USTRANSCOM Commander Provides Insights into Afghanistan Evacuations
Gen. Stephen R. Lyons, Commander of U.S. Transportation Command and Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby held a press briefing on August 23, 2021, to provide an update on evacuation efforts in Afghanistan. Full transcript:
PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Good afternoon. As you know, we have a special guest, Stephen Lyons, commander of U.S. Transportation Command, and I’m going to turn it over to the General in just a minute to update you on the incredible effort that Transportation Command, and all their subordinate commands and aircrews are expanding on trying to get as many people out of Afghanistan as possible.
So he’ll have a brief set of comments and then we’ll start taking questions. But before I do that, I do want to give just an update on Haiti if you don’t mind.
Lifesaving aid and assistance continue arriving. As our Joint Task Force Haiti under U.S. Southern Command continues to move people and equipment to ease the suffering of the people of Haiti. To date, Joint Task Force Haiti has conducted more than 200 missions, saved more than 300 people, and delivered over 88,000 pounds of vital aid as Department of Defense capabilities and US Coast Guard assets, which are now underneath the JTF.
The Joint Task Force continues to rapidly respond by delivering aid assistance where it’s most needed. Just to give you a sense, U.S. government assets are providing unique air, medical and logistical capabilities. Under the JTF include 19 helicopters both U.S. military and Coast Guard. U.S. Coast Guard C-130 and an HC-144. Two U.S. Navy P8 maritime reconnaissance aircraft. The U.S. naval ship Burlington, which is providing Scan Eagle so more eyes on overhead.
The USS Billings, providing a refueling station afloat, the USS Arlington providing refueling and logistics, and two U.S. Coast Guard cutters, the Coast Guard cutters, Tampa, and Reliance.
We are of course working with allies and partners as well in this whole government effort in support of USAD. So there are many nations like Great Britain, France, Netherlands, contributions from neighboring nations, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Chile, Panama, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, sorry I mentioned that one already. Costa Rica, Mexico, and Spain.
We know there is much, much more work to do in Haiti to help the Haitian people. And we’re committed to being there and to do that, for as long as possible. We’re very proud of all the men and women of the department that are assisting in this effort, and truly making a difference on the ground.
And speaking of making a difference on the ground and making a difference through U.S. military capabilities. I do want to now turn the microphone over to General Stephen Lyons again, Commander, U.S. Transportation Command, who has some opening comments, and then we’ll get to Q&A. I will come back to the podium and monitor the Q&A. We have a limited amount of time. The General obviously got a lot on his plate today. So we’ll try to keep it moving. And with that, General sir, can you hear me and are you ready to go?
LYONS: John, I got you. Can you hear me okay?
MR. KIRBY: Yes, sir. Loud and clear. The floor is yours, sir.
GENERAL STEPHEN R. LYONS: I am pleased to join you today as well as the press to talk about TRANSCOM’s role in this monumental logistics effort to 40 noncombatant evacuation operations. I just would say that from the time TRANSCOM orders to commence deployment. Initial elements were airborne in less than three hours.
These forces were critical to quickly secure the Kabul international airfield. Simultaneously we commenced support to new operations and continue around-the-clock operations to ensure the safe evacuation of American citizens, our Afghan friends, and those cleared by the State Department.
I’m just reminded that the United States is the only nation capable of rapidly deploying forces in providing non-stop airlift operations at this scale. I’d like to specifically highlight the role of our outstanding air component.
The Air Mobility Command, led by General Jacque Van Ovost. Air Mobility Command continues to operate the C-17 news footage. Less visible but equally important is their contingency response group operating at the Kabul airport and a multitude of other forces, providing en-route support.
This incredibly dedicated team of Air Force professionals is the best in the world. I did have the opportunity this week to speak with the crew call sign reach 871, the C-17 flight that carried the 823 Afghans from Kabul to safety. The iconic photo of hundreds of Afghans on the floor of a C-17 illustrates the desperation, fear, and uncertainty of the Afghan people, but also the life-saving capability and compassion of our military members.
