Nearly 200 Americans left behind in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan following the August U.S. military withdrawal may still be trying to get out, the State Department said Friday, doubling its previous public count.
Spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. airlifted out several dozen people in the past couple days, but even more people have come forward in recent weeks saying they also want to leave, which has sent the number soaring.
He listed the current total still left behind and interested in getting out as somewhere between 100 and 200, and cautioned that the numbers are just “a momentary snapshot in time.”
The higher tallies, which were reported to Congress on Thursday, drew a new round of criticism from lawmakers who said the administration abandoned Americans in the chaotic August withdrawal that ended the 20-year U.S. military mission in the country and left the Islamist Taliban insurgency fully in control in Kabul.
“For weeks, their official number was ‘about a hundred’ and it magically never changed — as Americans slowly got out the total number never went down. Now they say more than 300 Americans are still in Afghanistan,” said Sen Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican. The 300-plus number includes Americans whom the State Department says have not said they want to leave.
Mr. Price, briefing reporters by telephone, defended the department’s public pronouncements and said at one point the number of American citizens in the country expressing an interest in getting out was lower than 100. But he said the “proven ability” the U.S. has shown in getting people out has enticed more people to express an interest in fleeing themselves.
And there are others the U.S. is in touch with who haven’t said they want to leave.
“There are Americans who remain who are ready and able to leave the country, there are Americans who remain who … do not yet have a desire to leave the country,” Mr. Price said.
He said the U.S. has helped 234 American citizens and 144 green card holders flee since the start of September, when the U.S. war effort officially ended.
Still other Americans have escaped without U.S. assistance and aren’t included in those figures, Mr. Price said.
But combining the several hundred who have escaped since the start of September with the 200 or so still looking to get out, there could have been as many as 500 who were contemplating fleeing at a time when the U.S. government said the number was about 100. The fate of those left behind has proven a major political headache for the Biden administration.
“Despite continued evacuations, even more Americans remain now than the Biden administration estimated months ago,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican. “President Biden must do more to rescue Americans trapped in a disaster of his own making.”
Mr. Sasse said the changing numbers show the administration “has shamelessly and repeatedly lied.”
Mr. Biden was carrying out a withdrawal set in motion by the Trump administration, though the current president set the final timetable and handoff to the Taliban. The insurgents stormed through the country over the summer, ousting the U.S.-backed government and taking control of Kabul, the capital, far earlier than U.S. officials thought possible.
That left Mr. Biden scrambling to send in more troops to hold the main international airport and try to fly out as many Americans as possible.
U.S. officials say more than 120,000 people were evacuated by air in the final weeks, though most were Afghans, and it’s not clear exactly how they earned their spots on the flights.