Evacuations slow as U.S. shifts focus to military withdrawal in Afghanistan
The Taliban have tightened their security cordons around the airport, making it more difficult for people to make it to the gates.
Operations at the Kabul airport are shifting to focus on the withdrawal of U.S. troops and their equipment as the frenzied mission to evacuate American citizens and Afghans enters its final hours.
The processing of civilians at the airport is working on “limited capacity,” a defense official said Monday. “If an American stumbles up to the gate and waves a blue passport, we’re going to get them on a plane.”
The Taliban have tightened their security cordons around the airport, making it more difficult for people to make it to the gates in the waning hours of the evacuation effort. So it remains an open question how many more people will be able to make it to the tarmac ahead of the plan to have all U.S. troops out of the country by Tuesday.
The international coalition led by the U.S. sent text messages over the weekend to Afghans hoping to leave informing them that “international military evacuations from Kabul airport have ended and we are no longer able to call anyone forward for evacuation flights,” according to The New York Times.
During a news briefing at the Pentagon on Monday, Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor acknowledged that “obviously, we are reaching the end of our prescribed mission,” and “while operations in Afghanistan will conclude soon, the DoD effort to support the interagency is ongoing.”
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby added that “for Americans and other individuals that want to be able to leave Afghanistan” after the U.S. military withdrawal, “the State Department is going to continue to work across many different levers to facilitate that transportation. And as I said earlier, right now, we do not anticipate a military role in that effort.”
Pressed on the possibility that tens of thousands of Afghan allies will be left behind, Kirby told reporters the United States “wanted to get as many people out as we could” and touted the massive scale of the American evacuation effort.
“Now, there will be a time when this is complete that the State Department can do the math and figure this out,” Kirby said, apparently referring to the number of Americans and Afghan allies remaining in the country. “But I think we’re all focused right now on continuing the mission … and making sure that — right up until the end — that we can get people out safely, including evacuees.”
At the Kabul airport, the gates that were just days ago filled with thousands of Afghans straining to get onto the tarmac are now largely deserted, with Taliban fighters milling about outside while U.S. troops wrap up their work within the perimeter.
The final hours of the international effort were punctuated by a rocket attack claimed by the ISIS-K group Monday morning. Of the five missiles fired toward the airport, three landed “off the airfield,” one landed “with no effect to the mission or any danger to our personnel,” and American air defenses were able to “thwart the attack” of another, Taylor said at the Pentagon news briefing.
The attack Monday followed an American drone strike Sunday in Kabul that hit a vehicle packed with explosives that was headed for the airport, U.S. officials said. Early reports indicate that some Afghan civilians were also killed as part of a secondary explosion, something the U.S. Central Command said it was investigating.
Taylor told reporters that “significant secondary explosions from the targeted vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material,” and Kirby said the Pentagon was certain there were secondary explosions as a result of the attack.
As for the possibility of civilian casualties, Kirby said U.S. officials were “not in a position to dispute” reports indicating such.
“We take it very, very seriously. And when we know that we have caused innocent life to be lost in the conduct of our operations, we’re transparent about it,” Kirby said. “We’re investigating this. I’m not going to get ahead of it. But if we have verifiable information that we did in fact take innocent life here, then we will be transparent about that, too.”
Taylor said that although “commanders will always minimize collateral damage,” the strike Sunday “prevented a high-profile attack against both coalition and U.S. forces and other Afghan civilians. And so, as we looked at the information that we had during the time of the strike, we took all those measures in place, and the decision was made to strike and thwart that attack.”
Since the end of July, about 122,000 people — American citizens and Afghans — have been evacuated from Kabul in the historic airlift.
The rushed operation left little time to sort out much detailed information about many Afghan evacuees, so it remains unclear how many who worked for the U.S. were actually able to make it out in time.
The Biden administration has pledged to continue working to get vulnerable Afghans and several hundred Americans out of the country, and the Taliban has pledged to allow people to leave who want to go.
Those assurances have come with the world’s focus on the exploding humanitarian crisis in the country, however, and questions remain over how the group will actually attempt to govern the country, or treat people who worked with the U.S. and its NATO allies.