Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Friday that the Pentagon has been made aware of Taliban fighters harassing and beating Americans attempting to flee Afghanistan, contradicting President Joseph R. Biden’s remarks just minutes before.
Mr. Austin‘s statement, first reported by Politico, came during an unclassified telephone briefing on the Afghanistan withdrawal for members of Congress.
“We’re also aware that some people, including Americans, have been harassed and even beaten by the Taliban,” Mr. Austin said, according to multiple sources. “This is unacceptable and [we] made it clear to the designated Taliban leader.”
Earlier Friday, Mr. Biden told reporters that he had “no indication” that Americans were unable to make it to the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, the U.S.’s last remaining stronghold in the country that has been gripped by chaos amid the Taliban’s overthrow of the Afghan government.
“We’ve made an agreement with the — with the Taliban,” he said. “Thus far, they’ve allowed them to go through. It’s in their interest for them to go through. So, we know of no circumstance where American citizens are — carrying an American passport — are trying to get through to the airport. But we will do whatever needs to be done to see to it they get to the airport.”
While U.S. troops have secured the airport perimeter, the administration has not committed to expanding the security perimeter and has not ordered rescue operations in other parts of the country to recover American citizens. Mr. Biden said expanding operations beyond the airport could draw unintended consequences, and that the U.S. has agreements in place with the Taliban to ensure Americans and other evacuees enjoy safe passage.
“We’ve been in constant contact with the Taliban leadership on the ground in Kabul, as well as the Taliban leadership at Doha, and we’ve been coordinating what we are doing,” he said. “That’s why we were able — for example, how we got all of our embassy personnel out, how we got everyone out of the embassy safely that was at distance. That’s how we helped get the French out and — out of their embassy.”
Nonetheless, Mr. Biden said all options are on the table.
“We’re considering every opportunity and every means by which we can get folks to the airport,” he said.
Still, the disconnect between the Pentagon and the White House comes amid other missteps leading up to and during the troop withdrawal.
On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that 23 staffers stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul sent a cable on July 13 via the State Department’s dissent channel warning of the Taliban’s rapid advance and potential collapse of the Afghan security forces, and calling for evacuation efforts to be increased.
“For months, my colleagues on both sides of the aisle have been pleading with the Biden administration to evacuate as many of our Afghan partners as possible before the Taliban found them and killed them,” Rep. Michael T. McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement Thursday. “They ignored our calls. If these reports are true, it means this administration also willfully ignored the pleas of their own people on the ground in Kabul and their warnings of how dire the situation truly was.”
Republican lawmakers have been critical of Mr. Biden’s decision to fully withdraw from Afghanistan, saying his administration set an arbitrary, unrealistic timeline for the withdrawal that they said would spell disaster for the democratically elected Afghan government. Lawmakers were also critical of the administration’s lack of a plan for ensuring stability in the country and evacuating Afghan allies who supported the U.S.-led war effort.
Calls have begun to Democratic lawmakers, with several now saying they will probe the Biden administration on the withdrawal.
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Gregory W. Meeks, New York Democrat, has invited Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to testify before his committee.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, called for an unclassified telephone briefing for all House members Friday and an in-person classified briefing for a select group of lawmakers Tuesday.