Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, August 24, 2021

The White House

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

3:43 P.M. EDT

MS. PSAKI: Thank you for your patience today. Promise not to make it a habit.

Two items for all of you at the top. As you all know, last month, the White House — we announced the President will be hosting a meeting — would be hosting a meeting, I should say — with private sector leaders on August 25th — which is, of course, tomorrow — on cybersecurity.

The President, members of the Cabinet and his national security team, and private sector and education leaders are going to be meeting to discuss how we can work together to collectively improve the nation’s cybersecurity. The escalating cyber threats we face require a whole-of-nation effort.

The President will be joined by leaders from the tech, the critical infrastructure, insurance, and education sectors. And we will have more details for you later today, but I just wanted to note that is happening tomorrow. And there’s, of course, a lot of ground that we will be covering.

I know a number of you have been asking this as well — and yesterday evening, the President spoke — or last night, I should say — the President spoke to New York Governor Kathy Hochul prior to her being sworn in as governor of New York. He congratulated her on her new job and historic role as the next governor of New York. They talked of their shared time at Syracuse University, and Governor Hochul told the President she wanted to visit Washington to meet with him to discuss infrastructure and how to work together to improve the lives of New Yorkers. The President looks forward to hosting her at a future date.

As you know, she also joined a call on Saturday with other Northeastern governors with the President, the FEMA Administrator, and Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall to discuss tropical storm Henri and the federal response to help mitigate the storm’s impact.

With that, Aamer, go ahead.

Q Great. A couple on Afghanistan-related questions.

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

Q First on — a Taliban spokesman said today that the group would bar Afghans from accessing the roads leading to the airport to allow foreigners to pass. And, I guess, for evacuation efforts, what does this mean for Afghans who assisted and can’t get through now? What are you going to be — does this effectively cut off those Afghans from being evacuated?

MS. PSAKI: No, that is not how you should read it. One, I should note we have been in direct contact not just with American citizens, but with SIV applicants — Special Immigrant Visa applicants — and Afghans whose departure we are facilitating about how and when to come to the airport.

And our expectation, which we have also conveyed to the Taliban, is that they should be able to get to the airport. It is also true — and I know this may be some of the confusion out there — that there are a number of Afghans who may not — they may not qualify for these programs. And we’ve seen, over the past several — over the past nine days, a rush of people attempt to come to the airport.

We certainly understand that, but that also creates security risk and one that we have great concern about.

So to be clear, individuals who are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas or others who we are helping facilitate their evacuation and their departure, we are in touch with them, are working to be in touch with them about how and when to come to the airport, as well as American citizens, as you well know, and we expect that they will be able to reach the airport.

Q And — sorry, just to — the Afghan — or the Taliban are saying that they don’t want Afghans to leave, that now they want these Afghans to stay, that they’re needed to rebuild the country.

MS. PSAKI: Again, our expectation, and what we will continue to convey directly through a range of channels we have, is that the individuals — the Special Immigrant Visa applicants, those who are eligible, those who we are facilitating their departure, will be able to reach the airport.

Q And on the statement that you just put out about a half hour ago about the August 31st deadline and sticking to it.

The President has — allies both here at home and abroad have wanted him to push that deadline back some. And also, critics of the President are speaking out very strongly on his decision. What do you say to those who are criticizing the President by sticking to this deadline? It amounts for him to — capitulating to the Taliban.

MS. PSAKI: Well, first — and I think — I’m just going to read the statement. I know a number of you have seen it, but just in case, because I think it has quite a bit of additional context that is not exactly aligned in — you know, he stuck with the deadline, as you just conveyed.

During a meeting this morning with the G7 leaders, the President conveyed that our mission in Kabul will end based on the achievement of our objectives. That is a key component there. He confirmed we are currently on pace to finish by August 31st. As you all know, in the last nine days, we have effectively helped evacuate 57,000 people, and that has continued to escalate the number of people we’re getting out each day.

And our focus is — continues to be on evacuating Americans who want to come home, third-country nationals and Afghans who were our allies during the war.

He also made clear that with each day of operations on the ground, we have added risk to our troops with increasing threats from ISIS-K, and that completion of the mission by August 31st depends on continued coordination with the Taliban, including continued access for evacuees to the airport.

In addition, as we noted in the statement, he asked the Pentagon and the State Department for contingency plans to adjust the timeline, should that become necessary.

So I think there’s quite a bit of context in there, including the threat from ISIS-K, which is quite real, and one that we are tracking and monitoring very closely from our national security and intelligence teams, to the continued cooperation of the Taliban as it relates to getting American citizens and our key allies on the ground to the airport. And the third, of course, is ensuring that we have contingencies should they be needed.

So, I think those are pretty important caveats in the reporting.

Go ahead.

Q If you do have to adjust the timeline, how long are you talking about?

MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to get ahead of any contingency plans that are drawn up by the State Department and the Defense Department. As you all know, the President has been meeting and being — and attended and participated in briefings with his national security team once a day, sometimes twice a day; is in constant and regular contact. And I suspect we’ll get some updates in short order.

Q And when do you need to start pulling troops out of the Kabul Airport to make — to meet the August 31 target?

MS. PSAKI: It’s a great question, Steve. I just don’t want to get into operational details that are under the purview of the Department of Defense.

Go ahead.

And you are correct — I will note that it would not be — there would have to be time in advance of the 31st or time in advance of whatever the date is in order to do that. But they can give you the operational details.

Go ahead.

Q So does that mean that the evacuations will stop before the actual 31st so then there is time to get the troops and their machinery and weaponry out of there?

MS. PSAKI: That would be correct, yes, that there would need to be time to wind down the presence.

