U.S. looks to ramp up Afghanistan evacuations ahead of self-imposed deadline

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U.S. forces in Afghanistan are now racing to evacuate as many people from that country as possible before the end of the month, officials said Thursday, but it remains unclear how many will make it to safety before troops pull out of the country for good.

Since Taliban forces began sweeping across Afghanistan five days ago, retaking control as the country’s military and government crumbled, U.S. troops have airlifted approximately 7,000 people in the last five days, Army Maj. Gen. William Taylor told reporters at the Pentagon Thursday morning. In total, the U.S. has evacuated roughly 12,000 people since late July, Taylor said.

“We are committed to the safe evacuation of as many people as quickly and as safely as possible,” he said.

Afghan people queue up and board a U.S. military aircraft to leave Afghanistan from the military airport in Kabul on August 19, 2021 after Taliban's military takeover. (Shakib Rahmani/AFP via Getty Images)
Afghan people line up and board a U.S. military aircraft to leave Afghanistan from the military airport in Kabul on Thursday. (Shakib Rahmani/AFP via Getty Images)

At a separate State Department briefing hours later, spokesperson Ned Price said 6,000 people who had been “fully processed by our consular team and will soon board planes” were waiting Thursday at the airport in Kabul.

President Biden has promised not to leave any American citizens behind in Afghanistan, and said Wednesday that could mean keeping troops in the country past his self-imposed deadline of Aug. 31.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Thursday that he didn’t know how many U.S. citizens currently remain in Afghanistan, though the Biden administration has reportedly estimated that the number is between 10,000 and 15,000. There are also more than 80,000 Afghans who are believed to be seeking to evacuate, including more than 20,000 translators and others who worked with the U.S. military and have applied for Special Immigrant Visas.

Afghan people sit inside a U.S. military aircraft to leave Afghanistan, at the military airport in Kabul on August 19, 2021. (Shakib Rahmani/AFP via Getty Images)
People inside a U.S. military aircraft wait to leave Afghanistan on Thursday. (Shakib Rahmani/AFP via Getty Images)

Officials have been vague about who, exactly, has been evacuated so far, making it somewhat difficult to gauge the operation’s success. Of the 2,000 people evacuated on U.S. military planes in the last 24 hours, Kirby said that “nearly 300 were Americans.” The rest were a mix of Special Immigrant Visa applicants and other at-risk Afghans, as well as citizens of other ally countries, Kirby added. The State Department’s Price offered a similarly nonspecific description of the 6,000 people he said were waiting at the airport Thursday afternoon.

“What I can say is, overnight we notified all Americans who had expressed an interest in being relocated to consider traveling to the airport,” said Price, adding that SIV applicants, U.S. Embassy staff and others were among those waiting to board planes Thursday, in addition to U.S. citizens.

U.S. soldiers stand guard along the perimeter at the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. On Sunday, thousands of Afghans trapped by the sudden Taliban takeover rushed the tarmac and clung to U.S. military planes deployed to fly out staffers of the U.S. Embassy. (Shekib Rahmani/AP)
U.S. soldiers stand guard along the perimeter at the international airport in Kabul on Monday. (Shekib Rahmani/AP)

According to a government document obtained by Yahoo News, 1,987 U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents had been airlifted out of Kabul as of Wednesday, and at least one evacuation flight carrying 288 passengers was expected to land at Dulles International Airport, outside Washington, D.C., on Wednesday afternoon. Another flight carrying an unspecified number of U.S. citizens was also slated to land at Dulles Thursday evening, according to the document.

After hastening the removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this month, the Biden administration was forced to ramp up the U.S. military presence in Kabul over the last few days in an effort to expedite the evacuation process before the final pullout. As of Thursday, Gen. Taylor said there were now 5,200 troops on the ground that would aid in the effort to evacuate between 5,000 and 9,000 people out of Kabul per day. The exact number, however, depends on how many eligible people are able to make it onto the airfield, he said.

While U.S. officials have reiterated that the Taliban has agreed to provide safe passage to the airport for American citizens, some Afghans seeking to evacuate have reportedly encountered harassment and violence from Taliban forces.

For now, Pentagon officials have made clear that their authority in Kabul does not extend beyond the parameters of Hamid Karzai International Airport. Asked whether U.S. troops would facilitate evacuations for Americans and others who are unable to reach the airport, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Wednesday, “We don’t have the capability to go out and collect large numbers of people.”

Additional reporting by Jana Winter.

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