Thousands of Americans remain in Kabul, with Washington telling them to run the gauntlet of Taliban to the airport by themselves. But to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, they’re definitely not “stranded.”
The American evacuation effort remains in full swing at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Despite overcrowding, death, and runway closures at the airport early last week, the US government appears to have hit its stride, with President Joe Biden stating on Sunday that 11,000 Americans, citizens of US allies, and Afghan refugees flying out of the airport in one 36 hour period over the weekend.
Nevertheless, thousands of Americans haven’t made it to the airport yet. US officials aren’t quite sure how many remain in Kabul, but Secretary of State Anthony Blinken put the number at “roughly a few thousand” in an interview with NBC News on Sunday.
Asked on Monday whether Biden left these Americans “stranded” by withdrawing US troops before civilians, Psaki gave a terse and snappy reply to Fox News correspondent Peter Doocy.
“I think it’s irresponsible to say Americans are stranded. They are not,” Psaki replied, noting that US officials had reached out to these supposedly “stranded” Americans via phone, text and email.
“‘There are no Americans stranded’ is the White House’s official position on what’s happening in Afghanistan?” Doocy asked.
“We have been very clear that we are not leaving Americans who want to return home,” Psaki responded.
Despite Psaki’s statement, Americans in Kabul have been required to make their own way to the city’s airport since last Wednesday, when the State Department warned that US forces could not “guarantee safe passage” to the airport for them. While British and French troops in Kabul have fanned out into the city looking for their citizens, US forces have launched only a handful of helicopter missions to pick up Americans, and Biden refused on Sunday – for “tactical” reasons – to say whether troops would be sent out into the city.
Blinken also conceded on Sunday that the US was essentially counting on the Taliban’s good graces to let Americans through their checkpoints and to the airport. Numerous unconfirmed reports have suggested that the militant group isn’t making this easy, with some accounts suggesting that its fighters are asking for bribes, and others claiming that American women attempting to make the journey have been beaten.
While Biden said that the Taliban have “by and large” allowed Americans to reach the airport, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that some US citizens had experienced “tough encounters” with the Islamist fighters.
Further complicating matters is the apparent presence in Kabul of al-Qaeda terrorists – per UN reports and Pentagon statements – and Islamic State-affiliated jihadists – per National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan – in the Afghan capital.
The Biden administration initially promised to have fully withdrawn US troops from Afghanistan by August 31. With that date drawing closer, the president admitted on Sunday that talk in Washington has turned to a possible extension. However, the Taliban have refused to accept any further postponement, warning that there will be “consequences” if the deadline is missed.
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