Secretary of Defense Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Milley Press Briefing

By U.S. European Command Public Affairs United States European Command Pentagon, Washington D.C. Sep 02, 2021

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SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Good afternoon, and thanks for being here.

It's been a busy time for all of us in this department, a proud one and a solemn one, too. We have concluded our historic evacuation operation and ended the last mission of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. America's longest war has come to a close.

Now, both as secretary and as a veteran of our Afghan war, my thoughts have been with the brave Americans who stood up to serve after Al Qaida attacked us on September 11th, 2001, and my heart is with their families and loved ones, and with our friends and allies, and with our fellow citizens whose lives were lost or changed forever over 20 years of war. We remember 2,461 American service members and personnel who paid the ultimate price in this war, and more than 20,000 wounded Americans, some still carrying the scars that you can't see on the outside.

We also remember the thousands of American contractors who lost their lives, and hundreds of our allies and partners from NATO and beyond, and tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers and police officers and tens of thousands more Afghan civilians.

Now, we have just concluded the largest air evacuation of civilians in American history. It was heroic, it was historic, and I hope that all Americans will unite to thank our service members for their courage and their compassion. They were operating in an immensely dangerous and dynamic environment but our troops were tireless, fearless and selfless. Our commanders never flinched and our allies and partners were extraordinary.

The United States evacuated some 6,000 American citizens and a total of more than 124,000 civilians and we did it all in the midst of a pandemic and in the face of grave and growing threats. I am incredibly proud of those who made it happen, and they made it happen with grit and skill and humanity.

Our outstanding men and women showed steady judgment under crushing pressure, including some very young service members who summoned up exceptional courage at close quarters. They ran an international airport, they sped up visas, they fed the hungry, they comforted the desperate and they got plane after plane after plane into the sky.

Our forces risked their own lives to save the lives of others and 13 of our very best paid the ultimate price, and many of them were too young to personally remember the 9/11 attacks. The United States military will always honor their heroism. We mourn with their families and we owe them support through the days and years ahead.

It is noteworthy that, on the day of the attack at the airport, our troops and their partners pushed hard and carried on, putting 89 rescue flights in the air in the span of 24 hours and lifting 12,500 souls to freedom. It has been an enormous achievement, not just by the U.S. military but also by the militaries of our allies and partners, and of course by our teammates at the State Department.

Now the war is over and we're entering a new chapter, one in where our diplomats and our interagency partners take the lead. We're part of an urgent team effort to move Afghan evacuees out of temporary housing in intermediate staging bases in the Gulf and in Europe and on to begin new lives. And I'll be traveling to the Gulf next week to thank our partners there who have done so much to help save and shelter Afghan civilians.

Now, some of those brave Afghans will be coming to make new lives with their families in America, after careful screening and security vetting run by our interagency partners. We're temporarily sheltering some of these evacuees at military facilities here at home and I'm proud of the way that our military communities have welcomed them.

Some of these courageous Afghans fought alongside us, and they and their families have more than earned their places in the land of the free and the home of the brave. And welcoming these Afghans isn't just about what they've done, it's about who we are.

Now, as one mission ends, others must go on. And even during our Afghan retrograde, this -- this department was racing to help victims of natural disasters at home and abroad, and we still are. We've been driving to -- to end the pandemic and we've continued to tackle security challenges from China and Russia, Iran and North Korea.

It's our duty to defend this nation and we're not going to take our eye off the ball. And that means relentless counter-terrorism efforts against any threat to the American people from any place, it means working with our partners to shore up stability in the region around Afghanistan, and it means a new focus to our leadership in this young century, to meet the security challenges from China, to seize new opportunities in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere, and to deepen our ties with old allies and new partners, and to defend our democracy against all enemies.

But for today, I want to end with the word to the force and their families. I know that these have been difficult days for many of us, and as we look back as a nation on the War in Afghanistan, I hope that we will all do so with thoughtfulness and respect. I will always be proud of the part that we played in this war.

But we shouldn't expect Afghan war veterans to agree anymore than any other group of Americans. I've heard strong views from many sides in recent days, and that's vital, that's democracy, that's America. As we always do, this department will look back clearly and professionally and learn every lesson that we can. That's our way.

But right now, it's time to thank all of those who served in this war because you are the greatest asset that we have -- you, the extraordinary men and women who volunteered to keep us all safe and your families.

