The United States is winding down its airlift of thousands of Afghans and foreign nationals as top U.S. officials pledge to continue working to evacuate all citizens who want to leave despite the danger of the mission.
The evacuation of Americans and Afghan civilians continued on August 29 even after a new State Department security alert was issued just hours before a U.S. drone strike hit suspected Islamic State militants in Kabul.
“This is the most dangerous time in an already extraordinarily dangerous mission these last couple of days,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said not long before the U.S. military confirmed that the drone strike killed militants headed to the airport with explosives.
A joint statement issued by the United States and more than 100 countries said the Taliban had provided assurances that it will continue to allow foreigners and Afghans with foreign travel papers to leave the country "in a safe and orderly manner."
The countries, including Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Japan, and Turkey, committed to ensuring that their nationals, residents, and employees, as well as Afghans who have worked with them "can continue to travel freely to destinations outside Afghanistan."
U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said earlier on August 29 that the United States has the capacity to evacuate the U.S. citizens remaining in Afghanistan who want to leave.
“We have the capacity to have 300 Americans, which is roughly the number we think are remaining, come to the airport and get on planes in the time that is remaining,” Sullivan said, speaking in an interview with a U.S. broadcaster.
Sullivan also said the U.S. does not currently plan to have an ongoing embassy presence after the final U.S. troop withdrawal. But he pledged the U.S. “will make sure there is safe passage for any American citizen, any legal permanent resident” after August 31 as well as for “those Afghans who helped us.”
The U.S. is working with other countries in the region to either keep the Kabul airport open after the August 31 deadline for the withdrawal to conclude or to reopen it “in a timely fashion,” Blinken said.
While the airport is critical, “there are other ways to leave Afghanistan, including by road and many countries border Afghanistan,” he said.
The Taliban has pledged to allow Afghans to leave Afghanistan after August 31, Blinken said on NBC. After that date the United States is unlikely to have any diplomats in the country to help at-risk Afghans who miss out on the evacuation flights, he said.
The U.S. military said on August 28 that more than 117,000 people, the majority of them Afghan civilians, had been evacuated in the two weeks since the Taliban seized Kabul.
While the drone strike on August 29 and a suicide bombing just outside the airport on August 26 that killed 13 U.S. troops and more than 100 Afghans underscored the dangers of the evacuation, the Biden administration faced blistering criticism from Republican members of Congress.
“We didn’t have to be in this rush-rush circumstance with terrorists breathing down our neck,” Senator Mitt Romney (Republican-Utah) said on CNN.
But Romney also cited the Trump administration, saying it along with the Biden administration were responsible for the crisis and “what is without question a humanitarian and foreign-policy tragedy.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Republican-Kentucky) said the U.S. policy in Afghanistan prior to Biden’s decision to set August 31 as the deadline for the withdrawal had been working.
“We were, in effect, keeping the lid on, keeping terrorists from reconstituting, and having a light footprint in the country,” he said on Fox News.