The United States has the capacity to evacuate the approximately 300 U.S. citizens remaining in Afghanistan who want to leave before President Joe Biden’s Tuesday deadline, senior Biden administration officials said Sunday, as another U.S. drone strike against suspected Islamic State militants highlighted the grave threat in the war’s final days.
“This is the most dangerous time in an already extraordinarily dangerous mission these last couple of days,” America’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, said not long before confirmation of that airstrike in Kabul, the capital.
The evacuation flow of Americans kept pace even as a new State Department security alert, issued hours before the military action, instructed people to leave the airport area immediately “due to a specific, credible threat.”
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said that for those U.S. citizens seeking immediately to leave Afghanistan by the looming deadline, “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. We moved out more than that number just yesterday. So from our point of view, there is an opportunity right now for American citizens to come, to be admitted to the airport and to be evacuated safely and effectively.”
He also pledged the U.S. “will make sure there is safe passage for any American citizen, any legal permanent resident” after Tuesday, as well as for “those Afghans who helped us.” But untold numbers of vulnerable Afghans, fearful of a return to the brutality of pre-2001 Taliban rule, are likely to be left behind.
Sullivan said the U.S. does not currently plan to have an ongoing embassy presence after the final U.S. troop withdrawal.
There also are roughly 280 others who have said they are Americans but who have not told the State Department of their plans to leave the country, or who have said they plan to remain.
U.S. officials said the American drone strike hit a vehicle carrying multiple Islamic State suicide bombers heading for the Kabul airport, causing secondary explosions indicating the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material. A statement from U.S. Central Command said the military was confident it hit the intended target and there were no immediate indications of civilian casualties.
It was the second airstrike in recent days the U.S. has conducted against the militant group, which claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing Thursday at the Kabul airport gate that killed 13 U.S. service members and scores of Afghans struggling to get out of the country and escape the new Taliban rule. The Pentagon said a U.S. drone mission in eastern Afghanistan killed two members of IS’ Afghanistan affiliate early Saturday local time in retaliation for the airport bombing.
Biden was at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Sunday for a “dignified transfer” movement, a military ritual of receiving the remains of fallen troops killed in foreign combat.
Sullivan said earlier that the U.S. would continue strikes against IS and consider “other operations to go after these guys, to get them and to take them off the battlefield.” He added: “We will continue to bring the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan to make sure they do not represent a threat to the United States.
On the diplomatic front, the administration’s current plan “is not to have an ongoing embassy presence in Afghanistan” — a permanent presence — as of Tuesday, Sullivan said. “But we will have means and mechanisms of having diplomats on the ground there, be able to continue to process out these applicants, be able to facilitate the passage of other people who want to leave Afghanistan.”
He said that “over time, depending on what the Taliban does, how it follows through on its commitments with respect to safe passage, how it deals with the treatment of women, how it deals with its international commitments not to allow Afghanistan to become a base for terrorism in the rest of the world, we can make further determinations about both diplomatic presence.”
The 13 service members were the first U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan since February 2020, the month the Donald Trump administration struck an agreement with the Taliban in which the militant group halted attacks on Americans in exchange for a U.S. agreement to remove all troops and contractors by May 2021. Biden announced in April that the 2,500 to 3,000 troops who remained would be out by September, ending what he has called America’s forever war.
With Biden’s approval, the Pentagon this month sent thousands of additional troops to the Kabul airport to provide security and to facilitate the State Department’s chaotic effort to evacuate thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans who had helped the United States during the war. The evacuation was marred by confusion and chaos as the U.S. government was caught by surprise when the Afghan army collapsed and the Taliban swept to power Aug. 15.
Sullivan appeared on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” CNN’s “State of the Union” and “Fox News Sunday.” Blinken was interviewed on ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Republished with permission of The Associated Press.