May 26, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary Conducts On-Camera Press Briefing
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby
PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Just a couple things at the top; The secretary will be meeting on Friday with the Indian Minister of External Affairs Jaishankar, as part of India's first cabinet-level visit to Washington. The secretary's meeting with the External Affairs minister will continue discussions that the two held in New Delhi in March, and will continue the robust bilateral defense and security relationship between our two countries. We're looking forward to having him here at the Pentagon, and hosting him for a good set of talks.
Q: Is this Friday or tomorrow?
MR. KIRBY: Friday, Friday.
We're also pleased to announce that Deputy Secretary Hicks and Deputy Secretary of HHS Palm, signed a memorandum of understanding to continue our agency's partnership in defeating COVID-19 and preparing for future public health emergencies.
Through the Defense Assisted Acquisition Cell, the department will continue to support HHS in expanding domestic production of medical supplies. Additionally, the MOU will help bolster the Strategic National Stockpile and accelerate development and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics. For the full details on the MOU and for more on the whole team, the release can be found on our website at Defense.gov.
And then just lastly, I'd like to give a shout-out to one of my colleagues at the White House, Karine Jean-Pierre, who had her debut at the podium over there. And I don't know if you had a chance to see it, but I thought she did a fantastic job and we welcome her to the podium. It's just, you know, more arrows in the quiver here as we try to communicate on behalf of the administration.
And with that, Bob?
Q: Hi, John. On Afghanistan, can you confirm that the Reagan, Ronald Reagan carrier is going to be added to the mix in the Gulf?
MR. KIRBY: Yeah, I've seen the press reporting on that, Bob. I think you know we don't talk about potential future operations. We certainly don't talk about potential ship movements in advance, so I don't really have any decision to speak to about that today.
The only thing I would add is, and we've talked about this a while, the secretary wants to make sure that General Miller has the right options at his disposal to make sure that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is done in a safe, orderly and deliberate way.
Let me go to the phones, Stephen Losey from Military.com?
Q: Hi, thank you very much, John. There's been a lot of talk in recent weeks about the concerns over Afghan interpreters and other Afghans who have assisted the United States over the last 20 years, and some discussion over whether to move them to Guam as kind of a waypoint while the visa process takes its course.
Can you talk to me about what the Pentagon is planning to do right now to assist interpreters? And is this Guam option on the table for something that might happen sometime soon?
MR. KIRBY: So I mean, the secretary shares concerns about so many Afghans who have helped us over the last two decades. He knows many of them himself, so he's certainly vested in making sure that we do right by them. And he's actively participating in what is an interagency discussion about how to best address this issue. I think you saw our colleagues at the State Department, just as recently as the last day or so, provide some additional context of things that they're doing to try to expand the special immigrant visa program that they run. And certainly, to the degree that DOD can be helpful, we will. Again, this is part of an interagency effort but the secretary is absolutely mindful of our obligations to these very brave Afghans and we're going to continue to work inside, again, a government-wide effort to try to address it.
I don't have any specific planning options to speak to today, I mean, I've seen the press reporting about Guam, -- I have no specifics to speak to in terms of whether or how we would ever get into a position like that. I think it won't be lost on you particularly that, I mean, this is a planning organization and we want to be ready for all manner of contingencies, but there's been no tasking to do anything of that sort or to provide any transportation at this time. So, I think I'd leave it at that.
Q: Hi John. Thanks for doing this. You've spoken many times from up there about the Defender-Europe exercises that were going on. About a week ago, this exercise took place in Serbia with Serbian and Russian troops. I'm interested in the perspective on this because Serbia is a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace.
And this is the first time a nation as a member of the Partnership for Peace has essentially conducted a military exercise with a country that's, you know, atop our list of potential adversaries. What is the Pentagon's perspective on this?
MR. KIRBY: I don't have any details on this particular exercise, Tom. So, I'm not exactly informed enough to speak to what this exercise was or what they did. So, let me...
Q: Sorry, the exercise did take place but more importantly, the question -- I'm sorry -- let me -- I'm sorry if I wasn't clear. I'm interested in the Pentagon's perspective on the fact that a country, in this case, Serbia, a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace, an organization formed to essentially combat Russia is exercising with the enemy.
MR. KIRBY: Well, I mean, nobody's labeled Russia the enemy. I know you did. But that's not the phrase that we would use to refer to Russia. And I would let these two sovereign nations speak to their exercises and bilateral relationship, that's really for them to speak to.
We value Serbia as a member of the Partnership for Peace program and we certainly value our contributions to the alliance. If the alliance has any comment on it, I would refer you to my colleague in Brussels.
MR. KIRBY: Yes, I think that's a better question put my colleague at NATO. And again, these two nations should speak to their bilateral relationship and whatever exercises that they're going to conduct.
Q: Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: OK?
MR. KIRBY: Lara ?
