US says about 1,500 citizens remain in Afghanistan
Secretary of State Antony Blinken 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.
Blinken said the U.S. has evacuated 82,300 people, including 4,500 people with U.S. passports, since Aug. 14, the day before the Taliban took Kabul and completed its takeover of Afghanistan.
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 has 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.
Blinken’s remarks provided the most concrete number of Americans remaining in Afghanistan that the administration has provided. Officials have explained it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly how many Americans remain in the country since some did not notify the U.S. Embassy when they arrived or when they departed prior to the withdrawal effort.
Biden has signaled no intention to change the Aug. 31 deadline for ending the evacuation effort, putting pressure on U.S. officials to complete the work. The president requested contingency plans from the State Department and the Pentagon should more time be needed, and he was briefed Wednesday morning on those plans, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
His deadline has drawn widespread skepticism from international leaders and even some lawmakers in his own party, who questioned how a moving target of American citizens and thousands of Afghan allies who aided in the war effort could be safely evacuated in just one week’s time.
There were reports on Wednesday of the CIA using clandestine operations to remove Americans in and out of Kabul, and also reports of the U.S. making plans to remove Americans post-Aug. 31 if necessary.
While it’s unclear what groups of people make up the tens of thousands of people so far evacuated, the administration has prioritized family members of Americans, U.S. long-term permanent residents, Afghans who worked alongside the U.S., Special Immigrant Visa holders, foreign nationals and Afghans at risk of being targets for the Taliban based on their gender, ethnicity or work.
Blinken said that between 45 to 46 percent of evacuees are women and children.
While the administration has dramatically scaled up evacuations, sending out daily updates that reflect the thousands of individuals evacuated every 24 hours, their efforts have been challenged by overwhelming crowds blocking entrance, and access to Kabul’s airport, with firefights breaking out and fatal stampedes underscoring the treacherous situation.
Blinken acknowledged a New York Times report from Tuesday of a two-year-old child trampled to death outside the airport, the daughter of an interpreter who qualified for evacuation for her work alongside U.S. forces.
“Reading that story and others was like getting punched in the gut,” the secretary said.
“All of us at the State Department and across the U.S. government, feel that way. We know that lives and futures, starting with our fellow citizens, including the lives of children, hang in the balance during these critical days.”
Beatings, whippings and general intimidation by Taliban fighters at checkpoints around the airport have also forced those looking to flee the country to miss flights and return to their homes.
A leaked State Department cable documented Afghan allies forgoing evacuations because the Taliban checkpoints and the conditions around the airport were too harrowing, deciding to take their chances remaining in Afghanistan, NBC news reported.
The secretary stressed that the administration is in talks with the Taliban to allow evacuations to continue unimpeded and working to ensure that Afghans who want to leave the country after Aug. 31 are able to do so.
“They will not be forgotten,” Blinken said of vulnerable Afghans who will be left in the country.
“The Taliban have made public and private commitments to provide and permit safe passage for Americans, for third country nationals and Afghans at risk, going forward past August 31,” the secretary continued.
“The United States, our allies and partners, and more than half of the world’s countries, 114 at all, issued a statement, making it clear to the Taliban that they have a responsibility to hold to that commitment, and provide safe passage for anyone who wishes to leave the country, not just for the duration of our evacuation and relocation mission, but for every day thereafter.”
At the White House, Psaki told reporters that the U.S. and the international community expects “people who want to leave Afghanistan after the U.S. military departs should be able to do so.”
But assurances from the administration are drawing intense criticism on Capitol Hill, where both Democrats and Republicans have called for the president to back off the Aug. 31 deadline and to reject assurances from the Taliban.
“The Taliban can stop our planes from leaving anytime they want,” Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Hill.
“Keep in mind that we can get more done by August 31 if the Taliban fully cooperates. But the Taliban’s interests and ours are not identical. Our interest is in getting out of Afghanistan the people the Taliban most want to behead. And their interest is in beheading them.”
Rebecca Beitsch contributed to this report.
Updated at 4:31 p.m.