Government

Secretary Antony J. Blinken With Chuck Todd of NBC’s Meet the Press – United States Department of State

QUESTION:  Let me just start with a simple question:  What does America’s presence look like in Kabul on September 1st?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Chuck, I’ll tell you in a sec, but let me just start with this because it’s important.  Every American is grieving the loss of our men and women in uniform in that heinous terrorist attack against our forces who were evacuating innocent men, women, and children from Kabul.  I have to tell you that we at the State Department feel it especially powerfully because so many of those lost were Marines.  And you know this, and I think a lot of Americans know this, too:  If you go into any American embassy around the world, the first person you’re going to see is a Marine —

QUESTION:  Yep.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  — standing guard, standing sentry.  We can’t do what we do, our diplomats can’t do what they do, without the Marines.

And that was true, of course, in Kabul in evacuating so far 110,000 people, and it’s true in every mission around the world.  So we’re feeling this especially hard; it’s like a punch to the —

QUESTION:  I know.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  — to the gut.  And I just wanted to share that with people because it’s something that I’m feeling across this building and across my community here at the State Department.

QUESTION:  And I want to get more into the retaliation that’s coming as well.  Given what you just said, so can we have a diplomatic presence on September 1st, and can you have our diplomatic presence protected by Marines on September 1st in Kabul?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, two things, Chuck.  First, in terms of having an on-the-ground diplomatic presence on September 1st, that’s not likely to happen.  But what is going to happen is that our commitment to continue to help people leave Afghanistan who want to leave and who are not out by September 1st, that endures.  There’s no deadline on that effort.  And we have ways, we have mechanisms to help facilitate the ongoing departure of people from Afghanistan if they choose to leave.

QUESTION:  What are those ways and mechanisms?  Is it more negotiating with the Taliban?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, look, I’m not going to get into the detail, but let me say this.  First, you may have seen that just yesterday a very senior Taliban official went on television and radio across the country and repeatedly assured people in Afghanistan that they would have the freedom to travel after August 31st.  He even specifically said those who worked for the Americans and those who want to leave for whatever reason will have that freedom.  Now, of course, we don’t take the Taliban at their word.  We take them by their deed, and that’s what we’re going to be looking to.

We have more than a hundred countries, 114 countries, who signed onto a statement we initiated making clear the international community expects the Taliban to make good on a commitment to let people continue to leave the country after August 31st.  That freedom of travel is essential to the international community’s expectations of the Taliban going forward.  And working with other countries very closely, we’re going to make sure that we put in place the means to do that – an airport that functions, other ways of leaving the country.  All of that is what we’re working on in the days ahead.

QUESTION:  There’s a report that the Turks have agreed to have – essentially be in charge of security of that airport after August 31st.  Is that your understanding?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Chuck, there are a number of countries in the region that we’re working very closely with that are focused on how to make sure the airport can stay open or reopen after we leave, to ensure that flights can come in, flights can go out, there’s the necessary security.  We’ve done a lot of technical work on exactly what would be required to keep the airport going.  We’ve shared that with those countries, and we’ll have a plan for the way forward.

QUESTION:  We know that the list of Americans who may want to get out is in the hundreds.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  That’s right.

QUESTION:  Do you have a good number of Afghan allies that would like to get out, that would like to be – to get these Special Immigrant Visas?  Do you have a good handle on what that number is?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Chuck, we already know this:  First, roughly 110,000 people overall have been evacuated.  The very significant majority of those people are Afghans, and of those Afghans who’ve been evacuated, there are thousands upon thousands who are Special Immigrant Visa program members – that is, the people who worked side-by-side directly for our diplomats, directly for our troops over the years.

These numbers, though, are very, very fluid, and we’re working very hard to do a full accounting, to get a full tabulation.  We’ll be able to break down who was able to leave by these different categories.  Part of the challenge with the Special Immigrant Visa program participants is that in this – in these 14 days, many of them have not had complete or full documentation.  All of that has to be verified.  But we’ll have a full accounting in the days ahead.