These herculean efforts underscore the United States’ commitment to our Afghan allies and provide them an opportunity for a new beginning, a safer life, and a better future. To be clear, this is a global effort.
I want to thank our many, many coalition partners, we could not be successful without the more than two dozen like-minded nations that expand our global logistics network by providing important access and transit centers.
And finally, I want to acknowledge and thank our industry partners who routinely provided airlift and support defense needs. Many of you reported on the Secretary’s decision to activate stage one of the Silver Reserve Air Fleet, and we greatly appreciate the teamwork and contributions of our commercial aviation partners.
Let me just close by saying that for me, like all of our veterans who served in Afghanistan, this mission is very personal. I assure you that we will not rest until the military is complete, the mission is complete. And we have evacuated Americans who are seeking to be evacuated and as many Afghan partners as humanly possible.
I could not be more proud of the TRANSCOM team, our relationship with U.S. Central Command, and our contribution to this vitally important effort. And I’ll be happy to take any questions the press may have. Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: Thank you, General, we’ll start with Bob Burns, Associated Press.
Q: Thank you. General, this is Bob Burns of AP, thank you very much. A couple of questions. Currently, what is your maximum capacity for airlifting out of Kabul airport in terms of the number of people you can get out in a single day based on the aircraft and cruises support fleet that you have available to you, as of today? And the second question is regarding fuel. I’m wondering if you could describe how you’re managing to keep sufficient fuel on hand at the airport, given the limitations of that facility.
GEN. LYONS: Yes, Bob. Thanks for the questions. Let me take fuel first. We do manage fuel. And we intentionally do not take fuel on the ground. So we make sure we have enough fuel to go in and go out without taking fuel so we don’t stress logistics posture there.
And if the legs are longer coming out, we’ll provide areal refuel and en route if necessary. You know, we had a great day, this last 24 hours, as you saw on the news, more than 10,000. Well, more than 10,000 evacuees moved. I’m very, very confident that we will sustain that effort, and improve that effort.
To be honest with you, my commitment is to ensure that airlift is never the constraint in this operation. And as you know, and I appreciate it and I’ve seen your reporting, I mean, airlift is extremely important. But critical to the throughput is also ground operation. And we’re trying to synchronize that as we go. But we are clearly laser-focused on clearing the Kabul International Airport of every evacuee that can move.
Q: Thank you. Could you talk a little bit about the threat that your aircraft are facing as they fly into and fly out of Kabul. We’ve seen a French cargo plane have to shoot out flares when it was taking off? What are your crews preparing for? And can you put this in the context of other threat environments that you’re a part of the alliance in the last couple of years?
GEN. LYONS: Yes, thank you. I mean, if the threat is significant, as you know, I won’t get into details. We’re closely aligned with CENTCOM and other agencies on threat reporting and potential threat to airlift operations. I would just say, as we watch that, our crews are the best in the world. That machine, the C-17 is the best in the world.
And I’m confident that we’re taking the right measures to mitigate the threat. And we’re connected to the right sources and taking the right kind of measures now. I’ll probably leave it at that for good reasons.
Q: We were discussing earlier about just the one hour on the ground quick rotation. Can you talk about how that you’re managing that? How the planes and the cruiser managing that?
GEN. LYONS: Yes, it’s quite remarkable. We’ve got a number of planes in the system, but we have twice as many crews. And the idea is to keep those planes moving all the time, either by extending the crew day, or preferably by swapping crews and keeping an eye on motion. So there’s a very tight detailed management system to do that. Critical to that, of course, is what you mentioned, which is grounds on.
The faster we can turn either load or discharge, the faster we can turn that aircraft. And then we’re razor focused on bringing down. I really appreciate the work on going in Afghanistan to bring down time on ground to under an hour.
