There are about 2,500 troops on the ground at Hamid Karzai International Airport as of Monday, and their main mission is to clear the flight line so more American and Afghan civilians can get out.
With Afghanistan’s capital falling to Taliban control Sunday, thousands of civilians have rushed to the Kabul airport, seeking any possible escape. So many have crowded the tarmacs that U.S. soldiers, Marines and Turkish troops are working clear the crowds so flights can resume.
“We’ve certainly seen all the dramatic video coming from the airport today and we obviously don’t want anyone else to get hurt,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters, referencing videos of civilians clinging to an Air Force C-17 Globemaster as it took off. “So we’re going to work methodically in coming hours to restore a safe and secure environment so that air operations can resume.”
Kirby could not confirm whether video of Afghans falling to their deaths as the jet gained altitude are legitimate. The Associated Press reported Monday that several had died.
With the U.S. embassy shut down, troops on the ground are focused on the airport, Kirby said. In the past day, he said, American troops have shot and killed two armed assailants who fired on them at the airport.
Kirby could not confirm whether the shooters were Taliban, or when the shootings took place. He could not confirm a preliminary report of a wounded American service member.
“We anticipate in the coming hours that that we’ll be able to restore air operations at the airport,” he said.
Best case scenario, military aircraft can evacuate 5,000 people a day on a couple dozen flights, Kirby said.
The State Department is urging all U.S. citizens and special immigrant visa applicants to shelter-in-place until the airport is reopened,” and an orderly process can be established to marshal them onto the field and to get them out of the country,” Kirby added.
The Defense Department is shoring up resources to get 22,000 Afghan interpreters and their families out of the country, either directly to the U.S. or to two partner countries where they can complete security screening.
Another 500 infantry soldiers and Marine from three battalions mobilized to Kabul last week are expected in the next 24 hours.
In the coming days, he added, three battalions from an 82nd Airborne Division brigade combat team will bring the total to 6,000, per the authorization announced by the White House on Sunday.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.