Calls are growing for the U.S. military to do more to help people get to the Kabul airport so they can flee Afghanistan now that it is under Taliban control.
Reports that Taliban checkpoints have blocked both Afghans and Americans from leaving the country have stirred controversy for the Biden administration, as have reports that some foreign governments have sent troops beyond a U.S. perimeter to rescue their citizens.
As chaos continued to unfold on the streets of Kabul from people trying to make their way to the airport on Friday, administration officials said they are keeping options open for U.S. troops to go further out into the capital city to collect people. But for now, they are still relying on negotiations with the Taliban to allow people to get through.
Lawmakers in both parties say more needs to be done to ensure no one is left behind, with a growing chorus demanding the Biden administration allow the military to expand the perimeter at the Hamid Karzai International Airport and go into Kabul to extract U.S. citizens.
“We must establish safe corridors not only in Kabul but throughout the country to move those who cannot make it to the capital,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted Friday with a link to a Wall Street Journal op-ed he and retired Gen. Jack Keane wrote about “How to Contain the Taliban.”
Speaking at a Bipartisan Policy Center event Friday, Army Ranger veteran Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), who launched a working group in April to push for evacuating Afghans, similarly said lawmakers “continue to push and call on the administration, as a group and as a coalition, for a commitment to stay as long as necessary to evacuate not just American citizens but our Afghan partners, to hold the airport, to extend that security beyond the perimeter of the airport so people can actually make it to the airport.”
The Pentagon confirmed to some reporters Friday that a commander on the ground in Kabul sent three CH-47 Chinook helicopters to collect 169 Americans at a hotel near the airport because they could not walk through the crowd. But lawmakers are still pushing for a firmer commitment to do more.
In a phone briefing Friday, lawmakers peppered Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and Secretary of State Antony Blinken with several questions on the issue, with Austin replying they will not limit options to get Americans stuck outside the airport, a congressial source told The Hill.
An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. citizens are believed to be in Afghanistan, while some 80,000 Afghans could be eligible for evacuation based on work with the U.S. government and military.
To even approach the gates at the Hamid Karzai International Airport for a U.S. military evacuation flight out of Kabul requires getting past a gauntlet of Taliban checkpoints, as well as throngs of Afghans hoping to escape the militants’ rule.
About 6,000 U.S. troops have been rushed to Kabul to help with evacuations, but they have been largely confined to airport grounds. U.S. military commanders have instead been in direct talks with the Taliban aimed at ensuring civilians can make it to the airfield.
“The reason why we have not gone out and set up a perimeter way outside the airport in Kabul is that it’s likely to draw an awful lot of unintended consequences,” President Biden said Friday.
Congressional offices and others in touch with people trying to evacuate continue to report that both Afghans and Americans have faced Taliban blockades, beatings and other forms of intimidation, while videos circulating on social media show crowds attempting to push their way toward the airport and occasionally cowering from gun fire and tear gas.
Despite such stories and reports, Biden on Friday held that “to best of our knowledge, the Taliban checkpoints, they are letting through people showing American passports.”
Biden did acknowledge U.S. citizens have gotten stuck in the mass of people just outside the gates, revealing this week’s rescue operation for 169 Americans.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby later stressed the Americans were “just outside the wall” and that “a small number” of troops only had to leave the airfield for a “short amount of time” and did not have to go through Taliban checkpoints to get them, but had no further details of the operation.
“We’re considering every opportunity and every means by which we could get folks to the airport,” Biden said when asked whether U.S. troops would rescue people stuck behind Taliban checkpoints.
The U.S. Embassy, even as it urges U.S. citizens to make their way to the airport when they “judge it is safe to do so,” continues to warn that the “U.S. government cannot ensure safe passage to the airport.”
Pleas for the United States to do more have intensified with reports that other countries, including the United Kingdom and France, have sent their special forces into the city to extract their citizens. The Germans have also announced they will bring in two helicopters on Saturday to pick up hard-to-reach people in Kabul.
Austin suggested Wednesday he did not have enough troops in Afghanistan to both secure the airport and go further into the capital city, saying “I don’t have the capability to go out and extend operations currently into Kabul.”
“We don’t have the capability to go out and collect up large numbers of people,” Austin added.
By Friday, Kirby said capacity was no longer an issue.
“Security is in a more stable position at the airport,” Kirby added. “So if there would be a need to do something additional to help Americans or other people at risk that we need to get to the airfield, we would examine those options, tee them up, weigh the benefits versus the risks, and then offer up opportunities to the secretary to make a recommendation.”
But Kirby still maintained there “hasn’t been that demand signal now” to rescue U.S. citizens from inside Kabul even as he acknowledged reports of Americans being beaten at Taliban checkpoints.
“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 a documented American, and by and large, that’s happening,” Kirby said.
Kirby would not confirm reports that U.S. helicopters had flown from the airport to pick up people at multiple locations.
Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a Marines veteran who was vocal for months before Kabul fell on the need to evacuate Afghans who helped the U.S. military, called Austin’s earlier assertion that the military didn’t have the capability to leave the airport “flat out wrong.”
“We’re the United States of America. We absolutely have the capacity to do more than just cordon the airport,” Moulton said Thursday at a Center for a New American Security event.
While Moulton acknowledged “there’s a legitimate question” about whether expanding the perimeter is the right thing to do since that could put troops more at risk, he insisted “it is absolutely within our capability to do more.”
“And I don’t think it sends a good message, I don’t think it sends the right message to the Taliban to say that we’re incapable of putting more pressure on them,” Moulton said.
Republicans, who have seized on the chaos in Afghanistan to attack Biden, have been hammering him in recent days to expand the perimeters and allow service members to exfiltrate U.S. citizens inside Kabul.
“It’s time for President Biden to authorize the military to stop this rolling humiliation, expand the perimeter at Kabul airport, and rescue Americans trapped behind enemy lines,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said in a statement.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) similarly said in a statement the Biden administration must give troops “the power to push back the airport perimeter and create safe, American-controlled corridors to the airport.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), meanwhile, said on Fox on Thursday night that the United States must “stop asking the Taliban for permission and let’s go bring the Americans home.
“The idea that our military’s saying they don’t have the capabilities to go out, yes, they do,” McCarthy said.
A letter to Biden from Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and 15 other Senate Republicans also urged the president to “use whatever means necessary to provide safe and secure passageway through any Taliban barriers for all American citizens and all eligible Afghan partners to appropriate evacuation points and then move them via safe corridors to exit the country.”
Via The Hill