, American citizens, but we also have a responsibility and an obligation to help the men and women who served by our sides, many of your — the sides of your colleagues, as translators, and as interpreters, and our locally employed staff, and others.
Q So, just to confirm, 11,000 in the entire country, not just in Kabul?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would just say, that’s the self-identified number, right? So — but we will continue to provide assistance. And we are prioritizing American citizens. We are also working to get additional officials out who have played an important role.
Q Just to follow-up on this: Obviously getting them through and getting them to the airport is the challenge, as everyone else here has noted, but the administration is left to negotiate with the Taliban, including one of the commandos who was released from Guantanamo Bay as part of the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap when President Biden was Vice President. How does he feel about that? Does he have any regrets? And how is he — how’s he digesting that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, I would note that — one, I’d go — point you to the Department of — the intelligence community to assess the identity of the individual. I know there’s been reporting on it, but that’s not my position to do from here.
I would also note that in prior negotiations and commitments made during the Trump administration, there were thousands of individuals who were released. So, our focus, right now, is on, again, not taking the Taliban’s word for it.
We are assessing. We are closely watching. And we are being very clear about the capacities and capabilities we have at hand should they be needed.
Of course, that’s not our objective.
Q And then, the last question: What are we doing to countermessage with what’s happening right now with China in Taiwan? The President said yesterday that China and Russia would love nothing more than to have the U.S. sink billions of dollars and stay here forever. But it seems to be that they’re celebrating this. They were touting “U.S. humiliation” in Afghanistan. In a warning to Taiwan and other allies, “the U.S. won’t come to help if war breaks out.” China’s embassy is functioning as normal. So what are we doing to counter their propaganda? And how does the administration view Russia and China’s engagement with the Taliban?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, we, of course, are in touch with the Chinese and the Russians as we — as we work to bring men and women out of Afghanistan and — including our SIV applicants and others.
Our message is very clear: We stand by, as is outlined in the Taiwan Relations Agreement, by our — by individuals in Taiwan. We stand by partners around the world who are subject to this kind of propaganda that Russia and China are projecting. And we’re going to continue to deliver on those words with actions.
Our objective in Afghanistan is to deliver also on what the President promised, which is to not put the men and women who have served our country bravely over the past 20 years in harm’s way again. And that’s what we’ll also be projecting to them as well.
Q Jen, why was August better than, say, November or December to be getting out?
MS. PSAKI: In terms of the August 31st timeline?
Q Correct. Because this is the Taliban fighting season, and that would not be.
MS. PSAKI: I know there’s been a fair amount of focus on that, but I wouldn’t say that that has been an assessment of a difference here in terms of what our timeline would have been from the beginning.
Q So there’s no belief that it would have been any different in December than it is in August?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t believe that military officials have made that assessment.
Q And as we ask about the risk assessment right now, what is the current risk assessment in terms of terrorism and the potential threat that exists within Afghanistan against the United States?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, as the President conveyed yesterday and also conveyed back in May, part of our objective here was to make sure we had the resources to fight the counterterrorism threat that has changed over the last 20 years, wherever it is. And that has not been emanating from Afghanistan in the way that it was two decades ago, which is understandable.
We have a range of capacities — over-the-horizon capacities, as well as capacities where we do effective counterterrorism operations in countries where we have absolutely no presence in any way at all. We will continue to watch closely, continue to assess, but I’m not in a position — I’ll leave that to our intelligence community to provide an update on.
Q You said just a little bit ago that, you know, if the Taliban does not agree to the safe passage agreements or conversations that the consequence would be the full force and weight of the U.S. military. But what exactly does that mean? Does that mean there’s a scenario where we go back in?
MS. PSAKI: That means that we have been clear, and I think my colleagues at the Defense Department have also conveyed this — that we have our own capacity — military capacity from here.
Obviously, we have worked with them to ensure safe passage. That’s where our objective is. I’m not going to outline or detail it further.
