August 18, 2021, Afghanistan-Taliban news

By Meg Wagner, Melissa Mahtani, Melissa Macaya, Mike Hayes, Joshua Berlinger, Brad Lendon, Aditi Sangal and Lauren Said-Moorhouse, CNN

Updated 1530 GMT (2330 HKT) August 19, 2021
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4:09 p.m. ET, August 18, 2021

Roughly 5,000 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan already, top US general says

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said that “approximately 5,000 people” have been evacuated from Afghanistan already, and the US military intends to “increase” the number of people who have been evacuated.

Milley did not breakdown the categories of evacuees.

“Right now, we are averaging about 20 sorties of C-17s every 24 hours,” Milley said, referring to US military planes. 

Milley said the US military has “the ability to significantly increase” the number of people they are able to 

3:32 p.m. ET, August 18, 2021

The situation in Afghanistan "is still very dangerous," top US general says

(Pool)
(Pool)

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley outlined the dangerous situation on the ground in Afghanistan, saying US troops are "at risk" and that they need to be the nation's main focus.

"Today the situation is still very dangerous, very dynamic, and very fluid. And all of us can be proud for the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines executing this mission. They are currently in harm's way. That needs to be our focus," Milley said at a Pentagon briefing Wednesday.

"There will be many postmortems on this topic, but right now is not that time. Right now there are troops at risk. And we are the United States military and we fully intend to successfully evacuate all American citizens who want to get out of Afghanistan. All American citizens who want to get out of Afghanistan. They are our priority number one," he continued. 

"In addition, we intend to evacuate those who have been supporting us for years and we won't leave them behind. And we will get out as many as possible. Our troops in Kabul are taking high risk to accomplish that mission. Every minute these troops are on the ground making difficult decisions with incredible skill, incredible bravery, and incredible valor," he added.

Milley said the security situation at the airport is currently stable, but there are threats and they are being monitored: "We can identify them [the threats], if we identify them, we will take immediate military action without hesitation in accordance with our rules of engagement. And the Taliban and every other organization in that country knows it."

Remember: Earlier Wednesday, CNN's Chief International Correspondent, Clarissa Ward, reported that people have been thronging the airport in a bid to flee as countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, try to evacuate their own citizens and some Afghan nationals looking for protection. The Taliban is outside the airport, in charge of crowd control.

"They've been whipping people ... firing shots in the air, firing shots at people," Ward said. "Inside the airport, it appears less chaotic because it is having some effect ... But, on the perimeter, it is, of course, incredibly intimidating for people who desperately want to leave this country. And they're fearful that the Taliban won't even let them pass those checkpoints."

Meanwhile, the US embassy in Kabul advised American citizens today that the US government cannot ensure safe passage to the airport for those looking to flee the country.

3:41 p.m. ET, August 18, 2021

US has sent small military teams to Kabul airport’s entrances to help process Afghans applying for visas

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

The Department of Defense has dispatched “small military teams to two of the airport gates” at Hamid Karzai International Airport to “assist the State Department Consular efforts as they evaluate and process individuals seeking entry,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said during a briefing at the Pentagon on Wednesday.

Austin said the Defense Department is focused on increasing the capacity of people and aircrafts leaving Hamid Karzai International Airport. 

“We’ve flown several thousand since the 15th of August and our goal is tot be able to increase our capacity going forward,” Austin said. 

3:29 p.m. ET, August 18, 2021

Defense Secretary: "This is very personal for me"

From CNN's Josiah Ryan

(Alex Brandon/AP)
(Alex Brandon/AP)

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who served more than 40 years in the military, today drew on his personal experiences to say he believed the US has a "moral obligation to help those who helped us."

"All of this is very personal for me," he said. "This is a war that I fought in and led. I know the country. I know the people. And I know those who fought alongside me."

"We have a moral obligation to help those who helped us," he added. "I feel the urgency deeply."

Austin concluded his prepared remarks on a note of comfort for US veterans and their loved ones who may wonder if their wartime sacrifices in the nearly two decades of US involvement were in vain.

"I know that these are difficult days for those who lost loved ones in Afghanistan and for those who carry the wounds of war, especially now we mourn those who made the ultimate sacrifice," he said.

"Our greatest asset as a nation is the extraordinary men and women who volunteer to keep us all safe and their families," he concluded. "We honor your service, we understand your sacrifice and we and we will never forget it."

