Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State
St. Regis Hotel
AMBASSADOR DESROCHER: Good afternoon, everybody. It’s great to see so many of you here today. We also have colleagues in the multipurpose room back at the embassy. I think we’ve got some people joining from Teams from elsewhere as well, trying to keep in mind all of our COVID protocols.
First of all, Mr. Secretary, thank you for making some time in what is a very busy and very productive day to spend a little time with our colleagues. We really appreciate it; they really appreciate it. I want to again – I’ve seen all of you here and there. It’s been a crazy couple of weeks. Some of you I haven’t seen in a while. I have not been able to express to you face to face, as much as I’ve wanted to, my extraordinary appreciation and admiration for the work that you all have done. It’s been an extraordinary few weeks. We’re very grateful for it. Here we have our Embassy Doha team. We have Embassy Doha colleagues there. I think we have some – some of our TDYers might also be with us today, people who flew in from all over to help us out. I think some of our Afghanistan unit colleagues are joining us as well.
Your performance has been extraordinary. I arrived here in June to do a short TDY. Really working with you over these past few weeks has been a great privilege for me. It’s easy to get cynical sometimes about our business, but it just amazes me time and time again how people step up, how you all have stepped up in an amazing way. It’s a very important thing that you’ve been doing. It’s been very hard; it’s been very stressful. Some of you have had to deal with really anguishing things, and we know how hard that can be. You have been working long hours. I hope – I urge you to get the support that you need to get if you feel you need it, to take the time you need, to take a break, which I realized, particularly at the beginning of all of this, we weren’t giving people a lot of breaks for anything. But it’s been very challenging; it’s been very hard. We want to support you through all of this, and I’m ready to talk to you anytime.
But today, I want to give the Secretary a chance to talk to you. I know he’s got some very strong feelings about the work that everybody has done. I think he’ll have a little time to take some questions – a few questions afterwards. I know we’re running a little bit behind, but I really want you to be able to hear from him. So again, from me, thank you for all the extraordinary work you have done. Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for joining us today, and please, the microphone is yours. Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you very much. Thank you. (Applause.)
Well, it’s very good to see all of you, and to those who are beaming in, wonderful to see you as well. John, Ambassador Desrocher, you did sign up for what was supposed to be a three-month assignment, quiet maybe. So didn’t quite turn out that way, and I really want to start by thanking you for your outstanding leadership at a time when it really counted. So John, thank you.
And there are others who’ve also run into the building here, Ambassador Holtz in particular. We’re so grateful that you were willing to help steer us through this operation. DCM Baker, also running into the – running into the building, leading from day one. And I think that leadership has also been manifested in virtually each and every one of you really stepping up and standing out when it counted most.
And our partners across the agencies, but especially starting with our partners in uniform, including Lieutenant General Guillot, Brigadier General Donohue – spent some time with them today. We’ve been shoulder to shoulder with them and other partners across the interagency throughout these last weeks. And I have to tell you, it’s been very gratifying to see the kind of work that’s being done across the government, across the agencies.
On August 19th, this post was one of the first to receive evacuees from Afghanistan. Eight flights landed at Al Udeid Military Airbase, 500 passengers or so on those first flights. Well, you know this better than I do – since then, you’ve facilitated the safe transit of more than 55,000 people. That’s nearly half of those who were evacuated in the entire evacuation from Kabul. These are massive numbers. And as I’ve said a number of times, we spend a lot of time back in Washington talking about numbers: the total number of evacuees, American citizens, and so forth. But you know better than anyone that behind each of these numbers is a real person, is a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, a son, a daughter.
And simply put, because of the work that you’ve done and our colleagues have done together so well, you’ve saved lives; you’ve changed futures in remarkable ways. And I hope that more than anything else that stays with you, because we get called upon to do lots of things in these jobs, but there are not that many days when we can say that the actions that we took – that you took – saved a life, changed a future. And I’m incredibly grateful to all of you for coming together to do that.
You’ve obviously been doing this work under very complicated and challenging circumstances and you’ve dealt with one challenge after the other. A problem’s arisen; you’ve found a way to solve it. I don’t think anyone but you will actually fully understand the magnitude of what you’ve dealt with. Even back in Washington as we were seeing this unfold, we relied so much on each of you to figure out a solution in the moment on the ground. And I think no one will really fully understands as well what you’ve actually been able to achieve.
And what I do know is that this effort has required pretty much a total commitment from each of you and your colleagues as individuals to make this work, working together as a team, often with people that you’ve never met before, on jobs that you’d never actually done before, and that takes resilience. It takes a tremendous amount of determination – understaffed, underslept, and in some of the most difficult physical and emotional conditions that one can imagine. And some of you have had to confront incredibly hard choices as well as solving problems on the fly.
But what stands out the most, I think, to me is that through all of this, you have shown remarkable compassion for everyone who came here, whether they were American citizens or legal permanent residents, our locally employed staff from Kabul, SIV applicants and recipients, Afghans at risk, citizens of allied and partner countries. That’s the word that really comes back. You’ve done it with tremendous humanity. You were in effect the face of America for people at a very desperate and bewildering time, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that.
Now, normally on a visit like this, I would mention some individual achievements, things that really stood out, but the truth of the matter is, if I did that, we’d be here for hours because there are individual achievements throughout this room and on the video screen. So many deserve special recognition for what they’ve done. When we asked team leads who to thank, the response was simple: every single person, and so that’s what I want to do. And instead of singling anyone out individually, let me just focus on a few of the remarkable things that you’ve achieved and done it together.
