With less than a week remaining before it pulls its last troops out of Afghanistan, the United States in the last 24 hours evacuated another 19,000 Americans and Afghans who want to leave their homeland, the Defense Department said Wednesday.
Even so, officials said another 10,000 people have crammed into the international airport in Kabul hoping to escape the country controlled by Taliban insurgents.
A total of 90 U.S. military and international flights flew from Kabul in the last day, one every 39 minutes during some periods. In all, about 88,000 people have been evacuated since the operation began a few weeks ago.
The scene at Hamid Karzai International Airport remains tense and chaotic, but Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said it "will not be an American responsibility" to control airport security there after August 31, the date U.S. President Joe Biden set for ending U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
Officials said they know there “are a lot of desperate people who want to leave.”
The Pentagon said that all Afghans who supported U.S. operations over the last two decades and secured visas to enter the U.S. and have reached the airport will be evacuated. That could leave many others behind, unable to reach the airport past Taliban checkpoints.
The U.S. military said it plans to continue its evacuation effort from the airport until the Tuesday deadline if needed, but toward the end will prioritize the removal of U.S. troops and military equipment. Kirby said there are currently 5,400 U.S. troops at the Kabul airport.
Pentagon officials urged U.S. lawmakers to not travel to Kabul to witness the evacuation after Representatives Seth Moulton, a Democrat, and Peter Meijer, a Republican — both of whom served military tours of duty in the Mideast — made an unannounced trip to the Afghan capital this week to assess the situation.
“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,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement.
The lawmakers released their statement after flying out of Kabul on a chartered plane. They said that in their view, after seeing the situation firsthand and speaking to commanders on the ground, “we won’t get everyone out” before Biden’s Tuesday deadline.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement Tuesday saying travel to the region by members of the House of Representatives would divert resources from the evacuation operation.
“Given the urgency of this situation, the desire of some (lawmakers) to travel to Afghanistan and the surrounding areas is understandable and reflective of the high priority that we place on the lives of those on the ground,” Pelosi said.
“However, I write to reiterate that the Departments of Defense and State have requested that (lawmakers) not travel to Afghanistan and the region during this time of danger. Ensuring the safe and timely evacuation of individuals at risk requires the full focus and attention of the U.S. military and diplomatic teams on the ground in Afghanistan.”
The Associated Press cited a senior U.S. official saying the Biden administration viewed the visit by Moulton and Meijer as unhelpful, and other officials said it was seen as a distraction to the troops who have been tasked with securing the airport to facilitate evacuation flights.
South Korea announced Wednesday it planned to evacuate around 380 people who supported the country’s official activities in Afghanistan.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.