Q: General, can you give us a sense how you proceed, the mission changing as the U.S. draws on a number of ground forces in Afghanistan in the final days of the month, and what the mission will look like if there is one, post August 31st?
GEN. LYONS: Yes, I mean, everyday we take as a day comes. We are laser focused on NEO. We know and are linked very closely with Central Command on potential operations, close out the mission by the 31st. That was the direction given by the President. And we’re committed to do that. And my commitment is ensure that airlift is never the constraint to execute those operations. And we’re well synced with Central Command. We have a great relationship, great teamwork. And so I think we are pushing the limits to do everything we can to get every single evacuee out of Kabul.
Q: Do you foresee flights in the 28th, 29th, 30th, 31st of the month as fewer ground forces, presumably, in Kabul?
GEN. LYONS: Well, I prefer not to get into the numbers of flights by day, I would not say that we’re going to let up. We’re not going to let up. You know, full accelerator, we’re not going to let up. As long as there’s a mission to be accomplished. We’ll be out there.
MR. KIRBY: I forgot to ask you to introduce yourself. Because the General can’t see us. So Courtney.
Q: This is Courtney from NBC News. You said that you’re pushing the limits? Can you just explain a little bit more? What do you mean by that when you’re pushing the limits to get as many people out? And then are you able to kind of give us like a big picture, look at how many C-17s and C-130s out of the total Air Force fleet are dedicated to this mission right now, out of the entire US military fleet?
GEN. LYONS: Well, it’s all mobility resources are focused on this effort. A number of ways I could cut the numbers that might not be helpful for you, to be honest. You know, right now, the air component has well over 200 aircraft committed operations. Some of these are, even KC-10s are committed to the operation in some way or some fashion.
So when I say we’re all in, I mean to present to meet the President and Secretary’s directive, ensure that every evacuee that is cleared and clear to move, can move. And our crews are absolutely incredible, I won’t lie to you. They’re tired. They’re probably exhausted. In some cases, I know that the leaders from time to time are pulling crews out to make sure we don’t have safety issues, but they are motivated, they are fired up. And they are committed to complete this mission.
Q: One more about any COVID mitigation efforts that you’re taking? Are you doing anything to ensure that your crews are safe from COVID? Can you give us a little bit of a detail of what that looks like?
GEN. LYONS: Well, it’s a great question. We shouldn’t forget that we’re doing this operation in the middle of a pandemic. So all the crews are obviously masking. But the Afghans that are on the aircraft are not masked. So that’s one of mitigation.
There is some screening that occurs before they load and that is we reached temporary safe havens, these other hogs, and lily pads. There are resources being applied to further test the evacuees upon arrival to these various temporary safe havens.
Q: Are all of your crews vaccinated or are they getting tested periodically to ensure that they’re safe?
GEN. LYONS: The vast majority are certainly tested. I can’t say conclusively that they all are. Although great news today from the FDA. So pretty soon, they’ll be vaccinated.
Q: Jennifer Griffin from Fox News. Can you talk a little bit more about some of the constraints you faced and how you resolve them? And also in the last 24 hours, you’ve got 18,000 or 11,000 passengers out of Kabul clearing the backlog?
Are you concerned that there are not enough people cleared through into the airports that you may have to take off with empty planes? Is there any sign that you’re having to take off because of that quick turnaround with empty planes?
GEN. LYONS: Great question. Not at this time and we’re in contact with CENTCOM constantly. I talked to John McKenzie on a continuous basis, so we’re synched up. And the idea is, we never want to leave Kabul airport on an empty plane or even a partially full plane, if we can avoid it. So we are not doing that. As a matter of fact, we’re filling the aircraft to about 400-450 passengers in a floor load configuration.
I just say to your first question, it’s an excellent question. You know anytime that we move this fast in an operation, there’s going to be fog and friction. And it’s trying to achieve equilibrium and a very large network of not just airplanes, but ground operations and multiple nodes throughout the network.
