Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon in Washington on Wednesday, August 18, 2021.
Alex Brandon | AP
WASHINGTON – The Pentagon admitted Wednesday that it is currently unable to safely escort Americans in Kabul to the airport for evacuation as the Taliban tighten control of the Afghan capital.
“I currently do not have the opportunity to expand operations into Kabul,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said when asked about those who cannot reach the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul because they are behind Taliban checkpoints.
“And where are you taking this? How far can you get into Kabul and how long does it take for those forces to pour in to do that,” Austin said.
The defense minister’s admission came after the US embassy in Kabul had warned US citizens there that it could not guarantee “a safe passage” to the airport.
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The US is relying on an agreement with the Taliban to ensure safe passage for Americans. Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said Wednesday that “it appears that the Taliban’s commitment to safe transit for Americans has been solid,” while saying it is not “aware of every case”.
Austin vowed that the US will “evacuate anyone we can physically and possibly evacuate, and we will continue this process for as long as possible.” The Pentagon chief said the US is cooperating with the Taliban to clear passages for people to the airfield.
US Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the airport is currently safe with nearly 5,000 US soldiers on the ground and the Taliban “are not interfering with our operations.” However, the situation “is still volatile and can change quickly,” said Milley.
Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley pauses during a news conference at the Pentagon in Washington on Wednesday, August 18, 2021.
Alex Brandon | AP
“There are threats that we are closely monitoring, and if at any point we can detect a specific threat, we will immediately take military action according to our rules of engagement without hesitation. The Taliban and every other organization in this country know that, ”generally speaking.
“We are the US military and we will successfully evacuate all American citizens who want to get out of Afghanistan. You’re our # 1 priority, ”Milley said from alongside Austin.
When asked about the withdrawal of troops behind the Taliban lines, the general said the military had the “ability to do other things if necessary,” but said implementing such an option was a “political choice”.
“We also intend to evacuate those who have supported us for years, and we will not leave them behind. And we’ll get as many out of it as possible, ”added Milley.
However, the State Department admitted that the Taliban appear to be preventing some Afghans from reaching the airport.
“We have seen reports that, contrary to their public statements and commitments to our government, the Taliban are preventing Afghans who want to leave the country from entering the airport,” Sherman said.
Milley said the Pentagon is currently performing an average of about 20 cargo aircraft evacuation flights every 24 hours. Sherman said 2,000 people had been evacuated during that period and the State Department would soon be inviting 800 Afghan special immigrant visa holders on flights to the United States
“I haven’t seen an army this size collapse in 11 days, nor has anyone else seen it collapse.”
U.S. Army General Mark Milley
Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff
The Pentagon confirmed Tuesday that the chief of U.S. Marine Corps Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie, was in regular contact with Taliban leaders. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby declined to provide further details on these talks. Kirby added that there have been no high-level talks between the Pentagon and the Afghan military since the country collapsed.
Although the Taliban are vastly outnumbered by the Afghan military, which has been supported by US and NATO coalition forces for 20 years, the Taliban invaded Kabul on Sunday.
Within a few hours, Taliban insurgents captured the presidential palace in a breathtaking development that brought about the exodus of the now deposed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. The United Arab Emirates confirmed on Wednesday that Ghani is living in exile from the kingdom.
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In separate press conferences, President Joe Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg held the Afghan government directly responsible for the Taliban’s dramatic and rapid takeover.
From the Pentagon, Milley offered his perspective.
Milley said that while some US intelligence assessments indicated a full Taliban takeover was possible, the timeframe varied from “weeks, months, and even years” after the US withdrawal.
“I haven’t seen an army this size collapse in 11 days, nor have I seen anyone else,” Milley said.