Chaotic scenes played out at Kabul airport again on Friday as thousands desperate to leave Afghanistan sought to reach evacuation flights, a backlog developed as the US briefly ran out of places to fly them and President Joe Biden pledged to Americans trapped in the country that he will get them out.
As the United States continued its scramble to secure the Hamid Karzai International Airport and evacuate US citizens and vulnerable Afghans, US officials announced a major expansion of the countries that will help transit or temporarily host people fleeing the Taliban and the Pentagon revealed there had been a dramatic helicopter rescue of American citizens stranded at a hotel.
Biden meanwhile warned the evacuation operation continues to be perilous and its outcome uncertain but said that the US “will do everything that we can to provide safe evacuation.”
“Any American who wants to come home: We will get you home,” Biden said in an address at the White House Friday. The President also extended that promise to Afghan translators who risked their lives to help US troops and diplomats operate on the ground over the 20-year US presence in Afghanistan.
There’s nothing “more important than bringing American citizens out,” Biden said. “I acknowledge that. But they’re equally important, almost, as all those SIVs (Special Immigrant Visas) we call them, who in fact helped us. They were translators. They were in the battle with us. They were part of the operation,” he added.
Biden laced his assurances with a sober note of caution as reports continued to emerge of the Taliban beating and threatening people, including Americans, trying to make their way to the airport.
“Make no mistake, this evacuation mission is dangerous, involves risks to Armed Forces, and has been conducted under difficult circumstances,” Biden said. “I cannot promise what the final outcome will be, or … that it will be without risk of loss. But as Commander in Chief, I can assure you that I will mobilize every resource necessary.”
Biden suggested that mobilization could include military forays beyond the airport perimeter to collect Americans – and hours later, the Pentagon revealed it had done just that, using three CH-47 Chinook helicopters to retrieve 169 Americans who had gathered at a hotel about 200 meters from an airport gate.
The original plan had been for the Americans to walk through the gate, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said, but a large crowd had gathered there, and some of the Americans felt unsafe trying to work their way through the throng. When another country alerted the US military to the Americans’ situation, a commander on the ground made a decision “on the spot” to retrieve them, Kirby said. The other country established security until the helicopters arrived, Kirby said, adding that, “it was a very quick, safely performed operation.”
That operation might not be the last, Biden appeared to suggest, telling reporters that, “we’re considering every opportunity and every means by which we could get folks to the airport.”
As part of that effort, the State Department announced a new task force “dedicated solely and exclusively to contact with American citizens who have indicated a desire to be repatriated to the United States” from Afghanistan, spokesperson Ned Price said Friday.
He said the effort was contained within the State Department but that they would share information with other agencies “if it will prove useful … and it’s appropriate to do so.”
News of the Chinook rescue and the task force comes as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told House members in a call Friday afternoon that Americans have been beaten by the Taliban in Kabul, according to multiple sources.
Austin called it “unacceptable” but would not rule in or out the possibility of American troops going outside the airport gates to ensure safe passage through checkpoints. Austin added that, generally, the Taliban were not hindering Americans seeking to get to the airport.
Shortly after Biden’s remarks, US officials announced a raft of new countries that will now help transit Americans or temporarily host Afghans fleeing the Taliban and said the first evacuation flight out of Afghanistan had arrived at Ramstein Air Base in Germany with about 350 people on board.
“Bahrain, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Qatar, Tajikistan, Turkey, the UAE, the United Kingdom, and Uzbekistan have been or will soon be transiting Americans or in some circumstances, others, through their territories to safety,” Price said Friday.
“Albania, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Mexico, Poland, Qatar, Rwanda, Ukraine and Uganda have also made generous offers regarding the relocation efforts for at-risk Afghans,” he told reporters at the daily briefing.
Price said other locations would be coming online in the coming days, “which will allow us to make sure that we’re able to maximize that flow because again … the metric and the only metric we care about is how many people we are able to relocate, to bring to safety, whether that is Americans that we’re repatriating to the United States, whether it is third country nationals, whose relocation we’re facilitating to their home countries, or whether it is to at risk Afghans.”
Special Immigrant Visa applicants will be brought to the US, Price added. “In some cases, we have heard these very generous offers of support from partners, from allies around the world who will be willing to host at risk Afghans as they undergo that process,” he said.
The President sought to reassure the country as the disarray of the evacuation effort spread beyond Afghanistan and prompted an urgent drive to give American military pilots lifting off from Kabul new destinations to bring people to safety.
For several hours no flights left Kabul, CNN’s Clarissa Ward reported Friday, because one of the central destinations – Qatar – neared capacity.
‘The first waystation’
By Friday afternoon, Gen. Hank Taylor, deputy director of the Joint Staff for Regional Operations told reporters that flight operations had resumed after a pause of about “six to seven hours” while the US military adjusted “resources and personnel” to address what he called a temporary capacity issue at the US military base in Qatar.
As US officials hunted for new locations to land planes from Afghanistan, around 10,000 people at the Kabul airport who had been processed for departure were unable to fly out because of the backlog in Qatar.
Pentagon spokesman Kirby said that Qatar had been “the first waystation for the evacuation flights that we’ve been conducting, and because we’ve been doing it so consistently, that’s one of the reasons we reached capacity there as quickly as we did. We are grateful for other countries who have already agreed to accept additional numbers.”
Taylor confirmed to reporters at the Pentagon that the US will relocate Afghans to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Shortly after, the US military posted a photo online of Air Force airmen setting up thin green cots at a hangar on the base.
Operation Allies Refuge is facilitating the quick, safe evacuation of US citizens, Special Immigrant Visa applicants and other at-risk Afghans from Afghanistan,” the post said. “Qualified evacuees will receive support, such as temporary lodging, food, medical screening and treatment and more at Ramstein Air Base while preparing for onward movements to their final destinations.”
Homeland Security personnel are expected to go to Germany to assist with processing of SIV applicants and Afghan allies, according to two DHS officials.
By Friday, 17 flights had left Kabul airport in the previous 24 hours carrying 6,000 passengers, Taylor told reporters Friday. That 6,000 included “a couple hundred American citizens,” as well as at-risk Afghans, Taylor said.
Since the end of July, the Department of Defense has moved more than 18,000 people out of Afghanistan. 13,000 of the total 18,000 that have been evacuated have been moved out of the country since August 14, said Taylor, who added that there are now 5,800 US troops on the ground in Kabul.
Military and diplomatic efforts are underway to press the Taliban to ensure safe passage for those still trying to reach the airport, but for now the route there is fraught with uncertainty for Afghans looking to flee, as they must first make their way through often violent and arbitrary Taliban checks.
Biden said in his remarks at the White House that his administration is in “constant contact with the Taliban,” and that most of the engagements were focused on getting Americans out who want to leave out of the country.
Asked about the US sending troops into Kabul to get Americans who haven’t been able to get to the airport safely, Biden said, “We have no indication that they haven’t been able to get – in Kabul – through the airport. We’ve made an agreement with the Taliban. Thus far, they have allowed them to get through. It’s in their best interest for them to go through.”
Kirby, asked about Austin’s comments to lawmakers about Taliban beatings, said the military was aware of reports. “We’re certainly mindful of these reports and they’re deeply troubling, and we have communicated to the Taliban that that’s absolutely unacceptable, that we want free passage through their checkpoints for documented Americans,” Kirby said. “And by and large, that’s happening,” he added.