Just days after the Taliban took over Afghanistan’s government and Kabul’s international airport turned chaotic, the U.S. is working to evacuate as many as 2,000 people a day.
The Taliban, which on Tuesday promised a more inclusive government by involving women, cracked down on a protest – rarely seen in Afghanistan. In Jalalabad, reports say as many as five people are dead.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is among the officials who went to the White House on Wednesday to give operational updates. He is expected to give a briefing at 3 p.m.
As of Wednesday morning, about 4,000 Marines and soldiers, along with a small number of airmen, have been sent into reinforce about 1,000 troops still in Afghanistan. Deployed troops include the 82nd Airborne combat brigade (Fort Bragg, N.C.); 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Camp Lejeune, N.C.) and 621st Contingency Response Wing (Joint Base McGuire-Dix, Lakehurst, N.J.).
Meanwhile, Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are among the officials that congressional committees will call for testimony in upcoming hearings on how the American withdrawal from Afghanistan went sideways, with the Taliban routing Afghan security forces and the US leaving its embassy – along with a “fair amount” of military equipment.
In this photo provided by the Spanish Defense Ministry and taken in Kabul, Afghanistan, people board a Spanish air force A400 plane as part of an evacuation plan at Kabul airport in Afghanistan, on Aug. 18, 2021.
Here are the latest developments:
Milley: Nobody predicted Afghan army collapse in 11 days
Intelligence pointed to the possibilities of an outright Taliban takeover, a potential civil war or a negotiated settlement as the U.S. drew down its remaining forces in Afghanistan, but it didn’t predict how quickly the situation would degrade in the country, Pentagon officials said Wednesday.
There was nothing I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army or this government in 11 days, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley said during a Wednesday press conference with reporters.
Milley said intelligence indicated it could take weeks, months or years for such a collapse after the U.S. military departed from a country where it has been at war for two decades. Instead, it took a little more than a week for the Taliban to seize control of the Afghanistan government.
Now, the remaining U.S. military personnel in the country are focused on evacuating the remaining U.S. citizens, American allies and eligible Afghans who aided the U.S., Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said. So far, about 5,000 people have been evacuated.
Austin and Milley said key to that mission is defending the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul where evacuees have been directed to report. But that requires evacuees to travel through Taliban checkpoints and show paperwork to prove their eligibility to leave.
U.S. officials have reinforced to the Taliban that individuals with proper credentials should be allowed through checkpoints, Austin said.
The State Department is working with the Taliban to facilitate safe passage of eligible evacuees to the airport, but Austin said the military doesn’t have the capability to go out and collect large numbers of people.
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It’s obvious we’re not close to where we want to be in terms of getting the numbers through, he said. We’re going to get everyone we can possibly evacuate evacuated and I’ll do that as long as we possibly can until the clock runs out or until we run out of capability.
At one of the three gates to the airfield, Milley said more than 120 people are being processed each hour. At another, it is more than 300 per hour, he said, but those numbers could increase as more potential evacuees are reached with instructions on how to leave.
The officials dismissed questions about whether the military should have attempted to hold the larger Bagram Airfield to speed up the evacuation, saying there were not enough personnel on the ground to hold the airport and the U.S. embassy.
There will be plenty of time to do (after-action reports). But right now, our mission is to secure that airfield, defend that airfield and evacuate all those who have been faithful to us. There will be plenty of post-mortems on that topic, but right now is not that time, Milley said.
US agencies are trying to save Afghan citizens by scrubbing them from sites
Multiple federal agencies that operated in Afghanistan and worked with Afghan citizens have been hastily purging their websites, removing articles and photos that could endanger the Afghan civilians who interacted with them and now fear retribution from the Taliban.
The online scrubbing campaign appeared to begin late last week when it became clear that the Afghan security forces had completely collapsed and the Taliban would take over the country far faster than even the most alarmist official predictions. The concern is that the Taliban or its supporters would search the websites and identify Afghans who had worked with the Americans or merely benefited from their services.
State Department Spokesman Ned Price said the department was advising personnel to search for and remove social media and website content featuring civilians because the safety of Afghan contacts is of utmost importance to the government.
State Department policy is to only remove content in exceptional situations like this one. In doing so, department personnel are following records retention requirements, Price said.