The latest on Afghanistan as US troop withdrawal deadline looms

By Melissa Macaya, Meg Wagner, Melissa Mahtani, Mike Hayes and Veronica Rocha, CNN

Updated 8:08 p.m. ET, August 24, 2021
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8:07 p.m. ET, August 24, 2021

Here's what it's like at the airport in Kabul

From CNN's Paul LeBlanc

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.

Read the full conversation here.

7:12 p.m. ET, August 24, 2021

2 National Guard units assist in arrival of Afghan evacuees

From CNN's Oren Liebermann and Natasha Bertrand

Two National Guard units are assisting in the arrival of Afghan evacuees at military bases in the US, a Pentagon spokesman told CNN.

The Wisconsin National Guard has provided its airstrip at Volk Field for the arrival of the Afghan evacuees, who will then be bussed over to Fort McCoy, an Army Reserve base approximately 45 minutes away, Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell said.

Meanwhile, the Kentucky National Guard activated 39 airmen over the weekend from the Contingency Response Group (CRG) from Louisville, Mitchell said. Those airmen flew to Volk Field in Wisconsin to help with the arrival of Afghan evacuees.


5:57 p.m. ET, August 24, 2021

Senior administration official says "a lot of deserving" Afghans will be left behind

From CNN's John Harwood 

Many Afghan allies who the US has aimed to help will be left behind, a senior administration official told CNN, adding that it’s a reality “that would be true whenever we evacuated and whenever the Taliban took over.”  

The official said the 70,000 people evacuated in last 10 days does not closely match the universe of Afghan allies eligible to come to the US, which Biden has previously estimated at 50,000 to 65,000. Many of the 70,000 evacuated have included different groups of Afghan allies given priority by our European partners. In addition, some of those evacuated have not even applied for Special Immigrant Visa status yet, though they will in Qatar or Kuwait.

The official declined to estimate the number of Americans still in Afghanistan, deferring to Secretary of State Antony Blinken who will speak tomorrow, but said the number on Aug. 14 was "probably lower than most people believe" because "a lot left in the final few weeks."

5:47 p.m. ET, August 24, 2021

Biden asks secretary of state to provide "detailed" report of how many Americans are still in Afghanistan

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

President Biden said in remarks Tuesday evening that he had asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken to give the public “an update and a detailed report on exactly how many Americans are still in Afghanistan, how many we got out and what our projection is.”

Blinken tweeted that he will speak at 12:15 p.m. ET Wednesday “about our efforts to bring Americans home and how we’re supporting the broader evacuation from Afghanistan."

White House officials have repeatedly said they do not know exactly how many Americans are in Afghanistan.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday that the US doesn’t know the exact figure because some Americans entered the country without registering with the US Embassy in Kabul and others left the country without deregistering.

Despite that, Sullivan said it is the responsibility of the American government to find those Americans, something he insisted the US is doing.

According to a source familiar with an administration “SitRep” report from Tuesday morning, the State Department has contacted all Americans who were registered in Afghanistan and instructed them to report to designated locations for evacuation.

See Blinken's tweet:

CNN's Jason Hoffman, Nicole Gaouette and Jennifer Hansler contributed reporting to this post.

5:51 p.m. ET, August 24, 2021

US will be "a leader" in supporting refugees and evacuees currently fleeing Afghanistan, Biden says

President Biden said the US and other G7 nations discussed their "mutual obligation" to support refugees and evacuees that are currently fleeing Afghanistan. 

Biden pledged that the US would be "a leader in these efforts" and will look to international partners "to do the same."

"We're already seeing our allies' commitment. They're bringing to their countries the Afghans who served alongside their forces as translators or in their embassies just as we're bringing to the United States those Afghans who worked alongside our forces and diplomats," Biden said.

The President noted that the US is "conducting thorough security screenings in the intermediate stops they are making for anyone who is not a US citizen or a lawful permanent resident of the United States."

"Anyone arriving in the United States will have undergone a background check," the President added.

Biden called on the international community to "work together to resettle thousands of Afghans who ultimately qualify for refugee status."

"The United States will do our part, and we are already working closely with refugee organizations to rebuild the system that was purposefully destroyed by my predecessor," Biden added.

Watch here:

5:54 p.m. ET, August 24, 2021

Biden says US currently on pace to withdraw from Afghanistan by Aug. 31: "The sooner we finish the better"

From CNN's Kevin Liptak, Phil Mattingly, Kaitlan Collins and Melissa Mahtani

(Susan Walsh/AP)
(Susan Walsh/AP)

President Biden said that the US is on track to complete its evacuation mission by Aug. 31 and he does not plan to have American troops in the country past that date — but he recognized that it's up to the Taliban whether that mission will be done on time.

