The mission to evacuate U.S. citizens, third-country nationals and vulnerable Afghans has ramped up to a capacity of 5,000 to 9,000 a day, officials told reporters on Thursday, though the pace is more like 2,000 a day with the number of people who are able to get into Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Commanders on the ground have been continuously negotiating with the Taliban to allow Americans who can show their passports safe passage through Kabul, but reports continue of Taliban fighters blocking checkpoints and assaulting Afghans, whether they have proof of their special immigrant visa applications or not.
“We’re ready to increase throughput and have scheduled aircraft departures according we intend to maximize each planes capacity,” Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor, deputy director of the Joint Staff for regional operations, said. “We’re prioritizing people above all else. And we’re focused on doing this as safely as possible with absolute urgency.”
Since Saturday, 7,000 evacuees have left the country via military transport, totaling 12,000 since Operation Allies Refuge began in late July.
The only limiting factor now is whether people can safely get to the airport. After advising shelter-in-place since the weekend, the State Department on Thursday urged Americans still in Afghanistan to make their way to the Kabul airport.
Though there are over 5,000 troops on the ground at airport, the U.S. mission is still squarely within those boundaries. Though other countries, including the United Kingdom, have sent their special forces troops into the city to extract their citizens, officials wouldn’t say whether that was under discussion or allowed for U.S. troops.
In an interview with ABC News that aired Wednesday, President Joe Biden introduced the idea that maybe the U.S. troop presence would extend beyond the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline, saying, “if there’s American citizens left, we’re going to stay until we get them all out.”
Senior Pentagon officials have told reporters multiple times in recent days that the Taliban has agreed to allow evacuees to get to the airport safely, though there are no eyes on the ground to verify that, and evacuees lined up outside the airport remain at risk.
As a precaution, Pentagon press spokesman John Kirby confirmed, F/A-18s from the carrier Ronald Reagan have been flying overwatch missions above Kabul, staying close by in case of an attack that might require close air support.
In response to multiple questions about sending troops outside the gates to establish a secure perimeter around the airport, officials have said the mission “remains focused on the airport.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.