And so there’s initially it is moving quick, you’re trying to grow capacity, or you’re moving as fast as you can, sometimes you get ahead of yourself, and then it’s trying to equalize out and making sure you got a critical path open. But again, right now, we’ll sacrifice the back end of all the architectural nodes to make sure that we’re clear in Kabul International. That’s what we’re doing now.
MR. KIRBY: I need to go to the phones, sir. You haven’t done that yet. Steven Losey.
Q: Hi, yes, thanks very much. So there are reports about the threats that ISIS has made, and I know you’re not able to speak to specific threat environments. But can you talk to us a little bit more about how the militaries communicate with the Taliban regarding these spreads?
Are you telling the Taliban it’s their responsibility to keep ISIS away from the airport? And what happens if ISIS decides to embarrass the Taliban by launching terrorist attacks on the perimeter or the civilians trying to get into the airport?
MR. KIRBY: Steven, I’ll take that. That’s more appropriate for me, I think, than for General Lyons. As we’ve talked about many times over the last several days, we are in daily communication with Taliban leaders outside the airport. Sometimes multiple times a day to again deconflict as best as we can, and to help ensure a healthy access to the airfield for American citizens in particular, and that communication continues to happen.
We are also mindful of the threat that ISIS poses and without speaking for the Taliban, it’s I think it’s a safe assumption to assume that they too are mindful of that threat. I won’t begin to hypothesize what could or could not happen.
And I think you can understand that at the podium, we wouldn’t get into specific intelligence streams or what we’re watching. Nobody wants to see anybody else hurt. And certainly, nobody wants to see anything that could impact our ability to continue to conduct this evacuation operation.
All I would tell you is we’re focused on this every single day, hour by hour. We’re monitoring the threat environment very, very carefully. And as I said, the communication with the Taliban continues. So, Lara.
Q: Thank you this is Lara Seligman with Politico. First of all, can you tell us the total estimated cost of the evacuation? And then also, can you explain the discrepancy between the state and DOD the numbers on the number of people evacuated?
State is saying 25,000 since the operation began. But Major General Taylor earlier today, I believe, he said, 37,000. So, what is that discrepancy?
MR. KIRBY: The numbers question. I mean, I can’t speak for I don’t know. I don’t know where the other number came from. But that I think we’re all in the interagency we’re all tracking these numbers. The numbers that we put out this morning, you got it. You saw the White House actually put those numbers out before we did. So that 37,000 since the 14th, is, is what we’re counting on. And I’ll turn it over to the General because of your first question.
But it’s whatever the costs are going to be Lara are bigger than just the airlift. And I can tell you that we don’t have an estimate right now. Our focus and the focus of the entire interagency is to get as many people out as fast as we can. And as safely as we can. And we’re not letting cost drive the factor. Cost drives the operation.
The operation is driving the operation and the need to do this in a very urgent and orderly way. But I’ll turn it over to the General. If he has any more data for you in terms of the cost from his perspective.
GEN. LYONS: You know, I couldn’t have said it any better than Mr. Kirby just said it. I mean, we’re aware and we’re cracking costs. But we’re nowhere close to accumulating that that data for public dissemination?
MR. KIRBY: And I’m sure, Lara, that when all is said and done. I mean, at the appropriate time. We’ll certainly be able to provide an overall sense of what the cost is. I just would add that the real cost that we’re focused on now is human life. That’s the cost that we’re focused on, Teresa.
Q: If I could just follow up with General Lyons. Are you concerned about the Taliban ultimatum that they issued? If the U.S. has to stay past August 31, to complete the evacuation? And what is the plan to protect our forces and the evacuees in that case?
GEN. LYONS: Again, as I said, you know, we watched the- all risks and threats very closely. And, you know, I would defer to U.S. Central Command on most of the parts of those questions. We’re in direct contact with them regularly continuously. And then we, you know, we have our own proxies and defensive measures and techniques, tactics and procedures. To take, you know, to protect our crews and to protect our aircraft going in and out.