"We are currently on a pace to finish by August 31. I am determined to complete our mission," Biden said in a much-delayed speech from the White House.

But, he added, "The completion by August 31 depends on the Taliban continuing to cooperate and allow access to the airport to those who are transporting out and no disruptions to our operation."

"The sooner we finish the better," Biden said.

Biden also said he's asked for contingency plans to adjust the Aug. 31 timetable of leaving Afghanistan, "should that become necessary." However, he stressed that each day American troops are in the country brings "added risk."

"In addition, I've asked the Pentagon and the State Department for contingency plans to adjust the timetable should that become necessary. I'm determined to ensure that we complete our mission, this mission. I'm also mindful of the increasing risks that I have been briefed on and the need to factor those risks in. They're real, and significant challenges that we also have to take into consideration," he continued. 

"The longer we say, starting with the acute and growing risk of an attack by a terrorist group known as ISIS-K, an ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan, which is the sworn enemy of the Taliban as well. Every day we're on the ground is another day we know ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both US and allied forces and innocent civilians," Biden said.

Watch here:

5:58 p.m. ET, August 24, 2021

Biden says US has helped evacuate over 70,000 people from Afghanistan since Aug. 14

From CNN's Adrienne Vogt


President Biden gave an update on the number of people evacuated from Afghanistan, saying that the United States has assisted in the evacuation of 70,700 people since Aug. 14 and 75,900 people since the end of July.

"Another 19 US military flights, 18 C-17s and one C-130 carrying approximately 6,400 evacuees, and 31 coalition flights carrying 5,600 people have have left Kabul just in the last 12 hours — a total of 50 more flights, 12,000 more people since I've updated you this morning," Biden said.

The President also said he had a "productive discussion" with his G7 counterparts, as well as leaders of the United Nations,  North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the European Union this morning.

"There was strong agreement among the leaders, both about the evacuation mission underway as well as the need to coordinate our approach to Afghanistan as we move forward," he said.

Watch here:

5:04 p.m. ET, August 24, 2021

NOW: President Biden speaks about Afghanistan withdrawal and US evacuation efforts 

President Biden is speaking from the White House about the situation in Afghanistan following CNN's reporting that he's decided to stick with the Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawing troops from the country.

Two defense officials told CNN that the first US troops have started leaving Afghanistan as the evacuation effort enters its final week. At this point, only a "few hundred" troops have left out of the total 5,800 at Kabul international airport, and the evacuation mission remains the focus of the efforts on the ground.

In his remarks today, according to the White House, Biden will talk about the US' "ongoing efforts in Afghanistan to evacuate American citizens, SIV applicants and their families, and other vulnerable Afghans."

His speech follows a meeting with fellow G7 leaders on evacuation efforts how nations can come together in support of the Afghan people.

The Taliban, meanwhile, said Tuesday that they would not allow Afghans to leave the country and warned that the US must stick to next week's deadline to pull out. 

Afghanistan evacuation efforts have continued to pick up steam in the past days, now far exceeding the administration's initial daily goals.

The White House said on Tuesday that 12,700 people were evacuated by 37 US military flights and 8,900 were evacuated by coalition flights over the past 24 hours. The Pentagon added that the military has increased the pace of flights out of Kabul to one aircraft every 45 minutes.

CNN's Kevin Liptak and Oren Liebermann contributed reporting to this post. 

4:49 p.m. ET, August 24, 2021

US has contacted all Americans registered in Afghanistan and sent evacuation instructions, source says

From CNN's Nicole Gaouette and Jennifer Hansler

The State Department has contacted all Americans who were registered in Afghanistan and instructed them to report to designated locations for evacuation, according to a source familiar with an administration “SitRep” report from Tuesday morning.

The source said the “SitRep” acknowledges US citizens “have experienced delays at checkpoints” but that they have “eventually” reached the airport in Kabul, and noted that US citizen evacuations are ongoing.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that the US government has contacted Americans in Afghanistan by email, phone and text messages to give them specific instructions.

As of 8 a.m. ET, there were approximately 2,000 evacuees inside the wire airport, and less than three dozen consular officers on the ground at Kabul's international airport.

The State Department sent a push message to all Americans in Afghanistan on Tuesday saying if they do not choose to leave Afghanistan, they should be “prepared to arrange their own departure,” according to the message reviewed by CNN.

But about half an hour later they sent a message saying they would like to recall the message.

It is not immediately clear on why the State Department recalled the message. CNN has asked the State Department for comment.

The US is still working on a way to get Americans who are still in the country to the airport, this process is not complete, according to a source familiar with the matter.