Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, August 26, 2021
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
6:07 P.M. EDT
MS. PSAKI: Good evening, everyone. I know you all have heard from General McKenzie today, as well as the President, but obviously I wanted to provide the opportunity to answer additional questions from all of you.
Just one thing to note at the top: As a mark for our respects, starting today, the United States flag will be flown at half-staff at the White House and upon all public buildings and grounds, at all military posts and naval stations, and on all naval vessels of the federal government in the District of Columbia and throughout the United States and its territories, and possessions until sunset on April — August 30th — excuse me — 2021, in honor of the victims of the senseless acts of violence in Kabul, Afghanistan.
With that, Aamer.
Q Thanks. Just a few minutes ago, one of my colleagues asked a question about what the President would say to Afghans who fear they won’t get to leave. Was the Pre– the President said getting every single person out “can’t be guaranteed” of anybody. Was he lowering expectations for a smaller, but still significant, population that’s trying to get out, that’s still there?
MS. PSAKI: That wasn’t his intention, Aamer. I think what he was conveying is that at a time where the Taliban is taking over the country, it’s certainly not our preference, as you all know well. It is not going to be possible for every single Afghan — millions, potentially — who want to leave Afghanistan to be evacuated.
At the same time, I think you also heard the President make clear that there is not a dea- — there is not an end to our commitment to getting American citizens out who don’t want — who are not ready to leave, and to getting partners out and those who have served alongside the United States over the last 20 years.
Q And just real quick: On the Taliban, they are in charge of the perimeter. For the suicide bomber to get in, they would presumably have to get beyond a Taliban guard. So, why isn’t the Taliban in part responsible for what happened today?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think General McKenzie addressed this earlier this afternoon, and he made clear — and I understand your question is slightly different from that, but I think it’s worth repeating and important to repeat — that we don’t have any information at this point in time, and that has not changed over the last couple of hours, to suggest the Taliban had knowledge of or was engaged in or involved in this attack.
Obviously, what happened today and the loss of lives of U.S. servicemembers, of Afghans, is a tragedy, is horrific, is one of the worst things, if not the worst thing, we’ve experienced during President Biden’s time in office.
But again, we don’t have any additional assessment at this point in time.
Q Just a few things, Jen, to clarify. Thank you. He talked about the ongoing mission to get people out after the 31st. But to be clear: As of tonight, is it still the plan to get all U.S. forces out by August 31st?
MS. PSAKI: Nothing has changed on that timeline.
Q Okay. Did the President — based on his public comments over the last few days, did the President see this coming?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think what you have seen the President say, and many members of our military and our national security team say, is that we have been closely watching and assessing the threat of ISIS-K, and that we have had increasing concern about that threat growing over the last couple of days.
So this has been a concern that we have been watching, and we saw, of course, the tragic events happen today.
Q And does — what does today’s attack say about the U.S.’s ability to keep the terrorist threat in check once the U.S. pulls all military forces out of Afghanistan? Because this is something he talked about —
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
Q — early in July when he reiterated what the plan was.
MS. PSAKI: You’re right. And I appreciate that question. I think it’s important for people to know and understand that the threat that is posed by having thousands of U.S. military on the ground — still currently on the ground, implementing a mission, committed to a mission, as you heard General McKenzie and the President also say — that is a threat. They are a target. People gathering around the airport — that is a threat; that is a target.
But ISIS’s ability to target individuals who are on the ground in Afghanistan is very different from ISIS’s ability to attack the United States and attack the homeland. And we will maintain and continue over-the-horizon capacity with a presence, in partnership with countries in the region, to ensure that they don’t develop that ability.
Q Do you know yet if he would go to Dover to greet the caskets of those that were killed?
MS. PSAKI: I am certain the President will do everything he can to honor the sacrifice and the service of the lives who were lost today.
I will note — you didn’t ask this question but some others have asked it, and he didn’t have the opportunity to ask it, so let me pro- — or answer it — to provide you an update on — I know some have asked about whether he’s called the family members. And for those of you who have covered this, you know the process. But for those of you who have not, or people who are watching at home, the process would first go through the Pentagon; there’s a next-of-kin notification process. I know General McKenzie spoke to this earlier today. That is the process that is still underway at this point in time. Until that process concludes, the President would not make a call because that’s the first step in the process.
