White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Tuesday said the Taliban have committed to providing a “safe passage” for civilians looking to flee Afghanistan as he defended the US’ chaotic withdrawal from the two-decade conflict.
Sullivan said the military is in discussions with the Taliban about getting civilians to the Kabul airport safely and unharmed, as scenes of chaos have unfolded this week as Afghans attempted to leave the country amid the Taliban’s arrival. He said the Biden administration believes this assurance will go into the August 31 deadline for US troops to leave the country, but an exact timetable is still being negotiated.
Asked later about reports about Taliban-run checkpoints outside of the airport, beatings and whippings for some who try to pass through, Sullivan said they are aware of those reports and concerned but are “taking it up” with the Taliban directly.
“There have been instances where we have received reports of people being turned away or pushed back, or even beaten. We are taking that up in a channel with the Taliban to try to resolve those issues,” Sullivan said. “And we are concerned about whether that will continue to unfold in the coming days.
“As things stand right now, what we are finding is that we are getting people through the gate, we are getting them lined up, and we are getting them on planes, but this is an hour by hour issue, and it’s something we’re clear eyed about and very focused on holding the Taliban accountable to follow through on its commitment.”
During Tuesday’s White House press briefing, Sullivan argued that “when you conclude 20 years of military action in a civil war in another country, with the impacts of 20 years of decisions that have piled up, you have to make a lot of hard calls – not all with clean outcomes. What you can do is plan for all contingencies. We did that.”
Sullivan, who took questions for more than 45 minutes, told reporters that President Joe Biden “is taking responsibility for every decision the United States government took with respect to Afghanistan.”
“As he said, the buck stops with him,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said he takes responsibility – along with other top national security officials – for the current state of affairs in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have assumed control in many areas, including the capital city of Kabul, amid the US’ draw down in the region.
“We, as a national security team, collectively take responsibility for every decision – good decision, every decision that doesn’t produce perfect outcomes,” Sullivan said.
But he added that “at the same time, that doesn’t change the fact that there are other parties here responsible as well, who have taken actions and decisions that helped lead us to where we are.”
The Air Force provided a grisly reminder of the chaos at Kabul’s airport on Monday, announcing in a statement that the US Air Force Office of Special Investigations is opening an investigation into human remains found in the wheel well of a C-17 that took off from the airfield.
The remains were discovered after the plane landed at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
“The aircraft is currently impounded to provide time to collect the remains and inspect the aircraft before it is returned to flying status,” the Air Force said. It added that the crew made the decision to take off because of the deteriorating security situation at the airport after hundreds of Afghans breached the perimeter and surrounded the C-17.
Video of Afghans running with the plane went viral, as did video of appearing to show Afghan civilians falling from the side of the plane in mid-air after desperately trying to hold on.
Between 5,000 and 10,000 Americans left near Kabul
The US estimates that there are now approximately 5,000 to 10,000 Americans “near Kabul” in Afghanistan, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said during an interview with CNN’s John Berman on New Day earlier in the day.
“We think there are certainly thousands of Americans. We don’t have an exact count. I would say somewhere best guess between (5,000) and 10,000 near Kabul,” Kirby said.
Kirby also said Americans in Kabul no longer need to shelter in place. The State Department put out a message “advising those Americans about how to queue up and get to the airport,” Kirby said. “They can begin movement to the airport for processing flights out,” he added.
Speaking at a press briefing later Tuesday, Kirby said that US military commanders are in communication with Taliban commanders on the ground at Hamid Karzai International Airport.
While he would not get into the details of “how those discussions are progressing,” Kirby said that said US military leaders are interacting with the Taliban at the airport “multiple times a day.” Kirby said he would “let the results speak for themselves,” referring to the relative stability that has been established at the airport, allowing military planes to fly in and out since Monday.
“There’s been no hostile actions from the Taliban to our operations at the airport,” Kirby said.
Overnight Monday into the early hours of Tuesday, the US military flew between 700 to 800 people out of Afghanistan, including 165 American citizens, Pentagon officials told reporters Tuesday, as air operations were set to continue through the night.
The rest of the people on board were Special Immigrant Visa applicants and third country nationals, all of them flown out on seven C-17 military planes departing from Hamid Karzai International Airport overnight, Gen. William (Hank) Taylor, deputy director of the Joint Staff for Regional Operations, said.
“As we speak, we are continuing air operations and air operations continued throughout the night,” Taylor added.
Taylor said that at the moment there is one aircraft per hour departing with evacuees from the airport, but that the speed of evacuation will pick up. “We predict that our best effort could look like 5,000 to 9,000 passengers departing per day,” said Taylor. “But we are mindful that a number of factors influence this effort, and circumstances could change.”
Taylor said that nine C-17 military planes also arrived overnight, delivering “equipment and approximately 1,000 troops.” By the end of the day Tuesday, there will be approximately “more than 4,000 troops on the ground in Kabul,” Taylor said.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said that so far the US has evacuated from Afghanistan more than 3,200 people, including the American personnel. In addition to that, Price said, the US has relocated nearly 2,000 Afghans with special immigrant status to the US.
Biden begins speaking with allies
Biden held his first publicly known call with an allied leader on Tuesday – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson – having previously left calls with foreign governments to national security officials.
The White House said in a statement that the two “commended the bravery and professionalism of their military and civilian personnel, who are working shoulder to shoulder in Kabul on the evacuation of their citizens and Afghan nationals who assisted in the war effort.” They also talked about the need to work together more in the future and agreed to hold a virtual G7 leaders meeting next week to discuss strategy.
Other world leaders have spent the last several days on the telephone with allies. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Johnson have all conferred with each other.
Sullivan also indicated that the US will conduct a “hot wash” review of the situation in Afghanistan to ” look at everything that happened in this entire operation from start to finish and the areas of improvement, where we can do better, where we can find holes or weaknesses and plug them as we go forward.” He suggested findings from that review may be shared publicly.
Sullivan said that earlier Tuesday morning, Biden spoke with military commanders for an operational briefing on the security at the airport in Kabul. Biden was briefed on the airport being secured by Defense Department personnel and is open.
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris also met with their national security team to discuss the situation in Afghanistan.
Sullivan declined to say whether Biden still considers Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who has fled the country “a willing partner,” adding that he’s “no longer a factor in Afghanistan.”
Sullivan indicated that the President will speak about the situation in Afghanistan in the coming days. For now, Biden remains at the presidential retreat of Camp David in Maryland. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the President will return to the White House on Wednesday.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.
CNN’s DJ Judd, Kevin Liptak, Oren Lieberman, Jasmine Wright and Devan Cole contributed to this report.