So my prayers are with you and with the Gold Star families who lost loved ones in Afghanistan and with the warriors who mourn their fallen brothers and sisters and with those who bear the wounds of war to body and to soul. We will never forget what you did and what you gave. Our country owes you thanks that won't fade and support that won't falter. The war has ended but our gratitude never will.

And finally, just a word about the Navy helicopter mishap overnight off the coast of California. I know the Navy is working diligently at search and rescue operations. And on behalf of the whole department, I want to pass on our thoughts and prayers for the best possible outcome. It's yet another reminder of the dangers our men and women face every day overseas, at sea, and here at home.

Now let me turn it over to the chairman.

GENERAL MARK MILLEY: Thanks, Secretary.

And good afternoon, everyone.

Three weeks ago the United States military received the mission to conduct a non-combatant evacuation operation from Afghanistan in support of the Department of State in order to evacuate American citizens, the Department of State-designated Afghans with a directed completion date of 31 August. The key military tasks were to secure and defend the international airport in Kabul, evacuate all embassy personnel, evacuate all American citizens that wanted to get out, and evacuate other Afghans as designated by the Department of State and retrograde all of the U.S. military.

In short, the United States military was tasked to conduct two highly complex missions simultaneously: to retrograde while in contact with the enemy and a NEO in a non-permissive environment. We executed that mission in a highly dynamic, dangerous operating environment from a war-torn country and was conducted across nine countries and 26 intermediate staging bases and temporary safe havens.

We deployed between 5,000 and 6,000 military personnel on the ground, some of whom were forward-deployed based on our contingency planning. These elements came from the 82nd Airborne Division, Special Forces, the Marine Corps, along with Navy and Air Force personnel. Flying and support were combat aircraft from the Air Force and the Navy as well as incredible support from the Transport Aircraft, the pilots and crews of the United States Transportation Command. And afloat we had our new Carrier Strike Group.

We flew 387 U.S. military C-17 and C-130 sorties, and we enabled 391 non-U.S. military sorties. A total of 778 sorties evacuated a total of 124,334 people which included almost 6,000 American citizens, third country nationals, and Afghans designated by the Department of State. And we will continue to evacuate American citizens under the leadership of the Department of State as this mission has now transitioned from a military mission to a diplomatic mission.

Evacuees flowed through the intermediate staging base safe havens in Central Command and European Command for onward movement to the United States, a third country, or their home of origin for repatriation. Evacuees complete medical and security screening vetting, in accordance with the lead federal agency's guidance, the Department of Homeland Security.

Currently there is approximately 20,000 evacuees and seven staging bases in five countries in Central Command, another 23,000 in seven staging bases in four countries in Europe, and as of this morning, there are approximately 20,000 Afghans who arrived at eight different military bases in the continental United States.

This mission costs 11 Marines, one soldier and one Navy corpsman their lives, and 22 others were wounded in action. In addition to over 100 Afghans killed and wounded in a horrific terrorist attack on 26 August at Abbey Gate on the southeast perimeter of the airport. Those soldiers, sailors and Marines give their lives so that others may live free. They literally gave their tomorrows for the tomorrows of people they never knew. Those 124,000, they never knew the 13 who died, and they will never know the 22 who were wounded, nor the thousands of dead and thousands of wounded who came before them, but they will now live in freedom because of American blood shed on their behalf.

Nearly two decades have passed since that horrible, dark September day in our nation's history, when 2,977 innocent lives were murdered. Since then, the men and women of the United States military and our interagency partners have fought tirelessly to defeat terrorists in Afghanistan and around the world. Both at home and abroad, their talent, their efforts have carried this fight day and night.

In Afghanistan, our mission -- our military mission has now come to an end, and we're going to learn from this experience as a military. How we got to this moment in Afghanistan will be analyzed and studied for years to come, and we in the military will approach this with humility, transparency and candor. There are many tactical, operational and strategic lessons to be learned.

Eight-hundred-thousand of us in uniform served in Afghanistan over the last 20 years. Our nation spent over $1 trillion, and most importantly, 2,461 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines gave the last full measure of devotion, while 20,691 were wounded, and untold thousands of others suffer with the invisible wounds of war as we close this chapter in our nation's history, and all of those casualties are alongside our allies and partners, and we should never forget that 60,000 Afghan National Security Forces gave their lives in the conduct of this war.