Q: There was a report that just came out saying the Pentagon is drafting a memo asking personnel to report anomalous health symptoms that might be related to the Havana Syndrome. Can you confirm this? Can you say if this is something that you're thinking about doing?
MR. KIRBY: I can't confirm the press reporting about a memo, I just saw it before I came out here myself, Lara, but the secretary does take this phenomenon seriously. And obviously, the health and well-being of our people are paramount priority to him and to all the leaders here at the department.
So, we are part of aa government-wide effort, we are contributing to a government-wide effort to try to better understand these health phenomena and what might be causing them. Not great answers right now, we're still working hard on this.
But I can't speak to specific communications that may or may not be considered. Again, I just saw the press report before coming out here.
Q: Can you say who or which office within the Pentagon is going to responsible for looking into this?
MR. KIRBY: I just -- I don't know, I just saw that press report before coming out so I don't know.
Q: But in general, the problem.
MR. KIRBY: I thought you meant the memo. I'm sorry.
Q: (Sure ?).
MR. KIRBY: It's not just one office. I think, you know there's a team of people here that are working on this and to try to get a better understanding of it. It's cutting across the department because, as you would think, it's because we don't know, and because it is potentially affecting the health of our employees, we want to get a better understanding of it and there's a cross-departmental effort to try to contribute to the effort.
Q: Hey, thanks for doing this. I know you just told Bob that you don't talk about ship movements but can you at least confirm that Secretary Austin is considering the movement of the Reagan as an option for help with Afghanistan? And then I have a follow-up.
MR. KIRBY: Well, what I can tell you is that the secretary is constantly evaluating options and balancing requirements versus capabilities and, as I said to Bob, is very keenly focused on making sure that General Miller has the assets and the resources he needs to conduct this withdrawal in a safe and orderly way.
And, of course, we also have a robust presence in the Middle East writ-large, outside of the Afghanistan effort, so, there's a lot to consider when you're talking about moving major units. But that's as far as I can go today.
Q: OK, thank you. And then I'd like to get your reaction, or the Pentagon's reaction, to the Taliban telling neighboring countries around Afghanistan not to host U.S. bases.
MR. KIRBY: I've seen reports of that, I can't confirm that that's in fact a message that they're sending. What I can tell you is that we continue to support diplomatic efforts to explore opportunities in the region that would allow us to improve our over-the-horizon counterterrorism capabilities.
As I said yesterday, we already have a over-the-horizon counterterrorism capability in the region. It's just a matter of how do we work to improve that and make it more robust. And part of that is to have these sorts of diplomatic discussions.
We're supportive of that, participating in that, but I don't have any final decisions or a resolution on any of that with any particular neighboring countries to speak to today.
Q: I'm going to take another crack at the Afghanistan interpreter question.
MR. KIRBY: Go for it.
Q: So, leaving Guam out of it. Is there a group in the Pentagon that is putting together options for the State Department should there be a request for you guys to help get interpreters out of Afghanistan?
MR. KIRBY: What I would I would say is, and you know, we're a planning organization and we plan for contingencies all around the world. Non-combatant evacuations is a mission that the military often has to be ready for in many places around the world.
So, without confirming specific options and details that are out there in the press space, I can tell you that we're always planning for the kinds of contingencies that we might need. It would be irresponsible for us not to.
But, as General McKenzie said himself, there's been no tasking of this kind, we're not at that stage and at that point, and if we are so tasked, we believe that we have the capabilities and the resources to execute those missions.
But it would, as you well know Meghann, it would be highly dependent on the circumstance and I just can't at this stage of the game speculate on what the circumstances and the factors and the details might be at this point.
Q: But it's likely that you're thinking about it.
MR. KIRBY: We are a planning organization, Meghann.
Q: Appreciate it.
MR. KIRBY: Yes.
Q: Contingencies all around the world…
Q: Of course.
MR. KIRBY: Thank you for adding that.
Q: You've got plans for everything.
MR. KIRBY: Important prepositional phrase.
Q: You know I had one.
MR. KIRBY: You're a great editor, you should be up here too.
Jarred, from Al Monitor?
Q: Hi, John, thank you so much for doing this. Just wondering if you have anything on this arrest -- the security situation in Baghdad following the arrest of this PMF official Qasim Muslih, if any U.S. officials have spoken to their Iraqi counterparts about this security situation or if the U.S. is involved in this investigation leading to this officials arrest?
MR. KIRBY: I have seen press reporting on that, Jared, but I can't confirm the actual press reports. So I am not really at liberty to answer your question with any great detail. We don't have any independent confirmation that this actually happened.
Q: Okay. And has there been any coordination with Iraqi officials on the security situation in Baghdad today?
MR. KIRBY: We're always in consultation with our Iraqi partners about security in the country, particularly as it relates to ISIS, which is why we're there. I think that's important for people to remember, the mission of the troops that we have in Iraq are there at their invitation to help them with their fights against ISIS. That's the focus. When we talk about consultations with our Iraqi partners it's really in that vein, about the counter ISIS mission.
