Press Briefing by Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:30 P.M. EDT
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Oh, I heard a “knock ‘em dead.”
All right, everybody. Happy Thursday. Good afternoon. I have a few things at the top before I turn it over to the Admiral.
As I was walking out here today, we saw news that Republican legislators in Tennessee were preparing to vote on the expulsion of three Democratic officials who stood in solidarity with children and families peacefully protesting for action on gun safety.
The fact that this vote is happening is shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent. Across Tennessee and across America, our kids are paying the price for the actions of Republican lawmakers who continue to refuse to take action on stronger gun laws.
The President will continue to call on Congress to take action to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, require safe storage of firearms, eliminate gun manufacturers’ immunity from liability, and require background checks for all gun sales. And state officials must do the same.
This has been one of the worst weeks for — of 2023 so far in terms of anti-LGBTQ bills becoming law in states across America.
Three anti-LGBTQ laws have been enacted so far this week in Kansas, Indiana, and Idaho. Just yesterday, the North Dakota Senate passed 10 anti-LGBTQ bills in just one day, a single-day record.
In Kansas, the state legislation overrode Governor Kelly’s veto to make Kansas the 20th state that has banned transgender kids from participating in schools’ sports.
With the enactment of a new law in Indiana, 14 states have now banned gender-affirming healthcare, while some of these laws are currently blocked by courts. This is a dangerous — a dangerous attack on the rights of parents to make the best healthcare decisions for their own kids.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, more than 50 percent of transgender youth in the U.S., which is estimated to be more than 150,000 kids, live in states in which transgender youth have lost access to or at risk of losing access to gender-affirming care.
Look, this is awful news. Let’s be very clear about that. LGBTQI+ kids are resilient. They are fierce. They fight back. They’re not going anywhere. And we have their back. This administration has their back.
We are so proud of the kids across this country who have organized protests and school walkouts to tell the politicians in their states to stop this legislative bullying.
I know that these political attacks can really take toll on people’s mental health, so I want to say directly to LGBTQI+ kids: You are loved just as you are, just the way you are. And if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you call 988, the national crisis hotline, and dial the number “3” to talk to a counselor who has been specifically trained to support LGBTQI+ kids. This is a new service that the Biden administration is proud to offer during these incredibly hard times for these trans kids.
Now, one last thing before we move on to — to the briefing.
On Sunday — oh.
AIDE: I’m so sorry, but they have to gather.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Okay. So, the in-town pool has to gather for the President’s departure. And we’ll just continue.
So, if you all want to go ahead and do that, feel free. And then, we’ll cont- — we’ll still continue with the briefing.
So, just — so, we can go quickly here. I want to give you guys a week ahead, as we normally do on Fridays.
On Sunday, the President and the First Lady —
(Members of the press depart Press Briefing Room.) Let’s do this quietly, friends. Thank you.
On Sunday, the President and the First Lady will return to the White House from Camp David.
On Monday, the President and the First Lady will host the 2023 White House Easter Egg Roll, a tradition dating back to 1878. A teacher for more than 30 years, First Lady Jill Biden is continuing her theme of “Egg-” — “EGGucation” for the event, transforming the South Lawn and the Ellipse into a school community full of fun educational activities for children of all ages to enjoy.
In addition, the time-honored traditions of rolling and hunting eggs, this year’s White House Easter Egg “EGGucation” Roll will also feature a Schoolhouse Activity Area, Reading Nook, Talent Show, Field Trip to the Farm, Picture Day, a Physical “EGGucation” Zone, a Snack Time Tent, and more.
On Tuesday through Friday, the President will travel to the United Kingdom and Ireland. The President will first travel to Belfast, Northern Ireland, from April 11th through April 12th to mark the tremendous progress since the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement 25 years ago and to underscore the readiness of the United States to support Northern Ireland’s vast economic potential to the benefit of all communities.
The President will then travel to Ireland from April 12th through April 14th. He will discuss our close cooperation on the full range of shared global challenges. He will also hold various engagements, including in Dublin, County Louth, and County Mayo, where he will deliver an address to celebrate the deep, historic ties that link our countries and people.
On Monday, we’ll have some more to share about the details of the trip.
Now, finally, as you — as many of you know, over the past many months, departments and agencies key to the Afghanistan withdrawal have been conducting thorough, internal after-action reviews examining their decision-making processes and execution. Those reviews fed into a process looking across the administration.
And today, the NSC will also be releasing a document that provides our perspectives, outlines in broad strokes some of what we learned and how we have already implemented those lessons in other global challenges.
My colleague, Admiral John Kirby, is here today to discuss that document, and we — with all of you today and answer your questions.
And with that, Admiral, the floor is yours.
MR. KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody.
So, I want to start today by again updating you, as Karine said, on the administration’s work to assess the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
As you all know, over these many months, departments and agencies key to the withdrawal conducted thorough, internal after-action reviews, each of them examining their decision-making processes, as well as how those decisions were executed.
Today, they are making those reviews available to relevant committees in the Senate and in the House, as previewed by Secretaries Blinken and Austin in testimony last month.
Those reviews, as Karine said rightly, fed into a process looking across the administration.
So, today, we are also making available to all of you and to the public a document that provides our perspectives on the withdrawal and outlines in broad strokes some of what we learned, as well as how we are already implementing some of those lessons. That document will be posted to the White House website at the conclusion of my briefing.
But I’d like to take some time, if you’ll allow me, to provide you an overview.
First and most critically, the President’s decision to end the war in Afghanistan was the right one. The United States had long ago accomplished its mission to remove from the battlefield the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and to degrade the terrorist threat to the United States from Afghanistan.
And now, with that war over, we can more squarely address the most pressing challenges of our day. America is on a stronger strategic footing, more capable to support Ukraine and to meet our security commitments around the world, as well as the competition with China, because it is not fighting a ground war in Afghanistan.
Of course, we continue to address terrorist threats — which, as the President accurately assessed, would have migrated to other parts of the world — through effective over-the-horizon operations, including those that took out the leaders of al Qaeda and ISIS — al-Zawahiri and Haji Abdullah, respectfully — respectively.
But while it was always the President’s intent to end that war, it is also undeniable that decisions made and the lack of planning done by the previous administration significantly limited options available to him.
President Biden inherited a force presence in Afghanistan of some 2,500 troops. That was the lowest since 2001. He inherited a Special Immigrant Visa program that had been starved of resources. And he inherited a deal struck between the previous administration and the Taliban that called for the complete removal of all U.S. troops by May of 2021 — or else the Taliban, which had stopped its attacks while the deal was in place, would go back to war against the United States.
The President’s transition team asked to see plans for that removal. They asked to see plans for a security transition to the Afghan government. And they asked to see plans to increase the processing of Special Immigrant Visas. None were forthcoming.
Transitions matter. That’s the first lesson learned here. And the incoming administration wasn’t afforded much of one.
Thus, President Biden’s choice was stark: either withdraw all our forces or resume fighting the Taliban. He chose the former but, even in so doing, secured extra time to conduct that withdrawal, stretching it out to August.
And that’s the second point worth making. Despite having his options curtailed, President Biden led a deliberate, rigorous, and inclusive decision-making process that was responsive to facts on the ground. He focused keenly on the need for proper planning. In fact, President Biden directed his top national security leaders to begin planning for a withdrawal even before he had made the final decision to leave Afghanistan.
He ordered troop reduction plans; plans to turn over bases and equipment to the Afghan government, as the previous administration had negotiated; plans to draw down our diplomatic presence; and plans to evacuate both American citizens and Afghan allies alike.
Indeed, evacuation planning started in spring of 2021, and the President ordered additional military forces pre-positioned in the region by mid-summer in case they were ever needed.
Throughout, President Biden insisted that his team plan for worst-case scenarios, such as the fall of Kabul, even though the intelligence community’s assessment, when he was making the decision in early 2021, was that Taliban advances would accelerate only after the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
The President repeatedly requested assessments of the trajectory of the conflict from his military and his intelligence professionals.
No agency predicted a Taliban takeover in nine days. No agency predicted the rapid fleeing of President Ghani, who had indicated to us his intent to remain in Afghanistan up until he departed on the 15th of August. And no agency predicted that more than — that the more than 300,000 trained and equipped Afghan National Security and Defense Forces would fail to fight for their country, especially after 20 years of American support.
In fact, the assessment was that the promotion of Acting Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi would actually strengthen their resolve to stay and fight.
And so, another lesson learned was the need to plan early and extensively for low-probability, high-risk scenarios.
I should note here that our experiences in Afghanistan informed our decision to set up a small group of experts for worst-case scenario planning on Ukraine, which included simulation exercises and our ability to forcefully and plainly speak publicly about the risks we saw of impending invasion.
Now, look, there’s always going to be tension between highlighting warning signs that a country may collapse and undermining that same government. And that’s a difficult balance to strike.
But in Ukraine — and, before that, in Ethiopia, for that matter — we prioritized earlier drawdowns of our personnel when each of those capitals were under threat. In fact, months before Russia’s invasion, we released intelligence with trusted partners and our warnings about the invasion grew louder and more public. This aggressive approach allowed us to organize with our allies and help enable Americans in Ukraine to depart safely.
