Thousands evacuated, but efforts could continue past Aug. 31 deadline
About 4,500 Americans have been evacuated from Afghanistan as the Taliban insurgency takes over the country, leaving another 1,500 who have not yet been accounted for as of press time, according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The Biden-Harris administration aims to have all U.S. troops and civilians out of Afghanistan by Aug. 31, a deadline that the president has said could be pushed back if there were still Americans left in-country by that time.
“We’re aggressively reaching out to them multiple times a day, through multiple channels of communication — phone, email, text messaging — to determine whether they still want to leave,” Blinken said.
He added, however, that it was unlikely many of the remaining Americans were “actively seeking assistance” to leave the country, and that some may have already left Afghanistan without notifying U.S. authorities.
On Aug. 18, President Joe Biden had given an estimate of 10,000 to 15,000 Americans left in Afghanistan, along with tens of thousands of Afghans who had been employed by the U.S. forces and are thus eligible for resettlement to the United States.
Blinken’s statements came 10 days after Taliban militiamen occupied Kabul, the Afghan capital, and set up checkpoints controlling access to the Hamid Karzai International Airport.
‘The sooner we can finish, the better’
U.S. evacuation efforts began on Aug. 14, at which time Blinken said that there were 6,000 Americans who wanted to leave. More than 88,000 people have been evacuated, the vast majority of them Afghans.
Biden announced the Aug. 31 pull-out date in July, when the U.S. closed down the strategically vital Bagram Airbase. The target is aimed at ending the U.S. war in Afghanistan before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which prompted the War on Terror.
“We are currently on a pace to finish by August the 31st,” the president said on Tuesday. “The sooner we can finish, the better.”
“Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops,” he said.
The Taliban have warned of “consequences” if the U.S. does not hold to the deadline.
Establishing which Americans genuinely wish to stay in Afghanistan is complicated by the Taliban’s encirclement of the airport. U.S. officials have confirmed reports of some Taliban fighters denying Americans or Afghans eligible for evacuation access to the airport.
Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin said on Friday, Aug. 20, that some Americans had been beaten while trying to evacuate, contradicting Biden’s remarks half an hour earlier that the Taliban was allowing Americans access to the airport.
On Wednesday, Department of Defense spokesman John Kirby further said that the U.S. military had the ability to, but had not rescued any Americans outside of Kabul.
Doing so, however, would require deploying some of the several thousand U.S. troops defending the airport to other areas, which would place the airport and aircraft at risk. Already U.S. officials warn of possible terror attacks by ISIS, an Islamist group even more extreme than the Taliban.
The U.S. forces in Kabul have thus far undertaken three missions to retrieve Americans in the city, including one trip to a hotel where 169 citizens were holed up.
Kirby said that U.S. troops could not be able to help an American couple reportedly in the city of Mazar-e-Sharife.