Though acknowledging surprise at the Taliban’s rapid victory, the U.S. military’s top officials are not interested in discussing what could have or should have been done in the final days of its presence in Afghanistan. They’re focused on what’s left to do, which is to potentially evacuate tens of thousands from the Kabul airport by the end of the month.
The evacuation of civilians from Kabul is likely to be the second largest non-combatant evacuation operation the U.S. has ever undertaken, Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told reporters on Wednesday, behind the 1991 evacuation of 20,000 troops and their families from the Philippines after a volcanic eruption.
“There’ll be plenty of time to do [after action reports]. But right now, our mission is to secure that airfield, defend that airfield, and evacuate all those who have been faithful to us,” Milley said. “There will be many post-mortems on this topic. But right now is not that time. Right now, there are troops at risk.”
Roughly 4,500 troops had landed at Hamid Karzai International Airport as of Wednesday afternoon, arriving on C-17s that boarded evacuees and then got back in the air.
For now, official said, there are no plans for rescues outside of the airport.
“We don’t have the capability to go out and collect that large numbers of people,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said.
Part of that is concern that breaking up the force on the ground will destabilize an already tense situation at the airport.
“I certainly don’t want to do anything to make the airfield less safe,” he said.
The State Department has advised potential evacuees to shelter in place, as officials continue to negotiate with the Taliban for safe passage.
There were 20 flights out in the past 24 hours, Milley said, for a total of 5,000 Americans, vulnerable Afghans and third-country nationals evacuated so far.
Though defense officials have said they’re working toward hourly flights and a capacity of 5,000 to 9,000 a day, the limiting factor, according to reports, is the ability to run a gauntlet of Taliban roaming Kabul, including harassing or assaulting those in line to get into the airport.
“With respect to helping us with the flow,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters earlier on Wednesday. “We are talking to them about the effect that their [8 p.m.] curfew and the limits that they’re putting on flow outside the airport is having on our ability to accomplish the mission.”
Milley said that the Taliban have agreed to allow Americans with passports to travel unhindered, saying, “they are not interfering with our operations.”
In response to questions about whether the Taliban were observing that rule for Afghan special immigrant visa applicants, Austin said officials have reinforced to the Taliban that, “if they have credentials, they need to be allowed through.”
Both Austin and Milley reiterated that the mission continues to be at the airport only, and there are no moves being made to head out into the city or to other parts of Afghanistan to either escort evacuees to the airport or to extract anyone.
Asked whether evacuations might have gone smoother had the U.S. kept Bagram Air Base, 40 miles outside Kabul, open, Milley said the choice at the time was to secure Bagram or the U.S. embassy, and the decision was made that with the waning force on the ground, the embassy was more important.
No one in the intelligence community foresaw that it would take days for the Taliban to take back the country and secure the surrender of the Afghan government, he said.
“The timeframe of rapid collapse that was widely estimated ― and ranged from weeks to months, and even years following our departure ― there was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days,” he said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.