And then, in terms of additional steps, such as Dover, of course, you know, he would consider and want to be a part of any means of honoring the lives that were lost today.
Q Thank you, Jen. General McKenzie described this — one of the explosions at the Abbey Gate happening at a point after someone had been searched by the Taliban. How is the United States still going to work with the Taliban the way that the President is describing, or just did in his remarks, to get American citizens and Afghan allies out, if that is what we’re working with?
MS. PSAKI: Look, I’m not trying to sugarcoat what we think of the Taliban. The Taliban is not — they’re not a group we trust; they are not our friends. And we have never said that.
It is also the reality that the Taliban controls large swaths of Afghanistan. And, to date, because of coordination with the Taliban, we’ve been able to evacuate more than 104,000 people, save 104,000 lives. And that coordination is necessary in order to continue our evacuation measures.
Now, I understand your question, Peter, and the questions of others on what they knew or what their role was. There’s no assessment we have at this point in time of their involvement in this. Obviously, that’s at this time. If that changes, we will let you all know.
Q And does the President really think that they are going to be reliable partners if we’re already getting reports that they’re not letting Afghans to the airport and the U.S. is still at the airport?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think — you mean after the 31st, or moving —
Q Yeah, after the 31st.
MS. PSAKI: — over the next couple of days?
Q Well, we’ve heard that it’s already happening. So does he think that’s going to get better?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’d note also that, as the President just said, more than 7,000 people have been evacuated over the course of the last 12 hours. That is while there was an — active attacks that were happening. Those are individuals who were let through gates, who were let onto planes, and got us well over 100,000 people who have been evacuated.
Again, this is not about trust. This is not about relying on the Taliban as an equal partner. No one is suggesting that. But because they control large swaths of the country, including a lot of the security perimeters around the airport, we have to coordinate with them in order to get people out, and we’ll continue to do that.
But — so, one more thing I would say is that we have an enormous amount of leverage — this is our view — over time. That includes economic leverage, that includes leverage that we will make clear to the Taliban as it relates to coordination to continue to get American citizens and our partners out.
Q Jen, there have been reports of explosions happening throughout the afternoon in Kabul — or evening now, obviously. And some reportings indicate that this is the beginning of a process of the U.S. military beginning to destroy equipment on the ground. Can you confirm that that’s what’s taking place?
MS. PSAKI: I would defer — I would defer you to the U.S military on specific steps of their retrograde process, which, as we know, would have to take place in advance of a departure.
Q And then, in terms of what we heard from the Pentagon and then the President just articulated — which was his confidence that they have enough troops on the ground at this point to continue to facilitate the mission — I guess the question is: How can that be the case, given what we saw today — the tragic loss of life? And doesn’t that call for additional troop levels potentially needed, reinforcements to get on the ground? And additionally, what is the concern for the ongoing threat that ISIS-K continues to pose to these efforts?
MS. PSAKI: There is an ongoing threat. And every day that our troops are on the ground, they’re at risk, and that’s a reality. And as you saw the Pentagon brief out earlier today, this was — this were — these were attacks that we had — obviously had intelligence, in terms of over the last several days, of our rising concerns.
But I will tell you that — and as it relates to your first question, Mike — you know, I’ve been sitting in these meetings as well, and every single meeting, the President asked the Pentagon — nearly every meeting before they conclude: “Is there anything else you need to conclude your mission? Do you need equipment? Do you need troops? Do you need resources? He’s asked them that again today as it relates to completing their mission over the next coming days and going after the individuals — the terrorist who — who are — who killed servicemembers today as well.
Q Thank you, Jen. You just noted you were in some of these meetings today. Was there ever a point where the President was reconsidering this deadline of having all U.S. forces out by August 31st?
MS. PSAKI: No. And here’s why: The President relies on the advice of his military commanders, and they continue to believe that it is essential to get out by the 31st. That is their advice.