And just to remind: We continue to facilitate the safe departures of Americans from Afghanistan when they tell us they are ready to leave. And we have proudly welcomed nearly 100,000 of our Afghan partners and their family members to the United States. Many of these families left Afghanistan after the withdrawal, and they continue to arrive on a regular basis.
Now, I’d be remiss here if I did not also express our gratitude to the many private and nonprofit groups, including those comprising veterans of the war who helped us identify, contact, and arrange for the safe transport of thousands of these brave Afghans.
Without their help or the incredible assistance we received from countries in Europe and the Middle East that allowed us to use their facilities as waystations, we could not have moved as many people as quickly as we did. And that’s yet another lesson that we learned — this one about the power of allies, partners, and friends.
Now, we know we need more help, which is why we urge Congress to assist us in improving the Special Immigrant Visa Program and by passing the Afghan Adjustment Act, both of which will make it easier for us to keep meeting our commitments to our Afghan allies.
No comments — none — about this withdrawal would be complete without mention of the deadly attack on the Abbey Gate at Hamid Karzai International Airport on the 26th of August.
The President, at the time, made it clear to operational commanders that force protection remained his highest priority.
In those tense days when the threat was particularly high, he accepted the recommendation of his national security team to extend the timeline for evacuations only after his senior military officials confirmed that they had sufficient resources and authorities to mitigate threats, including those threats posed by ISIS-K. He trusted the best judgment of his leaders on the ground to make all operational decisions, including with regard to Abbey Gate.
The President and the First Lady will always honor the sacrifices of the 13 service members who were killed in that attack. And we will never forget their families. We will mourn with them, remember with them, and support those Gold Star families.
We mourn, as well, the loss of those Afghans killed by that suicide bomber on that day, and others who lost their lives during the withdrawal.
And we will always honor the bravery and selflessness of every member of the military, the foreign service, the intelligence community, and our civil service, who made possible the largest airlift evacuation in military history and all under the constant threat of attack.
The effort was certainly not without days of pain, hardship, or bloodshed. But neither was it without courage or poise or professionalism.
For all the lessons that we take away, we should remember that over 20 years of war and in its final days, these men and women saw things and did things and carry things with them that you and I will never fathom.
We must make sure that they and their families know that their service mattered. We must make sure they get the help and the support that they need. We must make sure that their legacy is never forgotten. They ended our nation’s longest war. That was never going to be an easy thing to do.
And as the President himself has said, it was never going to be low grade or low risk or low cost. We should be humble enough to let that also be a key lesson learned from Afghanistan.
Thank you. I’ll take some questions.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead, Ed.
Q So, John, thank you for doing this. But I think I speak on behalf of my colleagues in this room when we want the record to reflect that this was sent to us about 10 minutes before the briefing began with little notice, and it’s the very definition of a modern major holiday news dump.
You’re releasing this at the beginning of the High Holidays and after months of requests from Republicans and the broader public.
So, why today? And is this all we get? And is this a response to the studies that were done by the agencies? Or is this considered a summary of them?
MR. KIRBY: Yeah, there’s a lot there.
This is the result of months and months of work by individual agencies who were participating in the withdrawal to voluntarily review that withdrawal, which they did. And they worked through that. These are — these documents are classified.
And we felt it was the responsible thing to do, after those reviews were done, to then run a process across the administration to take a look at those reviews ourselves across the interagency, work our way through it, and then provide them to the relevant committees and leaders on the Hill, which we did today. We think that was the responsible thing to do.
And what you’re seeing today is the result and the culmination of an awful lot of work, Ed. No effort here to try to obfuscate or try to bury something. It’s an effort to try to be as open, as transparent as we can be.
And what you’ve got in that document there is a pretty fair summary of our perspectives of the work over those many months, and pulling and collating a lot of those lessons learned together. And we’re trying to present certainly the key lessons learned — the ones that we’re — we’re able to share more openly and more publicly with you.
And I’ll tell you this: You got questions after the briefing today — I’ll stay here as long as you want. But you got questions after the briefing today? You know how to get ahold of me. We’ll answer whatever you have.
Q I got two specific ones about what’s in this document after a speed read here.
On page eight: “The President received and accepted the unanimous advice of his top national security officials to end the evacuation on August 31st.”
What is the definition of a “top national security official”? Because we know, for example, that General McKenzie, who was then head of CENTCOM, has said he objected to aspects of this. So what’s the definition of a top national security official?
MR. KIRBY: I am loath to get into the individual advice that individual members of the President’s team give him. That would not be appropriate for me.
But I can tell you, having lived through this as well at the Pentagon, that the President specifically asked his team: Should we extend past the 31st? He specifically asked them to go back and look and see what that would look like. Because we had secured this additional time from the Taliban to the 31st of August.
And the team did that. The team did that, Ed, not just at the highest levels of the Pentagon, from the Secretary to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to General McKenzie, but even the operational commanders on the ground.
And there were numerous flag and general officers on the ground at the airport. All of them took a fair look at the President’s request and came back to him —
Q But are they all top national security officials?
MR. KIRBY: — and said that it would not be advisable given the high threat environment.
Remember what also happened — on the 26th, that attack at Abbey Gate. And then we had very high temp between the 26th and the 30th, in which, of course, there was a kinetic strike taken in downtown Kabul. There was — there was high temp.
And so, the advice of his senior national security team all the way up to the senior levels of the Pentagon advised him that the 31st was the appropriate date to end that evacuation.
Q There’s four pages here of blame on the previous administration or this White House explanation of what the last White House did regarding Afghanistan. Nowhere in here does there appear to be any expression of accountability or mistake by either the President himself or others. Is there any for what happened?
MR. KIRBY: I would argue that the very fact that we voluntarily — the agencies voluntarily decided to go conduct after-action reviews — nobody told them to do that. That wasn’t legislated by Congress. They did that on their own.
And the fact that they did that and that we’re now placing it in — in — on the Hill for Congress to look at; the fact that we digested and distilled some of the key points of that and gave it out in a public document; the fact that I’m up here talking to you about it, I think, shows you how seriously the President felt about learning lessons from this withdrawal.
I would also point out to you that the work isn’t over.
So, number one, even before you got that document, some of those lessons were applied. I had talked about Ethiopia. I talked about Ukraine.
And number two, it’s not like — it’s not like the work is all over. The President signed the legislation enabling the — the Afghan War Commission to be formed. And we’re going to continue to work and cooperate with that. That’s going to look at the whole 20 years.
And America’s longest war deserves a lengthy review and lengthy study, and the President is committed to that. Thank you.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead, Mary.
Q Thank you. In reading this, you seem to be conceding that evacuation should have happened sooner and faster, saying we now prioritize earlier evacuations, noting that today you would message evacuations more aggressively.
I understand you’ve made clear the President does not have any regrets about his decision to withdraw. But in hindsight, in reading this, does the President have any regrets about how this withdrawal was carried out?
MR. KIRBY: The President is very proud of the manner in which the men and women of the military, the Foreign Service, the intelligence community — I went on and on and on — conducted this — conducted this withdrawal.
But, look, I’ve been around operations my entire life, and there’s not a single one that — that ever goes perfectly according to plan. Things happen. Sometimes enemies get a vote. And — and you always want to learn from that.
And one of the things that we learned — and I’ve talked about it here in my opening statement as well — is that you got to — that balance of striking, when do you — when do you pull out when a government is under threat, particularly a friendly government, and do so in a way that doesn’t undermine the very government you’re trying to support. That’s a tough balance to strike. And it’s different in every single case.
And as I said, we learned from Afghanistan and we applied that lesson in Ukraine and Ethiopia — that being aggressive in the information space and being willing to move a little sooner may be the best thing.
Q But does he wish he had done things differently?
MR. KIRBY: The President — I think everything is laid out here in this document about the main — the main takeaways, the main lessons that we learned. And again, the President is enormously proud of the men and women who conducted this withdrawal.
Q And just one last thing. On the last page here, you note that “The speed and ease with which the Taliban took control of Afghanistan suggests that there was no scenario — except a permanent and significantly expanded U.S. military presence — that would have changed the trajectory.”
I wonder what is your message to the veterans, to the families of the fallen who may read that and wonder, “What was the point?”
The President said many times that the mission that we originally were sent into Afghanistan for was accomplished a long, long time ago. Remember, they were ordered in under President Bush to avenge the 9/11 attacks and to go specifically after Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.
And decimating and degrading al Qaeda’s capability in Afghanistan was a mission that we accomplished a long, long time ago. And over time — the President has talked about this — the mission in Afghanistan morphed into something it wasn’t intended to originally be.
That doesn’t — just because the mission changed over time under previous administrations and leadership and scenarios doesn’t mean that anybody who served in Afghanistan doesn’t have something to be proud of, doesn’t have — sorry — doesn’t have
service to this country that they can take with them the rest of their lives and feel honorable about it.