Our counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan and the region over 20 years has protected the American people from terrorist attack, and the men and women and children who were just evacuated will ultimately be the legacy to prove the value of our sacrifice. For the past 20 years, there's not been a major attack on our homeland, and it is now our mission to ensure that we continue our intelligence efforts, continue our counterterrorism efforts, continue our military efforts to protect the American people for the next 20 years, and we in the American military are committed to do just that.

For those of us in uniform who served in Afghanistan, for our families who have suffered and sacrificed along our side, for those who have supported us, these have been incredibly emotional and trying days, and indeed, years. We are all conflicted with feelings of pain and anger, sorrow and sadness, combined with pride and resilience. There are no words that I or the secretary or the president or anyone else will ever do to bring the dead back, but we can always honor them. And one thing I am certain of: for any soldier, sailor, airman or Marine and their family, your service mattered and was not in vain. Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: Okay, I think we have enough time for a few questions, and we'll start with you, Bob.

Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Looking ahead in Afghanistan -- a question for both of you, please -- given the experience of the past couple of weeks at the Kabul airport where U.S. commanders were coordinating, or at least, communicating daily with Taliban commanders to an effect that General McKenzie himself said was at times very helpful -- and -- and also, I noted, General Milley, in your case, you last year had face-to-face meetings with Taliban leaders, at least on a couple of occasions -- I'm wondering what you can -- what you think these experiences say about the prospect for the United States' relationship with the Taliban, to include the possibility of any kind of coordination in counterterrorism operations against ISIS-K in Afghanistan.

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, first of all, let me applaud the initiative of our commanders on -- on the ground who would stop at nothing to accomplish the mission that they were -- they were provided of evacuating as many American citizens, third-country nationals and SIV applicants as possible. We were focused on -- we were working with the Taliban on a very narrow set of issues, and it was just that -- to get as many people out as we possibly could. And so I would not lead to -- I would not make any leaps of logic to, you know, a broader -- to broader issues. I would just say that, again, I'm immensely proud of -- of what -- what our troops have done to this point, and it's hard to predict where this will go in the future with respect to the Taliban.

GEN. MILLEY: I would just say, Bob, you know, the secretary and I both served in Afghanistan, and many of us did, and you all did, too. We don't know what the future of the Taliban is, but I can tell you from personal experience that this is a ruthless group from the past, and whether or not they change remains to be seen. And as far as our dealings with them at that airfield or in the past year or so, in war, you do what you must in order to reduce risk to mission and force, not what you necessarily want to do.

Q: Any possibility of coordination against ISIS-K (inaudible)?

GEN. MILLEY: It's possible.

SEC. AUSTIN: Going -- going forward, Bob, I -- again, I would not want to make any predictions. I would tell you that we're going to do everything that we can to make sure we remain focused on ISIS-K, understand that network, and at -- and at the time of our choosing in the future, hold them accountable for what they've done.

Let's go to Helene Cooper.

Q: Thank you, sir, for doing this. I have a question for you, and then another one for General Milley.

Mr. Secretary, perhaps it's possible that there's no exit from Afghanistan that would not have been chaotic, given what we now know as for all of the reasons that the administration has mentioned. But I would like to know now, in hindsight, is there one thing that you wish that you or the Pentagon had done, could have done differently?

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, Helene. I -- I would just tell you that there hasn't been a single operation that I've ever been involved in where we didn't discover that there's something that we could've done better or more efficiently or more effectively, and I'd also say that no operation is ever perfect.

I will tell you that we will do what we always do, and that is to -- to look at ourselves and do after-action reviews and -- and we want to make sure that we learn every lesson that can be learned from this experience. But I want to take the time to -- to do it the right way. And -- and so we'll do that in the days -- in the days ahead.


Q: -- sorry.

SEC. AUSTIN: I was just going to say I -- I would just say again, Helene, that I'm enormously proud of our -- of our men and women who -- who worked hard to accomplish what they just accomplished, which I think, as I said earlier, is historic and heroic.

Go ahead.

Q: Do you wish you had maybe thrown out the book on the whole SIV -- I mean, the previous administration did leave -- I understand the Biden -- did put a lot of hurdles in the way the SIV program -- that this administration had to then deal with upon arrival. That -- do you think at all that because the Pentagon worked so hard with these people for 20 years, these translators and interpreters, that we should've thrown that whole book out?

