Overnight Defense & National Security — Breakneck evacuations continue as Biden mulls deadline

Overnight Defense & National Security — Breakneck evacuations continue as Biden mulls deadline
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It's Wednesday, welcome to Overnight Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.

The Biden administration has now evacuated roughly 84,000 people from Afghanistan since the start of its efforts on Aug. 14. But questions remain about how many more can get out before President BidenJoe BidenBiden invokes Trump in bid to boost McAuliffe ahead of Election Day Business lobby calls for administration to 'pump the brakes' on vaccine mandate Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Afghanistan reckoning shows no signs of stopping MORE’s Aug. 31 deadline to remove U.S. forces from the country.

We’ll examine Biden’s discussions with national security and international leaders on whether he will be able to keep that date, lawmakers’ secret visit to the country to convince him otherwise, and how many Americans are still on the ground 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.

Evacuation effort hits 88,000

The Pentagon on Wednesday said 19,000 people were evacuated from Afghanistan in the past 24 hours, bringing the total number to roughly 82,300 evacuees out of Kabul since the country fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15, and 88,000 since the end of July.

Over a 24-hour period beginning early Tuesday morning, 42 U.S. military flights carrying about 11,200 evacuees and 48 coalition flights carrying another 7,800 people left the Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) in Kabul.

How fast is that?: The pace equated to a plane every 39 minutes leaving the airport, where more than 10,000 people are still waiting for a flight out of the country, Army Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor, deputy director of the joint staff for regional operations, told reporters at the Pentagon. 

How many Americans?: It is unclear how many U.S. citizens were on board the most recent flights, but about 4,400 Americans have been evacuated overall, according to officials.

A breakdown of final days: On Wednesday, Kirby offered a snapshot of what the final days of the evacuation will look like as the Aug. 31 deadline looms.

Another helo rescue: Taylor and Kirby also revealed a third instance in which U.S. forces traveling aboard helicopters have left the airport to rescue Americans.

“Last night during the period of darkness, there was an operation to be able to go out and safely evacuate evacuees back into Kabul, they were at HKIA, and they are safely there preparing to be evacuated,” Taylor said.

Kirby added the group was less than 20 people who were moved from within Kabul to the airport by helicopter. He would not provide further details.

1,500 US CITIZENS STILL IN AFGHANISTAN

Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenBlinken speaks with Sudan's prime minister after African leader's detainment Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Afghanistan reckoning shows no signs of stopping Senate confirms four Biden ambassadors after delay MORE on Wednesday said about 1,500 Americans remain in Afghanistan and are waiting to be evacuated. 

The Biden administration has been engaged in a furious effort to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies before Aug. 31, the deadline set for a complete exit from the country. 

A fluid situation: He cautioned that the tally of Americans is highly fluid and changes almost hour to hour.

U.S. diplomats are in direct contact with 500 of the 1,500 Americans and have provided instructions to those people on how to get to the airport safely, Blinken said.

“For the remaining roughly 1,000 contacts that we had, who may be Americans seeking to leave Afghanistan, we're aggressively reaching out to them multiple times a day through multiple channels of communication, phone, email, text messaging to determine whether they still want to leave, and to get the most up to date information and instructions to them for how to do so,” he said.

BIDEN GETS BRIEFED

Top Pentagon officials on Wednesday morning briefed President Biden on contingency plans should he decide to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan past his Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline, the White House confirmed.

Biden earlier this week had asked Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinRepublican spin on Biden is off the mark Biden remarks on Taiwan leave administration scrambling Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Biden backtracks on Taiwan MORE and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyFormer envoy: U.S. 'did not succeed' in building democratic Afghanistan Poll: New Hampshire Senate race tight Republicans would need a promotion to be 'paper tigers' MORE for alternate plans in the event he feels troops should remain in the country longer to help with evacuations. The two joined other members of Biden’s national security team to deliver those options on Wednesday.

Troops already on way out: In the midst of this, the Pentagon late Tuesday said about 400 troops had begun departing Kabul ahead of the end of August deadline.

The commander on the ground, “in trying to manage time and space at the airport, determined that it was the prudent thing to do to let several hundred troops leave,” Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon.

MAKING SURE THEY GET OUT

The acting ambassador to Afghanistan signaled that the administration is putting in place plans to ensure Americans and Afghan allies can leave the country following the withdrawal of U.S. troops on Biden’s deadline.

Acting U.S. Ambassador Ross Wilson said in an interview Wednesday that the Biden administration is in “nascent conversations” with the Taliban to ensure Americans still in the country after the exit of U.S. forces will be able to leave safely. 

“We believe that there will be possibilities for Americans to be able to get out of this country. That’s been part of the nascent conversations, many of which have been taking place in Doha with the Taliban, about potential ways forward,” he said in an interview with CBS’s Norah O’Donnell.

Pentagon makes COVID-19 vaccine mandatory

 

Defense Secretary Austin has ordered service members to “immediately begin” receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a Pentagon memo released Wednesday.