The hangar teams ensured that travelers had food, water, medical supplies, and security under these very, very challenging situations. Many of you brought supplies from your own homes. You knew it wouldn’t be enough to meet every need, but you did it, and you knew it could ease some of the hardship for at least a few of the families, and that that would be worth it. You found a way to bring some levity and joy to the children involved in this evacuation – bouncy castles, organizing games, screening movies. What a wonderful gift in this of all moments just to put a smile on a child’s face, and I thank you for that.
You designed a QR code to quickly input information about evacuees, speeding up the processing time, the tracking time, making it easier to reunite separated family members. And I know there have been a few joyful stories of families coming back together thanks to your work. Indeed, you reunited, I believe, about 150 families who had been separated in this evacuation. There was a grandmother in a wheelchair who arrived on a C-17 from Kabul after being separated from her sons. She couldn’t remember her last name. You found her kids.
You helped get some of the Afghans at greatest risk out of the country: journalists, activists, civic leaders, women and girls who risked retaliation and attacks. You made sure that our locally employed staff, our direct hires from Kabul got out and were processed quickly once they were here. And you ensured that American citizens, legal permanent residents, green card holders were identified and put on flights back home.
And again, the other thing that stands out for me through all of these stories, all of these achievements is that it took both individual determination, but it also took teamwork. The original embassy team, including our locally employed embassy staff, all of whom themselves are third-country nationals, Foreign and Civil Service officers who surged to the mission from posts around the world – when I was out at Al Udeid listening to where various people were from, it’s quite extraordinary. It’s not just a microcosm of our own country; it’s literally a microcosm of our missions around the world. So many colleagues came from missions all over the world to take part. And, of course, many served in Embassy Kabul as well.
Our colleagues, again, in DOD who were shoulder to shoulder with us throughout this mission – we could not have done any of what we did without them, particularly the AFCENT members, members of the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing at Al Udeid – all the soldiers, the sailors, airmen, Marines, guardians who augmented the Grand Slam Wing. Our brothers and sisters in uniform lost 13 of their own in this mission, as we all know so well. And to me it’s especially powerful because, as I’ve reflected on a few times and as you know, so many of those who gave their lives at Kabul airport were Marines. And we all know the first person you see walking into any of our embassies around the world is a Marine standing guard, watching over us, making sure that we can do what we do in security. And so this was especially deeply felt.
We also had TDYers not only from State, but from DOD, USAID, TSA, FBI, CBP, and other agencies all running in, and family members who stepped up to the aid effort. And, of course, our partners here in Qatar, who have every single time stepped up repeatedly and generously, supported this operation in every single way that we asked.
Let me say, too, that many of you – and I thank you for it – raised concerns in cables calling attention to where we needed to do more, particularly with respect to conditions on the ground. That candor, and your recommendations for how to address these problems, made all the difference because basically what happened here is that in our determination to get as many people out of Afghanistan as we possibly could as quickly as we could, so much of that burden shifted here in Doha. And you did a remarkable job dealing with very challenging conditions, overcoming them, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that many of you flagged problems and proposed solutions, and I thank you for that.
John said something very important that I want to footstomp.
Many of you are experiencing a lot of strong emotions in this time: pride at what you’ve done, compassion for those you’ve evacuated, but also feelings of frustration, exhaustion, disappointment at how imperfect all of this is, and some of the impossible choices that you’ve been forced to make. Some of us respond in one way, others respond in other ways to this kind of emotion. Maybe it’s manifesting itself now, maybe it’ll manifest itself next week, maybe it’ll manifest itself next year. And that’s completely normal.
So I want to reiterate what Ambassador Desrocher said: Please take care of yourselves. Take care of each other, as you’ve been doing. If you need some support and you need some help, raise your hand, let us know in any way that you want. And whether that is physical, whether that is emotional, mental, just let us know. And I want to tell you something that’s so important. There is no stigma attached to this whatsoever. You’ve got a whole community of people both here and back home who are ready to support you. So please, let us know if you need any help.
So let me just conclude with a couple of other thoughts about the way ahead. We have begun the next chapter in our diplomatic mission in Afghanistan. A great deal of it for now will happen here in Doha through the unit that Ian McCary is leading, and we’ve already got a great team in place to pursue our engagement in Afghanistan and our interests there. The strong ties that you’ve developed with our partners in Qatar, especially during the past several weeks, are actually going to be indispensable to that work going forward. And so equally indispensable is the link between our team focused on Afghanistan and this mission here – absolutely vital, and I really appreciate the – not only the work that’s already been done but the work that’s going to carry on going forward.
As we continue to work to help any American citizens who may need assistance, LPRs, SIV applicants, other Afghans at risk, you’re going to remain critical to that effort here in Mission Doha.
Finally, whatever you’re feeling now – I just want to come back to this; I hope you won’t lose sight of this – you have helped more people in the past few weeks than most of us will ever get to do in a lifetime. You have literally saved lives. You’ve changed the trajectory of many, many more, and you’ve done it with incredible humanity and incredible professionalism.
So simply put, I’m incredibly proud of the work that you’ve done. I’m grateful for it. And on behalf of all of your colleagues and on behalf of the President, thank you, thank you, thank you. (Applause.)