They didn’t — they didn’t make those decisions. They signed up. They raised their right hand — all volunteers at a time of war — to say, “Yeah, put me in. I’m going to go fight.” And some of them didn’t make it back.
And everybody that made it back made it back a little bit different than when they left, and the President and the First Lady understand that and respect that. And they should know that they will always have the commitment of the Commander-in-Chief and the respect of the country for doing that.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Nandita, and then I’ll come — we’re going to get around, everybody (inaudible).
Q Thanks, Karine. The report says the Trump administration’s four years of neglect, including deliberate degradation, left Afghanistan operations in despair. Could you be specific about “deliberate degradation”? What are you specifically referring to?
MR. KIRBY: There are many aspects if you look at the Doha Agreement and what led up into that.
When President Trump took office, there was more than 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan. He took it down to 2,500. He negotiated the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners that were being held by the Ghani government without consultation with the Ghani government. He negotiated the Doha Agreement with the Taliban without the Ghani government in the room. And he all but froze the Special Immigrant Visa program, which had been providing opportunities for some of our Afghan allies to get out of the country and to come — and to come back.
So, it was a general sense of degradation and neglect there that that the President inherited.
And do not underestimate the effect that the Doha Agreement had on the morale and the willingness to fight on the Afghan national security and defense forces. It — it had — it had a very corrosive effect on their willingness to continue to fight for their country.
Now, we didn’t see that. We didn’t see that. And part of the reason we didn’t see that is because we couldn’t see the plans the previous administration allegedly worked on during the transition. No — as I said in my opening statement, none of those plans were forthcoming.
Q So would you say that the points that you just listed especially were the ones that made this transition so much harder?
MR KIRBY: Those were some of the key ones.
Q Okay. And a quick follow-up on what the report says about the administration not broadcasting loudly about any potential worst-case scenarios out of concern it would signal a lack of confidence in the Afghan government’s position.
We obviously ended up seeing Ghani flee the country.
MR. KIRBY: Yeah.
Q And so, was that a well-thought-out decision?
MR. KIRBY: What was — was what a well-thought-out decision? His decision to flee?
Q Not broadcasting — not broadcasting loudly any concerns about the lack of confidence in the Afghan government.
MR. KIRBY: Yeah, I think — look, as I said, it’s a different — it’s a difficult balance to strike. And we were having internal conversations. In fact, we had conversations with the Ghani government about our concerns over what was happening in the countryside throughout Afghanistan there in early August.
And — and where we came down on was not calling for an evacuation sooner because we didn’t want the Ghani government to collapse. And we had every assurance made by President Ghani that he wasn’t going anywhere, that he was still in charge, that he still had a viable administration.
And so, you know, when do you — when do you make that call? And it’s difficult, it’s tough to do it in the moment, and nobody can predict the future. Again, as I said, we learned from that experience, and we applied a more aggressive approach, if you will, in Ethiopia and in Ukraine.
But every instance is different. Every capital is — that’s under threat is under a different kind of threat, and you have to evaluate it.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Phil, in the back.
Q Thank you.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: I promise I’ll come up. I just got to go to the back.
Q That summer before the withdrawal, there was a dissent channel — cable that was written by 23 State Department officials there at the Kabul Embassy, warning that the administration, in their view, was not prepared at that moment for the withdrawal.
I’m curious: Did this review take that dissent cable into account?
MR. KIRBY: You’ll have to talk to the State Department. The State Department conducted an after-action review. That — and so did the DOD — and that’s a question better put to them.
Q And then one specifically then for the President and this administration. I’m curious if there was a moment during the Afghanistan withdrawal that the President lost confidence in the assessments that were given to him by the intelligence community and lost confidence in the intelligence community itself, given that they failed to foresee how quickly the Taliban would advance and Kabul would fall.
MR. KIRBY: The President knows how hard people work across the administration to try to give him the best information that they can. But it didn’t stop him from asking. Throughout the entire withdrawal, he was constantly pulsing the national security team about this or that assessment and constantly challenging the thinking, constantly looking for — for ways to better understand what was going on on the ground.
Some of the assessments that was produced, as I put in my opening statement, were — proved out to be not correct. But — but, you know, he — again, this was, you know, an honest effort by everybody to try to get at the right outcome.
Q No one doubts that they weren’t working hard. But their assessment was flawed, and they failed in that assessment. Has anyone been held accountable for giving the President a wrong view —
MR. KIRBY: I don’t —
Q — about how things were turning out on the ground?
MR. KIRBY: I don’t know how much intelligence you read or you get to look at it every day, but let me tell you something: It’s a mosaic. It’s really hard. And I’ve yet to see an intelligence assessment that — that ever was 110 percent certain about something.
They — they get paid to do the best they can, weaving in multiple sources of information, sometimes in real time without even a lot of time to process. And do — and they do the best they can. Do they always get it right? They’ll be the first ones, if they were up here, to tell you they don’t always get it right.
And clearly, we didn’t get things right here with Afghanistan about how fast the Taliban were moving across the country. I don’t think we fully anticipated the degree to which they were constructing these deals in the hinterlands that kind of fell like dominoes. We didn’t anticipate how fast the Afghan National Security Forces were going to fold, were not going to fight for their country — particularly after we had, as I said, dedicated 20 years, trained and equipped them. I don’t think we fully appreciated the degree of corruption that was in the officer ranks in the military.
I could go on and on and on.
But it doesn’t mean that people weren’t trying and doing their best effort to understand that. But intelligence, getting it right every single time — man, that’s — that’s a tough — that’s a tough hill to climb.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead, Kristen.
MR. KIRBY: Doesn’t mean that they don’t try.
Q Karine, thank you. And, John, thank you for being here. It seems like page after page, this places the blame on the previous administration, starting with page one. “President Biden’s choices for how to execute a withdraw from Afghanistan were severely constrained by conditions created by his predecessor.”
MR. KIRBY: Yeah.
Q Let me just follow up with you on something that Ed was asking, which is: Does the President take responsibility for the withdrawal and everything that happened thereafter?
MR. KIRBY: He’s the Commander-in-Chief. And he absolutely has responsibility for the operations that our men and women conduct and the orders that he gives. And he continues to believe that the order to withdraw from Afghanistan was the right one.
And if you just look, Kristen, at what’s happened since we pulled out of Afghanistan and see what the United States military has been better able to do on behalf of the American people, I think there’s only one conclusion you can come to and that it was the right decision.
Q And as you list these things that —
MR. KIRBY: But — but wait — before I answer — but that do- — but you need to remember — and I get the question about, you know, the previous administration — you got to look at when he came into office what he was walking into.
He didn’t negotiate with the Taliban. He didn’t invite the Taliban to Camp David. He didn’t release 5,000 prisoners. He didn’t reduce force levels in Afghanistan to 2,500. And he didn’t have an arrangement with the Taliban that they wouldn’t attack our troops.
He came in with a certain set of circumstances he had no ability to change. He had to deal with it based on what he inherited.
Q And yet, he had eight months to plan. Did he not?
MR. KIRBY: He had to take eight months to plan because we — whatever plans there might have been done by the previous administration, we didn’t see. And — and it was not apparent that there was a lot of planning done.
So, yes, he took some time to — to work through that. I don’t think he can be blamed for that. In fact, he enabled and was able to secure from the Taliban extra time on the clock. Because by May 1st, you might remember, they were going to come in guns blazing.
Hang on a second. I’ll get to you.
They were going to come in guns blazing on May 1st. He got us until the end of August so that we could do — I mentioned that in my opening statement — proper planning, proper planning that — that accounted for high-risk scenarios and — and probabilities that we — we hadn’t thought of before so that he could get military forces pre-positioned in the region so that if we had to go in and conduct an evacuation, they could do that.
And you know how fast they got there? Forty-eight hours. When we ordered a NEO — a noncombatant evacuation — because he put them there. And he had to have time to do that.
Q What does the President believe — what mistakes does the President believe he made?
MR. KIRBY: I’m not going to speak for the President on — on that score. What I can tell you is that, again, we’ve done a good-faith effort here to work through the lessons learned of this withdrawal. And we’ve already started to apply those lessons.
The President ran a very inclusive, very rigorous, very flexible process that was responsive, as I said, to — to the views of operational commanders on the ground. He repeatedly asked for and received assessments almost every day about what was going on, and — and acted in accordance with the best judgment of his advisors, particularly military advisors, as things were unfolding.
Q John, just finally, given the enormity of this report, given the American lives that were lost, why are we not hearing directly from the President?
MR. KIRBY: We are putting this forth for you and for Congress to- — today. And I think you’ve heard from the President. He has talked many times —
Q But not about this report.
MR. KIRBY: — about — he has talked many times about his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, his belief that it was the right decision. He has talked publicly about the withdrawal before and about the courage and sacrifice and the professionalism.
And he has been — he and the First Lady have been very open and honest and transparent about — about the sorro- — sorrow that they feel for — for those that lost their lives.
MR. KIRBY: Peter. And then I’ll go to the back after Peter.
Q Thanks. John, who’s going to get fired over this?
MR. KIRBY: Peter, the purpose of the document that we’re putting out today is to sort of collate the chief reviews and findings of the agencies that did after-action reviews.