“To defend this Nation, we need a healthy and ready force. After careful consultation with medical experts and military leadership, and with the support of the President, I have determined that mandatory vaccination against coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is necessary to protect the Force and defend the American people,” Austin wrote in the memo.

No timeline yet: No timeline was given for when troops are required to get the shot, but Austin said he directed service branch secretaries to "impose ambitious timelines for implementation," and to report to him regularly on their progress.

How many hold outs?: Roughly 800,000 active duty, National Guard and Ready Reserve troops have yet to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the latest numbers from the Defense Department.

But with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) giving full approval to the Pfizer vaccine earlier this week, Austin was able to add it to the list of 17 required shots service members must get when they enter the military or before they deploy overseas.

The details: The Defense Department will only make mandatory the COVID-19 vaccines that receive full approval from the FDA, Pentagon press secretary Kirby told reporters on Wednesday.

The mandate allows for religious or medical exemptions, consistent with Pentagon policies for other required vaccines.

A deadly season: August has been the deadliest month for COVID-19 deaths in the military, with the virus claiming the lives of 34 service members, up from 25 in July. 

What if troops still say no to shot?: Asked about possible punishments for troops who resist getting vaccinated, Kirby said Austin has communicated that military leaders should implement the program “with a measure of compassion.”

“Commanders have a wide range of tools available to them short of using the [Uniform Code of Military Justice] and I think we’re going to trust the commanders are going to make the right decision going forward,” Kirby said, referring to the military law that determines punitive measures and disciplinary action.

Kirby stressed that the mandate is “a lawful order and we fully anticipate that our troops are going to follow lawful orders.”

Read the rest here.

Pentagon, White House in dark on secret lawmaker trip

The surprise decision by two lawmakers to travel to Afghanistan, which Pentagon officials were “not aware” of in advance, distracted from the evacuation mission underway at the Kabul airport, according to the Defense Department’s top spokesperson.

Reps. Seth MoultonSeth MoultonHow lawmakers aided the Afghan evacuation GOP lawmaker says he did not threaten US Embassy staff in Tajikistan House panel approves B boost for defense budget MORE (D-Mass.) and Peter MeijerPeter MeijerThe 9 Republicans who voted to hold Bannon in contempt of Congress House votes to hold Bannon in contempt of Congress The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble MORE (R-Mich.) on Tuesday secretly traveled to Afghanistan to see conditions on the ground and push President Biden to extend his Aug. 31 deadline to pull all U.S. forces from the country.

Attentions diverted: But the visit “took time away from what [U.S. military forces] had been planning to do that day,” in order to provide protections for the two lawmakers, Pentagon press secretary Kirby told reporters on Wednesday.

“We are obviously not encouraging VIP visits to a very tense, dangerous and dynamic situation at that airport and inside Kabul generally,” Kirby said, adding that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “would have appreciated the opportunity to have had a conversation before the visit took place.”

White House also unaware: White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiOvernight Health Care — Presented by Altria — FDA advisers endorse Pfizer vaccine for kids The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - White House to host lawmakers as negotiations over agenda hit critical stage MORE also on Wednesday said that the White House was not aware of the trip by the two ”when they were en route.”

“Our guidance continues to be, to all American citizens – including elected officials, this is not the time to travel to Afghanistan,” Psaki said.

PELOSI CRITICIZES TRIP ‘THIS IS DEADLY SERIOUS’

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight On The Money — Senate Democrats lay out their tax plans Democrats haggle as deal comes into focus Dem hopes for infrastructure vote hit brick wall MORE (D-Calif.) on Wednesday criticized the secret trip by the two House members to Afghanistan the day before, given the personal risk to the lawmakers and the strain on limited federal resources that are currently focused on evacuating people from the country.

Pelosi said she hasn't spoken with Moulton or Meijer since they returned from Afghanistan, warning that such trips are "deadly serious."

"It was not, in my view, a good idea," Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol.

When did she find out?: The Speaker said she learned of their trip to Afghanistan shortly before it became public and sent a memo to all House members on Tuesday warning them against traveling to the region to avoid any efforts to follow the example of Moulton and Meijer, who are Iraq War veterans.

She noted that making their travel public before they were airborne "would not have been safe for them."

Some good news

The baby girl born on a U.S. military evacuation flight out of Afghanistan has been named Reach, the call sign of the aircraft, the top U.S. general in Europe told reporters on Wednesday.

U.S. European Command head Gen. Tod Wolters said defense officials have spoken to the Afghan parents of the girl born on the C-17 as it made its way from a staging base in Qatar to Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

“As you can well imagine, being an Air Force fighter pilot, it’s my dream to watch that young child called Reach grow up to be a U.S. citizen and fly United States Air Force fighters in our Air Force,” Wolters joked.

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

WHAT WE’RE READING

That’s it for today. Check out The Hill’s defense and national security pages for the latest coverage. We’ll see you Thursday.