WASHINGTON (AP) – The US military is considering “creative ways” to bring Americans and others to Kabul airport for an evacuation from Afghanistan amid “acute” security threats, said officials in the Biden administration, and the Pentagon on Sunday ordered six US airlines to help move evacuees from temporary sites outside of Afghanistan.
A week after the Taliban completed their takeover of the country, US officials expressed growing concern over the threat of an evacuation from the Islamic State group. This concern adds to the obstacles to this Taliban mission, as well as to the bureaucratic problems of the US government.
President Joe Biden planned to provide a public update on Afghanistan later on Sunday. He was also meeting with his national security team. Afghanistan will be the main topic of discussion when leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized countries, including Biden, meet virtually on Tuesday.
“The threat is real, it is acute, it is persistent and we are focusing with all the tools in our arsenal,” said Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
Sullivan told CNN’s “State of the Union” that 3,900 people had been airlifted out of Kabul on US military flights in the past 24 hours. A US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to provide details not yet released, said the people had made 23 flights in total – 14 on C-17 transports and nine on planes cargo ship C-130.
This is an increase from the 1,600 planes flown on US military jets in the past 24 hours, but still well below the 5,000 to 9,000 that the military says it has the capacity to airlift on a daily basis. Sullivan also said about 3,900 people were airlifted on non-U.S. Military flights in the past 24 hours.
The Biden administration has given no precise estimate of the number of Americans seeking to leave Afghanistan. Some put the total between 10,000 and 15,000. Sullivan on Sunday put it at “several thousand.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged the desperate situation at Kabul airport.
“We have seen these heartbreaking scenes of people crowded at the doors. People injured, people killed. It’s an incredibly volatile situation and we’re very focused on it, ”he said on CBS’s“ Face the Nation ”.
The British military said on Sunday that seven more people were killed in the relentless crushing of crowds outside the airport. The US military took control of the airport for evacuations a week ago as the capital fell to the Taliban. But Taliban forces controlling the streets around the airport and the crowds of people gathered outside in the hope of escaping made it difficult and dangerous for foreigners and their Afghan allies to pass through.
Republicans in Congress have stepped up their criticism of Biden’s response and called for the addition of US troops to help Americans get safely to the airport so they can leave.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told ABC’s “This Week” that as Biden’s August 31 deadline approaches to end the evacuation operation, he would recommend giving him more. of time. Tens of thousands of Americans and others have yet to leave the country by air.
Austin’s interview aired on Sunday but was taped on Saturday as other U.S. officials cited growing concerns over airport security threats from activists affiliated with ISIS. The U.S. Embassy on Saturday warned citizens not to go to the airport without individual instruction from a U.S. government official. Officials declined to provide further details on the ISIS threat, but described it as significant.
In a notice released on Sunday, the State Department urged those seeking to leave Afghanistan as part of an organized private evacuation effort not to travel to Kabul airport “until you have received specific instructions ”from the organizer of the flight at the US Embassy. The notice says others, including U.S. citizens, who have received specific instructions from the embassy to get to the airport should do so.
Austin said the airlift will continue for as long as possible.
“We’re going to do our best to get everyone out, every American citizen who wants to get out,” Austin said in the interview. “And we have – we continue to look at different ways – in creative ways – to reach and contact American citizens and help them get into the airfield.” He later said that included non-Americans eligible for the evacuation, including Afghans who applied for special immigrant visas.
Austin noted that the U.S. military on Thursday used helicopters to move 169 Americans to the airport from the grounds of a nearby hotel in the capital. It is the only reported example of US forces going beyond the airport to secure evacuees, who are often stranded by chaos, violence and crowds at the airfield gates.
Senator Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said the United States should send more military convoys to help the Americans.
“If the Taliban say Americans can get to the airport safely, then there is no better way to make sure they get to the airport safely than to use our military to escort them, “Ernst, an army veteran, told ABC.
Critics of Biden’s strategy have also come from the diplomatic sector.
Ryan Crocker, who was the US ambassador to Afghanistan under Presidents George W, Bush and Barack Obama, said Biden’s handling of the pullout was “catastrophic” and triggered a “global crisis”.
Crocker focused his criticism on Biden’s execution of the pullout, saying it “doesn’t speak of competence.”
A central issue in the evacuation operation is the treatment of evacuees once they reach other countries in the region and in Europe. These temporary stations, especially in Qatar, Bahrain and Germany, sometimes reach their maximum capacity.
In an attempt to mitigate this and free up military planes for missions from Kabul, the Pentagon activated the civilian reserve air fleet on Sunday. The Defense Department said 18 planes from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, Omni Air, Hawaii Airlines and United Airlines would be directed to transport evacuees from intermediate stations. Airlines will not fly to Afghanistan.
The civilian airline reserve system was last activated in 2003 for the Iraq war. Commercial airliners will retain their civilian status, but the Army’s Air Mobility Command will control flights.
Associated Press editors Lolita C. Baldor, Ellen Knickmeyer, Hope Yen, Matthew Lee, and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.