QUESTION:  I want to ask about this idea that we’re – you’re – some of these lists of people that you’re trying to get out of the country you’ve had to give to the Taliban.  And I know you guys have some – that you think some of this has been a bit over-reported or exaggerated.  But given the Haqqani Network’s ties to the Taliban, how can you be sure any lists you share of Afghans who helped Americans won’t be used for horrendous reasons by the Haqqani Network or others?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Chuck, it’s simply not the case.  The idea that we’ve done anything to put at further risk those that we’re trying to help leave the country is simply wrong.  And the idea that we shared lists of Americans or others with the Taliban is simply wrong.

QUESTION:  What was shared?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  In specific —

QUESTION:  Yeah.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So in specific instances, when you’re trying to get a bus or a group of people through and you need to show a manifest to do that because, particularly in cases where people don’t have the necessary credentials on them or documents on them, then you would – you’ll share names of the list of people, of the bus so they can be assured that those are people that we’re looking to bring in.

And by definition, that’s exactly what’s happened.  We’ve gotten 5,500 American citizens out of Afghanistan.  And to the extent that in an individual case with a particular group or a bus, to verify that the people on the bus who are in that group were people who were supposed to come out – American citizens, especially, again, if they lacked the right document with them – that’s what we would do.  But the idea that we put anyone in any further jeopardy is simply wrong.

QUESTION:  What has been promised to the Taliban for this cooperation?  Is it money?  Is it money that we have frozen right now that they perhaps might be able to use for governing?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Nothing has been promised to the Taliban.  To the contrary, we have made very clear – and not just us – country upon country around the world have made clear that there are very significant expectations of the Taliban going forward if they’re going to have any kind of relationship with the rest of the world, starting with freedom of travel but then going on to making sure that they’re sustaining the basic rights of their people, including women and girls; making sure that they’re making good on commitments they’ve repeatedly made on counterterrorism; and having some inclusivity in governance.

QUESTION:  I want to ask about the strike on ISIS-K.  This was done very quickly; we have resources on the ground.  How much harder is it going to be to strike more members of this terrorist group after August 31st?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Let me say this, Chuck:  We have the capacity around the world, including in Afghanistan, to take – to find and to take strikes against terrorists who want to do us harm.  And as you know, in country after country, including places like Yemen, like Somalia, large parts of Syria, Libya, places where we don’t have boots on the ground on any kind of ongoing basis, we have the capacity to go after people who are trying to do us harm.  We’ll retain that capacity in Afghanistan.

QUESTION:  What is the mission against ISIS-K?  What is the defined mission?  Is it everybody who’s involved and that’s who we’re hunting down, or are you going to try to essentially get rid of this terrorist network in perpetuity?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  If we see anyone who poses a threat to our citizens in the first instance here, and especially if it turns into any kind of outwardly directed threat, which so far is not the case – ISIS-K is focused on Afghanistan itself – we will take action.  We are, first of all, going to be extremely vigilant about any emergence or re-emergence of a threat that’s directed from Afghanistan toward the United States, toward any of our allies and partners, and we’re going to make sure that we have the capacity to deal with it.

QUESTION:  I want to close – you talked about how personal this has been, this tragic terrorist attack.  It’s not been easy for the parents, and you may have to speak to some of these parents face-to-face.  Steve Nikoui, who is the father of Marine Lance Corporal Kareem Nikoui, one of the soldiers who died in the attack, here’s what he said:  He said, “They sent my son over there as a paper pusher and then had the Taliban outside providing security.  I blame my own military leaders.  Biden turned his back on him.  That’s it.”  Obviously, he’s grieving and he’s very upset.  What are you going to say to these parents that believe it’s the American government in some way that let their son down?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Chuck, there are no words that I can say, that I think anyone can say, to assuage the grief that a parent is feeling at the loss of their child – nothing.  And if I were in his shoes, probably I would feel exactly the same way.  All I can do is take responsibility for my own actions and do everything possible to continue to bring people out of Afghanistan who want to leave between now and the 31st and every single day thereafter.  That’s my responsibility.  But I – as a parent myself, I feel deeply what he expressed, and all I can say is I’m deeply, deeply sorry.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, I know these aren’t easy times.  Thank you for coming on and sharing the administration’s perspective with us.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks, Chuck.  Good to be with you.

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