Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder announced that all units involved in the retrograde operation from Afghanistan — Operation Allies Refuge and Operation Allies Welcome — will be awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation or its equivalent.
During a news conference, Ryder said President Joe Biden directed Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III to recognize the service members and also told Austin "to perform an expedited review of all units present at Hamid Karzai International Airport from Aug. 15 to Aug. 30, 2021, to identify those units or individuals that meet the high standards of the Presidential Unit Citation or appropriate individual awards."
This week marks a year since the fall of Kabul. It was a time of confusion and great effort as American troops secured the airfield in Kabul and processed Afghan allies frantically trying to escape the clutches of the Taliban.
"That mission included the service of those who took on the responsibility to help evacuate more than 124,000 Afghans during one of the largest, most difficult and most dangerous humanitarian operations in U.S. military history," Austin said in a written statement. "No other military could have protected so many lives under such challenging circumstances in such a short amount of time — not just because of our airlift or our logistics capabilities, but most of all because of the immense compassion, skill and dedication of American service members."
The operation was not without cost, as 13 service members lost their lives in an attack on the Abbey gate to the airport.
"No words can properly honor the deeds we recognize with these awards," Austin wrote. "What these awards reflect — and what I hope the units who receive them will feel — is the gratitude and love of our nation. I hope these awards serve as a reminder to each and every service member who wears them of the lives they helped save and the thanks of the nation and Department of Defense they serve so well."
Ryder also addressed questions about operations in Ukraine during his press conference. He said the United States is very sensitive to not get ahead of the Ukrainians. "I'm not going to talk about tactical level, or battlefield detail," he said. "What I will say is that we are aware of Ukrainian military operations that have made some forward movement and in the Kherson region, we are aware in some cases of Russian units falling back."
Ryder said it is important to give the Ukrainian military the time and space it needs to conduct its operations. He noted that the U.S. focus "remains on working with the Ukrainians and our allies and our partners around the world to ensure that they have what they need to fight against Russia in their homeland."
Ryder also said the United Nations team from the International Atomic Energy Agency is near Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, but wasn’t sure if the group had begun its mission to inspect the plant and help ensure the safety of the nuke plant caught in the battle between Russia and Ukraine.
"We certainly welcome, first and foremost, the IAEA's presence in the region," he said. "In terms of the fighting in the region, … we do continue to see sporadic shelling in the region, and we call on all sides to ensure the safety of the power plant for obvious reasons. We would also call on Russia to enable the IAEA team to be able to get in there and do their work."
Finally, Ryder announced that Secretary Austin and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will travel to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, next week to host a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group.
"This will be the fifth meeting of the UDCG, the third in-person and the second at Ramstein since this group was formed in April," Ryder said. "They will join ministers of defense and senior military officials from 50-plus nations [from] around the world to discuss the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and continue our close coordination on providing the Ukrainian people with the means necessary to protect themselves against Russia's unprovoked and illegal aggression."
Following the meeting Austin will also travel to the Czech Republic Sept. 9 to meet with his counterpart and discuss bilateral security concerns, Ryder said.