The — it’s not — the purpose of it is not accountability. It’s — the purpose of it is —
Q Military leaders were giving advice.
MR. KIRBY: — purpose of it is —
Q It doesn’t sound like it was good.
MR. KIRBY: — to study lessons learned.
Q Do you admit that the intel was bad? So how can President Biden ever trust, when they come into the Oval Office with the PDB, that anything in there is legit?
MR. KIRBY: What I said was —
Q “That intelligence is a mosaic.” What if the mosaic — all the pieces are incorrect?
MR. KIRBY: What I said was intelligence is hard business, and they get it right a lot too. There were some pieces here that weren’t accurate. And we’re being nothing but honest with you and the American people about what those inaccuracies were and how they shaped some of the decision-making that was laid before the President and his ques- — and the questions that he — that he asked.
This document and this effort isn’t about accountability today. It’s about understanding.
And I would also add that the re- — as I said to Ed — the review process isn’t over. This is — this is the next muscle movement in what will be a long process to better understand and comprehend and adjust to what we learned and what we did in Afghanistan.
Q But it doesn’t seem like after the country has had a couple months to review this, and as the government has, people don’t have an issue with the decision to order troops out of Afghanistan. It is with the way that this President ordered it done.
There were children being killed. There were people hanging off of Air Force jets that were leaving. And you’re saying that you guys are proud of the way that this mission was conducted?
MR. KIRBY: It doesn’t mean —
Q You’re proud of that?
MR. KIRBY: Proud of the fact that we got more than 124,000 people safely out of Afghanistan? You bet.
Proud of the fact that American troops were able to seize control of a defunct airport and get it operational in 48 hours? You bet.
Proud of the fact that we now have about 100,000 Afghans, our former allies and partners, living in this country and working towards citizenship? You bet.
But does that mean that everything went perfect in that evacuation? Of course not.
I’ve talked about it from a dif- — a different podium. The after-action reviews are now being reviewed by members of Congress, which will lay out things that could have gone better. Nobody is saying that everything was perfect, but there was a lot that went right. And a lot of Afghans are now living better lives in this country and other countries around the world because of the sacrifices and the work of so many American government officials.
So, yeah, there’s a lot to be proud of, Peter.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Patsy.
Q Thank you, Karine. Thanks, John. Just to follow up and my colleague’s questioning about the blame assigned to the previous administration. Specifically, how does the — how is the Trump administration responsible for the disorganized and chaotic process of evacuation and determining who gets to board these evacuation flights? I mean, you mentioned that there’s a review in terms of the lessons learned. Can you share some of those lessons learned, just specifically in terms of who gets to board evacuation flights?
MR. KIRBY: I’m not going to go beyond the review — the document that you have today or my comments today.
But I’m actually glad for the question, because I remember going through all that. And those first few days were very, very tough, they were very hectic, because we didn’t have a force presence at Karzai International Airport.
Now, we were still in the process of taking those pre-positioned forces and getting them onto the field. And we got them there within 48 hours. And about 72 hours after that, that airport was basically, for all intents and purposes, American property, surrounded by the Taliban and ISIS-K.
So they not only had to run an airport, get the radars up and going, do air traffic control, get planes coming in and getting them loaded, have medical screening, have security vetting, have diplomatic presence on the ground to make sure that we’re putting the right people on planes, but also defend that airport from external threats. That’s pretty remarkable.
And so, for all this talk of chaos, I just didn’t see it, not from my perch.
At one point during the evacuation, there was an aircraft taking off full of people, Americans and Afghans alike, every 48 minutes. And not one single mission was missed. So, I’m sorry, I just won’t buy the whole argument of chaos.
It was tough in the first few hours. You would expect it to be. There was nobody at the airport and certainly no Americans. It took time to get in there.
Q Correct. But is there anything in the review that addresses the problem of who was in charge at that time? I think there was a lot of analysis that questions whether it should have been the military who’s in charge of the evacuation versus the State Department, and that is partly the problem of the confusion.
And I understand your point about planes leaving full of people, but there were also —
MR. KIRBY: I actually don’t —
Q — planes who left empty —
MR. KIRBY: I —
Q — and people falling off planes.
MR. KIRBY: I don’t — I actually don’t accept the premise of your question that there was some sort of confusion over who runs it. It was a noncombatant evacuation operation, once it was called, and the military leads those. It’s pretty clear.
Now, we needed the support of the State Department because you had to have diplomatic officers, consular officers, people trained in the — in the vetting of individuals coming in. And we needed that help for sure. There was a lot of interagency coordination, and some of it had to be developed in the moment, because we’d never done something like this before.
But it was very clearly what we call a “NEO,” a noncombatant evacuation operation, which was led by the military.
And let me tell you something else: Noncombatant evacuation operations are the — are probably some of the most difficult — not “probably” — they are some of the most difficult operations for any military to conduct.
Q And can I just follow up on the women’s rights issue, John, since you were there? Since the withdrawal, Afghan women have suffered massively under the Taliban, and they have recently banned Afghan women from working as U.N. staff. Some believe that this is a tactic — a pressure tactic by the Taliban to secure a seat at the U.N. — Afghanistan seat at the U.N. Do you believe that this is a tactic that will work? Under what circumstances would the U.S. even consider allowing the Taliban to have the Afghanistan seat at the U.N.?
MR. KIRBY: Again, I think we’ve talked about this. I mean, we certainly condemn this approach by the Taliban. It is — and we’re certainly not going to be compliant with it.
If the Taliban wants international legitimacy, in whatever form, then they should answer up to the commitments they made in the Doha Agreement and in other agreements and, in this case, to be respectful of the rights of women and girls. And they haven’t.
And so, until they do, they’re going to be continuing to struggle to gain some sort of sense of legitimacy or assistance from the rest of the world.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead, James.
Q Karine, thank you very much. Admiral, thank you. I have two questions about this report. First question is about the intelligence angle. I think we can safely agree that any time the assets of the intelligence community are harnessed to an assessment of a life-and-death matter and the community gets that wrong and death ensues, that that qualifies as an intelligence failure.
First question here is whether — since you have acknowledged essentially, without calling it as such, an intelligence failure in this case, do we know why the intelligence community got it wrong? What — was it cultural? Was it specific? Was it analytical? What was the problem with the intelligence community here?
MR. KIRBY: The intelligence community also conducted after-action reviews, and I’d let them speak to that. I’m not going to do that from here.
Q Second question. We in this room hear you saying, and the American people hear you saying, that President Biden inherited bad policies from President Trump.
MR. KIRBY: No. No, no, no. Bad outcomes, bad conditions on the ground. That’s what I said.
Q Well, you said he reduced the force to 2,500. You’re characterizing that as a bad policy, yes?
MR. KIRBY: I’m characterizing that as a fact.
What we hear you saying — let me finish my question, please — and what the American people hear you saying is: President Biden inherited flawed policies from his predecessor, President Biden was deprived of the requisite transition papers he should have received from his predecessor, and President Biden was deprived of accurate information from President Ghani about his intentions, and President Biden was deprived of accurate assessments from the intelligence community.
The depiction of the Commander-in-Chief that you present — or this Commander-in-Chief — is of a figure almost helpless and shaped and buffeted by individuals and forces and entities that are beyond his control when he had every option to increase the troop size there during his eight months in office, he had every option to intensify attacks on the 5,000 Taliban fighters, and so on.
So what — I just don’t understand why you’re willing to depict your boss, the Commander-in-Chief, as so helpless in this instance.
Mr. KIRBY: The President was anything but helpless. He drove a very — as I said, a deliberate and inclusive decision-making process. He was able to secure some extra time for us to be able to conduct a withdrawal and do so effectively.
He repeatedly, as I said in my opening statement, throughout the entire withdrawal, pulsed his national security team and senior military leaders about the conditions on the ground, asking tough questions, and getting answers and getting responses. And he acted on the best military judgment and the best assessments from the intelligence community as he could, as he made these decisions going forward.
And some of those assessments turned out to be wrong, but it wasn’t for a lack of alacrity and energy and interest by the President in pulsing and questioning and analyzing all the way through. And this was — this was difficult.
As I said at the very end of my opening statement, ending a war — any war — is not an easy endeavor, certainly not after 20 years.
And the President said himself there was no way in that process that it was going to be low grade, low cost, low risk. There was going to be risks. There were going to be costs. He knew that. The team knew that. And everybody tried the best they could to develop the best answers, the best responses, the best assessments that they could. The President relied on that judgment, but he kept challenging it. All the way through, he kept challenging it, he kept asking questions.
Q So given the conditions, your position is everything went about as well as it possibly could have?
MR. KIRBY: My — it’s not my position, James. I would encourage you to take some time and look through the document, and you’ll see that some of the key lessons learned that we took away are that you got to — you got to really work hard at planning; you got to really work at interne- — inter-agency coordination; you got to — you got to be willing to — to revisit the idea of communications — crisis communications — with respect to evacuations, and maybe be willing to move sooner than what some of your instincts might be.
