- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The Taliban clamped down on the exodus of Afghans from the Kabul airport on Tuesday while the Pentagon said it is mounting a frantic push to increase the American military-led evacuation mission in the coming days — even as the Biden administration struggles to clarify how many Americans are stranded in Afghanistan and how many Afghans qualify as evacuees.

The fast-moving developments on opposite sides of the world underscored chaos, confusion and anger sparked by President Biden‘s decision to pull all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Aug. 31. The move led to the quick collapse of the Afghan government and a swift takeover of the country by hard-line Islamist Taliban insurgents.

After meeting fellow heads of state of the Group of Seven leading industrial nations Tuesday, Mr. Biden said he plans to stick by the Aug. 31 deadline despite growing pressure to extend the window for evacuations. Top administration officials acknowledged that they are unsure how many U.S. citizens and vulnerable Afghan allies needed to be rescued.

“There is no firm, certain, hard number on that because not every American who goes to Afghanistan has to tell the government they’re there,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

With that uncertainty, news that the president had dispatched CIA Director William Burns to meet privately with Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar early Tuesday suggested that the White House may be preparing to continue rescue efforts beyond the end of the month or at least negotiate behind-the-scenes security assurances.

While Mr. Biden said his plan is to stick with the Aug. 31 timetable, he added in a speech Tuesday evening that he had asked the Pentagon for “contingency plans” in the event he decides on a last-minute change of course.

The decision elevates logistical pressure on a strained U.S. military. American troops now must simultaneously guard the perimeter of the Kabul airport, load tens of thousands of people each day onto transport planes and begin packing up military equipment from the facility to meet the looming deadline, less than a week away.

The massive airlift out of Kabul also is fueling new security concerns. At least one Afghan who arrived at the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar on Tuesday has suspected ties to the Islamic State terrorist group, according to a Defense One report.

In his remarks Tuesday evening, Mr. Biden emphasized the threat posed by an Islamic State-affiliated group in Kabul known in intelligence circles as ISIS-K, suggesting heightened wariness among American officials over the risk of attacks by the extremists against U.S. forces managing the evacuation at the Kabul airport.

Taliban control

The U.S.-led mission is about to get even more daunting. Top Taliban leaders said Tuesday that they will stop the flow of Afghan citizens to the facility, making it exceedingly difficult to continue ferrying out Afghans who have worked alongside the U.S. as translators and in other key roles over the past 20 years.

“We are not in favor of allowing Afghans to leave,” Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said at a press conference in the Afghan capital. He said those Afghans are needed at home to help rebuild a country ravaged by years of war and struggling with some of the highest poverty rates in the world.

Mr. Mujahid said Afghans will not be allowed to pass through checkpoints to the Kabul airport. It’s not clear what will happen if U.S. or other Western troops confront the Taliban about letting certain people into the airport.

U.S. forces theoretically could move Afghans via helicopter from Kabul to the airport. The Pentagon already has carried out such missions to rescue Americans trapped in the city, and such an approach would bypass Taliban-controlled checkpoints.

Despite the mounting questions, Pentagon officials said they are confident that they can meet the deadline, though such assurances seem at least partially contingent upon the Taliban allowing Americans to pass through checkpoints and onto the airport grounds.

“We remain committed to getting any and all Americans that want to leave, to get them out. … We believe that we have the capability, the ability, to get that done by the end of the month,” Mr. Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon.

But without a comprehensive list of Americans in Afghanistan or a clear plan to extract those stranded in Kabul or elsewhere, lawmakers fear it’s all but inevitable that some will be left behind. After a classified briefing with administration officials Tuesday, key Republicans said they were growing increasingly pessimistic.

“I’m less confident after leaving that briefing,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, told reporters. “There’s no possible way that we can get every American that is still in Afghanistan out in the next seven days.”

The White House also is facing pressure on other fronts. Some retired military officials are calling for the removal of State Department official and special Afghan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.

Mr. Khalilzad was appointed by former President Trump and kept on by Mr. Biden. Throughout the process, he argued publicly and privately that the Taliban seemed ready to compromise with the U.S.-backed Afghan government, but the events of the past several weeks suggest otherwise.

“Why is this same person still representing the United States with Taliban leadership? I think it’s way past time to put somebody new in that effort,” Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who served as Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser, said Monday during a discussion at the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington.

Record pace of evacuations

Mr. Khalilzad has served as Washington’s point man in direct talks with the Taliban since 2019. But over the past few weeks, other top officials — including Mr. Burns, the CIA director, and Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command — have communicated directly with the insurgent group.

The meeting between Mr. Burns and Mullah Baradar, first reported by The Washington Post, was the highest face-to-face encounter between U.S. and Taliban leaders since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan this month.

Biden administration officials have stressed during recent days that the lines of communication with the militant group have resulted in a relative stabilization of what had become an unwieldy security situation at the Kabul airport, which in turn has allowed the U.S. to dramatically ramp up the pace of evacuations.

Since Aug. 14, the Pentagon has evacuated nearly 59,000 people, officials said. Over a 24-hour period from Monday to Tuesday, about 12,700 people left on U.S. military aircraft and another 8,900 left on coalition and civilian planes.

The total of 21,600 evacuees in a one-day period is the highest 24-hour total since the mission began, officials said.

About 4,000 Americans and their families have been evacuated since the start of the operation, Mr. Kirby said late Tuesday, finally offering an official, concrete figure on the number of evacuated U.S. citizens after days of questioning by reporters.

Other key questions remained unanswered.

It’s not clear, for example, how many Afghans who may qualify for refuge in the U.S. under the State Department’s Special Immigrant Visa program are still awaiting evacuation. That program was created in part to allow Afghan nationals who worked with the U.S. to relocate to America.

The State Department maintains a backlog of 18,000 principal applicants under the program. In total, more than 50,000 people remain backlogged when applicants’ family members are taken into account.

The State Department has opened a separate asylum category — dubbed “P-2” — for some who do not meet the criteria to be resettled under the Special Immigrant Visa program. As many as 100,000 Afghans could be eligible for visas under that designation.

The Pentagon this week announced that Special Immigrant Program evacuees also will be relocated to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, Fort McCoy in Wisconsin and Fort Bliss in Texas, in addition to Virginia’s Fort Lee. Pentagon officials say other bases also could be used as the number of Afghan applicants and refugees swells.

Mike Glenn contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

• Joseph Clark can be reached at jclark@washingtontimes.com.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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