Q And one more: You said then — the administration said that the evacuation efforts were stalled in part because some Afghans did not want to leave earlier; they wanted to stay.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q Do you have any specifics on this population? Exactly how many Afghan allies are we talking about who were eligible to leave but chose to remain?
MS. PSAKI: It’s a good question. I can — I can see if I can give you a greater assessment of that. What I can tell you is that, you know, of the initial numbers of SIV applicants that were granted visas, there was a good chunk of that number who did not take advantage of those visas and depart.
Now, that does not change our commitment. That does not change our obligation, but it’s just an important component of the story of the last six months.
Q Of those 11,000 you mentioned — just for clarity — those are 11,000 self-identified people in the country not who want to leave? Do you have any indication of how many Americans are still trying to get out of Afghanistan?
MS. PSAKI: I can see if there’s a greater assessment. I would point you to the State Department on that though. They’d have the most up-to-date numbers.
Q Do you have a total number of people, overall, including third-country nationals and Afghan nationals, who you want to get out over the coming days?
MS. PSAKI: Again, there are a number of prioritized programs. I think we’ve given out some numbers in terms of — if you look at SIV applicants, we have about 22,000 spots at military bases here, an additional 8,000 in third countries.
Obviously, we’re going to work to assess and make sure we get — and we work to get as many people out as possible who are eligible for those programs, as well as, of course — separately — the American citizens. But I don’t have a number or an update for you on the total.
Q And just briefly, on COVID — I’m sorry, I know they’re going to announce this tomorrow — but are we talking about booster shots for everyone? And if so, why should, you know, healthy, young Americans be getting a third shot when so many in the world don’t have a first shot yet?
MS. PSAKI: Well, they will provide a briefing tomorrow on what the recommendations are, and I encourage you to ask a question — as I’m sure you will ask a question at their briefing, Josh, as you’ve been ca- — following this closely.
I’m not going to get ahead of their announcement or the President addressing this tomorrow. But I will tell you that we believe that it — that is a false choice. We can do both. And the United States is, far and away, the biggest contributor to the global supply — the global fight against COVID.
We will continue to be the arsenal for vaccines around the world. We also have enough supply — and we have long planned for enough supply should a booster be needed for the eligible population.
Q Thanks, Jen. The National Security Advisor said, “When a civil war comes to an end with an opposing force — force marching on the ground, there’s going to be scenes of chaos. There’s going to be lots of people leaving the country.”
But my question is: Why didn’t you have a better plan to secure the airport? How could you not anticipate crowds of people rushing the tarmac and overwhelming limited security if there was a contingency plan in place?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, I’d note something that Jake Sullivan said and John Kirby said, which is — and I’ll probably butcher their iteration of it — but basically, the best-laid plans require adjustment when you get on the ground and see what the situation on the ground is.
We have secured the airport in a short period of time. There were initial scenes of chaos, but we — that has been a priority, and we have accomplished that task.
Now our focus is on getting planes in and getting American citizens, SIV applicants, our locally employed staff, some of your colleagues out of the country. But we did effectively do that, thanks to the hard work of the men and women on the ground from the State Department and the Defense Department over the last 24 to 48 hours.
Q Thanks, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Okay. Oh, let me — I called on you. Just let me do one more.
Q Thank you. Just two quick questions. One, a follow-up: Jake said that the President had not spoken to any other world leaders yet. Why is that?
MS. PSAKI: Jake also said that our focus right now has been on operational efforts, which includes coordination at a lower level than leaders and heads of state. And that is our focus: on working with third countries to help get their citizens out or, of course, working with others on the ground to get vulnerable populations out. That’s where the focus is at hand right now.
And if there is a benefit in the President picking up the phone and calling a world leader, he will certainly do that. And I expect he’ll do that in the coming days.
Thanks so much, everyone. Have a great day.
2:42 P.M. EDT