Jeh Johnson: Situation at Kabul airport 'going to get a lot worse before it gets better'

Jeh Johnson: Situation at Kabul airport 'going to get a lot worse before it gets better'
© Greg Nash

Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Monday said he believes the situation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul is “going to get a lot worse before it gets better” as U.S. citizens and Afghan allies scramble to evacuate Afghanistan amid the Taliban’s takeover.

Johnson, who also spent time as general counsel at the Pentagon, said the scene at the Kabul airport will likely worsen as American citizens, special immigrant visa applicants and individuals who qualify for refugee status continue to flood the premises in an attempt to get out of Afghanistan.

“This is a country of 38 million people. We've got to deal with the American citizens, those who qualify for special immigrant visas but then those who also qualify for refugee status under our laws. And that population could snowball,” Johnson told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell during an interview on Monday.

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Johnson’s comments come as the U.S. military continues to evacuate eligible individuals in Afghanistan who want to flee the country amid a deteriorating security situation.

Roughly 16,000 people were evacuated from Kabul by the U.S. military Sunday, according to a White House official, which marked the largest number of personnel pulled from the region in a single 24-hour period.

Approximately 37,000 people have been evacuated from the region since Aug. 14.

Photos and videos from the Kabul airport have painted a harrowing scene of thousands of individuals desperate to leave the country. Last week, Afghans were seen clinging to the outside of moving planes on the tarmac.

The Pentagon has deployed 3,000 troops to the airport to help secure the facility, with a total of 6,000 troops in Kabul.

The U.S. ramped up its evacuations as last week after the Taliban overran Kabul and seized control of Afghanistan.

The insurgent group’s offensive came as the U.S. was inching closer to an Aug. 31 deadline to withdrawal its troops from Afghanistan. On Sunday, however, Biden said his administration is debating whether to extend that deadline after he sent in more troops to help evacuate Americans from the country.

Johnson, who led the Department of Homeland Security under the Obama administration, said it would have been “appropriate” and “prudent” for the U.S. to leave a “very small force” in Afghanistan for “counterterrorism intelligence collection purposes.”

“We're talking about a country of 38 million people, a very small force in place that could accomplish a lot for counterterrorism purposes. We've seen that in places like Syria and Iraq, what a force of just 1,000 or 2,000 of our people can do,” Johnson said.

He also laid out the case for keeping Bagram air base open in Afghanistan, contending that such a move “would have been better certainly for current operations at the airport in Kabul and for our own purposes to keep some small, very small footprint there.”

“True, there is an over-the-horizon capability, but it is not a, it's not a quick and easy substitute for having an actual presence there, a small presence there on the ground,” he added.

Johnson continued, telling Mitchell that while he understands the “desire to get out” after nearly 20 years in Afghanistan, it does not necessarily mean pulling every individual from the country.

“Getting out doesn't necessarily mean removing every single member of the United States military from that place. As you know, we have our military in small forces stationed in a number of places around the world,” he added.