And there are several reasons for that: one is the ongoing threats, and the second is that we need to be — we want to be able to have the ability to get individuals out, who have been partners of ours, after the 31st. And they believe the best way to do that is to stay on that timeline at this point in time.
Q And does the White House still anticipate that those flights of mass evacuations will end before the actual 31st?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to get into an operational timeline of when the last evacuation flight will be, and I don’t expect the Department of Defense will do that either. We will let you know, as we have twice a day, as we have updated numbers.
Q One more question. Is there an alternative
plan being discussed for how to get these people who are seeking to leave to the airport, given it is potentially perilous to go and wait outside the gates right now to get in?
MS. PSAKI: There are a range of operations and operational approaches that our commanders and military on the ground have been utilizing over the course of several days, if not more. I’m not going to outline those from here, but that is why they’re in touch with American citizens, why they’re in touch with partners we’re working to evacuate to get them safely to the airport and evacuated at the appropriate time.
Q Is it your opinion that the President has the authority he needs from Congress, or wherever else, to continue operations beyond August 31st? He kind of talked about pursuing ISIS-K wherever, whenever he needs to. Is there any expectation that he’ll need any additional authority to do so?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t believe there’s an expectation of additional authority needed.
Q And what about for military commanders on the ground? Do they — will they need to come back in order to conduct counterterrorism operations, in order to do anything of the sort?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, as the President just said in his remarks a little while ago, he’s asked them to draw up plans. He — the President was — I don’t think he could have been more clear about the fact that he believes we will not forgive, we will not forget, and we will hunt down these terrorists and kill them wherever they are. He’s asked them to draw up plans. Whatever they need for those plans, he is committed to delivering on. But I don’t have anything to outline for you today on that.
Q And is it possible to do that with no military troops, no military bases in the surrounding countries around
MS. PSAKI: Again, I would say — I would note for you, Trevor, as you know — you’ve covered these issues quite closely — we have a range of counterterrorism capacities in a number of countries around the world where we don’t have military bases.
Obviously, I’m not going to outline what their approach would be from the military. I will leave that to them to take and leave it to them to outline anything at their — on their timeline.
Q Jen, you mentioned about the increasing concerns about this terror threat. The President, just two days ago, said, “Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops.” Today, we saw the deadly consequences of that. If the risk grows tomorrow and keeps growing the next day and beyond that, how should Americans feel about this operation continuing right now for the coming days?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, first, you heard General McKenzie convey clearly that we had every intention — they had every intention of continuing this evacuation mission over the coming days and that they plan for incidents of these kind — I mean, to the degree that they can. They have every intention to continue.
The President has regular consultations every — every day, multiple times a day on days like this, about how they see the circumstance on the ground. But that is our expectation at this point in time — that it will absolutely continue over the coming days.
Q And can you give us some details about how the President spent his day?
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q He was scheduled to get briefed in the nine o’clock hour by his national security team, and that’s when the first reports were coming in of this. Walk us through what he did over those coming hours, just some color, behind the scenes today.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. For people who are watching, “color” means additional details of what he was up to.
I will say, Karen, that the initial — initial reports of the attacks came in as members of his national security team were gathering in the Situation Room for a regular meeting with the President.
So they were just gathering and sitting down, so those — and gathering in the room — those initial reports came in at that time. As the President arrived in the Situation Room, one of the first updates he received, of course, was about the attacks on the ground in Kabul. There were — this was a developing situation, as it has been through the course of the day.
And through the course of his briefing with his national security team this morning, the — his commanders on the ground also — and in the region — gave regular updates as they learned more information.
Once he left the Situation Room, those updates proceeded through the course of the day. He’s been in constant contact with his National Security Advisor, his Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and military commanders, both here and in the region, throughout the course of the day, receiving updates on what’s happening on the ground.
Q And was there ever a second meeting of that entire national security team with the President in the Sit Room?
MS. PSAKI: No, this was just regular, ongoing contact with members of his national security team through the course of the day.
Q Just to clarify, since you said you were with him, how was he? How was his mood? How was he in dealing with all these — with the incoming information? How was he in asking the questions of military commanders (inaudible)?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say that anyone who’s watched the President up close, which is most of you, knows that the — putting the lives of servicemen and women at risk, and those decisions that you have to make as Commander-in-Chief, weigh heavily on him.
