The United States is scrambling to get its citizens and allies out of Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover of Kabul amid growing anxiety over the fate of the country.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said US officials are working around the clock at the airport in Kabul in an “enormously challenging and fluid situation” to ensure a safe departure for those seeking to leave the country.
Washington had moved its embassy in Kabul to the Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) after a blistering Taliban offensive swept the country and reached Kabul on Sunday.
The airport remains under the control of thousands of recently deployed US forces to help evacuate Americans and Afghan civilians.
“This is absolutely an all-hands-on-deck effort to ensure the safety of our personnel and citizens, rally our allies and partners and organise the evacuation of thousands and thousands of Afghans,” Sherman said at a news briefing.
Chaotic scenes of Afghans looking to flee the country on departing commercial and US military aircraft had shaken the confidence in the pledge by the administration of US President Joe Biden to help Afghans who worked with the US leave the country.
But US officials said the airport became operational again on Tuesday after a pause on flights a day earlier.
Passage to airport
After initial reports that the Taliban was blocking roads leading to the airport, US officials said on Tuesday that the group had agreed to allow a “safe passage” to HKIA, but Sherman said the US Department of State is receiving reports that the Afghan group is already violating that pledge.
“Our team in Doha and our military partners on the ground in Kabul are engaging directly with the Taliban to make clear that we expect them to allow all American citizens, all third-country nationals and all Afghans who wish to leave, to do so safely and without harassment,” Sherman told reporters.
Still, she asserted that “many, many” people have been able to make it to the airport.
For its part, the Pentagon said the Taliban is allowing Americans access to the airport, but Afghans are facing difficulties.
US forces are admitting about 500 US passport holders to the Kabul airport each hour through two entry gates, the top US general, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, said on Wednesday.
Milley added that the US intends to successfully evacuate all Americans from the country.
“All American citizens want to get out of Afghanistan; they are our priority number one,” Milley said. “In addition, we intend to evacuate those who have been supporting us for years, that we’re not going to leave them behind. And we will get out as many as possible.”
According to the general, the US currently has around 4,500 troops at the airport, a number that is expected to rise to 6,000.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed that Washington is urging the Taliban to allow Afghans to get to the airport as well.
“There have been no hostile interactions with the Taliban, and our lines of communication with Taliban commanders remain open,” Austin said.
Around 2,000 people were airlifted from Kabul on military flights over the past 24 hours, Sherman said, and US officials have processed more than 4,800 visas for Afghans.
The State Department will nearly double the number of consular officers on the ground in Kabul in the coming days to help with visas and evacuations, according to Sherman.
She said US officials are “working tirelessly and with very little sleep – if any – to help American citizens, third-country nationals and Afghans who fear for their lives and wish to leave the country.”
Washington had set an August 31 deadline for pulling all of its forces from Afghanistan, but the State Department says it will continue to operate from the ground as long as it is possible.
“We are going to keep running a thousand miles an hour for as long as we can,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Wednesday. “That’s what we’ve been doing; that’s what we’ll continue to do, for as long as we can.”
Ghani ‘no longer a figure’: US
The US administration has faced criticism over failing to help people earlier – before the Taliban took control of the country.
But administration officials say they delayed the evacuations at the request of the then-government of Afghanistan, which had argued that mass departures might stir panic that the Taliban could exploit.
The Taliban took over the country in a lightning offensive, reaching Kabul on Sunday with President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country, effectively confirming the collapse of the Afghan government.
On Wednesday, General Milley said the rapid Taliban takeover was unpredictable.
“There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army in this government in 11 days,” he said, adding that the military is focused on securing the Kabul airport, and there will be time for reviews of what went wrong later.
The United Arab Emirates announced earlier in the day that it was hosting Ghani on humanitarian grounds. The State Department’s Sherman, however, dismissed the significance of his whereabouts.
“We saw the announcement by the UAE this morning that Ghani had been welcomed by the government, and that is that… He is no longer a figure in Afghanistan,” Sherman said on Wednesday.
She suggested that the UAE hosting Ghani will not affect Abu Dhabi’s ties with Washington.
“We have a fine relationship with the UAE,” Sherman told reporters at a news briefing.