I mean, there’s a lot in there. So I encourage you to take a look at that.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead, Seung Min.
Q Two questions. Why did the administration choose not to make this an independent review?
MR. KIRBY: These were independent reviews. The after-action re- —
MR. KIRBY: No — no, no. The after-action reviews that were done by the Defense Department and at the State Department — they’re the two prime ones that we’re talking about here — they were done completely independently. You — you will — you’ll see that.
Q Well, they’re still fundamentally his Cabinet agencies, his Cabinet leaders conducting the agency — or conducting the reviews of his actions. Why not an outside commission — outside, independent person to review what the administration did?
MR. KIRBY: Each of these agencies voluntarily conducted these reviews. The President didn’t dictate to them how they were going to conduct those reviews. They each did it independently, differently — in a different way. But both State and State — State and DOD, sorry — (laughter) — did their reviews using independent entities.
And then that was pushed up to that inside the lifelines at the State Department and the Defense Department, and both Secretary Blinken and Secretary Austin had a chance to digest it, look at them, review them, analyze those reviews.
And then, of course, we — once — once — once we did that, those reviews entered an interagency process where it was looked at — they were looked at in conjunction here at the National Security Council and across the interagency by multiple agencies to take a look at the work that the State Department and the Defense Department did, and fashion together some even broader lessons learned, some of which we shared in that document that we gave you.
Q And I know you were asked earlier about releasing more beyond the — beyond the 12-page report. And you talked about information just being very highly classified, but the President can obviously declassify anything that he wants. So would he do so in the interest of transparency, in the interest of the public knowing more about what happened with the withdrawal beyond the 12-page perspective of the NSC?
MR. KIRBY: So, again, a couple of things to remember: This is an ongoing process here. We also look forward to cooperating with the Afghan War Commission, which will take a look at the 20 years of war. These documents are sensitive and classified. We are taking an extraordinary step here to share them with members of Congress, the relevant committees and leaders.
Usually with after-actions, there’s no requirement to do that. You don’t have to do that. But the President has taken that extraordinary step to share these classified AARs — these after-action reviews — with members of Congress.
And we believe that the real value in them lies in the fact that we can be sensitive — we can be sensitive to the information in them. And so that’s why — that’s why we’re doing it this way.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead, Katie.
Q Thanks. You had said earlier this was about understanding and not accountability. I just don’t — how is this process and document not about accountability? You assign so much accountability to the Trump administration and very little, comparatively, to your own.
MR. KIRBY: After-action reviews are done to — and it’s very common practice that they are not investigations. They’re not — they’re not criminal proceedings. They are —
Q No one is saying they’re criminal proceedings, but —
MR. KIRBY: They are studying — they are studying the — the conduct and the execution of operations or policy. And in this case, both State and DOD have now conducted these in a classified way. The idea is to learn from them, to — to apply those lessons learned as needed.
And as I’ve said, we didn’t wait for these reviews to be complete before we started using some of the lessons in Ethiopia, in Ukraine. That’s the purpose here. The work is about understanding what happened, what — what went well, what could have gone better, and then learning from that so that we don’t make some of those same mistakes in the future. That’s what it is. It’s not — it’s not hunting for heads.
Q Well, and — just a second one, if I could. You said the President — earlier, somebody asked if the President takes responsibility for this withdrawal and what happened after. You answered and said he has responsibility. Does he take responsibility? And have you heard him say that?
MR. KIRBY: The President is the Commander-in-Chief. And just by dint of being the Commander-in-Chief, he assumes responsibility for the orders he gives, the men and women who execute those operations — in this case, it’s not just the military. And — and he stands by that.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Way in the back.
Q Thank you, Karine. Thank you, John. Since the withdrawal, China has increased its economic ties with the Taliban — first, signing oil deal in January and now eyeing mineral contracts. Is the White House concerned about these growing economic ties between China and Taliban?
And can you share some comments about our economic (inaudible)?
MR. KIRBY: We — we — look, our view — every country has got to take their own view here of how they’re going to relate to the Taliban. We don’t — we don’t recognize them as an official government in Afghanistan.
And as I’ve said before, if they want to be so recognized — at least by the United States — if they want to be seen as legitimate, then they need to own up to the promises they made about how they were going to govern that country and how they were going to treat their own people, including women and girls.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead, Steven.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead, Steven.
Q Yeah, thanks, John. Just sort of distilling some of the questions you’ve been asked about accountability — I appreciate the fact that lessons have been learned, and I assume that the President still has full confidence in his national security team that gave him the advice, which is pointed out in this summary.
Why should the American people have confidence in all of those national security advisors, given what this report lays out?
MR. KIRBY: The President does have trust and confidence in his national security team, and he did ask a lot of questions. And there was some assessments passed to him that — that proved faulty, that proved to be wrong, that proved to not shake out the way he had been given to understand that they would.
But in the aggregate, as he looks across all the work that the national security team continues to do, before and since the withdrawal from Afghanistan, he has — continues to conclude that this is an extraordinary — extraordinarily talented group of leaders.
And as — as — you know, as I said in my opening statement, as painful at times as the withdrawal was, it wasn’t without its moments of courage and poise. And it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worth doing — ending that war in Afghanistan.
Because if you just take a look at — at what we’ve been able to do for Ukraine and how we’ve been able to really step up in a competition against China and deal with some of the tensions in the Indo-Pacific, it’s difficult to say that we would have been able to do all that we did over the last year or so without — if we were still dragged down on the ground in Afghanistan.
In fact, Putin and Xi probably would like nothing better than for us to still be bogged down in a ground war in Afghanistan.
Q Can I just —
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead, Andrew.
Q Sorry, if I could just follow up. Kristen asked a question earlier. This report — this summary of your perspectives came out as the President was on his way to the Camp David retreat for the Easter weekend. When should we anticipate an opportunity for the President to stand for our questions about the findings in this document?
MR. KIRBY: I don’t have anything on his schedule to speak to.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead, Andrew.
Q Thank you, John. I have two questions. One would be on a different topic. I’ll start with that one. The President is leaving for Northern Ireland fairly soon.
MR. KIRBY: Yeah.
Q Are there any plans for him to meet with representatives of Sinn Féin and the DUP to try and resolve the impasse that’s kept a functioning devolved government from being in place?
MR. KIRBY: Yeah, I tell you, we’re going to have — as Karine said at the top, we’ll — we’ll have more to talk about in terms of the specific agenda items on Monday before we leave.
Q Okay. And on — on Afghanistan. This document says there were — there was no such plans for withdrawal in place when President Biden came into office, no plans were shared during the transition. Were there any attempts to speak with former Trump officials about whether there were plans?
And does the lack of — of plans in place indicate that they deliberately — they deliberately sabotaged the incoming administration by not continuing to plan, dropping plans that were in place or they might have been working on? Or did — is there a possibility that they didn’t intend on following through with the agreement that the former President made to be out by May?
MR. KIRBY: I can’t speak for leaders in the previous administration. And I — I certainly can’t speak for whatever plans they did or did not draw up.
I can tell you with confidence that the transition team of the incoming administration asked repeatedly to see plans for withdrawal — for retrograde, as we say it in the military — for the Special Immigrant Visa Program; for the turnover of equipment and — and bases to the Afghan National Security Defense Forces. And as I said, in my opening statement, none were forthcoming. It wasn’t for lack of trying. They weren’t — they weren’t sharing.
And so, one of the reasons why, to Kristen’s earlier question about the length of time that it took to conduct a review, was because we were almost starting from scratch. There was no — there was no visibility into what they had done.
In fact, we spent quite a bit of time after coming into office — and I remember this quite clearly — trying to get our hands around the Doha Agreement and really understanding all its articles and what it meant and how it was being interpreted by the Taliban.
There’s just wasn’t any of that fingertip feel or gran- — or granular awareness that we had.
Q Can the administration —
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead —
Q — the sitting administration can access documents from the prior administration. Was there any attempt to find out if — if they even started to plan? What — was there ever a plan?
MR. KIRBY: There were multiple attempts to try to gain insight as to — into what the previous — (a reporter sneezes) — bless you — what the previous team had been doing. And as I said earlier and as is indicated in that document, none of those plans were forthcoming.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: All right. It’s been about an hour, guys. We’re going to try to take a couple more.
Go ahead, Janne.
Q Thank you. Thank you, Karine. And thank you, John. I have two questions on South Korea and China. At the summit meeting between President Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol this month, what agenda are you going to be discuss this meeting?
MR. KIRBY: (Laughs.) You’re way ahead of me today, Janne. I — I don’t have any agenda items to talk about today. But certainly, in due course, we will.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead.
Q I have a follow-up. I have a China — please. The U.S. — the U.S. integrated country’s strategy includes a new policy towards China. What tools can the United States use for China to have — deter North Korea’s missile and nuclear provocation?
MR. KIRBY: We — we know that China has influence in Pyongyang, and we have long urged them to use that influence to get Mr. — to get Mr. Kim to do the right thing and to be willing to sit down with us, as we have said we are, without preconditions to — to diplomatically try to deal with a denuclearization of the Peninsula.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead.
