During a Wednesday press briefing, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has the capability to extract some Americans in extreme circumstances, but not to gather up large groups of Americans who cannot get to the U.S.-controlled airport in Kabul after the Taliban seized near-total control of the country over the weekend.
Asked if U.S. forces would “extract” Americans not able to reach the Kabul airport for fear of being stopped or taken by the Taliban, Austin responded, “I would draw a distinction between extracting someone in an extreme condition or circumstance versus going out and collecting large numbers of American citizens.”
“We don’t have the capability to go out and collect large numbers of people,” Austin added.
Austin’s admission that U.S. troops have no plan for large-scale evacuation efforts outside the Kabul airport perimeter comes after reports the Taliban have set up checkpoints around the country and blocked access to the Kabul airport, in some cases beating and whipping people attempting to get through.
In a Wednesday advisory, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said, “The United States government cannot ensure safe passage to the Hamid Karzai International Airport.”
Rather than having U.S. forces retrieve Americans, the U.S. State Department is relying on the assurances of the Taliban that they will let Americans through.
“The State Department is working with the Taliban to facilitate safe passage of American citizens – U.S. Passport holders,” Milley said.
Austin said, “We will continue to coordinate and deconflict with the Taliban to make sure those people that need to get to the airfield have the right credentials to ensure passage. The Taliban has been checking those credentials. If they have them, they’ve allowed them to pass.”
Austin also said “The forces that we have are focused on security at the airfield. I don’t want to detract from that. I don’t want to do anything to make the airfield less safe.”
“We’re going to do everything we can to continue to try to deconflict and create passageways for them to get to the airfield,” Austin said. “I don’t have the capability to go out and extend operations currently into Kabul.”
The U.S. Embassy’s advisory said, “U.S. government-provided flights are departing. U.S. citizens, [Lawful Permanent Residents], and their spouses and unmarried children (under age 21) should consider traveling to Hamid Karzai International Airport. You should plan to enter the airport at Camp Sullivan. From the HKIA Airport South Traffic Circle, head east for 1km and turn right on to Camp Sullivan. Please note that gates may change frequently and that we will provide updates as necessary.”
Milley said the U.S. military intends to evacuate “all American citizens who want to get out of Afghanistan.” Milley also said U.S. forces will evacuate “those who have been supporting us for years and we’re not going to leave them behind, and we will get out as many as possible.”
In his remarks, Milley said he had previously indicated scenarios in Afghanistan ranged anywhere from a negotiated settlement between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government to a civil war or a complete collapse of the Afghan government. Milley said predictions for a collapse of the Afghan government ranged anywhere from weeks to months or years. Milley said “there was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this Army and this government in 11 days.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Tuesday that 11,000 U.S. citizens self-reported to the State Department still in Afghanistan, however, national security officials told Senate aides on Tuesday that there are as many as 15,000 U.S. citizens left in the country, according to The Washington Post.
On Wednesday, Austin and Milley said about 5,000 people have been evacuated since the start of the airport evacuation operations on Sunday. Milley said the evacuation operations are currently averaging about 20 evacuation sorties every 24 hours but the military could increase that throughput as the State Department processes evacuees.