SEC. AUSTIN: What I would say, Helene, is that the SIV program is obviously not -- not designed to accommodate what we just did in evacuating, you know, over 100,000 people. And so perhaps this -- this program should be looked at going forward. It is a -- it is a -- designed to be a -- a slow process. Secretary Blinken and -- and -- and the State Department worked hard early on to -- to shorten the timeline that it takes to -- to work your way through that process.

But again, for the type of operation that we just conducted, I think -- I think we need a different type of capability.

Q: And for General Milley, I wanted to ask you about Sunday's drone strike. Can you take us back to that morning? You have intel that ISIS-K is plotting another attack. The military spots a vehicle that you believe is full of -- carrying explosives and we take this car out with a drone strike. And reports now say that we may have -- that 10 civilians -- as many as 10 civilians may have been -- may have been killed.

Because of the urgent threat environment at the time, did preliminary assessments indicate that we may have rushed, relaxed or waived altogether some of the normal checks and balances that we do before a strike like that?

GEN. MILLEY: A couple of things. One is, as we always do on all of these things, we initiated an investigation. We're reviewing all of the video and all of that. But having said that, it -- we -- you know, what do we know, what do we don't know, what do we think sort of thing -- at the -- at the time -- and I think this is still valid -- we had very good intelligence that ISIS-K was preparing a specific type vehicle at a specific type location. We monitored that through various means and all of the engagement criteria were being met. We went through the same level of rigor that we've done for years and we took a strike. So that we did.

Secondly is we know that there was secondary explosions. Because there was secondary explosions, there's a reasonable conclusion to be made that there was explosives in that vehicle.

The third thing, as we know from a variety of other means, that at least one of those people that were killed was an ISIS facilitator.

So were there others killed? Yes, there are others killed. Who they are, we don't know. We'll try to sort through all of that. But we believe that the procedures at this point -- I don't want to influence the outcome of an investigation -- but at this point, we think that the procedures were correctly followed and it was a (righteous strike ?).

SEC. AUSTIN: So we've got time for one more question and we'll go to Barb for the last question.

Q: Thank you, sir. I -- while your messages today from both of you, your messages of compassion and gratitude are certainly understood, in the last several days, both of you have -- multiple times have issued these kinds of messages and statements.

And what I'm curious about is what do you see in the country, with troops, with veterans, that makes you, you know, you -- it's a rare thing that makes you feel these messages must continue? And you -- you have put -- put out so many in the last few days.

And General Milley, I was very struck -- you used the word "pain" and "anger," and that you understood that was out there. So as a combat veteran yourself of Afghanistan, can you help people understand that? Where does your pain and anger come from? If you could both answer your views on this.

SEC. AUSTIN: Yeah, I would start by saying, Barb, that this is the longest war in -- in our history. And so there have been a couple of generations that have participated in the -- in this war and -- and as we've gone about, I've gotten input and reactions that are from all sides of this -- of this issue. And as I said in my -- my opening statement, that's to be expected. And -- and, of course, I -- I respect that.

And I think we have to provide ourselves the time and space to adequately deal with -- with everything that our veterans have been through, and we will work through those issues and -- and the system will be there to support our veterans as we work through those issues. I just think, again, we need to respect each other's views and be supportive of each other.

And the one thing I would say, Barb, is that people will process this differently, and for those who think they need help, please seek help. You know, we're there for you. And as I've -- you've heard me say a number of times before, you know, mental health is health, period.

And -- and so this will take time to work -- for people to -- to -- to work their way through. There are varying opinions on -- on -- on each side of the aisle, and that's to be expected and respected, so.


Q: Can you both assure -- (inaudible) question (inaudible) General Milley.

GEN. MILLEY: So, Barb, you asked me where my pain and anger comes from. I have all of those same emotions and I'm sure the Secretary does and I'm -- any -- anyone who's served. And -- and I commanded troops and I wasn't born a four star General. I have walked through patrols and been blown up and shot at and RPG'd and everything else. My pain and anger comes from the same as the grieving families, the same as those soldiers that are on the ground.

Last night, I visited the wounded up in Walter Reed. This is tough stuff. War is hard, it's vicious, it's brutal, it's unforgiving, and yes, we all have pain and anger. And when we see what has unfolded over the last 20 years and over the last 20 days, that creates pain and anger, and mine comes from 242 of my soldiers killed in action over 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So yeah, I have that. But I'm a professional soldier. I'm going to contain my pain and anger and continue to execute my mission.


PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Thanks, thanks. We have to go. We have to go, guys.

Q: -- American people that --

MR. KIRBY: Thanks, guys.

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