Q Thank you, Karine. Thank you, John, for spending a lot of time answering our questions. I have a question. What message do you have for the people around the world who don’t know which administration made mistakes or failed but lost some confidence in the United States’ ability to deal with such difficult situations as in Afghanistan?
MR. KIRBY: I would encourage them to look at what we have been able to achieve in the two-plus years of this administration across the board.
And as I said, even in Afghanistan, because ending that war was the right thing to do for this country and our national security interests. We are on a stronger strategic footing. We are better able to deal with the most pressing challenges of the day — which are not quite, by the way, emanating out of Afghanistan — certainly not anymore — because we are no longer in Afghanistan.
And take a look at the incredible leadership of the United States in support for Ukraine. Take a look at the NATO Alliance, which now just got a new member. Take a look at the strengthening of alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific, the new AUKUS deal with Australia and the UK and the ability for them to — Australians now to get a nuclear-powered submarine.
I could go on and on and on.
The President has prioritized alliances and partnerships, many of whom were left — left in the wake of the previous administration and denigrated. We’re revitalizing them. We’re bringing them back. We’re reinforcing them. And America’s footing on the global stage is a lot stronger now.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Ed, and then S.V.
Q Thank you. Thank you, Karine. Thank you, John. So, one on this and one on China, if I could. In looking through this, it doesn’t seem to address the $7 billion in military hardware and technology that was left in Afghanistan for the Taliban.
You know, the President took office in January; the withdrawal happened in August. Does the President take responsibility for — for leaving all or some of that?
MR. KIRBY: You know who’s responsible for that equipment? The Afghans. Because you know why? It was their equipment.
First of all, I don’t believe the number is accurate, but let’s put the number aside — the $7 million — $7 billion. There was very little — and I mean very little — U.S.-owned equipment or U.S.-operated equipment that we left when we left Afghanistan.
I’m talking, like, some forklifts at the airport and some ladder vehicles, some fire trucks that we were using at the airport. But — and the helicopters that we left there — all disabled so the Taliban couldn’t get them flying again. Whatever ground vehicles, like MRAPs or Humvees, they were all disabled at the airport.
Everything else outside of that airport — the stuff that’s at Bagram — or you pick the base in Afghanistan — was all turned over and according with a very elaborate, deliberate retrograde plan that the U.S. military put in place to turn over all that stuff to the Afghan military.
And the Afghan military, as I said in my opening statement, decided they weren’t going to fight for their country, that they were just going to leave it behind.
So, it is the Afghans who were responsible for the turnover of all that equipment.
Q And on China, quickly. So, you can run down the list of how China is helping Russia. Russia became China’s largest importer of oil at the beginning of this year. China has moved its credit card in to help Russia transactions. You know, China’s made a deal now with Saudi Arabia for oil transactions. They’re making a deal — they’re working with Brazil to move off the U.S. dollar.
You know, at what point does the President stand up and more loudly tell China to, A, cut it out, or, B, counter some of China’s anti-U.S. actions?
MR. KIRBY: We know we’re in a strategic competition with China. And we have made it clear to Chinese officials that we don’t think this is a time for anybody to be supporting — in one of the cases you had — Mr. Putin’s ability to profit off of — off of oil on the market so that he can continue to kill more Ukrainians.
One of the reasons why the President sat down with President Xi in Bali was to deliver some of those messages. We — we believe it is a competition, and we believe the United States is well poised to win that competition. We don’t see conflict with China, but we are not at all unabashed — or we are — we are unabashed and unafraid to make it clear to the Chinese that we’re going to do what we have to do to protect our national security interests. And again, this is no time to be in partnership with Vladimir Putin.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead, S.V.
Q Yeah, thanks, Admiral. Just wanted to clarify what David was asking about. After January 20th, 2021, there was no ability to find plans for withdrawal — an orderly withdrawal. Is that what I’m inferring with what you said about the previous administration’s plans?
MR. KIRBY: Well, once you come in, you do the best you can to — because now you own things, you can — you can look and see what — what was done. And you can study it.
Q Was there anything done after — not talking about the transition — but after you came into office?
MR. KIRBY: Well, look, one example I can give you for sure is that one of the early trips of 2021 that Secretary Austin made was to Kabul, and he sat down there with the ISAF Commander, General Miller. And General Miller walked him through some of the retrograde plans that he had already formed up. And — you know, and that — and that acted as a basis for what we eventually executed on. But it doesn’t mean that we didn’t order or look for amendments and changes and that kind of thing. That’s one example. I can’t speak about every agency and what plans they may or may not have fallen in on.
The problem is there was no visibility on that in the transition. You have a very brief period of time between election night and inauguration. And Afghanistan was one of the chief foreign policy concerns the President had coming in. And the team desperately wanted to understand the Doha Agreement, wanted to talk to experts, wanted to talk to planners, wanted to see what had been done, because the President had already made a commitment that he wanted to end that war, but he wanted to do it responsibly.
We couldn’t find out exactly what the previous administration had done on paper. And that’s difficult.
So you say, “Okay, well, on January 20th, it’s all available to you.” But he shouldn’t have had to wait until January 20th to get access to that. It would have been better — wouldn’t it? — I think for everybody if we could come in, you know, with deck running there right on the — right on the 20th.
Q On the — the former President has now been saying several times that, number one, China is actually running Bagram now, and it was $85 billion in brand-new equipment — equipment better than we actually have. Can you address that please?
MR. KIRBY: I don’t get the last claim. What?
Q I don’t get it either. I’m just asking you —
MR. KIRBY: I don’t — I can’t — I can’t address — I don’t understand it. I don’t — look, I go — I’m going to go back to the answer before. It’s important because this is getting well misunderstood out there.
There was a retrograde plan, working towards withdrawal, where bases that we were operating out of and equipment that we had, that we believe the Afghans could and should keep, were turned over to them in a very thoughtful, orderly way — all the way from spring, well into summer.
Once you turn it over — it’s just like what we’re doing in Ukraine. We give Ukraine artillery ammunition, Stinger anti-air missiles, Javelin anti-tank. It’s their stuff at that point, not the Americans’. It’s their stuff. That stuff belonged to the Afghans. And so this idea, this argument is just ludicrous that we left millions of dollars of stuff in Afghanistan. We didn’t. We turned it over, as the previous administration would have done too, because part of their thinking was they were going to have to turn this material over. It was turned over appropriately and carefully and deliberately with the Afghan National Security Defense Forces.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead, Sabrina.
Q Thank you. Just a couple quick questions on the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich. Do you have any insight into why the Russians are refusing him consular access? And do you have any updates on the efforts by the administration?
MR. KIRBY: I wish we did. I wish we did, Sabrina. We still haven’t been able to get consular access. And that’s a — that’s an issue that we continually bring up through our — our embassy in Moscow with the Russians.
I wish I had a good answer for that, because it’s inexcusable. We need to get consular access to Evan.
Q At what point with the administration explore a potential prisoner swap with Russia?
MR. KIRBY: I won’t get ahead of where we are. And I think you can understand why we would certainly not want to talk about potential negotiations here from the podium. We’re at a very early stage here.
Main goal is to get consular access to him so we can have that contact and that connectivity — we’re — and doing what we can to keep him his employer and the family informed. Our focus is squarely on that right now.
Q I have two, really quickly, on Afghanistan and then Israel. When did President Biden get the after-action report? And has he read through it in its entirety?
MR. KIRBY: The President has been fully briefed on both after-action reports. And he certainly has been briefed and — and had input on the document that that you see before you today.
So — and then, on the “when,” I would tell you that, to Ed’s question, this is a process, and he has stayed in touch with the State Department and the Defense Department as they have worked through their after-action reviews.
Q And then, are their plans to release each of the department’s reports to their respective workforces? I mean, there’s people who worked on this withdrawal who want to learn the findings.
MR. KIRBY: These are classified reports. I do not anticipate any — any release of them publicly or on a more broad fashion. But that’s a better question put to the agencies.
Q And then, on the situation in Israel, how concerned is the White House that this could escalate into —
MR. KIRBY: Very concerned.
Q — a greater situation and conflict?
MR. KIRBY: Yeah, we’re very concerned about the violence there. We see now it increased; more attacks in the last 24 hours. We’re deeply concerned about that. We call on all sides to de-escalate, reduce the violence.
Q Thanks. In February of 2022, the Pentagon — about the Pentagon — pardon me, Abbey Gate bombing — gave a very detailed, minute-by-minute account — very graphic nature of what happened. Why not do something more like that about this? That was very public. Why not give more details about what had happened leading up to Afghanistan, as well as the withdrawal, as well as all the chaos that happened?
MR. KIRBY: You’re talking about an event on a single day that the military investigated and reviewed the investigation of. And, yes, they made — they made public not everything about that investigation but as much as they possibly could. That’s different than taking a look at a withdrawal that took place over two weeks and involved multiple agencies.
And again, I remind you that these agencies voluntarily decided on their own to do these after-action reviews with the President’s, of course, full support, because he wanted to know as well. And the result coming back are sensitive classified documents. And there’s no obligation to even share those with members of Congress, but we’re doing that.
