Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, in Washington.
Alex Brandon | AP
WASHINGTON – The Pentagon on Wednesday acknowledged that it does not currently have the capability to safely escort Americans in Kabul to the airport for evacuation as the Taliban consolidate control in Afghanistan’s capital.
“I don’t have the capability to go out and extend operations currently into Kabul,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said when asked about those who cannot reach the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul because they are behind Taliban checkpoints.
“And where do you take that? How far can you extend into Kabul and how long does it take to flow those forces in to be able to do that,” Austin said.
The Defense secretary’s admission comes after the U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued a dire warning to U.S. citizens there stating that it “cannot ensure safe passage” to the airport.
The U.S. is relying on an agreement with the Taliban to guarantee the safe passage of Americans. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said earlier Wednesday that “it appears that the Taliban’s commitment for safe passage for Americans has been solid,” while noting she doesn’t know “every case.”
Austin vowed that the U.S. is “going to evacuate everybody that we can physically and possibly evacuate and we’ll conduct this process for as long as we possibly can.” The Pentagon chief said the U.S. is coordinating with the Taliban to create passageways for people to get to the airfield.
U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters the airport is currently secure with nearly 5,000 U.S. troops on the ground and the Taliban “are not interfering with our operations.” However, the situation “is still volatile and can change quickly,” Milley said.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley pauses while speaking during a media briefing at the Pentagon, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, in Washington.
Alex Brandon | AP
“There are threats we are closely monitoring and if at any moment we can identify a specific threat we will take immediate military action without any hesitation in accordance with our rules of engagement. The Taliban and every other organization in that country knows it,” the general said.
“We are the United States military, and we will successfully evacuate all American citizens who want to get out of Afghanistan. They are our priority No. 1,” Milley said alongside Austin.
The general, when asked about extracting people behind Taliban lines with troops, said the military has the “capability to do other things if necessary,” but said executing such an option is a “policy decision.”
“In addition, we intend to evacuate those who have been supporting us for years, and we are not going to leave them behind. And we will get as many out as possible,” Milley added.
In a letter, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Mitt Romney (R-UT) urged the U.S. not to forget journalists and support staff in Afghanistan and to ensure evacuation flights for them continue.
Addressing Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, the two senators said there are an estimated 200-plus journalists and support staff, with their families, still seeking to evacuate Afghanistan.
The New York Times tweeted late Wednesday night that “our brave colleagues in Afghanistan made it to safety.” The publication said 65 families — or 128 men, women and children — were headed to freedom.
The State Department acknowledged that the Taliban are apparently blocking some Afghans from reaching the airport.
“We have seen reports that the Taliban, contrary to their public statements and their commitments to our government, are blocking Afghans who wish to leave the country from reaching the airport,” Sherman said.
Milley said the Pentagon is currently averaging about 20 sorties of cargo aircraft evacuation flights every 24 hours. Sherman said 2,000 people have been evacuated in that period, and the State Department will soon invite 800 Afghan special immigrant visa holders to board flights to the U.S.
The Pentagon confirmed Tuesday that U.S. Central Command chief Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie had been in regular contact with Taliban leaders. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby declined to provide further details of those talks. There have yet to be any high-level talks between the Pentagon and the Afghan military since the country’s collapse, Kirby added.
Despite being vastly outnumbered by the Afghan military, which has been assisted by U.S. and NATO coalition forces for the last 20 years, the Taliban entered Kabul on Sunday.
Within hours, Taliban insurgents seized the presidential palace in a stunning development that saw the exodus of now-deposed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. On Wednesday, the United Arab Emirates confirmed that Ghani was living in exile within the kingdom.
In separate news briefings, President Joe Biden and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg placed the blame squarely on the Afghan national government for the dramatic and swift Taliban takeover.
From the Pentagon, Milley offered his perspective.
Milley said that while some U.S. intelligence assessments had found that an outright Taliban takeover was possible, the timeframe varied from “weeks, months and even years” after the U.S. withdrawal.
“I did not nor did anyone else see a collapse of any army that size in 11 days,” Milley said.