Embassy says US can't guarantee safe passage to Kabul airport

The U.S. embassy in Afghanistan on Wednesday said it “cannot guarantee safe passage” to the Kabul airport, a reversal from government officials’ assurances Tuesday that they had secured a commitment from the Taliban to not interfere with evacuation efforts.

“The United States government cannot ensure safe passage to the Hamid Karzai International Airport,” the embassy wrote in a security alert issued Wednesday, noting that “the security situation in Kabul continues to change quickly, including at the airport.”

The notice was followed by another State Department memo obtained by The Hill advising those with travel documents to immediately head to the airport, despite the risks.

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“U.S. citizens, U.S. [lawful permanent residents], and their spouses and children (under age 21) should proceed to Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) as soon as possible,” the embassy wrote in a memo to congressional staff – a more urgent plea than earlier efforts telling citizens to consider making the journey.

“There are no specific flight times.  We are running as many flights as we can every day.  We do not have information on how long these flights will be available.  Please come to the airport as soon as possible.” 

The notice comes as the U.S. has sought to surge the number of flights out of the country in an effort to evacuate some 5,000 to 9,000 people per day.

The Biden administration is under increasing pressure to defend its delay in evacuating Americans and Afghan allies, forced to send 6,000 troops back to Afghanistan to help secure the Hamid Karzai International Airport.

“We don't have the capability to go out and collect large numbers of people,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Biden backtracks on Taiwan GOP lawmakers worry vaccine mandate will impact defense supply chain Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Navy probe reveals disastrous ship fire response MORE said Wednesday during a Pentagon briefing, defending the military’s decision to focus on securing the airport.

“We're going to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and we're going to get everyone that we can possibly evacuate evacuated. And I'll do that as long as we possibly can until the clock runs out or we run out of capability.”

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The U.S is attempting to evacuate more than 10,000 American citizens still in Afghanistan while more than 80,000 Afghans, including those who assisted the U.S. military and their families, are awaiting approval to escape the country. 

“Please be advised that a significant number of individuals have registered and space on these flights is available on a first come, first serve basis,” the embassy wrote Wednesday.

The State Department had previously warned Americans that they were not able to assist with travel to the airport.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on Wednesday acknowledged reports that the Taliban are preventing Afghans from getting to the airport.

“We have seen reports that the Taliban, contrary to their public statements and their commitments to our government, are blocking Afghans who wish to leave the country from reaching the airport,” Sherman, the second ranking diplomat at the State Department, told reporters in the briefing room. 

But she said despite the violence at the checkpoints on the way to the airport, “many, many” Americans, Afghans with residency in the U.S. and Afghans at risk of violence from the Taliban are arriving at the airport. 

“I will tell you this, in spite of the obstacles, many, many Afghans in all of the categories, are finding their way to the airport,” she said. 

Austin faced sharp questioning from reporters about the administration's handling over the evacuation, as well as the August 31 deadline it has imposed for helping people flee the country.

“Barring a lobotomy by the Taliban, you have three pathways ahead of you: One, you can expand the perimeter and establish a corridor into Kabul to get our Afghan allies out. Two, You can extend the August 31 deadline of withdrawing. Or three, you can just leave the tens of thousands of Afghans who helped us over the past 20 years behind. Which one is going to be?” asked Helene Cooper, a reporter with The New York Times.

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Austin replied, “We cannot afford to either not defend that airfield, or not have an airfield that’s secure where we have hundreds or 1000s of civilians that can access the airfield at will and put our forces at risk.”

The State Department memo obtained by The Hill warned of security issues already present at the airport.

“We are aware of the large crowds at the airport gates.  Please be patient.  Stay safe and stay away from any aggressive elements of the crowd.  You may wish to return to the airport at a later time,” the memo states.

Biden is facing a number of calls to abandon the Aug. 31 deadline.

“The President should abandon this arbitrary and dangerous deadline immediately. What happens when all Americans haven’t been evacuated by August 31st?” Sen. John CornynJohn CornynCornyn raises more than M for Senate GOP Is the Biden administration afraid of trade? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After high drama, Senate lifts debt limit MORE (R-Texas) said in a statement.

“The President should make clear we will not leave until every single American citizen is out. He has a chance to get one thing about this debacle right and I hope he takes it.”

Congressional staffers on both sides of the aisle told The Hill on Tuesday that the administration was downplaying the difficulties faced in getting to the airport, detailing how they had been contacted by multiple people on the ground who were held up at checkpoints and threatened with violence by the Taliban. 

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One GOP staffer said they were particularly concerned for those outside of Kabul.

“To be 100 percent honest, if you’re a partner of ours and you’re not an American citizen and you’re not inside Kabul, I just don’t know how we’re going to get to you,” the staffer said. “What about the Americans that are trapped outside. How are they going to get them in places that are being controlled by the Taliban?”

Other nations are providing more direct assistance, with 600 British paratroopers sent to rescue some 4,000 United Kingdom citizens in Afghanistan.

Updated at 7:00 p.m.