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‘No option for us’: US withdrawal marks terrifying moment for Americans, allies still in Afghanistan

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. (State Department/Released)

Now that U.S. troops have left Afghanistan, remaining Americans who want to leave and the scores of Afghanis at risk because they helped the U.S. mission will have to rely on diplomatic pressure — not American military might — to ensure their safe exit.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged the Biden administration, with the backing of its international allies, would continue reaching out to those Americans left and help them when they decide to leave.

“If an American in Afghanistan tells us they want to stay for now, and in a week or a month or a year they reach out and say. ‘I’ve changed my mind,’ we will help them leave,” he said in a televised address Monday evening only hours after the last U.S. military plane took off from Kabul, officially ending the country’s longest war.

Blinken said fewer than 200 Americans remain in Afghanistan and the actual number is “likely closer to 100.”

The secretary said the administration was trying to determine an exact number by poring through manifests and calling and texting those on the lists they have.

The challenge is “there are long-time residents of Afghanistan who have American passports and who are trying to determine whether or not they wanted to leave,” he said. “Many are dual-citizen Americans with deep roots and extended families in Afghanistan who’ve resided there for many years. For many, it’s a painful choice.”

On Tuesday, the State Department issued a travel advisory warning Americans not to travel to Afghanistan due to “civil unrest, armed conflict, crime, terrorism, kidnapping, and COVID-19.”

“The Department of State assesses the risk of kidnapping or violence against U.S. citizens in Afghanistan is high,” the agency said.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has suspended its operations in Afghanistan and moved its consular operations to assist U.S. citizens to Doha, Qatar.

Mir Sadat, a former U.S. military adviser on Afghanistan, said the State Department must help all Americans escape and not just from Kabul but other major cities around the country.

“This mission is not complete” until every U.S. citizen, green-card holder and Afghan who served with U.S. forces is out, he said in a blog post for the Atlantic Council, where he is now a senior fellow.

For Afghans whose lives are in danger because they worked with U.S. or allied forces, the U.S. withdrawal marked a terrifying moment, a bleak end to weeks of furtive efforts to snag a coveted spot on a U.S. evacuation flight.

“No option for us,” one Afghan who worked for an American project said in a message to USA TODAY on Monday. “Just hide.”

Refugee advocates say the Biden administration needs to help create a “humanitarian corridor” inside Afghanistan so civilians at risk of Taliban reprisals can safely escape the country now that the U.S. military has left.

“Humanitarian corridors are absolutely essential,” said Michael Breen, president and CEO of Human Rights First, an advocacy group that has been at the forefront of trying to help evacuate at-risk Afghans.

“Every other option for moving people out of the country” — such as encouraging Afghans to flee via overland routes or helping them get out through covert extractions — will necessarily involve small numbers and great risk, he said in a briefing with reporters Tuesday.

Blinken said the State Department would keep working to get Afghan allies out.

“Our commitment to them has no deadline,” he said.

Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN he believes the number of Americans left behind is higher than Blinken’s estimate, though didn’t give a specific tally. And he pivoted quickly to the plight of Afghans who worked for the U.S. military.

“They are the ones that have the … bull’s-eye on their back,” he said. “And they’re most likely going to be the ones that are going to die.”

Blinken said the administration will be resolute in pressuring the Taliban-controlled Afghani government to keep its word about providing safe passage to American citizens wishing to leave in the future — a promise critics expect will be quickly broken by an organization known for its brutality now that U.S. troops have left.

“The Taliban is committed to allow anyone with proper documents to leave the country in a safe and orderly manner,” the secretary said. “They’ve said this privately and publicly many times.”

Blinken said he believes international pressure, including the backing of more than 100 countries and a U.N resolution adopted Monday calling for the Taliban to facilitate safe passage for people wanting to leave Afghanistan, are powerful tools to force Taliban cooperation.

“The international chorus is strong and it will stay strong,” he said.

Blinken said the U.S. already has spoken with Taliban officials about reopening the Kabul airport to commercial service. That would enable a small number of daily charter flights potentially available to Americans wishing to leave.

“We have no illusion that any of this will be easy,” he said. “This will be an entirely different phase of the evacuation that just concluded. It will take time to work through a new set of challenges. But we will stay at it.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said he too plans to keep helping any Americans or those who helped the U.S mission.

“My team has been working around the clock with agencies, organizations and individuals on the ground to evacuate American citizens, visa holders, and our Afghan allies from Afghanistan,” he tweeted Sunday. “We will not give up after the evacuation deadline.”

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