MR. KIRBY: We got time for two more. I’m going to Sylvie and then Terace. Go ahead, Sylvie.
Q: You know, as you know I’m Sylvie Lanteaume from AFP. Can you speak to us about the cooperation with the Turkish forces at the airport? What kind of relationship do you have with them?
MR. KIRBY: Yes. I would defer to U.S. Central Command for that question. I would not be able to characterize the relationship on the ground. I know there is a relationship, but I would not be able to characterize that for you.
GEN. LYONS: Sylvie remember the Turks are on the ground really more of a security perspective. And so, it is really more of a central command relationship that they’re managing with the Turks every day. The Turks are still there. And of course, you know, at what scale that we’re there. Terace.
Q: Thank you, John. I’m Terace Garnier with Newsy. General Lyons, our medics being provided for each flight. I know there’s a concern about capacity because you’re trying to get as many people on. But are medics being provided. And the reason why I asked that is that there are reports that a woman had a baby during one of the flights.
And so, you have medics that will be on board? That will be able to handle any sort of emergency situations that may come up. If someone has a baby? Or, you know, falls and gets sick? Or something in that instance?
GEN. LYONS: Yes. It’s a great question. We do not have medics on every flight. There is a medical screen as part of the screening and boarding process. But I’ll confess to you that many people would have to self-identify any kind of medical issue. Really exciting. I mean, I really appreciate the news reporting on the baby being born.
As that flight came into Ramstein. Matter of fact, there’s actually been more than that. So, it’s just an incredible, incredible operation. Ongoing, you know. Just impressive work by our great airmen. (CROSSTALK)
Q: More than that?
Q: Yes. What do you mean by that?
MR. KIRBY: What am I meaning?
Q: How many babies?
MR. KIRBY: More than one baby.
GEN. LYONS: Yes. Well, my last data point was three. I don’t have a formal tracker, but those are the. You know, so we’ll, we’ll keep you posted.
MR. KIRBY: Alright Sir. We’ll follow up. We will follow up and try to get you information on the other two. Listen, we got to let the General — we have to let the general get…
Q: …(inaudible) on supplies though at H-Karzai. General Lyons we’ve had — we’ve heard some concerns that there wasn’t enough food or water for all the evacuees at the airport. Could you just talk about the efforts to fly in more sanitation? More and more. Use more water for those that are trying to flee Kabul?
GEN. LYONS: Sure. Well, you see all those aircraft going in there. And we never want to send an aircraft empty if we can’t if we don’t have to. So CENTCOM is managing that. We’ve got plenty of capacity going in there. And there is sustainment on those flights coming in. That we’re taking evacuees out. So that you know, CENTCOM is addressing that issue. Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: General, we’re going to let you go unless you have any closing thoughts? Anything that you might want to just hit at the end here?
GEN. LYONS: Well John, thanks for being part of this today. You know, again, how proud I am of our mobility Airmen just operating around the globe. It’s just impressive to see. And, you know, everybody is just in this all in. Rowing as hard as we can. And we’re going to make this happen. I’m absolutely confident of that.
MR. KIRBY: Thank you, General. Thanks for your time today. Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you back here. mid-morning tomorrow. Thanks very much.
Q: (Inaudible) do you have ideas on the evacuation for the (inaudible)?
MR. KIRBY: I don’t know. Not my place.
Q: Ask the same question.
MR. KIRBY: Sure, you want to, yes. Yes, let’s keep going. You got any more questions. We’ll answer more questions. Go ahead.
Q: I have one.
MR. KIRBY: All right.
Q: I have one.
Q: I had a question about you know, what you said earlier. You said that it could be possible that there is a chance that people could be evacuated from Kabul. After the U.S. military leaves the airport. So, who, would be secure? Who would secure the airports…the Turks?
MR. KIRBY: Well, I don’t…
Q: How would it?
