Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State
QUESTION: And joining us now, the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. Mr. Secretary, welcome back to Fox News Sunday.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks for having me, Chris.
QUESTION: Let’s get the latest on the evacuation effort. How many people have we evacuated from Kabul in the last 24 hours? In the last week since the Taliban took Kabul? And why did the administration decide to get U.S. airlines to participate in the evacuation?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Chris, thanks very much. The last 24 hours, about 8,000 people on about 60 flights evacuated from Kabul airport. Since this effort began at the end of July, about 30,000 people, all told, on our military flights and on charter flights that we’ve helped to organize and get out of the airport. We’ve now asked, through authority that the President has, airlines to help participate in moving people not out of Kabul, but from these third-country sites where we’re taking them as we finish processing them and going through security checks. We’ve reached agreements with about two dozen countries over four continents who are now helping or are soon going to help with the transit of people out of Kabul. And this is one way to make sure we have enough flight capacity to move people from those places to their ultimate destinations.
QUESTION: Job one, of course, is getting Americans through Taliban checkpoints and to the airport. Here’s what President Biden said on Friday:
PRESIDENT BIDEN: “We have no indication that they haven’t been able to get in Kabul through the airport. We’ve made an agreement with the – with the Taliban thus far. They’ve allowed them to go through.”
But yesterday, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued this alert:
“Because of potential security threats outside the gates at the Kabul airport, we are advising U.S. citizens to avoid traveling to the airport…..unless you receive individual instructions from a U.S. Government representative to do so.”
That alert directly contradicts what President Biden said just hours before on Friday. And my question is: Is that because the situation in getting to the airport, even for Americans, is more dangerous than the President indicated? Or is it because of a reported new threat from ISIS?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Chris, here’s what we’ve seen over the last week at the airport. Crowds have massed at the gates outside the airport. It’s an incredibly volatile situation. It’s an incredibly fluid situation. We’ve seen wrenching images of people hurt, even killed, that hit you in the gut. And it’s very important to make sure to the best of our ability, because it’s such a volatile situation, that we do something about the crowding at the gates of the airport. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.
First, the more we move people out of the airport who are already in, the more we alleviate what has been overcrowding inside the airport, the more we can get people inside the airport and reduce some of the crowding at the gates.
But second and most important, we’re in direct contact with Americans and others to help guide them to the airport, right place, right time, to get in more safely and effectively. And at the same time, as we were talking about a few minutes ago, we now have in place agreements with, as I said, more than two dozen countries so that as we’re moving people out of Kabul, we’re moving them to places where we can finish processing them, finish doing security checks, and that, too, will make things run more smoothly. It’ll get the flow to a point where we hope and expect that some of these scenes of overcrowding, which are so dangerous, can be alleviated.
QUESTION: I want to pick up on another aspect of the evacuation. We know of one instance where the U.S. sent three Chinook helicopters out to a hotel near the airport to pick up 169 Americans and bring them back into the airport. Have there been other instances where the U.S. has gone outside the perimeter of Kabul airport to pick up Americans either in Kabul or around the country? And are we prepared to do more of that?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Chris, the President and the Secretary of Defense have been very clear that we will do what is necessary to get Americans who want to leave out of harm’s way and get them home. And that is an ongoing effort. I’ll leave it to the Secretary of Defense and others to speak to how we would go about doing that.
But our focus now, what the State Department is focused on, in very close coordination with the Department of Defense and all of our other colleagues, is directing people with whom we’re in direct contact as to the best way to get to the airport, get through the gates, get onto planes. That’s the safest and most effective way to do it.
QUESTION: In addition to the question of the security and the ease of Americans getting to the airport, the President on Friday said a few other things that were flat wrong, Mr. Secretary. Here he is on the threat from al-Qaida:
PRESIDENT BIDEN: “What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with al-Qaida gone?”
But a UN report this summer says that al-Qaida is present in 15 of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan. And General Milley said this summer that if the Taliban fell, that he was – or, rather, took over Kabul, that he was going to have to upgrade the terror threat from al-Qaida.
The President – what the President said just wasn’t true.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Chris, step back for one second. First, as we – as we all know, we went to Afghanistan 20 years ago with one mission and one purpose in mind, and that was to deal with the folks who attacked us on 9/11, to bring bin Laden to justice – which we did a decade ago – and to diminish the capacity of al-Qaida to do the same thing again, to attack us from Afghanistan. And that, to the President’s point, has been successful.
We got bin Laden a decade ago, and —
QUESTION: But Mr. Secretary, the President – sir, the President said –
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Please.
QUESTION: — al-Qaida is gone. Simple question: Is al-Qaida gone from Pakistan – from Afghanistan?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Al-Qaida’s capacity to do what it did on 9/11 – to attack us, to attack our partners or allies from Afghanistan – is vastly, vastly diminished.
QUESTION: Is it gone?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Are there al-Qaida members and remnants in Afghanistan? Yes. But what the President was referring to was its capacity to do what it did on 9/11. And that capacity has been very successfully diminished.
QUESTION: Here is another statement that the President made that was flat wrong. Take a look:
PRESIDENT BIDEN: “I have seen no question of our credibility from our allies around the world.”
PRESIDENT BIDEN: “I’ve got – the exact opposite thing is we’re acting with dispatch, we’re acting – committing to what we said we would do.”
But Armin Laschet, the likely successor to German Chancellor Merkel, said, “This is the biggest debacle that NATO has seen since its foundation.” And here is the chairman of the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs committee.