Q Jake Sullivan promised a “hotwash” — I think is the word he used to describe what would come out of that. That certainly sounded like a very detailed accounting. And you say this is not about “accountability,” but how does the American people trust that the United States has learned from the mistakes that were made if they do not see those mistakes and see the administration acknowledging them, being public with them, and how they’re going to address them?
MR. KIRBY: I think that’s what I’m doing today. And I think that’s the document you got in front of you. I think it’s also — hang on a second — it’s also the fact that those after-action reviews are on Capitol Hill voluntarily so that relevant committees and relevant senior members of Congress can look at them. They are sensitive, and they are classified.
And we also have a responsibility to the American people to protect some information so that it doesn’t get out there, so that we can continue to apply some of those lessons in future operations.
The last thing I’ll say to your question is: There’s an Afghan War Commission that’s been legislated. The President signed that legislation. It will look at the whole war, and that will have a very public dimension to it. And this administration and every agency in it will actively and — and with — with appropriate energy participate in that.
Q Thanks. I know you said you’ll have more on the trip, but I had a quick question. We have a story out today that the UK is seeking to restart trade talks with the U.S. — the Prime Minister, Sunak. Does the U.S. have any interest in restarting trade talks with the UK? And will President Biden meet with the Prime Minister when he’s in Northern Ireland?
MR. KIRBY: I haven’t seen that report, so I’d rather not comment on that right now.
But — and as for the agenda, I think you just got to give us until Monday. We’ll have much more detail on the agenda — who he’s meeting with and under what context.
Q And the free trade —
MR. KIRBY: On Monday.
Q The free trade — the free trade question has been hanging in the air for quite some time, including —
MR. KIRBY: I understand.
Q — the previous premier. Has the administration’s position changed? You all seem pretty cool to the idea.
MR. KIRBY: I understand. I have nothing for you on that.
Q Great, thank you.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: All right. Just a couple more.
Q Two questions on Ukraine. Thank you, John. According to the Financial Times, a high-ranking advisor of President Zelenskyy signaled that it might not be longer a precondition to get Crimea back to start negotiations. Is that a development the White House would applaud?
MR. KIRBY: First of all, I don’t know that the Zelenskyy administration has spoken to that. And we certainly wouldn’t get ahead of them.
What I would tell you is — and we’ve said this from the very beginning — that President Zelenskyy can determine if and when he’s ready to negotiate and in what context and over what.
We believe that nothing should be negotiated about Ukraine without Ukraine. Nothing should be done or said or moved on without President Zelenskyy’s full approval. That’s where we are.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead, Aurelia.
Q Thank you so much. One on China, where tensions are firming up again, especially around Taiwan, with warships being deployed, et cetera. Can you update us of what channels of communication are currently open between the administration and China? Is there a functional military channel in case of tensions arising? What’s the state of communication between China and —
MR. KIRBY: The lines of communication with China remain open. We have communicated to China privately — we’ve certainly done it publicly here with you all — that there’s no reason for them to overreact to this transit. It’s not uncommon for these transits to happen. They’re private. They’re unofficial. We would urge China not to overreact.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Okay. Just two more. Go ahead. Go ahead, yeah.
Q So, for — Biden ended the humanitarian parole for Afghans starting in — after October 1st, and benefits end later this summer. What’s going to happen to them?
MR. KIRBY: I think I’d have to — let me take that question and — but I’ll also — while I do that, I’m going to refer you to the State Department. They’ll have more details on that.
Q And a second question. There were — there was reporting about secret annexes to the agreement — the peace agreement that contributed to the Afghan offenses in 2021. Did the Biden administration review those annexes? What did they contain?
MR. KIRBY: Well, once we — I’m not going to talk about what they con- — contain, but —
Q Will — will the administration release them?
MR. KIRBY: I’m not going to talk about things that are classified. But we had an opportunity, after coming into office, to review in more detail the Doha Agreement and all the associated articles and pieces of it.
And I would just go back to what I said before, that I think it would be difficult to overstate the impact of that Doha Agreement on the Afghans’ willingness to trust us, on their willingness to stay and fight for their country, and on the general morale of the Afghan people once the deal, you know, became publicly known. It was a clear sign that America was heading for the exits and doing so in a hurry, and it had a dramatic effect on the Afghan National Security Forces.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Go ahead.
Q Thanks. Thank you. You said that this was just — on the withdrawal, you said that this was just one step — this report — in better understanding, better comprehending the withdrawal and the adjustments made accordingly afterwards. Are there any additional steps that you guys are taking? Is this the absolute final report?
MR. KIRBY: No, there’s an Afghan War Commission.
Q But in — in addition, or any additional final report aside from this that — that we can expect to see?
MR. KIRBY: These are the after-action reports of the agencies that were most heavily involved in the withdrawal. I know of no additional after-action reviews that are being done or — or planned to being done.
Again, they were fed into a larger administration process that the National Security Council worked to sort of coalesce these lessons learned, and the result of that extra work by the — by the interagency is what you see before you today.
Q And if I could ask just one more, on a separate matter. State Department Secretary Blinken said that he has “no doubt” that Evan Gershkovich was wrongfully detained. Related to that, Marc Fogel’s sister told NewsHour last night that her family is angered by what they consider, quote, “favoritism” by the administration. Fogle’s sister told us that the family has not heard from President Biden or Secretary Blinken. So, when will Fogel be designated as wrongfully detained? And are there any ongoing conversations (inaudible) —
MR. KIRBY: I can’t speak to that from — the — from here. The State Department would have to deal with that. They’re the ones that make determinations about wrongful detention. I would remind that each determination is done on an individual case-by- — case-by-case basis.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: All right. We got to wrap this up. You, and then you have a last question.
Q Thank you. About the document. Just to clarify, it says, and I quote, “National security leaders met on August 9th and concluded conditions on the ground did not — did not support triggering [the evacuation operation].” Then it says that on August 14th, President Biden formally initiated this operation. Can you explain to us what happened between — between those two dates, in between those two assessments?
MR. KIRBY: Many things happen in that — you know, in that five days. I don’t have all my notes in front of me from then, but we continued to see — particularly over that week — the Taliban achieving more and more success in the hinterlands, particularly out west and to the north, taking over district by district, province by province.
And so, there was this sort of rolling momentum that they had. And the danger to Kabul got more acute over the course of that four or five days.
And — and, again, you know, as I said earlier, first of all, noncombatant evacuations are some of the most difficult operations, and choosing when you’re going to go there — and that’s — the State Department gets to call that, but the military executes and leads it.
And finding that exact moment to do it is — it can be difficult, particularly when you’re dealing with a government who you obviously — we wanted to see succeed, wanted to see stay in power. And so, you got to be careful about when you go ahead and call for a NEO so that you’re not undermining the very outcome you’re trying to keep in persistence.
Q And one about China, if I may. Recently, in a congressional hearing in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a congresswoman from Florida said that countries in Latin America, such as Venezuela and Bolivia, are allowing China to gain a foothold in the region. So, how would you characterize the Chinese presence in Latin America? And how big is it a security challenge for the United States?
MR. KIRBY: Just in general, we see the Chinese continue to try to gain influence in Latin America, but also in Africa. And they do this in a pretty ham-fisted way with — with high-interest loans that — that some countries then end up can’t — you know, not being able to pay back and then suffer the consequences to their own economic growth and development for that.
You know, we’re not asking countries to choose between the United States and China, or the West and China. But we do think it’s important for them to understand that — in accepting Chinese help, that they are potentially putting their own economic livelihoods at greater risk.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Last question.
Q Yeah, John, the attack Al-Aqsa Mosque. I mean, this is a holy time for all Abrahamic faiths right now. You say you’re concerned. Is that it? I mean, this is — some of these people were worshiping, and some of them were even sleeping when they were attacked. Isn’t this time to condemn?
MR. KIRBY: We ha- —
Q I mean, wh- —
MR. KIRBY: We — we have —
Q You said you were concerned, just now.
MR. KIRBY: Well, yes, I said, we’re concerned. But we have, in the previous few days, condemned — used that verb, we have — condemned that violence. Of course we have.
And you’re right, people should be able to — to worship freely and safely, and we still stand by the status quo on the Temple Mount. That — that has not changed. Our policies have not changed. We urgently urge bo- — all sides to reduce this violence —
Q But is this an all-sides situation? I mean, right now, this was Israeli forces attacking Muslim worshippers during Ramadan.
MR. KIRBY: We urge all sides to deescalate and to reduce the violence.
Q But does that mean, then, that this is the White House taking sides — the fact that you’re not willing to single out the Israeli forces —
MR. KIRBY: The side we’re taking on —
Q — attacking Muslim worshippers?
MR. KIRBY: The side we’re taking on is — is safety and security. The side we’re taking on is the status quo. The side that we’re taking is one of peaceful worship. That’s the side we’re taking.
Q Thank you.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Thank you, John. Thank you. All right. Thank you so much, Admiral. It’s over an hour.
