Several hundred troops have left Hamid Karzai International Airport over the past day or so, Pentagon officials confirmed Wednesday, but their departures will not hamper evacuation efforts, they added.
After President Joe Biden’s Tuesday announcement that the U.S. would not be extending its Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline, with full confidence that every willing American and vulnerable Afghan there would have the chance to get out, troops on the ground are preparing to begin their own drawdown while continuing to evacuate civilians.
“The commander on the ground, [Rear Adm. Peter] Vasely, in trying to manage time and space at the airport, determined that it was the prudent thing to do to let several hundred troops leave the airport,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Wednesday. “Some of these troops did come in with the troops that were added for the non-combatant evacuation. Some of them were troops that were already there, at Hamid Karzai International Airport, before any additional troops flowed in for the non-combatant evacuation.”
They included some maintainers, headquarters staff and other personnel whose “mission was complete,” Kirby added.
“We will continue to evacuate needed populations all the way to the end if we have to, and we need to. If you’re an evacuee that we can get out, we’re going to get you out,” Kirby said. “In those last couple of days, we will begin to prioritize military capability and military resources to move out.”
That will mean some reduced capacity for evacuees, he added.
On Tuesday, 37 C-17 Globemasters and five C-130 Hercules aircraft evacuated 11,200 people, Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor, deputy director of the Joint Staff for regional operations, told reporters, while 7,100 more left on flights not operated by the U.S. military. Taylor did not elaborate on the origin of those flights.
That brings the total evacuees to 88,000 since late July, 4,400 of those American citizens.
Tuesday also saw a third evacuation via helicopter from Kabul to the airport, of fewer than 20 people, Kirby confirmed, though he would not say whether they were Americans.
Kirby also addressed the unannounced visits of Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Mich., both Iraq War veterans who said they caught a flight to the Kabul airport to perform “oversight” of the evacuation mission.
“As Members of Congress, we have a duty to provide oversight on the executive branch,’” they said in a statement. “We conducted this visit in secret, speaking about it only after our departure, to minimize the risk and disruption to the people on the ground, and because we were there to gather information, not to grandstand.”
Kirby confirmed that the commanders on the ground were not expecting the lawmakers.
“We are obviously not encouraging VIP visits to a very tense, dangerous and dynamic situation at that airport and inside Kabul, generally,” he said. “And the secretary, I think, we would have appreciated the opportunity to have had a conversation before the visit took place.
They were able to speak to commanders and troops, Kirby added, “but to say there wasn’t a need to flex and to alter the day’s flow, including the need to have protection for these members of Congress ... there was certainly a pull-off of the kinds of missions we were trying to do to be able to accommodate that visit.”
Kirby also confirmed that they flew out on a military transport.
“They certainly took time away from what we had been planning to do that day,” he said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.