“Since August the 14th, over an 18-day period, U.S. military aircraft have evacuated more than 79,000 civilians from Hamid Karzai International Airport,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of U.S. Central Command, said in an Aug. 30 press briefing. “That includes 6,000 Americans and more than 73,500 third-country nationals and Afghan civilians. This last category includes special immigrant visas, consular staff, at-risk Afghans and their families.”
In total, he said, U.S. and coalition aircraft combined to evacuate more than 123,000 civilians.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken also has said that there are less than 200 Americans the U.S. still needs to get out of the country.
“We believe there are still a small number of Americans, under 200 and likely closer to 100, who remain in Afghanistan and want to leave. We’re trying to determine exactly how many,” Blinken said in an Aug. 30 speech.
Blinken said it was difficult to provide a specific figure because the government was going through manifests and doing outreach to determine who still needs help getting out of the country. Like Biden, he said that some of those remaining are “dual-citizen Americans with deep roots and extended families in Afghanistan,” who may be agonizing over whether they should stay.
“If an American in Afghanistan tells us that they want to stay for now, and then in a week or a month or a year they reach out and say, ‘I’ve changed my mind,’ we will help them leave,” Blinken said.
Despite Biden’s and Blinken’s assurances that the U.S. will continue to work to help Americans leave, the withdrawal of all U.S. troops before every American who wanted to leave was evacuated means Biden went back on a promise he made in an Aug. 18 ABC News interview. Biden said then that U.S. troops would stay beyond Aug. 31, if necessary.
George Stephanopoulos, ABC News, Aug. 18: So Americans should understand that troops might have to be there beyond August 31st?
Biden: No. Americans should understand that we’re gonna try to get it done before August 31st.
Stephanopoulos: But if we don’t, the troops will stay–
Biden: If — if we don’t, we’ll determine at the time who’s left.
Biden: And if you’re American force — if there’s American citizens left, we’re gonna stay to get them all out.
Also, the estimate of 100 to 200 Americans remaining does not include U.S. legal permanent residents, or green card holders, State Department spokesman Ned Price confirmed in a Sept. 1 press briefing. He said he was not able to provide “a firm figure as to how many LPRs may be in Afghanistan who wish to leave.”
And in their speeches, neither Biden nor Blinken mentioned the number of remaining at-risk Afghan allies, such as interpreters, who worked with the U.S. during the war and are eligible for special visas to come to the U.S.
In a private briefing with reporters on Sept. 1, an unnamed senior State Department official said “the majority of them” were left behind, “just based on anecdotal information about the populations we were able to support,” Politico reported. A specific number was not yet available, the report said.
The New York Times reported on Aug. 25 that at least 250,000 of those likely visa-eligible Afghans had not been evacuated, according to estimates from the Association of Wartime Allies and researchers at American University.
Price, the State Department spokesman, said in the Sept. 1 press briefing that from Aug. 17 to Aug. 31, at least 23,876 Afghans at risk had been transported to the U.S., including individuals with SIVs and other immigrant visas.
Republicans have criticized Biden for leaving behind some Americans who wanted to evacuate, but House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy twice misleadingly suggested that Americans left behind may number in the thousands, not hundreds. McCarthy was citing a preliminary administration figure that was later reduced significantly after it was vetted.
“Never in my life did I ever believe an American administration would make a decision to leave Americans behind,” McCarthy said at a House GOP press conference on Aug. 30. “Our own government told us just a few weeks ago there was probably 11,000 to 15,000 Americans there. Today they told us they’ve gotten 5,400 out. All of us have had emails, phone calls of Americans trying to get out, for days.”
At another House Republican press conference the following day, McCarthy again cited that preliminary government estimate.
“And let me have one question to that president or to anyone else in charge, what is your plan to bring Americans home? You knowingly made a decision that you’re leaving them there,” McCarthy said. “You acknowledged it prior — a month or two before, you said there’s from 11,000 to 15,000 Americans there. You say you only brought 5,600 out. You’re now going to put pressure on the Taliban when we’re gone to get them home?”
The Washington Post reported that on Aug. 17, “National security officials in the Biden administration told a bipartisan group of Senate staffers … that about 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. citizens remain in Afghanistan, according to two Senate aides.”
But a week later, on Aug. 25, Blinken told reporters, “Based on our analysis, starting on Aug. 14, when our evacuation operations began, there was then a population of as many as 6,000 American citizens in Afghanistan who wanted to leave.” Over the previous 10 days, he said, about 4,500 of those people and their immediate family members were safely evacuated.
The Washington Post Fact Checker reported, based on an interview with an unnamed senior State Department official, that the earlier, higher number was “a ‘very, very rough estimate’ largely based on the number of people who had registered with the State Department as being in Afghanistan.”
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, explained on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Aug. 22, that “when people come to Afghanistan who are American citizens, we ask them to register with the U.S. embassy. Many leave and never de-register. Or others come and choose not to register in the first place. Of course, as Americans, that’s their right. So, we have been working for the past few days to get fidelity on as precise a count as possible. We have reached out to thousands of Americans by phone, email, text. And we are working on plans to, as we get in touch with people, give them direction for the best and most safe and most effective way for them to get into the airport.”
What Happens Now?
The effort to get the remaining citizens, legal permanent residents and eligible Afghans out of the country is now a diplomatic one handled by the State Department.
In a Sept. 1 briefing, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland said that in the prior 24 hours, the department had been in contact with “American citizens and LPRs and folks who worked with us and served the American people who want to get out … to tell them that we are looking at all possible options – air routes, land routes – to continue to find ways for them to help evacuate and to support them in that.”
Nuland continued: “We’re trying to ascertain who precisely still wants to leave, who their dependent family members are, what routes may or may not feel comfortable to them. We’re also working intensively, as you know, with countries on the ground who are trying to get the civilian airport open.” Nuland specifically mentioned that Qatar and Turkey were two countries with representation in Afghanistan that “are working with the Taliban to try to get the airport open.”
The State Department is “also looking at land routes, talking to our allies about how that might work and how that has worked.”
Mir Sadat, a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security who has served as an adviser to two International Security Assistance Force commanding generals in Afghanistan, wrote that “American citizens, legal permanent residents, and SIV applicants are located all over the country, with the largest non-Kabul cohorts located in Herat, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Jalalabad.”
Sadat, who the Atlantic Council said had been working to evacuate Afghans, said in a post on the council’s website that “some Afghans have already begun traveling north—Uzbekistan should gear up for a flood of refugees.” And he said that “[n]ongovernmental organizations, the United States, and European allies should help Afghans as they evacuate north by harnessing commercially available imagery to plot safe routes away from Taliban-concentrated areas, navigate the routes, and plan for difficult circumstances like weather events.”
Nuland said that the U.S. no longer had a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan but now has an office in Doha, Qatar, to handle “diplomacy in all of its aspects with Afghanistan, and to work with allies and partners who have also relocated their operations to Doha.”
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