As emergency evacuations out of Afghanistan ramp up in Kabul, advocates and lawmakers are now shifting their attention to the frustrating scene outside Hamid Karzai International Airport where thousands of would-be evacuees are being stopped from reaching the safety of U.S. military protection.
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that the 5,000-plus American servicemembers at the airfield “don’t have the capability to go out and extend operations currently into Kabul” to provide safe passage for American citizens or foreign allies traveling there.
State Department officials at the same time acknowledged reports of Taliban fighters turning away individuals seeking passage into the airport, and said they are hopeful to find a solution soon.
“Our team in Doha and our military partners on the ground in Kabul are engaging directly with the Taliban to make clear that we expect them to allow all American citizens, all third-country nationals, and all Afghans who wish to leave to do so safely and without harassment,” Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman told reporters.
“Many Afghans … are finding their way to the airport. We will continue to do what we can through diplomacy.”
But outside observers said that plan is not working.
One congressional staffer in contact with multiple Americans trapped in Afghanistan said individuals attempting to reach the airport are being interrogated and, in some cases, attacked by Taliban fighters. Ones who get through that checkpoint still face an unruly, panicked mob of individuals at the airport gates as U.S. personnel check paperwork and evacuation eligibility.
Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., wrote in a letter to the State Department that “one individual my office has assisted was beaten with a baton outside of the airport.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said his office is feilding reports of individuals stranded who “have to beg the Taliban to let them get to the airport.”
Officials from No One Left Behind, an advocacy group that has pushed for bringing Iraq and Afghanistan allies to the United States in recognition for their cooperation with American military missions overseas, has been sharing similar stories in recent days.
“[One family] went to the east gate [of the airport] and waited all day,” the group wrote in a social media post. “The crowd was too large. The Taliban came and started beating people. They confiscated [one] brother’s paperwork. They beat him and broke his sister’s arm. They warned them not to come back.”
Sherman downplayed those stories on Wednesday, saying that the makeshift U.S. embassy set up at the airfield is “functioning” and that “it appears Americans have been able to get to the airport.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price acknowledged confusion over the agency’s notification efforts being sent to “an increasingly large universe of people” across Afghanistan, but said officials are reaching out to as many people as quickly as possible in an effort to speed up evacuations.
“Our message to all of those who may be in a position to be relocated by the United States is that they should not come to the airport unless and until they receive a specific message from the embassy,” he said.
“What we are telling [the Taliban] is that civilians should be afforded safe passage … No one’s movements, whether it’s in Kabul or anywhere else, should be restricted.”
Defense Department officials said that about 7,000 individuals have been evacuated from Kabul since Saturday. The U.S. military mission at the airport is set to last until Aug. 31, although President Joe Biden has vowed to remain in country until all American citizens who wish to leave are able to do so.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.