And as I noted a few minutes ago, any day where you lose servicemembers is — may be the worst day of your presidency, and hopefully there’s not more. But we are certainly early in the presidency at this point in time.
So I would say, you know, he was somber and, as he said today, outraged at the — these terrorists taking the lives of servicemembers. And he wanted to make clear to the public — he wanted to have all the information that he could before he spoke to the American people so he could convey exactly what we knew at the point in time where he addressed the public.
And he has wanted very detailed updates of exactly what we know about what is happening on the ground, and that is why he’s been in constant contact with members of his national security team.
Q Sorry, Jen, just quickly: Can you confirm the reports that it is now 13 U.S. servicemembers who have died?
MS. PSAKI: I would leave that to the Department of Defense to confirm any additional casualties.
Q Thanks, Jen. You talked about the ongoing threats, earlier. We heard from General McKenzie, talking about, you know, this, quote, “extremely active threat streams.” But how would you sum up, right now, the level of confidence that the administration has that there won’t be another attack like this before the completion of this evacuation mission?
MS. PSAKI: I can’t give you that assessment. As I think our national security team has said — members of our national security team: These are ongoing threats. We are watching them closely. But I can’t give you that assessment from here.
Q Can you speak a little bit to what the impact on flights has been? You’ve been touting U.S. and coalition flights, but this attack has slowed some of those flights from coalition partners. Other countries are now out. Does this restrict bandwidth that you thought you would have for the next five days to get people out? Are fewer Americans and Afghan allies, SIVs, et cetera, going to get out because of this attack?
MS. PSAKI: It’s a good question, Josh. And one of the reasons we put out the numbers twice a day is because we want you all to have an understanding of how many people were able to get out.
I would note that more than 7,000 people were evacuated over the last 12 hours. Those include members from coalition partners, and we’re working now — and this is one of the pieces that the President has been focused on — is getting as many people out and onto these planes as possible, even as we’re working to address these security threats on the ground.
But I don’t want to give you a prediction, because our U.S. military is incredible. And they are working, even while they are facing these security threats, to continue the evacuation mission.
Q What do you believe to be the case at the airport now? I suppose not particularly at this hour, given —
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q — the time it would be there. Can Americans go? Should Americans go? Are Afghan SIVs getting through Taliban checkpoints and to the airport? Are you still discouraging them from doing that? What is the situation on the ground and that perimeter?
MS. PSAKI: Again, Josh, I would say that we are giving very specific directions to individuals — American citizens and others — on when they should come to the airport, where they should meet, how they should come to the airport.
We’re obviously not going to outline or detail those from here or in any public manner. But that is certainly the direction we would be giving to people: to pay attention to the security alerts and to pay attention to notifications and contacts they are receiving from us or coalition partners.
Q And very quickly — I’m sorry — just to clarify: There were warnings that led up to this attack. Other countries have been warning, the administration has been warning this is a dangerous situation, et cetera. Can you speak to whether there was specific indications that this was being planned? And if so, do you have specific indications that other ones are being planned now?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to get into specific intelligence, but I will tell you and re- — confirm for you that the threat is ongoing, and we are continuing to watch and assess the threat.
Q Thanks, Jen. President Biden has spoken a lot about the need to end the forever wars. How do you end — but how do end the forever wars in Afghanistan if you are still — or if the United States is still continuing to attack ISIS-K?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, I would say this is a specific case today where 12 individual — servicemembers — and 15 who were wounded today. And certainly, I would expect any President of the United States would be clear that he will avenge those deaths and the acts of terrorists. And I don’t think that came as a surprise to anyone.
But the President stands by, as he — as he outlined to all of you just in the last hour, his commitment to bring an end to this war, as he has implemented over the course of the last month. And what we’re talking about here is avenging these deaths from terrorists. We’re not talking about sending tens of thousands of troops back for an endless war that we’ve been fighting for 20 years.
Q And if I may ask a kind of — a bit of a related question to Josh. When the Obama administration was bringing in Syrian refugees, there was a lot of pushback from various states and locales about refugees coming into their communities.
