Overnight Defense & National Security: US reports biggest day of Afghanistan airlifts

Overnight Defense & National Security: US reports biggest day of Afghanistan airlifts
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The Biden administration on Monday announced that it has evacuated roughly 37,000 people from Afghanistan in just over a week, nearly half of whom have been removed in the last 24 hours.

But the administration is facing growing pressure to extend the U.S. troop presence in the country to help get everyone out, even though doing so risks increasing tensions with the Taliban.

We’ll examine the ramped up evacuations at Kabul's civilian airport, COVID-19 fears and the growing calls to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

For The Hill, we’re Ellen Mitchell and Rebecca Kheel. Write to us with tips: emitchell@thehill.com and rkheel@thehill.com.

Let’s get to it.

Thousands more civilians depart Kabul

About 16,000 people have been evacuated from Kabul on 28 military flights and 61 coalition aircraft in the past day, Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor, deputy director of the Joint Regional Operations, told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday.

The military flights evacuated approximately 10,400 people while the coalition flights evacuated another 5,900 people.

“Our mission remains focused on ensuring a steady flow of evacuees out of Kabul to the intermediate staging bases and safe havens,” Taylor said.

Where have they gone?: Taylor said that five flights with about 1,300 passengers landed at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., in the past day.

For those Afghans that have managed to escape and make it to the United States, Taylor said the military is housing about 1,200 such individuals at Fort McCoy, Wis.; Fort Lee, Va.; Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.; and Fort Bliss, Texas.

Evacuees are also being sent to temporary safe haven locations across Europe and the Middle East, including U.S. installations in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Italy, Spain and Germany, Taylor added.

How many Americans?: Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said "several thousand Americans” have been evacuated from Afghanistan since Aug. 14., but declined to be more specific, saying the number is “very fluid.”

A few days prior, on Saturday, the Pentagon said 2,500 Americans had been evacuated.

A race against the clock: The Taliban said all U.S. forces must leave Afghanistan by Aug. 31, President BidenJoe Biden White House: US has donated 200 million COVID-19 vaccines around the world Police recommend charges against four over Sinema bathroom protest K Street revenues boom MORE’s official deadline for ending the 20-year conflict in the country, and Western countries are now racing to evacuate their citizens and Afghans seeking refuge from the militant group’s harsh rule.

Kirby also said the Pentagon is aware of the Taliban’s message to the United States to remove all forces by the Aug. 31 deadline, which they still plan to meet.

CALLS TO EXTEND MISSION GROW

As the U.S. military scrambles to get people out of Afghanistan, the Biden administration is coming under growing pressure to extend the U.S. troop presence in the country to help evacuate all American citizens and Afghan allies, even though doing so risks increasing tensions with the Taliban.

President Biden has already committed to staying beyond Aug. 31 to evacuate remaining Americans, but added on Sunday that he is weighing whether to extend the deadline to evacuate thousands more people, including Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants and their families.

Discussions underway: The United Kingdom said it wants to see the military mission stretch into September if circumstances allow for it. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke with Biden on Monday and both leaders will participate in a virtual call Tuesday among Group of Seven leaders.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also told reporters on Monday that France believes it necessary for the U.S. to extend the Aug. 31 deadline to evacuate American citizens and their Afghan allies.

Thousands still remain: But the administration still doesn’t know exactly how many Americans remain in Afghanistan, estimating the number to be in the thousands. With only one week left until Biden’s previous self-imposed deadline, administration officials are increasingly acknowledging the possibility of a longer stay to complete the evacuation efforts for all those who want to leave.

Violence escalates at airport: On Sunday, one member of the Afghan security forces was killed and several Afghans were wounded after a “hostile actor” fired on Afghan security forces monitoring the north gate of the airport, U.S. Central Command said in a statement on Monday.

The Afghans forces, as well as U.S. and coalition troops, returned fire.

Asked about the incident, Kirby said officials “cannot rule out who the hostile actor was."



More screening measures put in place

The U.S. military has put in place several COVID-19 screening measures amid the chaotic evacuation out of Afghanistan’s capital, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Monday. Medical personnel at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul are conducting COVID-19 screening “for those who are feeble or symptomatic,” Kirby told reporters.

Depending on the guidelines at specific temporary safe haven locations, additional screenings are taking place. All passengers entering the United States are tested upon arrival, “and then medical professionals make the proper decisions after that,” Kirby said.  

Scant details: Kirby acknowledged that there are concerns the 5,800 U.S. soldiers on the ground in Kabul are at risk of contracting the coronavirus, but he did not have details on whether any have tested positive. 

