AUSTIN: We’re gonna try our very best to get everybody, every American citizen who wants to get out, out. And we’ve got — we continue to look at different ways to — in creative ways — to reach out and contact American citizens and help them get into the airfield.
RADDATZ: You said American citizens. What about those Afghans? What about those interpreters? What about the people who are desperately calling?
AUSTIN: Absolutely the people that are in the Special Immigrant Visa program are very very important to us and these would be the interpreters and many of the staff that supported our embassy, and other embassies, by the way. We want to evacuate them as well.
RADDATZ: Will you ask the President to extend the deadline if they’re not out?
AUSTIN: We’re gonna continue to assess the situation. And again, work as hard as we can to get as many people out as possible. And as we approach that deadline, we’ll make a recommendation to the president.
RADDATZ: Why aren’t American troops able to go out into Kabul and help those Americans, help those Afghans who helped Americans — get to the airport?
AUSTIN: We have been out. We — you saw evidence of an operation the other day where we flew a couple of helicopters over to — that was a very short distance —
RADDATZ: About a 1000 yards, right?
AUSTIN: Yeah, but, but certainly it helped 169 American citizens get back, get into the, into the gate without, without issues.
RADDATZ: You’ve got tens of thousands of people out there, desperate to get to the airport, surrounded by the Taliban. So, why can’t the U.S. send convoys out there?
AUSTIN: If you have an American passport, and if you have the right credentials, the Taliban has been allowing people to pass safely through.
RADDATZ: Not in all cases.
AUSTIN: There’s no such thing as an absolute. And this kind of environment, as you would imagine, Martha, there have been incidents of people having some tough encounters with Taliban. As we learn about those incidents — we certainly go back and engage the Taliban leadership and press home to them that our expectation is that they allow, you know, our people with the appropriate credentials to get through the checkpoints.
RADDATZ: But further out into Kabul, there are people desperate to get in. We’re the most capable military in the world.
AUSTIN: We are, and that most capable military in the world is going to make sure that airfield remains secure and safe, and we’re going to defend that airfield. We’re going to look at every way — every means possible to get American citizens, third country nationals, Special Immigrant Visa applicants into the airfield.
RADDATZ: What is the threat level now at the airport?
AUSTIN: I won’t get into any specific intelligence assessments, but you know that environment well enough, you’ve been there many many times, that it’s — there’s a, there are a mix of threats in the environment.
RADDATZ: We saw those first days of people, clinging to airplanes — falling to their death. The absolute utter chaos. And that’s still going on outside the airport. How did this happen?
AUSTIN: Very disturbing images indeed, Martha. As we moved into the airfield and began to secure the airfield, there were a number of civilians that got on to the airfield, before we could completely seal it off. And that was caused by the panic that was created because the government simply dissolved, and the security forces evaporated.
RADDATZ: The president told our George Stephanopoulos that he doesn’t think this exit could have been handled any better way. That chaos would ensue, no matter what. Do you agree with that?
AUSTIN: I agree that if a government collapses to the degree that it did, if the security forces evaporate at the speed that they did, you will clearly have chaos. And that’s what we saw.
RADDATZ: Let’s go back to the planning. We closed Bagram. I was over there with General Miller, and there were concerns about closing Bagram. There were concerns about Afghan interpreters at that point. Who — whose job was it to worry about those interpreters — those Afghans at risk?
AUSTIN: Our goal was to keep the embassy open, and also provide a security element in and around Kabul International to protect the embassy and protect our interest in the immediate — the immediate area. In terms of whose job it is, whose job it was, to address the Special Immigrant Visa applicants, it’s all of our job. It’s an interagency process that’s really honchoed, or led by, the State Department. But, it’s all of our responsibility.
RADDATZ: Are you going to get them all out of there? I know all your people here are working hard, but there’s no real way to get this done right now.
AUSTIN: I’m sure that if people, you know, five days ago looked at where we were, they would say, you probably can’t get very much done at all. If you look at what we’re doing now and taking — evacuating thousands of people every day. It really has been a tremendous piece of work. In terms of what we’ll be able to accomplish going forward, you can’t — we can’t place a, you know, a specific figure on exactly what we’ll be able to do, but I’ll just tell you that we’re going to try to exceed expectations, and do as much as we can, and take care of as many people as we can, for as long as we can.
RADDATZ: I know the president has said that the intelligence absolutely did not show that anybody — that the Taliban could take over in 11 days. What’s the earliest you were aware that that could happen?
AUSTIN: There were assessments that ranged initially from one to two years to, you know, several months, but it was a wide range of of assessments, and as the Taliban began to make gains, and then we saw that in a number of cases, there was less fighting and more surrendering and more forces just kind of evaporating. It was very difficult to predict with accuracy — this all occurred in a span of about 11 days. Nobody predicted that, you know, the government would fall in 11 days.
RADDATZ: When you, when you look at the planning, I mean, Joe Biden has said he wanted to get out of there for years and years. So it was probably pretty certain that he would say that. Do you believe as you look at it now, and the military loves to plan for the worst case, that the planning was acceptable and appropriate?