MS. PSAKI: Yeah.
Q How do you see that situation this time around? Is this going to be different? Or do you anticipate those same, kind of, pushback and hard feelings?
MS. PSAKI: We will see. But I will tell you that what we have been working to do is to work closely with governors, with localities, with local leaders to give them detailed briefings on what our vetting process looks like, what the background check process looks like before any individual comes into the United States. And that is a background check process that’s thorough before they are allowed to come in and step on U.S. soil.
We also know that there are some people in this country, even some in Congress, who may not want to have people from another country come as refugees to the United States. That’s a reality. We can’t stop or prevent that on our own. But we are going to continue to communicate our intensive vetting process, and we’ve been working hard to do that behind the scenes. And we’re going to continue to convey clearly that this is also part of who we are — a part of the fabric of the United States, and not back away from that.
Q Thanks, Jen. There is an American that’s been detained by the Taliban since last year. His name is Mark Frerichs. And I’m wondering if the administration has been in negotiations to release him as part of these prior negotiations with the Taliban.
MS. PSAKI: We’ve certainly raised his case at every opportunity. And it has certainly been raised, but I don’t have any update on that case.
Q And then, you said that there’s a threat for these remaining days that U.S. troops are in Kabul. Is there — are there any additional precautions that are being taken to protect these troops? Obviously, you’re not going to send in additional troops, but are there any sort of other precautions that are being taken?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t think I’m going to get into operational details of what is happening on the ground. Certainly, there are steps taken to protect our troops on the ground by the commanders who are leading the efforts on the ground.
Go ahead, in the middle. Oh, go ahead.
Q Thank you, Jen. Just last week, the President said the following: “We’ve made clear to the Taliban that any attack on our forces or disruption of our operations at the airport will be met with a swift and forceful response.” Was this an attack? Were our forces targeted? Was this at the airport? Were our operations disrupted? And if indeed it was, would this qualify as a “swift and forceful response”?
MS. PSAKI: I think the President just addressed exactly that when he said, “We will not forgive. We will not forget. And we will hunt you down.” When he spoke —
Q (Inaudible) suicide bombers —
MS. PSAKI: — just an hour ago.
Q — people who — people who live so that they can kill themselves?
MS. PSAKI: He is — was referring to the attack of terrorists from ISIS-K, who launched this attack and killed U.S. servicemembers. I don’t think —
Q But he should be going after them regardless of whether they attacked servicemembers.
MS. PSAKI: I don’t think he could have been more clear.
Q Yes, Jen. At least 67 House Democrats now have signed on to a letter asking the President to raise the refugee cap, in fiscal year 2022, to at least 200,000. I think you’re looking at about 125,000 right now.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
Q Is that something that the White House is willing to accept?
MS. PSAKI: I have not talked to the President about this specific question. What I will tell you is that what we are trying to do is get our muscles working again, both in our systems and the incredible refugee groups that are working on welcoming refugees from around the country, and working on getting our vetting processes and systems around the world that are — that need to be in good shape in order to welcome refugees to get as many as we can. But I have not had a conversation with him about raising the cap beyond the 125 [thousand], as you said. I’m happy to do that.
Go ahead, Eli.
Q You know, given that Kabul has been the main — the only departure point in the country, I wonder if the administration knows how many of the American citizens left, the green card holders, SIVs that are in the country still, are outside of Kabul, and if there have been or may be, in the future, efforts to go out and rescue people from those more far-flung places.
MS. PSAKI: Yes, on your latter question — I’m not going to get into more details — and we’ll continue to be.
On your former question, the vast majority are within the Kabul vicinity. But as the State Department provided an update a little bit earlier today, but I know there’s been a lot happening today, so let me just reiterate a couple of these numbers. Of the 1,500 that they — that they briefed on yesterday, roughly 500 have been evacuated.
And so we’re talking about roughly an additional thousand that we are — we believe remain in Afghanistan. The vast majority — over two thirds — informed us they were taking steps to leave, and we are in touch with. That is what we are working through and what we are focused on every single day.
