Pentagon: US aircraft ready to evacuate thousands per day from Afghanistan — but issues on the ground are slowing efforts
Thirteen U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo jets removed some 2,000 people from Taliban-controlled Kabul during the past day, Pentagon officials said Thursday, acknowledging issues at the city’s airport hindered efforts to boost the number of evacuees.
Since Saturday, some 7,000 people had been evacuated on U.S. military flights out of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, the last Afghan ground in American hands, said Army Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor, the Joint Staff’s deputy director for regional operations. He and other Pentagon officials have said for several days that the United States has aimed to evacuate 5,000 to 9,000 people per day on more than 24 military flights.
Taylor said Thursday that the U.S. military has enough planes near Afghanistan to accomplish those goals, but it would only be able to ramp up the number of evacuation flights when there are enough eligible people cleared for flights inside the airport gates. The general said the military and State Department had opened new gates at the airport in an effort to increase the flow of eligible evacuees onto the airfield.
“The demand in the queue will drive the number of [flights] that we fly,” said John Kirby, the Pentagon’s top spokesman. “We believe that we will soon begin to see an opening up of the aperture, and we're hopeful that that means a more consistent increase in the flow [of evacuees onto the airport]. … And, so I think we're poised to see an increase, but I want to be careful before I make predictions.”
Taliban fighters, who captured Kabul on Sunday forcing the collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government, have established checkpoints just outside the airport, but Kirby said as of Thursday they had not threatened or attacked Americans or others inside the airport, known as HKIA. American military commanders at HKIA were in regular contact with the local Taliban commanders, who had assured they would allow safe passage to the airport for Americans and Afghans with the proper paperwork to leave the country, Kirby said.
However, news reports and social media posts through Thursday showed Taliban fighters harassing, and in some cases assaulting, Afghans attempting to get to the airport. Jeff Schogol, the Pentagon reporter for Task & Purpose, on Thursday tweeted a video he said he received from an Afghan showing people in Kabul trying to get to the airport as gunfire erupts.
An Afghan man sent me this video which he said was raked outside Kabul airport today. How are Americans and Afghans supposed to get through this? pic.twitter.com/PjRTvof5p5— Jeff Schogol (@JeffSchogol) August 19, 2021
Reports described crowded, often chaotic scenes just outside the airport gates, where thousands have flocked trying to flee the country in fear of a return to the Islamist rule of the Taliban that the group enforced from 1996 to 2001.
Taylor reported several hundred more American troops flew into the Kabul airport by Thursday, bringing the total to about 5,200 U.S. service members who are charged with ensuring the security of the small, single-runway airport. Pentagon officials have said the troops include Marines who specialize in embassy security and evacuation operations, special operations troops, an Air Force unit conducting air traffic control operations, and thousands of infantrymen from the Marine Corps and Army.
Those troops are confined to the airport, Kirby said, when asked whether the Pentagon had authority to expand the security perimeter around HKIA or to enter Kabul to help trapped Americans or U.S-allied Afghans travel to the airport.
“I'm not going to talk about the potential of any future decisions one way or another,” Kirby said. “That would be a policy decision. We are focused on security at the airport.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Wednesday that U.S. troops in Afghanistan had no capability to safely enter the city to seek out large numbers of evacuation hopefuls.
On Thursday, U.S. Navy F/A-18 fighter jets from the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier flew high-altitude armed overwatch flights over Kabul, Taylor said. Those flights were not a new occurrence, the general said, adding the U.S. military has routinely flown such aircraft over Kabul in recent days, though the Pentagon had not disclosed that information.
The flights were not meant as a show of force to the Taliban, Taylor insisted. Instead, they were meant to provide commanders at HKIA the ability to quickly respond in the case of a security incident.
“The ability to provide close-air support is something that needs to be immediate if a condition on the ground ever required that,” he said.
Austin, in his first public comments since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, promised Wednesday an increase in the flow of evacuees and an all-out effort to get as many people out of Afghanistan as possible “until the clock runs out” on the mission. President Joe Biden told ABC News on Wednesday that he hoped to have that mission completed by Aug. 31, the date he had previously set for U.S. troops to be out of Afghanistan, but he would consider extending that deadline if Americans seeking evacuation remained in the country.
Biden said the United States believes there are between 10,000 and 15,000 Americans remaining in Afghanistan. He said the U.S. has identified another 50,000 to 65,000 Afghans and their family members who are eligible for evacuation by the American military because they have worked with the U.S. government or are at-risk of punishment by the Taliban.
“If there’s American citizens left, we’re going stay to get them all out,” Biden said in the interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “Americans should understand that we’re going to try to get it done before Aug. 31. If we don’t, we’ll determine at the time who’s left.”