US struggles to step up Kabul evacuation efforts

The US struggled to step up its efforts to evacuate American citizens and their Afghan allies from Kabul amid reports that the Taliban was preventing eligible travellers from reaching the capital’s international airport.

Pentagon officials said that the US Air Force was flying about 20 C-17 cargo aircraft into and out of Kabul every 24 hours, a number that could be increased with more evacuees.

“It’s obvious we’re not close to where we want to be in terms of getting the numbers through,” Lloyd Austin, defence secretary, told reporters on Wednesday.

The inability to extricate thousands of US citizens still in Afghanistan and Afghans eligible to emigrate under Washington’s “special immigration visa” programme — used for locals who worked with the US government before Kabul fell to the Taliban — has been a source of intense criticism of President Joe Biden, who has been accused of failing to sufficiently plan for the chaos that was expected to ensue once he withdrew US troops.

In an interview with ABC News on Wednesday, Biden denied he had mishandled the Afghan endgame, saying there would never be a way for American troops to withdraw without “chaos ensuing”.

“No, I don’t think it could have been handled in a way that, we’re gonna go back in hindsight and look — but the idea that somehow, there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens,” he said.

Although Kabul’s airport has been secured by the US military following a chaotic breach of the runway on Monday, the US government has told American citizens that it cannot guarantee their safety as they travel to the airport.

On Wednesday, Austin said the US, which now has about 4,500 troops in Kabul, did “not have the capability to go out and collect up large numbers of people” from around the capital.

John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said US forces had fired shots near gates on the perimeter of the airport on Wednesday, but that they were intended as “non-lethal crowd control measures”. He declined to comment on whether US troops had used rubber bullets or live rounds. 

General Mark Milley, chair of the joint chiefs of staff, insisted that the Taliban was facilitating “safe passage” for US passport holders. The state department said it had evacuated the final diplomats scheduled to leave the country on Tuesday.

Defence officials suggested that the US military could evacuate more Afghans if the state department processed visa applicants faster. Austin said more troops would be deployed to the entry points of the airport in a bid to speed up consular processing.

“This force is capable of extracting a significant amount of people on US air force aircraft,” Milley said. “We have the capability to significantly increase that throughput, as the Department of State makes evacuees available.”

The Biden administration is preparing to allow tens of thousands of Afghans to come to the US if they are able to leave Kabul. The Pentagon said as many as 22,000 Afghan immigrants will be placed in military housing at Fort Bliss in Texas, Fort McCoy in Wisconsin and Fort Lee in Virginia. Austin approved their use following a request from the state department.

On Wednesday morning, Kirby said that 2,000 people had been evacuated from Kabul over the preceding 24 hours. Approximately 300 of those were US citizens. ​​The scale of evacuations could reach between 5,000 and 9,000 people a day, he added.

In his ABC News interview, Biden appeared to signal that he was willing to allow American troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond his self-imposed August 31 deadline in order to facilitate the evacuation of all remaining Americans.

Asked what would happen if Americans as well as Afghan interpreters who worked for the US government were still in the country by the end of the month, Biden said: “If we don’t, we’ll determine who is left . . . and if there’s American citizens left we’re going to stay until we get them all out.”