CHAIRMAN TUGENDHAT: “To see their commander-in-chief call into question the courage of men I fought with, to claim that they ran – it’s shameful. Those who have never fought for the colors they fly should be careful about criticizing those who have.”
Mr. Secretary, does the President not know what’s going on?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: This is an incredibly emotional time for many of us, and including allies and partners who have been shoulder-to-shoulder with us in Afghanistan for 20 years at high cost to themselves as well as to us. They stood with us after 9/11, invoked Article 5 at NATO for the first time – an attack on one is an attack on all – and we’ve been there together.
But I’ve got to tell you this, Chris: From the get-go, I’ve spent more time with our NATO partners in Brussels, virtually from before the President made his decision, to when he made his decision, to every time since. We’ve been working very, very closely together. We’ve gotten the G7 together, NATO together, the UN Security Council together. We had 113 countries, thanks to our diplomacy, put out a clear understanding of the Taliban’s requirements to let people leave the country.
QUESTION: Sir, respectfully, that – look, I’m not questioning whether or not the allies have a right to complain. I’m not questioning whether or not al-Qaida has a presence. The President said al-Qaida is gone. It’s not gone. The President said he’s not heard any criticism from the allies. There’s been a lot of criticism from the allies. Words matter, and the words of the President matter most.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Chris, all I can tell you is what I’ve heard. And again, this is a powerfully emotional time for a lot of allies and partners, as it is for me, as it is for us.
But I’ve also heard this: I’ve heard, across the board, deep appreciation and thanks from allies and partners for everything that we’ve done to bring our allies and partners out of harm’s way. This has been a remarkable part of the effort. I’ve seen them stand up, step up to help out, including, as I said, agreements with more than two dozen countries now to help out on transit. And beyond that, we’re very focused together on the way forward, including the way forward in Afghanistan, and setting very clear expectations for the Taliban in the days, weeks, and months ahead.
QUESTION: Right. I’ve got two more questions I want to ask you, Secretary Blinken. On July 13th, 23 staffers at the U.S. embassy in Kabul sent you a memo saying that the collapse of Afghan forces and the takeover of the Taliban was going much faster than expected and urging you to speed up the evacuation of our Afghan allies – the drivers, the translators, the people who had stood by us. In the month between then and August 13th, we only evacuated 1,200 Afghan allies. Why didn’t you move faster, sir?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: First, Chris, the cable you’re referring to came through something we call the Dissent Channel, and it’s something I take very, very seriously. This is a very important tradition that the State Department has. It’s a very patriotic one. I read the cable almost immediately. I responded to the cable almost immediately. And we took to heart a number of recommendations that were made in the cable. I can’t go into too much detail.
QUESTION: But we only – we only evacuated 1,200 Afghans in the next month. That doesn’t sound like you took it that seriously.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Two things here, Chris. First, and this is important, when it comes to the Special Immigrant Visa program – these are the folks who helped us, who stood with us, translators, interpreters, et cetera, who we’ve committed to bringing out of Afghanistan if they want to leave. We inherited a program that was in a dead stall. No interviews had been done when we came into office for visas for these folks going back to March 2020. Now largely, that was due to COVID. We restarted the interview process. The President issued an executive order his second week in office to look at the program to see how we could make it work better. We surged resources to the program, assigned more personnel in Afghanistan, in Washington, to make this work. We went from about a hundred visas a week back in March to 800 in July.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We’ve issued about 5,000, all told. But here’s the rub, and I acknowledge this: There is a difference between moving expeditiously to get this program off the ground, off the dead stall that it was in, and get it moving – by the way, we cut processing time in half during this period – and that’s exactly what we were doing. But – and we also instituted Operation Allies Refuge to make sure that we could lift people out, which was not part of the program to begin with.
But there’s a difference between that and a full-on evacuation. And because we believed that the government was not about – was not going to collapse, the military was not about to fade away when it did, we believed that we could do this with – in a very expedited way, more resources, more effort, more people out, but that we would have time to do it effectively.
QUESTION: And that brings us to my final question, which is the failure of both intelligence and planning. I want to play for you comments that President Biden made this week and that he made in July. Take a look, sir.
PRESIDENT BIDEN: “The idea that somehow there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens.”
PRESIDENT BIDEN: “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
QUESTION: How does chaos go from highly unlikely to inevitable in just six weeks? And frankly, sir, what does that say about the competence of the President and all of you on his national security team?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Chris, there’s going to be plenty of time to look back, to figure out who was saying what when, what should have happened differently, plenty of time for that. I’ve got to tell you, right now I am focused on one thing and one thing only, and that’s the mission to get people out of Afghanistan – to get our people out, to get our partners out, to do it as fast as we can, to do it as effectively as we can, to do it as safely as we can.
QUESTION: But you do realize, respectfully, sir, that – and you are saying that, the Pentagon’s saying it, the President’s saying that – that’s a way to avoid accountability now in the midst of this disaster.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Chris, this is not about avoiding accountability. In our system, thankfully, there is accountability. There always will be accountability. But there is a time and place for everything, and the time and place right now is this mission. And I’m seeing people around this country rally to it. I’m seeing allies and partners around the world rally to it. That’s got to be our focus. And there – again, there’s going to be plenty of time to figure out exactly what happened, what might have been done differently, to learn the lessons from this chapter, and to take account of them.
QUESTION: Secretary Blinken, thank you. Thanks for your time in the midst of everything you’ve got going on, and I very much appreciate and respect the fact that you’re willing to answer all our tough questions, sir. Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Chris. Good to be with you, appreciate it.