I will note, though, that the purpose of this statement is to provide additional context of what the President conveyed to the G7, which includes a number of very key components as he assesses day by day. And that includes the threat of ISIS, which is of great concern, understandably, to the President, given the threat it poses to our military who are on the ground, serving proudly and bravely on the ground. It also includes the essential aspect of having the Taliban’s coordination continue over the coming days so we can facilitate as many people as we’ve been getting out.

Q And so what I read from this statement is: He has not ruled out extending the deadline. Is that right?

MS. PSAKI: Well, he asked for contingency plans but believes we continue to be on track to accomplish our mission.

Q And one more question, Jen. Sorry, I know it’s three. Does this mean, if he does stand by this August 31st deadline, that every single U.S. troop will be out of Afghanistan by August 31st?

MS. PSAKI: Again, I will leave it to the Department of Defense to get into operational details. As you know, and as I’ve noted, he is meeting with his national security team every single day, often more than once a day, to continue to discuss. And as I noted also in the statement, he’s asked for contingency plans.

Go ahead.

Q Thanks, Jen. Just to follow up on Aamer’s question: So are you saying that despite this threat by the Taliban to stop Afghans from boarding planes, that you’re not seeing any slowdown in Afghans being able to get to the airport if they need to?

MS. PSAKI: I’m conveying that what we have articulated is that indivi- — Afghans — not every Af- — there are millions of Afghans, as we know, who want to leave the country — or a large number of Afghans who want to leave the country. I think that’s safe to say.

What I’m talking about is the individuals we have prioritized — those who have fought alongside us, who are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas, who otherwise we are facilitating their departure. And that our expectation is that they will be able to reach the airport.

Q So I’m just trying to figure out if the Taliban has made good on this threat yet, and it sounds like you’re saying they haven’t.

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have an update on that. I’m just conveying to you what our expectation is and what we are continuing to communicate directly.

Q And then, is the CIA Director now the chief negotiator for the U.S. in Kabul? And how long does he plan to stay there?

MS. PSAKI: I certainly understand your question. I’d refer you to the CIA on any specific questions about his location or specific role.

Go ahead.

Q For a little bit of clarity — because minutes and hours matter here —

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

Q — when we talk about August 31st, is the understanding between the U.S. and the Taliban that that ends at midnight at the end of August 31st Afghan time, American time? Is it the end of the 30th heading into the 31st? When exactly is the deadline as it currently exists?

MS. PSAKI: It’s really a great question, and I want to give you a very clear and articulate answer from the team on the ground, so I’ll just have to get back to you on that to make sure we give you the accurate information.

Q So what is the last — I know that you’re continuing to do this actively —

MS. PSAKI: Yeah.

Q — as you indicated to one of my colleagues a moment ago. Obviously, there’s going to be time needed to be able to get out the American troops and others who are helping facilitate this process. What is the last call for Americans on the ground there to come to the airport at Kabul?

MS. PSAKI: We are in touch with Americans directly, and we have contact with — and I can give you an overarching — an overall assessment of where we stand with that, if that’s helpful as well. But I’m not going to give you more of an articulation of that from here.

Q Are there any active threats? You talked about, in that statement, the threat that’s posed by ISIS-K, but are there any active threats to Kabul, to HKIA, right now?

MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to give you an intelligence assessment from here either, but I can convey to you that we have increasing concerns about the threats, and that is certainly a part of the President’s assessment and decision making.

Go ahead.

Q Thank you, Jen. Is there any concern that maybe trying to reach this deadline and get everybody out, mistakes are being made now that there is a report that at least one of the Afghans evacuated to Qatar has suspected ISIS ties?

MS. PSAKI: Well, first, I would say we have a stringent vetting process, which includes background checks before any individual comes to the United States. So I can’t speak to one individual, but I can tell you and confirm for you that we take the vetting of any individual who comes to the United States, and comes out, incredibly seriously. And it’s an extensive process.

I would say that this is now on track, Peter, to be the largest airlift in U.S. history. So — and that is bringing American citizens out, it is bringing our Afghan partners out, it is bringing allies out.

So, no, I would not say that is anything but a success.

Q Okay. And I know that you said yesterday it’s “irresponsible” to say that Americans are “stranded” in Afghanistan right now. What do you say to the American citizen in Kabul that Fox spoke to this morning? Her name is Fa- — she’s going by “Fatima.” She says, “We are stranded at home…For four days…three days, we didn’t hear anything from anywhere. And…they’re saying to go to the airport, but we’re not being given clear guidance… Our emails are getting ignored.”

MS. PSAKI: Well, why don’t I convey to you exactly what we are doing. And I think what’s important to note that I also said yesterday in the full context of my answer, which I put out today, was that we are committed to bringing Americans home who want to leave, and that is the President’s commitment.

We are — so let me explain to you how our process works. And there have been some very good questions, including from you and from others about this.

One, as we’ve said, this is a dynamic number. We’re working hour by hour to refine and make it precise. Understand your desire and interest in having exact number of American citizens on the ground, and the State Department, I expect, will have an exact update on that tomorrow.

Just to remind you, the U.S. government does not track our citizens when they travel around the world. We rely on self- reporting not just in Afghanistan — anywhere in the world. People have to decide to register or not; it’s up to them — individuals — whether they decide to register or not, wherever they may be.

And if you register when you’re in a country like Afghanistan, you aren’t required to de-register. The State Department also issues alerts. They have publicized phone number and e-mail to contact if you’re in Afghanistan and want assistance to leave.

And for months, the Department has been telling Americans to leave Afghanistan for their own safety. It is our responsibility and our role to work with and help American citizens who want to leave.

Let me finish — I’m almost done — and then you can ask a follow-up question.

/Public Release. This material from the originating organization/author(s) may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s).View in full here.