WASHINGTON — As the Aug. 31 deadline for a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan rapidly approaches, the Pentagon has ramped up evacuations from Kabul airport, flying 21,600 people in 24 hours, Defense Department officials said. Tuesday. But bottlenecks in the system and President Biden’s insistence that all troops leave the country before the end of the month may deter the military from maintaining that pace.
The race against time means that the 5,800 Marines and soldiers at Hamid Karzai International Airport must try to evacuate thousands more Americans and Afghan allies, and then get themselves out, to somehow dispose of the waste from 20 years of war. Afghanistan in the next seven days.
That process began Tuesday, when Pentagon spokesman John F. Kirby said several hundred headquarters, maintenance and other support forces not essential to the escalating evacuation operation had left the country.
Defense officials, however, did not dare to say publicly what is becoming increasingly clear: some people will be left behind.
More than 70,700 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan since August 14, when Kabul fell to the Taliban, Mr Biden said.
That’s well below the number of US citizens, foreigners and Afghan allies trying to get out. “We’re trying to get the most out of it,” said John F. Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman. He said US forces at the Kabul airport “want to continue this pace as aggressively as possible”.
But despite all of Mr. Biden’s urging to meet his withdrawal deadline, neither the Department of Homeland Security nor the State Department has been able to increase control and processing times to the level necessary to meet the to meet demand.
A US official said it took up to 12 hours for immigration officers at Al Udeid Air Base outside Doha, Qatar, to check arriving Afghans against the National Counterterrorism Center’s watch list. The official said vetting and screening processes needed to speed up to prevent the evacuation pipeline from clogging again at Al Udeid, the largest base receiving Afghans, as it did for several hours last week.
The Taliban have warned of “consequences” if the US military does not meet the deadline. And on Tuesday, a Taliban spokesman said the fighters of the group would physically block Afghans from getting to the airport.
The Pentagon has opened military bases in Virginia, Texas, Wisconsin and New Jersey to provide temporary housing for Afghan refugees.
Kirby said Afghan allies of the United States, who fear retaliation from the Taliban, are still being processed at the Kabul airport, although the airport’s gates have been closed several times over the past week due to the influx of people.
The United States will continue to evacuate Afghans until the last few days of the withdrawal of troops and equipment, when the flights are expected to be largely filled with military troops and equipment, as well as any Americans willing to leave. Dozens of Afghan commandos – trained by the United States – are also at the airport and must be evacuated.
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For the military, part of the problem is the sheer magnitude of moving so many people so quickly, with so little advance notice. For example, the military C-17 planes, which carry 400 people per load, have one or two bathrooms and the flight from Kabul to Qatar takes four hours.
Once the flights arrive at Al Udeid in Qatar and other intermediate bases in the Middle East and Europe, evacuees will be vetted by Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs officials, who will determine their eligibility to enter the United States.
The military is taking the Taliban’s red line on Aug. 31 seriously, in part because, despite loud talk from Taliban spokesmen, some of the group’s commanders have collaborated with the U.S. military and allowed many people to come to the airport. In addition, the US military and the Taliban have worked together against the threat of attacks from the Islamic State.
But after August 31, all bets are off, a senior US official said.
With so many people at Kabul airport, in Doha and other bases, concerns about sanitation, food and water are mounting. The C-17 planes taking refugees from Afghanistan turn around and bring in additional dumpsters, portable hand-wash stations, refrigerated trucks to keep the water cool and bring in food and water.
In the past four days, Defense Department officials said three babies have been born to evacuees. A woman gave birth on Saturday while landing at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Air Force officials said. The aircraft commander descended to a lower altitude to increase air pressure in the plane, a decision officials say saved the mother’s life because she had low blood pressure. When the plane landed, medics rushed aboard and carried the baby – a girl – into the cargo hold. All three babies are in good shape, Mr Kirby said Tuesday.
After receiving a secret briefing Monday night, Representative Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat who heads the House Intelligence Committee, said the August 31 deadline for withdrawing US troops from Kabul was unrealistic.
“I think it’s possible, but I think it’s very unlikely,” Mr Schiff told reporters. Using the acronym for special immigrant visas, he added: “Given the number of Americans yet to be evacuated, the number of SIVs, the number of others who are members of the Afghan press, civil society leaders, women leaders – it is hard for me to imagine that all this can be accomplished between now and the end of the month.”