U.S. forces in Afghanistan evacuated about 3,000 people from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Thursday, according to the White House.
The evacuees were flown out on 16 flights by giant C-17 aircraft. The White House says the evacuees included 350 U.S. citizens, their family members, vulnerable Afghans and applicants for special immigrant visas and their families.
A statement Friday says that over the previous 24 hours, the U.S. military also facilitated the departure of 11 charter flights. The passengers on those charter flights are not included in the totals above.
The White House says U.S. forces have now evacuated approximately 9,000 people since August 14, the day before the Taliban entered Kabul, and a total of 14,000 people since the end of July.
U.S. President Joe Biden has vowed to stay in Afghanistan until all U.S. citizens who want to leave have been evacuated, as he stands firmly by his decision to leave the country, despite the chaos that has ensued.
Biden is set to meet with his national security team on the situation in Afghanistan early Friday, before making remarks on the evacuation process later in the day (1pm ET).
“I don't think it could've been handled in a way that there — we're — going to go back in hindsight and look, but the idea that somehow there's a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don't know how that happens,” Biden said in an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News on Wednesday. He dismissed questions about scenes of Afghans clinging to a U.S. aircraft as it took off as something that happened “days ago.”
The president stressed that the U.S. military is now in control at the airport and evacuating thousands with the goal of getting everyone who needs to be evacuated out, both American and Afghan, by August 31.
When pressed whether troops will stay if the U.S. doesn’t meet the August 31 deadline, Biden said, “If we don’t, we’ll determine who’s left … and if there’s American citizens left, we’re going to stay until we get them out.”
Concern is growing with reports that Afghans and American citizens are having trouble getting to the airport due to Taliban checkpoints. The U.S. is continuing to communicate with local Taliban commanders on the ground to move people through the checkpoints.
“It comes down a lot to the credentialing and making sure that they can prove — and we can prove — that these are appropriate people to move through. And we have indications this morning that that process is working,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Thursday.
“Overnight, we significantly expanded how many American citizens, locally employed staff, SIV applicants, and other vulnerable Afghans who are eligible for departure, and we offer them to consider transit to the airport,” he told reporters.
In the ABC interview, which aired early Thursday, Biden also defended his administration’s decisions based on the intelligence coming from Afghanistan, saying the intelligence he saw said a Taliban takeover was “more likely by the end of the year,” and that the government’s collapse in such a short time was not anticipated.
His comments echoed those of General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told reporters Wednesday the time frame of a government collapse “was widely estimated and ranged from weeks to months and even years following our departure.”
“There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days,” he added.
However, a senior U.S. intelligence official, speaking to VOA on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. community “consistently identified the risk of a rapid collapse of the Afghan government.”
“We also grew more pessimistic about the government’s survival as the fighting season progressed. … That said, the Afghan government unraveled even more quickly than we anticipated,” the official said.
Carla Babb, Jeff Seldin, Steve Herman contributed to this report.