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Evacuating Afghans who helped U.S. a ‘high priority,’ national security official says

For a senior perspective from the Biden administration on the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan and U.S. response and support of evacuation efforts, Judy Woodruff is joined by Jon Finer, the deputy national security advisor.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now for the perspective on the Afghan situation from the Biden administration.

    Jon Finer is the deputy national security adviser. And I spoke with him moments ago.

    Jon Finer, thank you for joining us.

    Our reporter in Kabul Jane Ferguson is describing for us panic in the streets of Kabul. She is describing the Taliban preventing most people from getting to the airport. Are these evacuations going as the administration had hoped?

  • Jon Finer:

    So, Judy, it is a very serious security situation in Kabul, and we are well aware of reports that people are having difficulty reaching the airport.

    A lot of people are reaching the airport, in spite of those challenges, and the number of people we have been able to put on evacuation flights out of the Afghanistan has increased steadily day by day, and we expect that to continue.

    I do want to point out, though, that there is an extraordinary degree of problem-solving hard work going on with our teams on the ground, both military personnel and diplomats, to address exactly the situation that you're describing, so that — to facilitate people's access to the airport and get them out of the country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we did hear President Biden's say yesterday in that ABC interview that, if Americans are not all out by August the 31st, the military is going to stay as long as necessary to get them and America's allies out.

    But how are you going to do that without putting more military force in there?

  • Jon Finer:

    Well, Judy, we do believe it is possible to get all Americans in Afghanistan who wants to get out of the country out by that time.

    We have been communicating steadily with Americans, really from the moment this administration took office, and even before, through our State Department, which maintains a list of people who have been resident in Afghanistan over a period of time.

    Now, we don't have an exact count, because we don't track when people come and go from the country. But we have been sending an increasingly urgent series of messages to those people that they should leave Afghanistan for their own safety and security, even before the recent crisis.

    We have even offered in recent days and weeks to provide financial assistance for people who want to purchase flights out of Afghanistan when the commercial aviation system was up and running. And we are reaching out to them directly again today to try to locate any Americans who remain in the country who would like to get out, so we can help facilitate their departure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And does that include military escort?

  • Jon Finer:

    I'm not going to go into all the operational details of how we are planning to do this, but we take very seriously the plight of Americans in Afghanistan.

    There is no more important mission that we are trying to execute in real time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And how far is the administration prepared to go to extract those Afghans who helped and supported the United States over the last 20 years?

  • Jon Finer:

    Well, Judy, as you know, we have already evacuated more than 2,000 Special Immigrant Visa applicants. These are Afghans who worked on behalf of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, either with our diplomats or our development professionals or our military officers.

    We have plans under way and actually flights under way in real time today, tomorrow and going forward to evacuate what we hope will be thousands more of Afghans who are in urgent need of getting out of the country, including people who worked on behalf of the United States and including other Afghans who are at risk in special categories of concern.

    This is a high priority and one that we are continuing to execute today, tomorrow, and going forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    If necessary, is the U.S. prepared to send more troops in?

  • Jon Finer:

    We're not talking about more troops at this point. We have a significant troop presence at the airport in Afghanistan. The military has told us they have what they need to keep that facility secure.

    I don't want to underestimate the threat picture that exists in Afghanistan currently. It is a very serious security environment. The president has told the military they will have what they need. And, as of now, they have told us they have the force posture in place to keep that facility secure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And do you have ongoing talks between the administration and the Taliban in order to do everything you can to provide for safe passageway for these people?

  • Jon Finer:

    Judy, as I think you know, we have been in diplomatic conversations with the Taliban for quite some time. Those conversations at high levels took place in Doha, Qatar.

    We have now also established a channel to the Taliban on the ground in Kabul, so that exactly those sorts of operational considerations, including safe passage to the airport, can be arranged based on the work of our commanders in the field, who have the closest, clearest sense of the details on the ground and what exactly we need to be able to accomplish that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jon Finer, I know you are aware of this, but there are not only Republican, but many Democratic members of Congress and so many others who are criticizing the administration right now for not doing more earlier to move, not just Americans, but especially those Afghan allies who worked for the U.S. over the years, to get them safely out of the country.

    We have members of Congress, including those who appearing on this program, who were saying they pleaded with the Biden administration to move on this earlier. And they were met — their pleas were met with deaf ears.

  • Jon Finer:

    So, Judy, I think you heard, as I did, the directors of national intelligence in the Central Intelligence Agency say yesterday that all of this transpired much faster than anyone internally and really most people externally predicted it would.

    What you had was a country that effectively lost its governing authority and its armed forces within a matter of days. When that happened, there was guaranteed to be a degree of turbulence, especially in a place as politically complex as Afghanistan.

    But because we did take these reports as seriously as we did, we had forces prepositioned in the region that we were able to flow into the country very quickly. We were able to gain security control of the airport within a matter of days. We were able to close down our embassy and evacuate our diplomats, again, without a major security incident involved in doing that, which would have been a real worst-case scenario.

    And we have now been able to start executing these flights to get people out of the country on an urgent basis.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You were saying that this happened much faster than anyone expected. And the president himself has said that.

    But we have top CIA, former CIA officials, the head of counterterrorism for Southwest and South Asia, who was saying that he advised your team that they — he said he knows for a fact that the ultimate assessment from the intelligence community to the Biden team was that Afghan forces might capitulate within days, that this was — in other words, that this was something the administration should have foreseen.

  • Jon Finer:

    All I can say about that, Judy, is, I and my colleagues have read every piece of intelligence that is relevant, every assessment that has come from our intelligence community on Afghanistan going back since the very beginning of this administration.

    We take these assessments incredibly seriously. And I would point you again to the comments yesterday by the directors of national intelligence and the Central Intelligence Agency, who said basically exactly what I just told you, which is that this all transpired much more quickly than was anticipated by them or anyone else.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we heard General Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, say that it was known that there could be a full collapse of the Afghan government.

    Is that what the administration expected?

  • Jon Finer:

    Intelligence is about a range of possibilities. That was one of the possibilities.

    And exactly because of that possibility, Judy — and this is important to underscore — the president order that forces be prepositioned in the region so that we could flow them into Afghanistan very quickly on a hair trigger if the security environment began to deteriorate.

    And that's exactly what we did. And because of that, again, we were able to draw our embassy down and begin these flights, these evacuations out of Afghanistan much more quickly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One last question about that. Should the United States have negotiated an exit that involved a larger footprint here at the end for the United States, so that the United States is not encircled in its efforts to get people out of the country at one airport in the — just outside Kabul?

  • Jon Finer:

    The United States has a very significant security footprint in Kabul, in Afghanistan.

    Our military commanders have told the president they have what they need to keep that facility safe and secure. If that changes, I guarantee you the president will provide exactly what is required. But, for now, we believe we have got what we need.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jon Finer is the deputy national security adviser.

    Thank you very much. We appreciate it.

  • Jon Finer:

    Thank you, Judy.

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