“I don't know what positive results that may have come in for soldiers working at the airfield ... but obviously, their health and safety remains a top concern for all of us,” Kirby said.

Higher transmission possible: The crush of people attempting to flee Afghanistan at the Kabul airport has upped the chances the highly infectious virus could easily spread among those in the crowd and to U.S. aircrews ferrying people out of the city. And once on board, there is little room for people to distance from one another, with C-17 flights evacuating an average of 450 people per flight.

More threats: U.S. Transportation Command head Gen. Stephen Lyons, who spoke to reporters later on Monday, said the threat of planes being attacked as they enter or leave the airport is “significant” but noted they are in close contact with U.S. Central Command and other agencies on “threat reporting.”

“I’m confident that we’re taking the correct measures to mitigate the threat and we’re connected to the right source,” Lyons said, declining to go into details.

BABIES DELIVERED AMID EVACS

At least three babies have been born during the evacuation efforts from Afghanistan, according to the command overseeing the U.S. military airlift out of Kabul.

One such birth was previously reported aboard a U.S. evacuation flight from Doha, Qatar, that landed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Saturday.

But the number has now increased, with Lyons telling reporters his “last data point was three.”

“I really appreciate the news reporting on the baby being born as that flight came into Ramstein. As a matter of fact, there's actually been more than that,” Lyons said, while not offering details on where or when the babies were born.

Aircrews working overtime: Lyons said that more than 200 aircraft are committed to the Kabul airlift, with roughly 450 passengers per C-17, and said he was “very, very confident” the U.S. military would sustain and improve that effort.

To manage the intense schedule, Lyons said the military is using twice as many aircrews.

“The idea is to keep those planes moving all the time, either by extending the crew day or preferably by swapping crews,” he said.



Pentagon to mandate COVID-19 vaccine

The U.S. military will move to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for all service members now that the Pfizer vaccine has full approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Pentagon’s top spokesperson announced Monday.

Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Navy probe reveals disastrous ship fire response Pentagon says almost half of Afghan evacuees at US bases are children Russian fighters escort US bombers over Black Sea MORE is “prepared to issue updated guidance requiring all service members to be vaccinated,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters. 

“These efforts ensure the safety of our service members and promote the readiness of our force, not to mention the health and safety of the communities around the country in which we live,” he said.

Timeline unclear: A timeline for when service members must receive the shot will be provided in the coming days, Kirby added.

The Defense Department is preparing “guidance to the force” to make the vaccine mandatory, with a timeline to be provided in the coming days, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters. 

What about the other vaccines?: Kirby would not comment on any plans to do the same for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines, saying that the focus right now is “moving forward to implement a mandatory vaccination regimen for Pfizer."

“I don’t want to get ahead of decisions that haven’t been made yet,” he said.

A deadly month: The FDA earlier on Monday granted the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine full approval, a move that’s expected to boost vaccinations and spark more vaccine mandates nationwide.

The decision comes as the Pentagon experienced its deadliest month yet in August, with five service member deaths reported between Aug. 11-18 and eight in the last three weeks, according to the Defense Department’s latest numbers.  

Prior to that, the department has reported one or two service member deaths monthly, with a high of four in November. 

The military has reported 34 total deaths from COVID-19.



GOP lawmakers want answers on weapons seized by Taliban

Two Republicans on the House Oversight Committee are requesting the Pentagon detail its plans to recover or destroy billions of dollars worth of U.S weapons now in the hands of Taliban fighters following the fall of Afghan national security forces.

“As a direct result of the Biden Administration’s poorly planned and executed U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban is now armed with a significant arsenal of U.S.-made weaponry. Worse, it would appear the Biden Administration has no clue what or how many weapon platforms are now owned and operated by the Taliban,” the GOP lawmakers wrote in a letter shared exclusively with The Hill on Monday.

Context: The letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin — signed by Rep. James ComerJames (Jamie) R. ComerOvernight Health Care — Presented by Altria — Dip in COVID-19 cases offer possible sign of hope 'I was one of the lucky ones': Three Democrats recount their abortion stories to panel Hillicon Valley — Presented by Ericsson — Senators gear up for Facebook hearing MORE (Ky.), the top Republican on the committee, and Rep. Glenn GrothmanGlenn S. GrothmanTrump: US should take military action if Taliban don't return billions in equipment Overnight Defense & National Security: US reports biggest day of Afghanistan airlifts House Republicans seek answers on US weapons seized by Taliban MORE (Wis.), the ranking member on the National Security subcommittee — comes as photos have circulated showing Taliban fighters clutching U.S.-made M4 carbines and M16 rifles. Militants also have been spotted with U.S. humvees and mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles.

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