3:24 p.m. ET, August 18, 2021

Pentagon: "Nothing" indicated a collapse of Afghanistan in 11 days

Gen. Mark Milley, Joint Chiefs Chairman, discussed the "rapid collapse" of Afghanistan and the takeover by the Taliban.

He said that US intelligence indicated "multiple scenarios" were possible after the military began the draw down of troops in Afghanistan.

"One of those was an outright Taliban takeover following a rapid collapse of the Afghan security forces and the government," Milley said, adding that other possible scenarios they foresaw were "civil war" and a "negotiated settlement."

He continued: "However, the time frame of a rapid collapse, that was widely estimated and ranged from weeks to months and even years following our departure. There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days."

4:09 p.m. ET, August 18, 2021

Getting Americans out of Afghanistan is "priority number one," top US general says

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, (Pool)

Any Americans still in Afghanistan will be able to leave the country if they choose to, said Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a Pentagon news briefing Wednesday afternoon.

"[W]e are the United States military and we fully intend to successfully evacuate all American citizens who want to get out of Afghanistan. All American citizens who want to get out of Afghanistan, they are our priority number one," Milley said. "In addition, we intend to evacuate those who have been supporting us for years and we won't leave them behind. And we will get out as many as possible."

Milley praised the US troops on the ground, and their efforts to evacuate Americans.

"Our troops in Kabul are taking high risk to accomplish that mission. Every minute these troops are on the ground making difficult decisions with incredible skill, incredible bravery, and incredible valor," he said.

Some context: The US embassy in Kabul advised American citizens today that the US government cannot ensure safe passage to the airport for those looking to flee the country.

“THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT CANNOT ENSURE SAFE PASSAGE TO THE HAMID KARZAI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT,” the embassy advised American citizens in a security alert Wednesday.

The alert told citizens that space on evacuation flights will now be available “on a first come, first serve basis.”

4:09 p.m. ET, August 18, 2021

There have been no "hostile interactions" with the Taliban, US defense secretary says

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon on August 18 in Washington, DC.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon on August 18 in Washington, DC. (Alex Brandon/AP)

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said US service members have not had any hostile interactions with the Taliban as the regime takes control of Afghanistan and the US continues to evacuate its personnel.

"There have been no hostile interactions with the Taliban. And our lines of communication with Taliban commanders remain open as they should be," Austin said during a news briefing moments ago.

Some context: Thousands of desperate Afghans remain stranded under Taliban rule in Kabul on Tuesday, as the US and its allies, still frantically evacuating their personnel from the city's airport, reckon with the sudden breakdown of their two-decade effort in Afghanistan.

The situation at Hamid Karzai International Airport is "stabilizing," the UK's foreign secretary said on Tuesday, a day after crowds of locals poured onto the tarmac and clung onto military planes, searching for a way out of the city.

Western nations continued the rush to get their citizens away from the site, with hundreds of evacuations planned for Tuesday. President Biden, who is facing intense scrutiny over his handling of the withdrawal of US forces, has ordered 6,000 more troops to the airport to assist American efforts there.

3:12 p.m. ET, August 18, 2021

NOW: Pentagon briefs media on evacuation plan for Kabul airport

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley speak during a press briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, on August 18.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley speak during a press briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, on August 18.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley are briefing the press from the Pentagon briefing room on the situation in Afghanistan.

2:53 p.m. ET, August 18, 2021

Here's what Biden and Germany's Merkel discussed on Afghanistan, according to the White House

From CNN's Nikki Carvajal

President Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke about Afghanistan Wednesday, the White House said. 

Biden and Merkel, "praised the ongoing efforts of their military and civilian personnel who are working closely together in Kabul on the evacuation of their citizens, vulnerable Afghans, and the courageous Afghan nationals who worked tirelessly over the last 20 years to provide security, promote peace, and deliver development assistance to the Afghan people," according to a readout of the call released by the White House. 

They also discussed the "need" for "close coordination on the provision of humanitarian aid for vulnerable Afghans in country as well as support for neighboring states," the readout says. 

As CNN has previously reported, Biden has been largely isolated from other world leaders in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, a break from his promise to restore American standing in the world. 

While his team had been in communication with foreign leaders, Biden finally spoke to his first world leader, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, on Tuesday. 

Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Johnson have all conferred with each other over the past days. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on CNN that he hasn't spoken with Biden. Biden will face a virtual meeting on the G7 next week, where stark differences over Afghanistan could be on display.

The readout of the Merkel call adds that she and Biden "agreed to continue planning for this work in the upcoming virtual meeting of G7 partners."