Q And so you — just to be clear, you’re saying that those missions, even if you have to be vague about it, they have taken place at times —
MS. PSAKI: I’m not confirming if they have or haven’t; I’m just going to convey to you — I’ll leave that to the Department of Defense.
What I will tell you is that we are committed to getting American citizens home and out of Afghanistan should they want to leave, and that includes people around the country.
Q Thanks, Jen. Earlier today, General McKenzie said that, right now, they are focused on other active threats to U.S. servicemembers there on the ground. Are all the threats the U.S. is currently facing from ISIS-K? Are there other groups that may be bad actors there on the ground?
MS. PSAKI: I’m just not going to detail additional information about ongoing, live threats.
Q Okay. And are — do we know if the President still feels as though the chaos and the violence that we’ve seen there on the ground in Kabul was all unavoidable, even at this point?
MS. PSAKI: You mean from about 11 days ago?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say — and I’ve spoken to this a few times — if we go back to 11 days ago — if that was your — if that is your specific question — we certainly didn’t anticipate that the leadership, the Afghan government would leave in the manner or would topple in the manner and the timeline that they did, or that the Afghan National Security Forces would cease to protect the airport and parts of Kabul. That is not what we anticipated in that timeline. That is true.
What I will say and reiterate again is that, within 24 to 48 hours, we had secured the airport. And since then, we’ve evacuated more than 104,000 people.
Q Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q How would you describe the relationship right now with the Taliban in light of the attack? And are they still helping out with security (inaudible)? What’s their relationship right now?
MS. PSAKI: Again, this is not a friendship or a relationship where there is trust — it’s based on trust. But we are continuing to coordinate to move American citizens, to move Afghan partners and our allies out. And the fact that we have evacuated 7,000 people in the last 12 or 13 hours now is evidence of that.
Q Thanks, Jen. So, two Republican senators so far have called on the President to resign over the attacks in Afghanistan today. What’s the White House’s response to that?
MS. PSAKI: I would say, first, this is a day where U.S. servicemembers — 12 of them — lost their lives at the hands of terrorists. It’s not a day for politics, and we would expect that any American, whether they’re elected or not, would stand with us in our commitment to going after and fighting and killing those terrorists wherever they live, and to honoring the memory of servicemembers. And that’s what this day is for.
Q Jen —
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q Hi. Thank you. Yesterday, when I was leaving the White House, I spoke to a group of men at the White House gate who said that they were servicemembers here in America, in our armed forces — various branches. They had their photos on posters. And they’re seeking help for their families.
We’ve prioritized which groups we are helping, namely those who have helped us in the mission. But they are not — they’re currently in the military, but they are not people who fit the description or the criteria for getting assistance. However, in our interview, they told me that they are getting assistance. Can you speak to this prioritization and who really is eligible to get assistance going forward, considering what happened today?
I know you’ve already spoken to it, but can you drill down a little bit to make sure people know who we are allowing into the country at this point?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not sure what I — that I totally understand your question, but let me do my best.
American citizens, which I assume these U.S. servicemembers are —
Q They’re not — they serve here in our country, but they’re from Afghanistan and they have family members there. So, they said they went to the State Department, and the State Department was helping them get their family members in. And they wanted to get attention so that other people in their situation could get their family members in. And they didn’t seem to fit the criteria. So I’m just asking you to clarify.
MS. PSAKI: Are you concerned that we’re letting — we’re helping the family members of people who have fought by our side for 20 years — helping them come to the country once they’ve been through a thorough vetting process? Or what’s the root of your question?
Q No. The root of my question is consistent information for those who need help. So, I’ve been doing some reporting around people getting correct information about the process. So, I want to be able to say in my reporting, “If you meet these qualifications, you are the folks who can come into the country.” And I think a lot of people want to know that information. Does that make sense?
MS. PSAKI: I think we’ve been very clear, Mona, that U.S. citizens, their family members — some of those are dual nationals — many of them who are left are dual nationals; some of them may have lived their whole lives in Afghanistan.
Immediate family members — that means spouses and children; it also means SIV applicants and others who might be eligible for a range of the programs we have; and vulnerable populations.