Okay. I guess if you guys still want to stick around, I’ll take a couple more questions. (Laughter.) Or if not — if not, we can — we can wrap this up right here, and I’ll see you guys on Monday.
Q Okay. We can take a couple from domestic issues.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: All right. Okay, go — Seung Min, just kick us off.
Q I just have one. There was a report —
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Seung Min is like, “Yes, I have a question, so we can take a couple questions.” (Laughter.)
Q Well, there’s a report in ProPublica this morning that talked about Justice Clarence Thomas taking all of these luxury trips from a Republican megadonor, appearing not to disclose those gifts as required by law. So, does the White House believe that this is a violation of ethical standards that a Justice should be held to? And does the President want a more rigorous code of conduct for Supreme Court Justices?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: I’m not going to comment from here. There are other bodies of government that should be dealing with this. I’m just not going to comment from here.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: All right.
All right, Peter.
Q You got this Ireland trip next week.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: (Laughs.) Oh boy. (Laughter.)
Q How does a Bi- —
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: The dramatics. (Laughs.)
Q How does a Biden trip to Ireland help counter China or end the war in Ukraine?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, let me just say a couple of things. The President is certainly looking forward to taking this trip to Northern Ireland and also the UK, where he’ll be heading out on Tuesday. We certainly will have more to share on this trip coming — in the upcoming days, as my colleague just said, on Monday.
But I — I also want to lay out here the important — kind of the important history between U.S. and Ireland. Right? When you think about the waves of Irish immigrants who helped — who helped shape America’s spirit of freedom. That’s incredibly important as well.
And I think telling that story, the President going there and being able to touch on his own — his own family story and the stories of many of Americans here, Irish Americans here, as you think about how this country was created and built and put together by immigrants — I think that’s important. I think that’s something that’s important to highlight. And the Pres- — the President is looking forward to that.
Go ahead, Kristen.
Q Karine, any update on the debt limit talks? Is there — are there any plans underway — and I know we ask you this —
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Yes, I know.
Q — for President Biden to meet with or speak with Speaker McCarthy?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Honestly, when it comes to — to asking me about what are the plans, I would ask Republicans in the House. It is — it is their, you know, constitutional duty, as we have said over and over again.
In the last three times, in the last administration, Democrats met with and joined Republicans to get this done, to get something that is so critical to the American people, to taxpayers, to veterans, to seniors.
And so, that’s actually a question for House Republicans to answer.
Q But given that it’s so critical, Karine, why are you letting the clock tick down and inch closer to this deadline?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Wait. I want to be very clear: I — I definitely disagree with — with the question, Kristen, here. Because it is not us; it is them. The onus is on Congress to get this done. This is their responsibility, their constitutional responsibility to get this done.
Republicans in the House cannot and should not be holding, you know, our nation’s debt hostage. They should not be doing that. We’ve been very, very clear. They did it three times — three times in the last administration.
Q Can you guarantee that the U.S. won’t default?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: I — that is for House Republicans to answer. That truly is for them to — to deal with the situation that we have said — again, it is their responsibility, their constitutional responsibility. I can’t say that enough.
They — this should be done without negotiations. This should be done without conditions. And it has been done many times before. And — and they should just take this seriously.
Go ahead, Steve.
Q Karine, I know we all have to write stories, but I just want to ask you — so many people in the country have been talking about it. This came up in yesterday’s briefing: LSU says that the team certainly will come, but wanted to give you an opportunity to address some of the emotions that have been aired by some of the players, in particular Angel Reese. And what she said this week is that if the shoe were on the other foot, if Iowa had won, the First Lady wouldn’t have said, “LSU, come.” Can you respond to that?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Look, first of all, as you know, the President put out — put out a statement days ago saying how he and the First Lady are welcome and looking forward to celebrating — to celebrating LSU Tigers and the University of Connecticut — clearly, the men’s team, the Huskies. And that is something that is tradition here, continuing that tradition from here in celebrating the champions. And that is something that both of them are looking forward to.
Look, the First Lady was honored to attend the championship game. As we know, it was a historic game; 9.9 million people watched that game. It was the LSU Tigers — that win was historic. It set a record. And we could not be more proud of them. Again, a great game and a wonderful moment for women’s sports in history, something both the First Lady and, as you know, the President have talked about. They feel very passionate about that. And it was truly a remarkable and important moment. And, again, the First Lady was honored to be part of that.
And so, I will say, as I’ve said yesterday and I’ll say again, she and the President are truly looking forward to welcoming LSU — LSU Tigers here to celebrate them, to celebrate them as champion- — champions, to celebrate their history victory. And — and we’re looking forward to welcoming them. And so I’ll just leave it there.
Go ahead, Josh.
Q Just on the debt ceiling issue, there’s a plan reportedly coming together with the Problem Solvers Caucus on some sort of strategy to raise the debt ceiling. Is White House involved in those talks at all? And are you open to those sorts of plans? Or do you need a budget from McCarthy’s office and Republicans (inaudible)?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, look, we haven’t — so, I’ll touch on — on both. Look, we haven’t spoken to the Problem Solvers about that. We’ve made our position very clear. You heard me go back and forth with Kristen here. The debt ceiling and our economy should not be held hostage. We’ve been very clear about that. Republican threats of chaos and catastrophic potential outcome — that’s not going to work. That is not what should — that is not what they should be doing as their constitutional duty. So, we’ve been very clear on that.
As far as the budget, the President put out his budget on March 9th. We have been very clear about that. If he — they want to have a conversation about the budget, if they want to show the American people what they value, what they think their fiscal responsibility is, we’re happy to have that conversation. We’re happy to have — to sit down — the President would love to sit down and negotiate and talk through that. But we haven’t — they haven’t been able to do that. All they do is present, you know, excuses. That’s what we been seeing.
So, the budget: We’ll have a negotiation on that if they present something. They haven’t done that yet.
The debt ceiling: It should be done without negotiation. It should be done without conditions.
Q And very quickly, on our favorite topic, the Fed vice chair (inaudible). Very interested.
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Bloomberg caring about the vice chair — the Fed and the vice chair. I just — surprising to me.
Q Today is six weeks since you said it would be announced in the near future. What changed? Or what’s the status?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: It — it is definitely a priority for the President. I — I know — I — we understand how important this is, clearly. And so, once we have a decision that is made by the President, certainly we will be sharing that. I just don’t have anything to share at this time.
Q Do you have any message to Senator Menendez, who’s called for a Latino candidate to be nominated?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: I don’t have — I don’t have a message. We are going to follow the process that we always do when we — when we nominate critical candidates, important candidates. We do this in a way that — clearly looking at qualified, diverse candidates. But I’m just not going to get into specifics on — on his particular question or — or ask, I should say.
All right, Nandita.
Q Thanks, Karine. I — I know you don’t want to comment on the Clarence Thomas report specifically. But broadly, do you think the White House — broadly, do you think the Supreme Court, my bad, needs to impose ethics rules that lower federal courts are subjected to?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: That’s something for the Supreme Court to speak to. I’m just not going to comment on this at this time.
Q Do you think Congress needs to act?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: That — that is something for Congress to — to discuss. I’m just not going to comment on this at this time.
All right, I’ll take — I’ll take one more, then I’m calling it.
Q Hi. Thank you so much. So, we’ve just seen the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO. We’re three months away from the NATO Leaders Summit in July. President Zelenskyy and some Eastern member states — Eastern member states are — would like to see Ukraine presented with a path to citizenship to NATO membership. Is the U.S. — is President Biden opposed to that idea? And what causes the administration’s hesitation? Is it — if there — if that exists, is it a fear of provoking Russia? Or is it apprehension that U.S. troops would have to deploy if Ukraine joins — joins NATO before Russia leaves?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, we’ve — we’ve spoken to this a couple of times. Look, the — our position is pretty clear when it — when it comes to a NATO accession. And, you know, for decades, we support an open-door policy for NATO. Any decision on membership is between NATO Allies and countries aspiring to join NATO.
And, right now, we’re — we’re focused on supporting Ukraine’s efforts and we’re focusing on making sure that the Ukrainian people have what they need to fight for their freedom.
And so, you’ve seen us do that. You’ve seen us announce security assistance for Ukraine this past year. We have been leading in that effort. We have been also really holding NATO together — holding the West, making sure that they are aligned. And you’ve seen that throughout — throughout this year.
And so, we’re going to continue to make sure that they have the economic and security assistance needed to fight a very — to fight — continue to fight bravely this — this aggression from Russia that we have seen for over a year now.
But again, this is something for — between NATO Allies and NATO countries to decide.
Q But the U.S. is a NATO Ally and has been the leader in those efforts for Ukraine and uniting the world. They have a lot of say over whether Ukraine will be presented with this path to possible membership. What is the U.S.’s position on it?
MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Again, been very clear for decades. For decades, we have been pretty consistent on this. We support an open-door policy for NATO. And I’m just going leave it there. It’s been — it’s been like this for decades now.
All right. Okay, I’m getting — I’m getting the — the pull here. All right. I’ll see you guys on Monday. Have a great weekend and happy Easter.
Q Thank you, Karine.
3:03 P.M. EDT