The massive U.S. military-led airlift from Kabul turned toward a rocky home stretch Wednesday, with the Biden administration laying out its plan to save the final 1,500 Americans stuck in Afghanistan over the coming days as chaos closes in around the country’s only international airport.
Many of the remaining evacuees are reported to be trapped behind Taliban lines and likely dependent on daring U.S. military rescue missions with just days left before President Biden‘s self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline for fully withdrawing the more than 5,000 U.S. troops who have been sent back into Afghanistan to carry out the airlift operation.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken finally offered clarity Wednesday on the number of Americans still in the country, as well as how many have been evacuated. About 4,500 Americans have been flown out since Aug. 14, the day before the collapse of the Afghan government and the subsequent takeover of Kabul by the Islamist Taliban.
Mr. Blinken said the administration is in contact with about 500 Americans wanting to leave Afghanistan, and U.S. officials are scrambling to reach another 1,000 who are thought to be in the country. Hundreds may be outside Kabul, making the task of getting them safely to the Afghan capital‘s airport exceedingly dangerous.
“We are aggressively reaching out to them multiple times a day through multiple channels of communication — phone, email, text message — to determine whether they still want to leave and to get the most up-to-date information and instructions to them for how to do so,” the secretary of state said.
The 1,500 figure sets up a clear goal for the Biden administration during the frantic final days of the historic Kabul airlift, which is growing more daunting by the hour. Taliban fighters are tightening their grip on the airport perimeter and are reportedly barring Afghans from reaching the site.
Credible threats from affiliates of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan have added urgency to the effort to get all U.S. personnel, including the American troops guarding the airport, out of the country before a terrorist attack.
Trusting the Taliban
Republicans on Capitol Hill doubt the administration can pull off the withdrawal by Aug. 31. Without an extension of the deadline, they said, it’s all but certain that some Americans will be left behind and at risk of being captured or even executed by the Taliban.
“A president that abandons Americans in order to meet a deadline set by a medieval band of terrorists will forever be disgraced,” Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, said in a Twitter post Wednesday.
Mr. Blinken said the administration believes it has received assurances from Taliban leaders that evacuations of Americans and Afghan allies can continue beyond Aug. 31.
“The Taliban have made public and private commitments to provide and permit safe passage for Americans, third-country nationals and Afghans at risk going forward past Aug. 31,” the secretary of state said.
The assertion seemed to clash with the public stance of the Taliban, which insisted that the U.S. withdrawal end by Aug. 31 and that the evacuation of Afghans stop immediately.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, is ramping up rescue missions outside the airport perimeter in an effort to bypass increasingly strict Taliban checkpoints.
Pentagon officials confirmed that U.S. troops carried out a third helicopter mission Tuesday evening to save more than a dozen Americans trapped in Kabul.
Such missions suggest that Americans seeking evacuation cannot move freely in the capital through Taliban checkpoints and to the airport gate, despite the Biden administration‘s claims to the contrary.
“Last night, during the period of darkness, there was an operation to go out and safely evacuate evacuees back into Kabul” airport, Army Maj. Gen. William D. “Hank” Taylor told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday.
Those Americans joined the tens of thousands who have been evacuated. Since the effort began, about 88,000 people have been flown out, Pentagon officials said.
In a 24-hour period from Tuesday to Wednesday, about 19,000 people were evacuated aboard U.S. and partner aircraft, said the officials, who also confirmed that several hundred U.S. troops had left the airport during the final drawdown.
Desperate to escape
The vast majority of those flown out of Kabul so far have been Afghans. Some of them worked alongside Americans as interpreters and translators over the past 20 years, and some of them are considered by the Biden administration to be “vulnerable” to reprisal under the Taliban‘s hard-line regime.
Thousands have arrived in the U.S. and are being housed at military bases. Others are in Europe, and thousands more are at temporary U.S.-run facilities in Qatar and Bahrain.
At least one Afghan who arrived in Qatar reportedly has ties to the Islamic State terrorist group, underscoring what some analysts have described as growing national security implications tied to the mass emigration from Afghanistan.
The Biden administration made repeated public commitments to help all of its Afghan allies as the U.S. withdrawal proceeded throughout the spring and summer. Mr. Biden has said the evacuation moved slowly at first because U.S. officials did not want to trigger an exodus from Kabul that might undermine what had been the U.S.-aligned government there.
Once that government swiftly fell to the Taliban, the exodus became inevitable.
Republican lawmakers have sharply criticized the administration‘s handling of the situation and have cast doubts on claims that the Taliban have provided assurances that Afghans who helped the U.S. would be allowed to evacuate.
Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican and ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters Wednesday that the Taliban instead have followed through with their public promise to stop allowing most Afghans to reach the airport.
“Sometimes, more grimly, they are returned to their homes, where they behead their family and then behead them,” Mr. McCaul said. “This is a truth that maybe you’re not hearing. But you need to hear it.”
A small group of former interpreters and service members gathered in a small protest outside of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday afternoon holding signs urging lawmakers to ensure the safety of those still in Afghanistan.
One of the protesters, who goes by “A.J.,” said many in the group were in contact with family members fighting to get out of Afghanistan. He said there is a disconnect between what they hear from the administration and what they hear from those on the ground.
“They keep saying, ‘We evacuated 1,000 people, 15,000 people,’ and I’m like, who are they evacuating? Our families are not on it,” he said.
For those who remain in Afghanistan, lawmakers and regional analysts say the Biden administration can offer some help by actively backing resistance fighters who represent the country’s last chance of fending off full Taliban rule.
“The least we can do now is support the resistance effort in any and all ways as they combat the Taliban’s treacherous regime,” Rep. Liz Cheney, Wyoming Republican, told The Washington Times.
The resistance movement has headquarters in the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul, where Amrullah Saleh, a former vice president of Afghanistan, leads an army with an estimated 10,000 soldiers. The other key figure is Ahmad Massoud, whose father, Ahmad Shah Massoud, fought the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s and later joined the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.
Specialists say the Biden administration could provide arms, logistical support, money and other help to the resistance, but doing so would anger the Taliban observing the Kabul airport evacuation.
Still, some observers say the fight inside Afghanistan will continue well after the final American withdrawal.
“The real fight has only just begun and will emerge from the Panjshir,” said former Defense Department official Michael Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who studies Afghanistan extensively. “If Biden were more in charge and put country above ego, he might recognize that the Panjshir resistance is a gift which the U.S. could latch onto to roll back the Taliban and undo the worst of the damage that now looms above Afghanistan.”
• Joseph Clark contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.