8/18/2021 Washington D.C.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III
I’m going to speak briefly and then turn it over to the chairman for an operational update. Let me start by saying that we remain laser-focused right now on Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
And on doing everything that we can to continue evacuating Americans, allies, Afghans who have worked alongside us and — and also other courageous Afghans at special risk. And to that end, I’m prioritizing three key concerns.
First, the safety and security of our people and the people that we’re trying to evacuate. As the chairman will brief you, the final elements of additional military forces continue to flow in to Kabul with about 4,500 in place as we speak. They are trained and equipped to defend themselves and their operations.
There have been no hostile interactions with the Taliban. And our lines of communication with Taliban commanders remain open, as they should be. My second focus is maintaining security at the airport itself. In concert with forces from our allies, our troops have set up defensive’s positions around the airport.
And the airport is able to function safely. Now, we don’t take this for granted, and I continue to be in daily contact with General McKenzie and commanders on the ground to make sure that they have what they need to keep it safe. My third area of focus, of course, is the pace. Increasing the flow of aircraft and people out of Kabul.
Now, we’ve flown out several thousand since the 15th of August and our goal is to be able to increase our capacity every day going forward. And as we build out this capacity, we are working hand-in-glove with the State Department, which is leading the whole of government effort to notify and process American citizens who are leaving.
And to urgently identify and process Afghan applicants as well. We’ve dispatched small military teams to two of the airport’s gates to assist State Department — the State Department counselor efforts as they evaluate and process individuals seeking entry. And we expect to be able to augment that capability in the coming days.
This is truly a team effort across the interagency and throughout all of this our U.S. service members are making exceptional efforts under challenging circumstances. And showing their humanity and their compassion. So, I want to thank them for their skill and their professionalism.
It’s not lost on me that even as we conduct this very important mission. We also continue to help our fellow Americans deal with a new surge in the pandemic and the citizens of Haiti deal with an aftermath — the aftermath of an earthquake.
Let me also thank General McKenzie and Rear Admiral Vasely, who is the commander of U.S. Forces Forward. And Major General Donahue of the 82nd Airborne Division, and Brigadier General Sullivan for their leadership at this critical time. It is making an enormous difference, they know, as I do that there’s a lot of work to be done yet.
Now, all of this is very personal for me. This is a war that I fought in and led. I know the country, I know the people, and I know those who fought alongside me. And as I said, we have — we have a moral obligation to help those who helped us. And I feel the urgency deeply. So, I want to end with a word for the force and our military.
I know that these are difficult days for those who lost loved ones in Afghanistan and for those who carry the wounds of war. Especially now we mourn those who made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan. And let me say to their families and loved ones our hearts are with you. And the U.S. military stands as one to honor those we’ve lost.
Now, Afghan war veterans aren’t some monolith. I’m hearing strong views from all sides on the — on this issue. And that’s probably the way that it should be. What’s important is that each of us will work our way through this in our own way. And we need to respect that and we need to give one another the time and space to help do it.
Our greatest asset as a nation is the extraordinary men and women who have volunteered to keep us all safe and their families. We honor your service, we understand your sacrifice, and we will never forget it.
And so, with that, I’m going to turn it over to General Milley, who can talk about where we stand operationally.