U.S. Allies in Afghanistan: Catch-22

A member of the Taliban stands guard as people walk at the entrance gate of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 16, 2021. (Stringer/Reuters)

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby on Tuesday sidestepped questions about how the U.S. plans to respond to reports that the Taliban is blocking people from accessing the airport in Kabul, where the U.S. military is facilitating evacuations from Afghanistan in the wake of a Taliban takeover.

Kirby said during a press briefing that U.S. military commanders at the Kabul international airport are in communication with Taliban commanders on the ground outside the airport. He declined to further detail those discussions, saying only that he would “let the results speak for themselves.”

Asked by a reporter if those discussions include talk of allowing Americans and Afghans through Taliban checkpoints or expanding the perimeter around the airport so more people can arrive at the airport safely, Kirby declined to get into the “sausage-making of communications.”

He said that the military is processing American citizens to evacuate and said though it is early on “the results are speaking for themselves.”

U.S. Army Major General Hank Taylor, a logistics specialist on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also underscored the military’s focus on securing the airport.

A reporter asked Taylor how the military is striking a balance between efforts to facilitate evacuations while avoiding fights with the Taliban given reports that special immigrant visa (SIV) applicants are being assaulted on their way to the airport. 

As we look at the military task and requirements of securing the airfield, that’s what we’re absolutely focused on doing to ensure that part of this whole mission is being able to be completed,” he said.

He added that with respect to the situation outside of the airfield and throughout Kabul he would “really have to push that over to the Department of State because our mission right now is that securing of the airfield to allow those that come onto the airfield to quickly be put on aircraft and evacuated.” 

On Monday, all U.S. evacuation flights from Kabul’s international airport were temporarily suspended, the result of hundreds of Afghans flooding the tarmac, desperate to evacuate the country and escape the Taliban.

Seven people died in the chaos, according to the Associated Press.

Amid the pandemonium, U.S. troops shot and killed two armed men at the airport after the men approached American troops deployed to the airport to facilitate the evacuation of Americans and other individuals, a U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal

The report adds that at least three Afghans who clung to the side of an Air Force jet evacuating personnel from the airport were run over and killed on Monday as chaos unfolded at the passenger terminal of Kabul’s airport as thousands of Afghans swarmed the airport hoping to escape the country.

Witnesses also reported seeing three bloodied bodies lying on the ground just outside the terminal building, according to the paper. 

The airport has since reopened and Taylor said the speed of evacuation is expected to pick up, with one aircraft per hour exiting the airport.

If all goes well, 5,000 to 9,000 passengers could depart per day, he said.

“Right now we’ve had no hostile interactions, no attack and no threat by the Taliban,” he said, adding that there have also not been any “additional security incidents” at the airport.

“We are focused on the present mission to facilitate the safe evacuation of U.S. citizens, SIVs and Afghans at risk,” he said.

Both Taylor and Kirby noted that the military is focused on completing their mission by August 31, when Biden had initially ordered the drawdown of troops to be completed.

NPR’s Tom Bowman pressed Kirby, asking why the self-imposed deadline can’t be extended if the airport is secure and more people are in need of rescue.

Kirby said that such an extension would be a decision Biden would need to make.

“Time is of the essence and we all share a sense of urgency here but right now the mission runs until the 31st of August and I won’t begin to speculate after that,” he said. 

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