Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the circumstances of the rescue of 169 Americans on Aug. 19. Read more about the mission here.
President Joe Biden on Friday told reporters that the U.S. would do everything it could to safely evacuate Americans from Kabul, in response to questions of whether troops might leave Hamid Karzai International Airport to extract those not able to make it to the airfield.
Commanders on the ground have not yet run that idea by the Taliban, Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor, deputy director of the Joint Staff for regional operations, told Military Times, with whom they’ve been in constant communication attempting to assure safety for evacuees and operations at the airport.
“I can report that … we have not received those,” Taylor said, clarifying that planning for those sorts of rescue missions is ongoing, should they be ordered.
While other countries, including the United Kingdom and France, have reportedly executed rescue missions inside Kabul, the U.S. has so far stuck to the airport, with assurances from that Taliban that they’ll let through Americans, third-country nationals and credentialed Afghans trying to make their way out of the country.
Biden, during his press conference, clarified that the reason for sticking to the airport has to do with keeping the security balance. The U.S. position has been to negotiate with the Taliban for safe passage for evacuees and let the masses come to the exfiltration point, rather than venturing outside the wire to collect people and risk confrontation with fighters.
“We’ve made it clear to the Taliban that these Afghans, with the proper credentials, should be allowed through the checkpoint,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told Military Times, though numerous reports on the ground reflect obstruction and assault by some Taliban fighters.
There has been limited exceptions. Biden, in his address, said that 169 Americans were brought “over the wall” using “military assets” at one point.
Kirby confirmed that the group had gathered at the Baron Hotel, roughly 300 yards from an airport gate, where three CH-47 Chinooks airlifted them to the airfield.
Kirby added that a small number of Americans waiting outside the airport have been escorted through gates by U.S. troops on foot.
The U.S. government does not have a head count of American citizens, foreign nationals or Afghans who are seeking evacuation, but so far, the limiting factor has been the ability to get to the airport.
And though the Air Force is able to get up to 9,000 people out a day, there have been multiple stoppages this week.
On Sunday, crowds on the flight line forced a shutdown of sorties until they could be safely cleared. On Friday, flights were grounded for more than six hours due to overcrowding at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, where thousands of evacuees have been staying as they wait for flights home or, for Afghans, processing of special immigrant visas.
Officials confirmed Friday that Ramstein Air Base, Germany, has just opened up as another way station.
Despite the pause, Taylor said, 16 C-17 Globemasters and one C-130 Hercules left Kabul on Thursday, carrying 6,000 passengers, a few hundred of them Americans.
Roughly 13,000 have been evacuated since Sunday, Taylor added, for a total of 18,000 since SIV flights began at the end of July.
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