That does have a broad range of meanings because there are a lot of people who are vulnerable in Afghanistan, and we’re going to work to get as many of those people out as we can. There’s a range of programs. If individuals have questions, information is available on the State Department website and the Department of Defense website.
Q Thank you. Over 65 Democrats in Congress are calling on Biden to raise the refugee cap to at least 200,000 —
MS. PSAKI: I think I just answered this question.
Q Did you? Oh. I have another one. Sorry.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
Q And then, the President had cited intelligence data earlier in his speech that ISIS-K had been planning attacks on U.S. personnel for quite some time and that was, in part, why he was trying to get everyone evacuated by August 31st. But if that was the case, then why did the administration make the decision in late July to not do more rapid early evacuations on military aircraft?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first, I would say that we have, over the course of the last 11 days, evacuated more than 100,000 people, and that is a credit to the U.S. military, and the men and women who are serving, who have been able to conduct and oversee this operation, and done it at great risk.
And that was an operation that began, again, just two weeks ago. Before that time, we’d also evacuated a number of people. I can’t speak to what the difference of the ISIS threat would have been, but obviously that has been increasing over time, which we have spoken quite publicly about.
Q Thank you very much. Despite the lack of true trust that you and the President and everyone is highlighting in this relationship with the Taliban, which is understandable — having said that, there’s been a remarkable level of cooperation; I mean, something no one would ever possibly have imagined, whatever, you know, even a month ago. And as the President was saying, it’s actually ongoing now, despite the incident; they’re, you know, kind of helping — trying to deal with this.
Given that, after the 31st, is it actually conceivable that there could be some kind of longer-term relationship on the mutual interests that the President talks about — security, humanitarian aid? And, you know, whether you call it a recognition or not, you’re basically working alongside Taliban authorities in Afghanistan long-term.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would say, first, that we will continue to work to get people out of Afghanistan, even after the 31st. And we will need to coordinate with the Taliban in order to do that.
I’m not going to label that a “partnership” or anything other than continued coordination. And we, again, believe we have a great deal of leverage in order to implement that commitment.
Q So, I’m sorry, but on other issues — beyond the evacuation, let’s say that gets done — you know, hopefully it is done. But there’s going to be also (inaudible). There’s going to be the security, the terrorism, the humanit- — from their point of view, the humanitarian aid. Could you see this, kind of, mutual interests agenda continuing with them?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t want to get ahead of where we are. Obviously, we are committed to continuing to deliver humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan. There are a range of international partners who are committed to doing the same thing. The United Nations also will continue to have a presence on the ground, which will be a mechanism for delivering a great deal of that assistance.
And I would just reiterate, again, we would need to have a continued coordination in order to continue to get people out and evacuate them, as we are going to plan to do after the 31st.
Go ahead. Oh, go ahead, Shelby.
Q Thanks. I just have two for you. This morning, Kirby tweeted that the evacuation operations in Kabul won’t be wrapping up in 36 hours and that they’ll be evacuating as many people as they can until the end of the mission. What does the administration define the end of the mission as? Is it the 31st, or is it once we evacuate everyone that the administration has promised to get out?
MS. PSAKI: The end of this mission — yes, the 31st. But our commitment to getting American citizens out, who may not be ready to depart, continues. There is no deadline on — there’s no end of that deadl- — end of that timeline, I should say, to getting our Afghan partners out.
And I think he put out that tweet — John Kirby, who is the Pentagon spokesperson — put out that tweet because there was a great deal of reporting that was inaccurate, that we were ending evacuation flights tomorrow, and that is not accurate.
Q And then just one more. The President promised earlier that they’ll continue to get any American who wishes to get out of Afghanistan out, even after the 31st. How is the administration going to ensure the safe evacuation for U.S. citizens without troop presence when, even with troop presence, we just saw this attack happen?
MS. PSAKI: Well, again, over the last 11 days we’ve evacuated 104,000 people, including the vast majority of Americans who are in Afghanistan. But our commitment does not end, right? We are continuing to work to get every American citizen, who wants to leave, out before the 31st.
