Q: Secretary Blinken, the President is saying that the threat of a further attack at the Kabul airport remains highly likely in the next 24 to 36 hours. What more can you tell us about that? And are you satisfied that our U.S. forces and others are now protected given Thursday’s tragic bombing?
Secretary: Martha, let me address that in a second, but if I could, I just want to say one thing at the outset. I think every American is feeling deeply the loss of our men and women in uniform in this terrible terrorist attack at the airport in Kabul – men and women who were working to bring people to safety, 110,000 people evacuated from Kabul.
But I have to tell you at the State Department we feel this loss in a particular way. I think you know this: So many of those lost were Marines. If you go to any of our embassies around the world, the first person you’re going to see is a U.S. Marine standing sentry, guarding the embassy. We couldn’t do our jobs as diplomats in any place around the world without the Marines. And of course, we certainly could not have done the job that’s been done in Kabul without these extraordinary men and women, including the 13 who gave their lives a couple of days ago. So I just wanted to share with you and others how deeply we feel this especially at the State Department.
When it comes to the risk going forward for the next couple of days, the President is exactly right: This is very high-risk. And as he said, there is a high likelihood of additional attacks between now and the 31st. What I can tell you is this, and we met again this morning with the President and our top commanders both in the field and, of course, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense, and I know that they are taking every possible precaution to keep our men and women safe. But this is the most dangerous time in an already extraordinarily dangerous mission, these last couple of days. And so we will do everything possible to keep people safe, but the risk is very high.
Q: And you talk about the risk. There were urgent alerts from the State Department before Thursday’s bombing telling people to immediately get away from the gates. Yet as you know, we lost those 13 service members, more than 170 Afghans. I know force protection has since been increased, and that’s a military decision. But as a member of the President’s national security team, do you have any idea why that didn’t happen sooner given the urgent alerts? And you talk about embassies. Embassies have outer rims and they’re not guarded by the Taliban. That’s what happened there.
Secretary: I’m going to let my colleagues at – in the Defense Department address this. I think you heard General McKenzie speak to this in some detail the other day. The hard reality of this mission is that at a certain point direct contact was necessary between our people, our men and women in uniform, and those coming into the airport. And that was part of the mission.
Every effort is being made to make sure they are as safe as possible. But of course, whenever you have something as horrific as this, anytime we have a loss of life, we’re going to go back and look very hard at what was done and whether anything could have been done better. But the fact of the matter is from the get-go this was an extraordinarily dangerous mission. And in these last few days with ISIS-K clearly and actively plotting against us, the danger went up even higher.
Q: And the Pentagon launched a drone strike on what was described as an ISIS planner. That was late Friday. Were they involved in some way in Thursday’s bombing, or were they suspected in planning these attacks that could come in the next day or so?
Secretary: The ISIS targets that were taken out involved two individuals who were significant planners and facilitators for ISIS, for ISIS-K, and I think we’ll have more details on exactly what they did and what they were responsible for in the days ahead.
Q: And we know this is a dangerous period. The Pentagon does say that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Kabul airport has already begun. We know more than 100,000 people have already been evacuated, a historic number which did take an incredible amount of work. But can you get all the American citizens who want to leave and our Afghan allies who are at risk out by the Tuesday deadline, especially given this threat?
Secretary: We’re doing everything possible to do just that. We have about 300 American citizens left who have indicated to us that they want to leave. We are very actively working to help them get to the airport, get on a plane, and get out of Afghanistan.
Q: The administration keeps saying the commitment to our Afghan allies doesn’t end on the 31st, but your spokesman said the airport will not be open on September 1st, and the Taliban obviously can’t secure its safety even when U.S. forces are present; so how do you realistically think any American citizens or Afghan partners who are left behind will be able to fly out? What would you say to them on how to get out?
Secretary: Martha, a few things. First, just about 24 hours ago a very senior Taliban leader spoke on television and on the radio throughout Afghanistan and repeatedly assured the Afghan people that they would be free to travel after August 31st. And he —
Q: But Secretary Blinken, they do not trust – I mean, I know you say you don’t trust the Taliban, but now you’re telling me we should trust what the Taliban said.
Secretary: I’m not – no, I’m not – I’m not —
Q: Those people in hiding —
Secretary: I’m not saying that, Martha. I’m not saying we should trust the Taliban on anything. I’m simply reporting what one of their senior leaders said to the Afghan people. He specifically cited as well those who worked for Americans and any other Afghan for whatever reason. So that’s point one.
Point two —
Q: Okay, but I want to go back to that. You’re trying to reassure our Afghan allies. They’re not reassured. Those interpreters who aren’t getting out, they’re not reassured by a statement like that. So what more can you tell them to get out, how to get out?
Secretary: So – certainly. And Martha, that was just point one. Point two is this: 114 countries have made very clear that it is their expectation that the Taliban will permit freedom of travel going past August 31st. So that is a clear expectation across the entire world, across the entire international community.
Third, we have very significant leverage to work with over the weeks and months ahead to incentivize the Taliban to make good on its commitments.
Fourth, we’ve been very actively planning for what would be necessary to keep the airport functioning, either to have it function right immediately after the 31st or if necessary to take the steps required to reopen it in a timely fashion, working with countries in the region who are very interested in helping. The Taliban have a strong interest in having an airport that functions. The Afghan people have a strong interest in an airport that functions. The entire international community has that interest.
Finally, while the airport is critical and we’re determined to see that it remains open or that it reopens quickly, there are other ways to leave Afghanistan, including by road. And many countries border Afghanistan. There too, if the Taliban —
Q: That’s a very dangerous trip.
Secretary: Again, if the Taliban is serious about the commitments that it’s repeatedly made in public, including nationally across the country, as well as in private, commitments that the international community intends to hold the Taliban to, then we’ll find ways to do it. And we, for our part, Martha, are making sure that we have in place all of the necessary tools and means to facilitate the travel for those who seek to leave Afghanistan after August 31st.
Q: You will not have an embassy there. What is the likelihood that it will open again given you won’t have U.S. forces there?
Secretary: We’re going to have to see exactly what happens in the weeks and months ahead in terms of how the Taliban conducts itself, what the security situation is in the country. But we are going to be very, very actively engaged diplomatically, certainly in the region, and we’ll see what the prospects are and possibilities are down the road for being in Afghanistan itself. But we’re also working very closely with dozens of countries that are similarly situated that have a strong interest in making sure that people can continue to have freedom of travel to leave Afghanistan if they choose, and working in close collaboration with those countries, we’re going to find ways to ensure that freedom of travel is meaningful.
Q: Okay. Well, hope that all happens. Thanks so very much for joining us, Mr. Secretary.
Secretary: Thanks, Martha. Good to be with you.
(With courtesy from US State Department Press release)