The Biden administration's evacuation efforts in Afghanistan have gained considerable momentum in recent days, now far exceeding the initial daily goals after a chaotic and disjointed start.
The White House said Tuesday morning that at least 12,700 people had been evacuated by 37 US military flights and 8,900 had been evacuated by coalition flights over the past 24 hours. The Pentagon added that there are "a little bit above 5,000" people at the airport in Kabul waiting to board flights, which are now leaving about every 45 minutes.
Additionally, two defense officials told CNN on Tuesday that the first US troops have started leaving the country as the evacuation effort enters its final week.
That's an improvement on all fronts, but the US is still up against the clock. President Joe Biden will stick, for now, with the Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw US troops, according to a senior administration official.
For help understanding the situation on the ground, the What Matters newsletter turned to CNN Senior International Correspondent Sam Kiley, who is at Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport while the evacuation efforts unfold.
Our conversation, conducted over the phone and lightly edited for flow, is below.
What Matters: You got into Afghanistan on Sunday. What was your impression when you first got on the ground?
SK: We arrived mid-afternoon on a Qatari flight and I was pleased and relieved to see quite large, well-ordered queues of people already being loaded onto aircraft from around the world.
So the kind of awful scenes that Clarissa (Ward) had witnessed on her way out in the very early stages of the evacuation were not being repeated by the time I got in. But there were very large numbers and there were also, of course, very large numbers of people pressed up against the walls outside, and indeed on that day — although we didn't know it at the time, exactly — but on that day, seven people were killed in crushes against the walls. A lot of them close to the British military camp.
What Matters: The US evacuation effort has obviously ramped up in recent days. Are you seeing planes constantly coming in and out of the Kabul airport?
SK: Yeah. So there is a constant circulation of aircraft, mostly big cargo lifts, C-17s and these propeller planes or kind of NATO aircraft. There's a small number of civilian aircraft. I've seen Kam Air, which is an Afghan airline that took several hundred people off. I watched that takeoff this afternoon. So there most certainly has been a very significant increase, and that's borne out by the statistics, which show — according to the United States — that 21,000 were evacuated over a 24-hour period. That's both US and coalition evacuees. Americans evacuated about 12,000 of them.
Today, by lunchtime the Americans had evacuated about 9,000. The numbers of people waiting to be evacuated, seem to be sitting between 4 and 5,000 as small numbers of people are now able to get in. But everything is much, much more slickly organized, and there's no great surprise — people should get better at what they do. And nobody's had any practice in this kind of an operation, so that it was chaotic to begin with and now is pretty slick is no great surprise.
It doesn't solve many of the problems outside of the gate, but it does mean that you don't get the massive bottlenecks that we saw at the beginning.