Chaos mars Afghan evacuation efforts; Biden criticism builds
Violence on the road to Kabul’s airport and chaos at the gates are hampering efforts to evacuate Americans and vulnerable Afghans looking to flee the country following the Taliban takeover.
Adding to the mayhem is mixed messaging from the State Department, which is urging Americans and those with travel documents to head to the Hamid Karzai International Airport “as soon as possible” even though the U.S. Embassy alerted people that it could not guarantee safe passage.
People who make it past the gantlet of Taliban checkpoints report being turned away amid surging crowds that U.S. forces are trying to disperse.
The number of Americans in Afghanistan is believed to be between 10,000 and 15,000, with more than 80,000 Afghans who likely qualify for evacuation based on their work with the U.S. military and government.
The U.S. has so far only evacuated a fraction of those people.
Government officials from the National Security Council and the Department of Defense (DOD) told congressional staffers on a call Thursday that they have evacuated 6,741 individuals since Saturday, of which 1,792 are American citizens or lawful permanent residents.
“Which of course is absurd because we heard from DOD they could do up to 9,000 a day,” said one congressional staffer who spoke to The Hill after the call.
The U.S. military this week pledged to start evacuating 5,000 to 9,000 people per day.
“The latest report we heard was there are 10,000 to 15,000 American citizens in the country, so less than 20 percent are out, basically,” the aide said.
The staffer relayed that administration officials expressed distress over the deteriorating conditions, with one administration official saying, “conditions are awful and we are not blind to that.”
Another congressional aide said the Biden administration is “doing their best but they’ve been overwhelmed by folks in need of help.”
“You saw the announcement they sent for American citizens and green card holders that they should make their way to the Kabul airport — but as you know getting to that airport is a major challenge, with the Taliban controlling the way in,” the second aide said.
At the State Department briefing Thursday, Press Secretary Ned Price said there are 6,000 people “processed into the airport” — a figure roughly matching the number of troops at Kanbul’s airport — while 20 planes are scheduled to take off between today and tomorrow.
Photos and video on social media show massive crowds outside the airport. One video showed a child passed through the crowd and handed over a security wall to a U.S. soldier.
WATCH: A small Afghan child was pulled over a wall to U.S. soldiers as large crowds gathered outside the Kabul airport. pic.twitter.com/sOsfhm6Fin
— Catherine Herridge (@CBS_Herridge) August 19, 2021
An American citizen who reached the airport Wednesday evening provided a photo to The Hill of the massive crowds.
Photo shared with me from an American at Kabul airport trying to get an evacuation flight. The person had to leave their family in the city because they don’t have the documents to evacuate. Said it took hours to reach the airport pic.twitter.com/unSfp4QHzw
— Laura Kelly (@HelloLauraKelly) August 18, 2021
Further video showed Afghans on the road to the airport cowering in a roadside trench amid an eruption of massive gunfire.
An Afghan man sent me this video which he said was raked outside Kabul airport today. How are Americans and Afghans supposed to get through this? pic.twitter.com/PjRTvof5p5
— Jeff Schogol (@JeffSchogol) August 19, 2021
Situational reports from a nongovernmental organization obtained by The Hill describe havoc at the airport, with entry gates inconsistently opening and closing.
“There remain so many people at the entrances to the airport that soldiers have been told to keep the gates closed, and pretty much not let anyone in,” according to a report from the National Democratic Institute. “Some checkpoints on the airport perimeter currently have no comms with the airport, thus no way of being able to verify persons requesting entry should be allowed.”
Sunil Varghese with the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) said the government needs to quickly gain control and streamline the process.
“DOD and State are pointing the finger at each other and someone has to step up,” he said.
“And all of this hinges on the Taliban letting people wait at the airport so I just really hope the USG is working on some sort of plan so that an evacuation doesn’t turn into a massacre.”
People must run a gantlet of Taliban checkpoints to get to the airport, with reports of beatings, whippings and intimidation. Those fleeing must hide critical documents needed to get on a flight to get past the Taliban.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee whose staff is helping aid evacuation efforts, said the situation outside the airport is “getting worse by the day.”
“My office has received numerous reports of American citizens and Afghan allies being harassed, beaten, and abused by Taliban thugs. These reports are in addition to the televised scenes of chaos at the airport perimeter,” he said in a statement.
He called for President Biden to expand the security perimeter around the airport to “rescue Americans trapped behind enemy lines.
“Anything less amounts to an abandonment of our fellow Americans and a shameful abdication of duty in a moment of crisis.”
Adding to the chaos are unsanitary conditions, with toilets and trash backing up. People have been told to bring their own water and be prepared to wipe their phone of data in encounters with the Taliban.
Melissa Keaney, a senior staff attorney also with IRAP, said that there is no real strategy in getting through Taliban checkpoints.
“Some of the advice is to actually have your [U.S.] documents, because the Taliban is not letting you through unless you show that you are a U.S. citizen or you’re entitled to get on an evacuation flight. Other pieces of advice that I’ve seen have indicated the exact opposite, that you should not have any of those types of documents with you,” she said.
The State Department says it is surging resources at the airport to evacuate Americans and vulnerable Afghans. Former ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass was sent to the airport to help with logistics around evacuations. Chargé d’affaires Ross Wilson remained at the airport with an embassy team even as the majority of staff were evacuated from the country.
Biden has committed to keeping American troops at the airport until every American who wants to leave is evacuated, pushing back against a tentative deadline of Aug. 31 that had been discussed with the Taliban.
The president has not yet offered those same commitments to evacuate Afghans who assisted the U.S. military and are in the process of applying for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), or vulnerable Afghans in general.
“If Biden does not keep the evacuation going long enough to get all of the people who have applied for SIVs and were hung up because our process has been slow and incompetent, than he is morally derelict,” said Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and who served as ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007.
—Updated Friday at 11:23 a.m.