We will need to have — we will need to continue to coordinate with the Taliban in order to get people to the airport and out from the airport. Those operational details and discussions are ongoing, and as we have more to report to all of you, we will provide that information.
Q Thank you, Jen. Moments ago, you said that the commitment doesn’t end at the end of the month and that, you know, despite August 31st, the commitment remains. During his remarks moments ago, the President said that we were going to try and get, quote, “as many people out as we can.” Is he trying to prepare the American public for a sort of harsh reality that some Americans might still be left on the ground there when we leave?
MS. PSAKI: There are some Americans who may not have decided to leave by the 31st. That is possible. Many of these Americans who remain are dual citizens. They may have extended family members — 20 family members, 30 family members, others who they want to bring with them and they’re not ready to make that decision yet.
Our commitment to them does not end. We will continue to work to get them out. But his objective and focus — and laser focus, which he asked for many updates a day on, is getting every American, who wants to leave, out now in the next few days. That is what our U.S. military is working to deliver on.
Q Thank you, Jen.
Q Jen —
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
Q A quick follow-up to that: What are those Americans supposed to do on September 1st?
MS. PSAKI: We have been reaching out — in touch with every single American who has reached out to us and we have contact for via phone, email, text, WhatsApp. That will continue. That will continue. But our focus right now is on getting every single American, who wants to leave, out in advance of the 31st.
Q Jen, given that you had intelligence about the attack even, as I understand it, down to the very gate but weren’t able to stop it, what hope do you have of thwarting further attacks that the President told us just now — and I quote — were
“inevitable”? And if not, isn’t the decision to stay potentially the wrong one? — is my first question. And I got a quick follow-up.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, I would say, first, that General McKenzie spoke to this earlier today — or a version of this question, which is a very good question. And what he conveyed clearly is that they are commitment — committed — our U.S. military is committed to continuing the mission, despite the fact that there are daily risks and despite the fact that there are ongoing threats.
That speaks to their courage. That speaks to their commitment and their service to this country. Obviously, anything they need — anything that the national security team needs or military commanders on the ground need to thwart, to prevent these attacks, to go after terrorists, they will be granted. But I’m not going to get into more details than that.
And just secondly, you mentioned earlier, I think in an answer to Kaitlan, that there were other operations or methods of getting Americans to the airport, particularly given what’s happened today. What will you do for the thousands or tens of thousands of Afghans with and without visa papers who were finding it impossible to get to the airport prior to the attacks today and who will now be, presumably, even more full of fear and confusion as to how they can possibly get out? What do you say to them?
MS. PSAKI: We are also in touch with many, many of them. And we are giving them clear instructions on where to meet, when to come to the airport, where — how they can get out and evacuated from the country. We are also mindful in providing security threats when warranted, as we did last night, to prevent a large gathering that would be a greater attract — attraction to terrorist threats.
But we are — for individuals who are eligible for our programs, whether they are SIV programs, P1/P2 programs, other vulnerable Afghans, we are continuing to work to get as many out as we can, and we will continue to work with our partners and allies to continue to get them out.
Q Can I follow up on that?
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
Q It seems like, right now, Americans and Afghan allies still in Afghanistan are facing two choices: either they stay where they are and risk being hunted down by the Taliban, or they try to get to the airport and risk being blown up by ISIS. How does this evacuation mission continue without evacuees risking their lives?
MS. PSAKI: We are in direct contact with every American citizen we have contact information for — email, phone, text, WhatsApp — and we are working with each of them and their families on an individual basis on how to get them evacuated to the airport and evacuated. That’s the process. I’m not going to get into more details about how that works because it’s not in their interest, it’s not in the security interest of our troops or the individuals we’re trying to work to get evacuated.
Go ahead, all the way in the back. Pink. Pink shirt, yeah.
Q Has Joe Biden spoken with any foreign leader after the attacks in Kabul?
MS. PSAKI: This — today? I will have to check on that for you. That’s a — that’s a great question. I’m not sure he has today. But I will check on that for you. And as you all know, he’s going to be meeting with the Prime Minister of Israel tomorrow.
Q Thanks, Jen.
MS. PSAKI: Okay. Thank you, everyone.
6:46 P.M. EDT