WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s two top leaders said on Wednesday that the U.S. government is determined to evacuate all Americans seeking to leave Afghanistan, as well as Afghans who have assisted in the war effort and who are authorized to enter the United States.
Provided that these people can pass through Taliban checkpoints to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
“We intend to evacuate those who have supported us for years, and we will not leave them behind,” General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters. “And we will remove as many as we can.”
At a Pentagon press conference, both General Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III did not stop to ensure safe passage to the tens of thousands of Afghan allies blocked by the Taliban from reaching the airport. So far, no US Marines and other troops have been sent to Kabul to get evacuees, the men said.
“The troops we have are focused on airport security,” said Mr. Austin, adding that the military would work with the Taliban to let properly papered Afghans through. “I don’t currently have the opportunity to go out to Kabul and expand my operations.”
General Milley said the State Department was in contact with the Taliban to ensure passengers could find their way to the airport. But there have been numerous reports of Taliban fighters beating and harassing Afghans trying to get there, despite Pentagon warnings not to hinder the evacuation.
Neither Mr Austin nor General Austin would commit to extending the operation, which has evacuated 5,000 people since it started over the weekend, beyond the August 31 deadline set by the White House for ending the mission of the United States. army in the country.
President Biden, government officials said, has urged US troops to withdraw by the end of the month, and has said troops involved in the evacuation mission should not venture outside the airport. That gives the military 12 days to get tens of thousands of people out of Afghanistan.
But unless those people get through a gantlet of Taliban checkpoints, they could be left behind.
“Obviously we’re not close to where we want to be when it comes to getting the numbers,” acknowledged Mr Austin. “So we’re going to be working those 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and we’re going to get everyone we can possibly evacuate.”
He added: “As long as we can until the clock is up, or we run out of capacity.”
It was the Pentagon’s first senior leadership press conference since the extraordinary fall of Kabul last weekend. The disintegration of the Afghan military has been very painful for the Pentagon, which has spent 20 years and $83 billion building up Afghan security forces. But beyond that, the collapse of the Afghan government has confronted the Pentagon with questions from war veterans and active-duty military personnel, who questioned the point of the sacrifice.
Both men tried to put some of those feelings into words. “This is all very personal to me,” said Mr Austin. “This is a war I have fought and led. I know the country, I know the people and I know those who have fought by my side.”
General Milley tried to address the U.S. military personnel participating in the venture directly: “For more than 20 years, we have prevented an attack on the American homeland,” he said, adding that 2,448 troops were killed and 20,722 wounded in action. , “and many others suffered the invisible wounds of war.”
Marine Corps leaders also tried in a letter on Wednesday to reassure the corps, which has fought much of the Afghan struggle, by saying they “believe beyond a doubt that your service was meaningful, powerful and important.”
But many in the Pentagon remain concerned about what will happen to the tens of thousands of Afghans who have helped US troops, the embassy and US institutions in Afghanistan.
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At the moment, the Biden administration’s strategy to get these people to safety appears to be to hold talks with the Taliban and ask them to bring people to the airport.
General Milley also pushed back on news media reports that there had been warnings of a rapid collapse of the Afghan military.
“I’m very familiar with intelligence, and in war nothing is ever certain, but I can tell you there are no reports that I know of predicted a security force of 300,000 would evaporate in 11 days,” he said.
General Milley said 5,000 marines and soldiers would be on the ground to secure the airport by the end of Wednesday, while military and commercial flights carrying people out of the Afghan capital continue at a rapid pace.
In the past 24 hours, 18 Air Force C-17 transport planes took off from Kabul, carrying 2,000 passengers, including 325 American citizens, John F. Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, told reporters on Wednesday. The others were Afghan civilians and NATO personnel, he said.
That total is well below the 5,000 to 9,000 passengers a day the military plans to fly out of the country once the evacuation process is “in full swing,” Mr Kirby said.
“The goal is to get as many people out as quickly as possible,” he said.
About the same number of military flights would leave Kabul in the next 24 hours, but Mr Kirby said he could not predict how many passengers those planes would carry.
The Pentagon said 1,000 personnel were sent to Qatar to help State Department officials speed up the processing of visa applications for Afghans who worked for the US war effort. Evacuation flights from Kabul usually go to Qatar, where Afghan visa applicants are screened before boarding flights to the United States.