Q: I have a question about Mali. There was a coup in Mali yesterday, and today the State Department has announced that the U.S. is suspending security assistance to the Mali armed forces. So I wanted to know what kind of assistance was provided?
MR. KIRBY: Yes. Sylvie, as I understand it, and I would certainly welcome you to consult with our State Department colleagues. The security assistance with Mali was actually suspended last summer, back from August of 2020. There's been no resumption of that since August 2020 and so there's been no additional suspensions. This is a suspension that occurred almost a year ago. As for the details of what that comprised, you would have to talk to the State Department about that.
Q: Okay. Because they say that the assistance that we had continued previously (inaudible) available authorities.
MR. KIRBY: Yes, I actually checked with the State Department this morning and I am sure what they are referring to there is the previous decision from last summer to suspend security assistance. It has never been -- when it was suspended back in August last year it was never resumed as I understand it, but please feel free to contact my colleagues at the State Department.
Q: Thank you. On the meeting on Friday, what are the Secretary's key priority areas when it comes to India/U.S. defense relationships?
MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to get ahead of the specific agenda. We'll certainly provide a readout of the meeting on Friday afternoon, but as I said in the opening statement, it will be a continuation of the discussion, the very productive discussion, that we had when we were in New Delhi a month or so ago because India is a strategic defense partner and so there's lots to discuss. I won't get ahead of the actual agenda.
Q: And in Afghanistan, as you withdraw troops from Afghanistan, what role do you see for India there? Is it helping you with retrograde?
MR. KIRBY: I'll let India speak to what bilateral relationship that they want to have with Afghanistan going forward. As we talked about, you and I talked about for a long time, India has been a helpful partner Afghanistan in terms of training, and that kind of thing. Whether that continues, that's really for the Indian government to speak to, not for us to.
Q: And one final one on U.S. COVID-19 assistance to India. Do you have any update on it and is the Pentagon also providing some assistance to other South Asian countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka?
MR. KIRBY: I have no updates for COVID support to India and I don't have anything to announce with respect to other nations in the region.
Q: Hi, John. Thanks a lot for taking my question. It's been a while since you've talked about the Russian troop buildup along the Ukrainian border. Do you have anything new to add about what's been observed there? And also, given that there's going to be a summit with Biden and Vladimir Putin, do you foresee Secretary Austin having a role in that? Thanks.
MR. KIRBY: I don't have anything to read out for the summit with President Putin, that's really for the White House to speak to. I have nothing with respect to the secretary's schedule to offer there.
As for the troop buildup and presence along the border with Ukraine and inside occupied Crimea, we certainly have seen the bulk of those forces redeploy away from the border with Ukraine and out of occupied Crimea. There is still a sizable residual force there, and I would remind, again, that the Russians were never fully transparent about what their purpose was and what they were trying to achieve.
In the room here.
Q: On Afghanistan, New York Times had a story yesterday saying that the withdrawal may be completed mid-July instead of extending into September. Do you have anything on that, John?
MR. KIRBY: The president's direction was clear- to be complete with the withdraw by early September. We're, as I said, and you've seen statements coming out CENTCOM, we're moving at pace. I don't have anything more specific to add with respect to schedule.
I mean, I've seen these press reports but I'm not going to speculate about what the exact timeframe is going to end up being. As I said before, this is a very dynamic situation and we're mindful of all the dynamic factors that could play into this. So we're continuing to focus on it, making sure that we meet the president's intention to be out no later than early September.
Q: And the report also, made reference to some U.S. officials saying that NATO is going to continue the training of the Afghan forces in other countries in the region, and Jordan is also one of the options that the Afghan forces are going to be trained. Is there coordination from here to Jordan regarding that possibly Afghan forces may be trained in that country?
MR. KIRBY: I don't know specific discussions with Jordan over this. And I would refer to NATO to speak to those reports. I can't confirm that, that's really for NATO to speak to. What I can tell you is that from the U.S. perspective, and you've heard the secretary talk about this, that we're going to continue to support Afghan forces, largely financially.
But we are also exploring what possibilities can be had in terms of over the horizon logistical support, particularly for things like aircraft maintenance, but that's where our focus is. I won't speak for NATO, and whatever these reports are about training and where that might take place.
Q: Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: Yeah. Thank you.
Q: The Japanese Defense Minister recently said that he is open to having quad defense minister's meeting at some point in the future. Is Secretary Austin also open to having such a quad defense minister's meeting?
MR. KIRBY: The secretary is always willing to have productive discussions with his counterparts in the quad nations.
Again, our first trip overseas, Japan, South Korea, went to India, and even on that trip managed a phone call with his Australian counterpart while we were in the air. So he's always going to look favorably on opportunities to continue that kind of dialogue.
Q: This was easy.
MR. KIRBY: All right. Have a good afternoon.
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