MR. KIRBY: Well, I don’t know Sylvie. My point was simply that it’s certainly possible that the airport would maintain operations going forward. I mean, that would be for local authorities to figure out. But that — but it is certainly possible that commercial traffic and charter traffic can still flow once the U.S. military mission is over. I couldn’t speak to that with.
You know, with great specificity, because that would be beyond what we’re doing. But I just was making the point that just by virtue of the United States military leaving. Doesn’t mean that that everybody else is going to leave and not and not continue to fly aircraft out of there. That’s all. That’s all I was saying.
Q: So, it means that you will count on the Taliban to accept that people that leave.
MR. KIRBY: It’s not us counting on the Taliban Sylvie. We have a mandate to continue to conduct this evacuation until the end of the month. You heard the General we’re focused on that. That’s the goal we’re shooting for. Beyond that, when there’s no U.S. military mission there. It’s — I’m not able to speculate or hypothesize what that would look like. I’m just all I was saying to Courtney’s earlier question was. It’s possible that other carriers and other aircraft would be able to take off and land out of Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Q: Regarding the incident outside the North Gate at the airport. We’ve heard reports that actually American gunfire caused the injuries of the Afghan staff. Can you confirm that?
MR. KIRBY: I cannot. I’ve seen similar reports, I think it’s really important Wafa that we that let the people on the ground, get their best estimate and idea of what happened. And that we don’t try to do the forensics here at the Pentagon. Food situation, dynamic situation, serious threat environment, our troops have the right to defend themselves.
They believe they were under threat. And they reacted accordingly. I don’t want to get into second guessing that right now. And certainly, in such a short span of time after the event.
Q: And those wounded were civilians or armed. Do you have?
MR. KIRBY: It is my understanding. And I caveat this with all reports coming out. Originally, usually are not always completely accurate. But it’s my understanding that the wounds were sustained by other Afghan forces.
Q: And when you said one member of the Armed Forces was killed during this incident. How did you identify that he was like the Afghan?
MR. KIRBY: Commanders on the ground.
Q: Was he in uniform? How we can, you couldn’t tell if he’s Taliban or?
MR. KIRBY: Well, if I don’t know what clothes he was wearing. Our commanders on the ground reported that it was a member of the Afghan forces who was killed in action. We have no reason to doubt that report.
Q: Anything else, Lara?
Q: You mentioned earlier today. I can’t remember if it is your General Tylor. That there was a second rotary airlift evacuation mission out of Kabul. Can you talk a little bit about what you assess as the threat to these missions? And these aircraft from ISIS-K? From the Taliban? Are there issues with RPGs? How do you make sure that these?
MR. KIRBY: Yes. I think, you know, understand, I want to be a little careful here, Lara. I would just say that commanders on the ground have the authority to conduct local missions as they deem appropriate to the need. And we charged them with assessing the risk with anything that they’re doing. And the Secretary trusts, that they understand what the risks are.
And are appropriately factoring in whatever the risk environment is, before they actually… before they do anything. So well, I can’t speak and won’t speak to specific threat streams around the airport. I can tell you that our commanders are factoring in all manner of potential risks before they conduct any operation.
Q: Jake Sullivan earlier talks about the threat from ISIS-K to the airport. Is there a threat from ISIS-K to these operations a lot?
MR. KIRBY: I won’t speak to specifics of the threat. But we know that ISIS is certainly in Afghanistan. And we’re mindful of the potential threat that they can pose to security at the airport. And to the safe movement of people. Mark.
Q: Has the U.S. paid the Taliban for the freedom of movement or transport of a US. citizens.
MR. KIRBY: No.
Q: Hey, John?
Q: Any financial consideration paid to the Taliban over the—since the last…
MR. KIRBY: Not that I’m aware of.
MR. KIRBY: Thanks, guys.
For more on the Department of Defense’s efforts in Afghanistan, visit www.defense.gov/Explore/Spotlight/DOD-Response-Afghanistan-Evacuation/.