The United States has suspended all flights out of a key airport in Kabul and is working to “reestablish security” after crowds of people rushed the airfield in an attempt to flee Afghanistan following the Taliban’s takeover of its capital city, U.S. officials said Monday.
There are currently 2,500 U.S. troops at the Hamid Karzai International Airport, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters, and that number is expected to increase to more than 3,000 within 24 hours.
Over the next few days, the Pentagon expects the number of troops stationed at the airport to reach roughly 6,000.
The U.S. troops are “working alongside Turkish and other international troops to clear the area of people,” Kirby said, but U.S. officials “do not know how long this will take.”
Therefore, “out of an abundance of caution, there are no flights coming or going — military or civilian — and this is because of large crowds that are still on the tarmac” on the southern side of the airfield, which saw a series of breaches overnight, Kirby said.
Kirby later said that U.S. officials “anticipate in the coming hours that we’ll be able to restore air operations at the airport.”
He advised that “all U.S. citizens, Special Immigrant Visa applicants and others should shelter in place until security can be reestablished at the airfield and an orderly process can be established to marshal them onto the field and to get them out of the country.”
Adding to the disorder, Kirby confirmed that in “two separate incidents,” U.S. troops responded to “hostile threats” on the airfield, resulting in the deaths of two armed individuals who were shooting at them.
The Pentagon has “seen some preliminary indications” that one U.S. troop may have been wounded in one of the incidents, “but I cannot confirm that,” Kirby said. “We’re still trying to track that down.”
At least seven people died during the storming of the airport Monday, the Associated Press reported, including several Afghans who clung to a departing American military jet and fell from the flight as the aircraft gained altitude.
Earlier Monday, President Joe Biden’s top national security officials expressed confidence that the U.S. military could continue evacuation flights out of Afghanistan, carrying Americans and Afghans to safety amid the collapse of the government in Kabul.
“We believe that we can effectuate an ongoing evacuation of American citizens, of Afghans who worked for us — including interpreters and translators — and other vulnerable Afghans at risk,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told ABC in an interview.
“We are working to do that — first, by securing the airport today. And then, in the days ahead, by taking people out one flight at a time, flight after flight,” Sullivan said. “We fully intend to continue an evacuation process to bring out people who worked alongside of us in Afghanistan.”
Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer also told MSNBC in an interview Monday that “the main line of effort today” by administration officials would be “to get the airport back up and running.”
“We’re going to be spending our time today focused intensively on exactly that question,” Finer said, adding that “there will be additional U.S. forces flowing into Kabul international airport over the course of today and tomorrow.”
Finer said administration officials “remain engaged in diplomatic conversations” with Taliban representatives in Qatar, and that the United States has conveyed “that they need to enable and allow … the airport to function, people to get access to the airport, and our flights to evacuate Afghans and Americans and others who are vulnerable to proceed.”
“So far, they have done that,” Finer said of the Taliban. “And we have been very clear to them that needs to continue.”
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, met with senior Taliban leaders in Qatar on Monday to discuss deconfliction and operations in Afghanistan, Kirby confirmed.
“I can tell you that the general was very clear and firm in his discussions with Taliban leaders that any attack on our people or on our operations at the airport would be met swiftly with a very forceful response,” Kirby said.
Biden was briefed Monday morning by his national security team — including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — “on the security situation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, and ongoing efforts to safely evacuate American citizens, US Embassy personnel and local staff, SIV applicants and their families, and other vulnerable Afghans,” the White House said in a statement.
On Monday afternoon, Biden returned early from his weekend trip to Camp David to deliver an address on Afghanistan.
Lara Seligman contributed to this report.