WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s top two leaders said on Wednesday that the U.S. government is committed to evacuating all Americans who want to leave Afghanistan, as well as Afghans who helped the war effort and who are cleared to enter the United States.
Provided, that is, these people can get themselves past Taliban checkpoints to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
“We intend to evacuate those who have been supporting us for years, and we are not going to leave them behind,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters. “And we will get out as many as possible.”
Speaking at a Pentagon news conference, both General Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III stopped short of assuring safe passage to the tens of thousands of Afghan allies who have been blocked by the Taliban from reaching the airport. So far, American Marines and other troops have not been sent into Kabul to extract evacuees, the men said.
“The forces that we have are focused on security of the airfield,” said Mr. Austin, who added that the military would work with the Taliban to allow Afghans with proper paperwork to pass through. “I don’t have the capability to go out and extend operations currently into Kabul.”
General Milley said the State Department was in communication with the Taliban to ensure that passengers could make their way to the airport. But there have been numerous reports of Taliban fighters beating and harassing Afghans trying to get there, despite the Pentagon’s warnings not to interfere with the evacuation.
Neither Mr. Austin nor General Austin would commit to extending the operation, which has evacuated 5,000 people since it started over the weekend, beyond the Aug. 31 deadline the White House has set for ending the military’s mission in the country.
President Biden, administration officials said, has insisted that American forces withdraw by the end of the month, and has said that troops involved in the evacuation mission should not venture beyond the airport. That leaves the military with 12 days to get tens of thousands of people out of Afghanistan.
But unless those people make it through a gantlet of Taliban checkpoints, they could be left behind.
“It’s obvious we’re not close to where we want to be in terms of getting the numbers through,” Mr. Austin acknowledged. “So we’re going to work that 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and we’re going to get everyone that we can possibly evacuate evacuated.”
He added: “As long as we possibly can until the clock runs out, or we run out of capability.”
It was the first news conference by the Pentagon’s senior leadership since the extraordinary fall of Kabul over the weekend. The disintegration of the Afghan military has been deeply painful for the Pentagon, which spent 20 years and $83 billion building up Afghanistan’s security forces. But beyond that, the collapse of the Afghan government has left the Pentagon facing questions from veterans of the war and active-duty service members, who have wondered what the point was of the sacrifice.
Both men tried to put some of those feelings into words. “All of this is very personal to me,” Mr. Austin said. “This is a war that I fought in and led. I know the country, I know the people, and I know those who fought alongside me.”
General Milley sought to address American service members who took part in the endeavor directly: “For more than 20 years, we have prevented an attack on the U.S. homeland,” he said, adding that 2,448 troops lost their lives and 20,722 were wounded in action, “and many others suffered the unseen wounds of war.”
Marine Corps leaders, in a letter Wednesday, also tried to reassure the corps, which has carried much of the Afghan fight, saying they “believe — without question — that your service was meaningful, powerful and important.”
But many at the Pentagon remain concerned about what will happen to the tens of thousands of Afghans who helped U.S. troops, the embassy and American institutions in Afghanistan.
Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.
At the moment, the Biden administration’s strategy to get these people to safety appears focused on holding talks with the Taliban and asking them to allow people to get to the airport.
General Milley also pushed back on reports in the news media that there were warnings of a rapid collapse of the Afghan military.
“I am very familiar with the intelligence, and in war nothing is ever certain, but I can tell you that there are not reports that I am aware of that predicted a security force of 300,000 would evaporate in 11 days,” he said.
General Milley said 5,000 Marines and soldiers were to be on the ground by late Wednesday to secure the airport, as military and commercial flights carrying people out of the Afghan capital continued apace.
In the previous 24 hours, 18 Air Force C-17 transport planes departed Kabul, with 2,000 passengers, including 325 American citizens, John F. Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman, told reporters on Wednesday. The others were Afghan civilians and NATO personnel, he said.
That total is well short of the 5,000 to 9,000 passengers a day the military is aiming to fly out of the country once the evacuation process is “at full throttle,” Mr. Kirby said.
“The goal is to get as many people out as quickly as we can,” he said.
About the same number of military flights were expected to leave Kabul in the next 24 hours, but Mr. Kirby said he could not predict how many passengers those planes would carry.
The Pentagon said 1,000 personnel have been sent to Qatar to help State Department officials speed the processing of visa applications for the Afghans who worked for the American war effort. Evacuation flights from Kabul are mostly flying to Qatar, where Afghan visa applicants are being screened before they board flights to the United States.