Overnight Defense: Afghan flights restart as Biden vows to complete evacuation

Overnight Defense: Afghan flights restart as Biden vows to complete evacuation
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Happy Friday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: Evacuation flights out of Afghanistan temporarily paused Friday as the facility in Qatar where evacuees are being taken reached capacity and the U.S. overwhelmed the ability of Doha to accept incoming flights. 

Commanders on the ground gave the order for flights to resume after eight hours of stasis.

More chaos: The need to halt flights adds further chaos to the Biden administration’s efforts to evacuate American citizens and vulnerable Afghans, who are struggling to reach the airport amid treacherous travel through Taliban checkpoints and massive crowds blocking the entrances. 

Biden makes no promises: President BidenJoe BidenPfizer CEO says vaccine data for those under 5 could be available by end of year Omicron coronavirus variant found in at least 10 states Photos of the Week: Schumer, ASU protest and sea turtles MORE on Friday called the airlift effort one of the largest in history, and said the U.S. had evacuated 13,000 Americans and Afghan allies since Saturday — just a fraction of the more than 10,000 Americans and 80,000 Afghans and their families seeking to flee.

“Make no mistake, this evacuation mission is dangerous. It involves risks to our armed forces, and is being conducted under difficult circumstances. I cannot promise what the final outcome will be, or that it will be without risk of loss,” Biden said in an address Friday.

“But as commander-in-chief, I can assure you that I will mobilize every resource necessary.”

A State Department scramble: Meanwhile, the State Department scrambled to find more landing pads in an effort to relieve the logjam. This included flying people from Doha to Germany’s Ramstein Air Base, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Friday.

Price said they are working to expand transit countries for Americans and Afghans in the coming days and identified these as countries in the Middle East, Europe and countries in Central Asia. 

About 20 flights were expected to leave between Thursday and Friday, but sites at Qatar “were just at capacity. There was just no room to flow in additional people," Pentagon press spokesman John Kirby said.

A conflicting picture: Biden also painted a conflicting picture of the difficulties faced in getting to the airport and whether the U.S. planned to offer assistance to those seeking to do so.

At one point Biden claimed “where we have seen challenges for Americans we have thus far been able to resolve them” even as reporting on the ground indicates incredible difficulty both for people to get to the airport and to attempt to enter it.

Asked about calls to send in direct military assistance to help people get to the airport, Biden said the U.S. was “considering every opportunity and every means by which we can get folks to the airport.”

But he also referenced the struggle for those with flights to make it through large crowds surrounding the airport — noting that there were 169 Americans who “we got over the wall into the airport using military assets” — a nod to the chaos surrounding the building.

In the mayhem… Footage of a toddler being hoisted over a wall near the Kabul airport circulated on Twitter this week as thousands crowded at the capital eager to escape the country after the Taliban takeover.

In the video posted Thursday, a man is seen handing a toddler to Marines, who moved the child to safety.

Marine Corps spokesperson Maj. Jim Stenger told The Hill in a statement Friday, “I can confirm the uniformed service member depicted in the video is a Marine with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. The baby seen in the video was taken to a medical treatment facility on site and cared for by medical professionals” before they were reunited with their father safely at the airport.

Candidates tailor messages: The Hill’s Julia Manchester and Hanna Trudo go in depth about how candidates in areas with high concentrations of military voters are tailoring their messaging around the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan ahead of the 2022 midterms.

The candidates are betting that Americans’ usual apathy to foreign policy issues won’t apply to voters more likely to have a direct connection to the mission that’s become engulfed in chaos, they write.

International policy typically remains a sidebar issue at the ballot box. But the tenuous nature of the situation on the ground — and the Biden administration’s scramble to respond in a way that pleases all sides — could change that.

Read the full story here.

 

NATO PUTS TALIBAN ON NOTICE

NATO’s foreign ministers on Friday issued a warning to the Taliban as the Western military alliance works to ensure the safe evacuation of citizens from member countries as well as Afghan allies, saying that it will “not allow any terrorists to threaten us.” 

The message came in a statement following the ministers' meeting Friday on the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, where U.S., NATO and other allied forces are attempting to get thousands of people out of Afghanistan each day following the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Kabul. 

“For the last twenty years, we have successfully denied terrorists a safe haven in Afghanistan from which to instigate attacks,” the foreign ministers said. “We will not allow any terrorists to threaten us.” 

Support suspended: The group said that NATO had “suspended all support to the Afghan authorities,” adding that “any future Afghan government must adhere to Afghanistan’s international obligations; safeguard the human rights of all Afghans, particularly women, children, and minorities; uphold the rule of law; allow unhindered humanitarian access; and ensure that Afghanistan never again serves as a safe haven for terrorists.” 

Fears growing: Fears have grown in recent days that the first Taliban government since 2001, when the U.S. toppled the group in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, will pose significant threats to the lives and safety of Afghan civilians, especially women and girls, due to the insurgent group’s extreme interpretation of Islamic law. 

However, The New York Times reported Thursday that the Taliban are ramping up their search for Afghans who assisted U.S. and British forces and are threatening to kill or arrest their family members. 

Taliban militants have also violently clamped down on protests in recent days and called on Muslim worship leaders to persuade citizens not to leave Afghanistan.

 

BACK AT HOME

Former President Trump on Friday said he “single-handedly” chose to move U.S. Space Command from Colorado to Alabama, contradicting months of insistence from the Pentagon that the new location was chosen after careful deliberation and was not political.

“I single-handedly said, ‘let's go to Alabama,’” Trump said on the Alabama-based radio show “Rick and Bubba” ahead of a planned Saturday night rally in the state.

The controversy: The Air Force on Jan. 13, days before Trump was set to leave office, announced that the permanent headquarters of Space Command would be moving from Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs to the Army's Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. 

The decision, which the Pentagon's Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office are currently investigating, was widely seen as a political tipping of the scales.

Colorado Springs already hosted Space Command’s predecessor, Air Force Space Command, at Peterson Air Force Base, and lawmakers both in and outside the state have argued that the change was last-minute and didn’t make sense.

Mayor demands action: Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers told the Gazette that Trump’s new admission should warrant a re-examination of the move.

“We have maintained throughout the process that the permanent basing decision for U.S. Space Command was not made on merit. The admission by former President TrumpDonald TrumpHillicon Valley — State Dept. employees targets of spyware Ohio Republican Party meeting ends abruptly over anti-DeWine protesters Jan. 6 panel faces new test as first witness pleads the Fifth MORE that he ‘single-handedly’ directed the move to Huntsville, Alabama, supports our position," Suthers told the outlet.

 

ICYMI

— Countries partner with US to help transport and relocate Americans, at-risk Afghans
 
— Biden told allies in June the US would ensure Kabul's stability: report
 
— State Dept. will not charge for evacuation flights from Afghanistan
 
— Boris Johnson says 'working with Taliban' will happen if necessary

— Journalists dispute Biden's Taliban claim: 'Reality and the rhetoric are miles apart'
 
— GOP lawmaker aims to block Taliban from accessing international funds
 
— Russian ambassador: 'There is no alternative to the Taliban in Afghanistan'
 
— White House: 'Heartbreaking' scenes from Afghanistan 'not acceptable' to Biden