AUSTIN: I do based upon, you know, what we were looking at, and the inputs to the plan. But I think you have to go back and look at what the administration inherited. I mean we came in, we were faced with a May 1 deadline to have all forces out of the country. This deal had been struck with the Taliban. And so he had to very rapidly go through a detailed assessment, and look at all options in terms of what, you know, what he could do. And none of those options were good options. He went through a very rigorous process, very detailed process. He listened to the input that was provided by all of the stakeholders in the interagency process. And so, at the end of the day, the president made his decision. But again, he was faced with a situation where there were no good options, all were very tough.
RADDATZ: Did you want to see a small force remain in Afghanistan?
AUSTIN: Martha, and you know I’m not gonna tell you what, what my recommendation to our president was, I will just tell you that like everyone else, the president listened to our input. Again, he conducted a very rigorous and thoughtful process and he made a decision, and I support that decision.
RADDATZ: What do you think the final outcome will be there?
AUSTIN: I’ve gotten out of the business of making predictions long, long ago, but I think that’s a chapter that’s yet to be written, obviously.
RADDATZ: And we know that taking three shots is safe?
MURTHY: Well, this is why the plan that we announced is actually contingent on the FDA and the CDC Advisory Committee doing their full and independent evaluation. Safety is absolutely essential in this process. And we would not execute a plan if the FDA did not weigh in and say that that third shot was in fact safe.
So the plan is contingent on that. But again, keep in mind this, that we have a tremendous amount of experience with these vaccines so far. They’ve been given to hundreds of millions of people here and around the world. The safety has held up. We’ll wait for the FDA to weigh in on the third doses and, with their blessing, we will then proceed with that plan for boosters.
RADDATZ: And Dr. Murthy, you heard President Biden address this but the World Health Organization has asked for a temporary pause on boosters to help developing nations. The administration has said we need to do both. But can we really do that? There’s a limited amount of these vaccines.
MURTHY: Well, Martha, we don’t have a choice. We have to do both. We have to protect American lives and we have to help vaccinate the world because that is the only way this pandemic ends. And if we assume that the pie is six (ph), so to speak, that the supply is not changing, then yes, taking more vaccines for Americans in a form of boosters will take away from the rest of the world.
But our focus has been on growing the pie. It’s been on increasing the supply. And that’s why in addition to donating more than 120 million doses of vaccine and moving out on the commitment of 500 million doses starting this month that the president announced earlier in the summer, we’re also working with a company and other countries to stand up manufacturing capacity so we can really scale up production of vaccine. We have to work on both fronts. That is the only way the pandemic will end.
RADDATZ: And “The New York Times” was first to report that the FDA is trying to get full approval for the vaccines — the Pfizer vaccine tomorrow. Is that going to happen? And what difference does that make?
MURTHY: Well, Martha, the FDA certainly has been evaluating the application for full approval from Pfizer. And I won’t get ahead of them but what I will tell you is that I wouldn’t be surprised if they issued that full approval soon. And the reason is because they have so much data now and we as a world have so much experience with these vaccines.
It’s actually unusual for an application for full approval to be submitted with this much experience, with hundreds of millions of people having received the doses. And there are two things that we’ve learned during that time. One is that the vaccines are remarkably effective in keeping people out of the hospital and saving lives. And the other is that their safety profile remains remarkably strong.
I anticipate if and when this does come from the FDA, the full approval, two potential things may happen. One is you may see more people coming forward. Those who perhaps were on the fence about getting vaccinated and this may tip them towards doing so. But second I think you’ll see more universities and workplaces that were considering in putting in requirements for vaccines to create safer places to learn and work, you’ll see more of them likely moving forward on their plans to require vaccines in the workplace and school.
RADDATZ: And Dr. Murthy, just finally, I want to ask about kids. At the beginning of the pandemic, COVID largely didn’t affect them. We’re now seeing hospitalizations rise. What should we think about when we look at children going into the fall?
MURTHY: Well, Martha, this is really heartbreaking to see what’s happening with our hospitals filling up with children. We have more kids hospitalized now than we have in earlier points in the pandemic.
And you know, as a parent of two young children who are too young to be eligible for vaccination, I really feel for parents out there who’s kids are ill. And I really feel strongly that it is our moral responsibility as this society to do everything we can to protect our children. And that means that number one, all of us getting vaccinated as adults and adolescents is important because kids who are too young to get vaccinated, they rely on those around them to shield them from the virus. But it’s also why making sure we are taking every measure possible in schools to ensure that our kids are safe is so important. And those include masks, improving ventilation, doing regular testing, and ensuring that our children are outdoors as much as possible.
So these are the steps we’ve got to take. We’ve a responsibility to protect our kids. And I can’t think of anything, Martha, that’s more important than that.
RADDATZ: And nor can I, thank you so much for joining us this morning, Dr. Murthy.
The Roundtable is next. We’ll be right back.
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