The Pentagon conceded Thursday that continuing evacuations out of Kabul after Aug. 31 “would require additional conversations” with the Taliban to ensure the safety of Americans and Afghan allies seeking to flee the country.
The acknowledgment comes after President Joe Biden said Wednesday he would maintain the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan beyond the end of the month — his self-imposed withdrawal deadline — if evacuation operations were not yet completed.
But Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Thursday there “has been no decision to change the deadline” and indicated that an extension of the timetable for evacuations would need tacit approval from the Taliban in the form of a new agreement between U.S. officials and commanders of the militant group.
Until then, “we are focused on doing everything we can inside that deadline to move as many people out as possible,” Kirby told reporters at a news briefing, describing the evacuation effort as “head down, shoulder to the wheel.”
“I think it is just a fundamental fact of the reality of where we are that communications and a certain measure of agreement with the Taliban on what we’re trying to accomplish has to continue to occur,” Kirby said. “And again, I’m not going to speculate past Aug. 31.”
At the news briefing Thursday, Army Maj. Gen. William Taylor also revealed that the U.S. military over the last 24 hours had flown a group of F-18 fighter jets from the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group over Kabul “to ensure enhanced security” of the capital city, which is now under Taliban control.
“The ability to provide close air support is something that needs to be immediate if the condition on the ground ever required that,” Taylor said. “So as prudent military operations, we ensure there are always assets available so that the commander, if required, can ensure the time and space of reaction is as little as possible.”
Kirby said the aircraft were not the first U.S. armed flights over Kabul since noncombatant evacuations began at the Hamid Karzai International Airport.
“Force protection is a high priority, and we’re going to have at our disposal all the assets and resources necessary to make sure we can accomplish this mission safely and efficiently, just like we were accomplishing the previous mission of drawdown safely and efficiently,” Kirby said. “So this is a continuum. It’s not something new.”
During that same 24-hour period, the Pentagon officials said 12 American C-17 transport planes departed the airport in Kabul carrying more than 2,000 passengers, including nearly 300 Americans. The U.S. military has evacuated roughly 7,000 people since Saturday, and the U.S. troop presence at the airport has swelled to more than 5,200. Biden has deployed up to 7,000 U.S. troops to Kabul in total.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said Thursday afternoon that 20 flights were scheduled to carry people out of Kabul in the coming hours and that additional consular officers were on their way to expedite processing capabilities. He said roughly 6,000 evacuees had been processed and were at the airport “right now” awaiting transport on those flights.
As for the difficulties some have had in trying to reach the airport, Price said that U.S. officials were “aware of congestion around the airport” and were working with the Defense Department to smooth out.
“Every report of someone unable, for whatever reason, to reach the airport is something we take very seriously,” he said. “My understanding is that things are moving quite efficiently at this hour at the airport now, but every report we see of someone unable to reach the airport is of concern.”
Price said the State Department had received only “a small handful of reports” from Americans in the region. Many reports have indicated that Afghans are experiencing a much tougher time traversing Taliban checkpoints along the way to the airport.
Taylor said Thursday there are now “multiple gates” at the airport “that have access for entry into the airfield.” And while he said the U.S. military had not experienced any security incidents over the past 24 hours, Kirby confirmed Pentagon officials had “seen reports of the Taliban harassing, and physically so, some Afghans that were trying to move to the airport.”
Indeed, numerous reports and social media posts Thursday described the struggle Americans and Afghan allies faced as they sought to make their way to the airport, past the barbed wire surrounding Taliban checkpoints — with some accounts detailing attacks by militants against potential evacuees.
And despite a deal the White House said U.S. officials had brokered with the Taliban to allow civilians to safely reach their flights, a security alert Wednesday from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul warned the U.S. government could not ensure safe passage to the airport. Price said “productive conversations“ had been ongoing about “the need and imperative of ensuring safe passage.“
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin acknowledged at a news briefing Wednesday that efforts to evacuate endangered Americans and Afghan allies from Afghanistan were entirely limited to the airport itself, saying the U.S. military did not “have the capability to go out and extend operations currently into Kabul.”
“The forces that we have are focused on the security of the airfield,” Austin said, adding that even if U.S. troops were to venture into the capital city, “where do you take that? I mean, how far can you extend into Kabul, you know? And how long does it take to flow those forces in to be able to do that?”
However, Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at that same news briefing there would “be another time when we can discuss future operations.”
Although the U.S. military presence remains confined to the airport, various reports Wednesday and Thursday stated that British and French troops were embarking on rescue missions in Kabul to extract some of their countries’ citizens who were trapped by the Taliban.
Asked why U.S. troops were not doing the same for Americans and Afghan allies, Taylor said Thursday that the U.S. military’s “main mission continues to be to secure HKIA, to allow those American citizens and other SIVs to come in and be processed at the airfield.”
Kirby also did not answer whether the Pentagon had been authorized by the president to expand the U.S. military’s perimeter at the airport or to send U.S. troops into Kabul. “I’m not going to talk about the potential of any future decisions, one way or another. That would be a policy decision. We are focused on security at the airport,” he said.
Kirby appeared optimistic, though, that the opening of another gate and the addition of more consular officers at the airport would result in “a more consistent increase in the flow” of potential evacuees to flights: “We believe that we will soon begin to see an opening up of the aperture.”
Nick Niedzwiadek contributed to this report.