U.S. forces are rushing to evacuate thousands of Americans and Afghans who worked with the United States out of Afghanistan now that Taliban militants have taken over the country, State Department and Pentagon officials said on Sunday.
The United States will organize flights out of the airport in Kabul, its last major stronghold in the country, in the coming days, the officials said in a joint statement. President Joe Biden has deployed nearly 6,000 troops to protect the facility, where the remaining U.S. diplomats in the country have set up a makeshift embassy.
The State Department said Sunday night that all personnel had been evacuated from the U.S. Embassy and moved to the airport in Kabul, adding that the airport’s perimeter is being secured by the U.S. military. All embassy staffers are expected to be flown out of the country by Aug. 31.
The airport has become a key focus of the exodus from Afghanistan following the Taliban’s swift seizure of the capital. The facility was swarmed by a sea of people hoping to catch flights out of the country early Monday morning, and American embassy officials urged U.S. citizens to avoid the airport as the military secured control and was able to arrange flights for thousands of Americans and “other particularly vulnerable Afghan nationals.”
“The security situation in Kabul is changing quickly including at the airport,” the embassy said in a statement. “There are reports of the airport taking fire; therefore we are instructing U.S. citizens to shelter in place.”
The airport is closed to commercial flights, and U.S. authorities have taken over air traffic control to coordinate military evacuations.
For the several thousands of Afghans who assisted American and allied forces, the future is especially dangerous. They need special visas to enter the U.S. and even after Biden announced that he would pull American forces out of Afghanistan by Aug. 31, American officials have taken months to process the necessary paperwork. Only about 1,200 Afghans have been evacuated so far. Lawmakers and humanitarian groups have urged Biden to move faster.
The new plan for the vulnerable Afghans ― who include translators, journalists and others ― is for the U.S. to accelerate processing and transport those who have yet to be screened to partner countries until their visas are issued.
Fox News also reported early Monday that the Pentagon was preparing to house thousands of Afghan refugees on American military bases in the United States, including Wisconsin’s Fort McCoy and Texas’ Fort Bliss, as their visa applications are processed.
As U.S.-backed Afghan forces collapsed in the face of the Taliban, the State Department urged aid groups to help identify at-risk Afghans to prioritize for evacuations. Criticism has only grown in recent days that the Biden administration had not done enough to secure the safety of Afghans who spent years aiding the American effort.
Advocates for those Afghans say the ask came far too late and that Washington should have already known whom it needed to assist.
They also say the Biden administration badly misjudged the time available to help the Afghans. Its internal assessments underestimated how quickly the Taliban would seize power ― which meant diplomats and Afghans did not move as quickly as they might have otherwise to organize the evacuations. Despite Biden’s new plan, many Afghans desperate and eligible to leave are now likely unable to travel to the Kabul airport.
A person familiar with conditions at the airport on Sunday, as the Taliban moved into Kabul, told HuffPost the U.S. worsened the problem at a critical time by halting commercial flights, which nonprofits and Afghan officials were relying on to get people out.
U.S. officials had unsuccessfully spent months trying to secure deals with countries ranging from Qatar and Kosovo to Kazakhstan to host vulnerable Afghans. And the administration showed no sign of considering the possibility of sending the Afghans to the U.S. territory of Guam ― potentially because they feared the domestic political toll of accepting refugees.
Taliban representatives have claimed they will not harm supporters of the U.S. or the toppled Afghan government, but multiple recent reports suggest the group’s fighters are targeting such people.
Many of Biden’s own allies say the plight of the Afghans has so far been insufficiently prioritized.
“We are aware of the complexities of the U.S. refugee admissions program. But if we don’t do this, it may soon to be too late,” Democratic Reps. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) and Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) wrote in an Aug. 12 letter signed by lawmakers from both parties. “Now is the time to fulfill our broader moral obligations to the Afghans who bet their lives on the future America promised.”
Dozens of countries have issued a joint call for “all parties” to ensure the safe departure of foreign nationals and Afghan citizens who hope to leave the country.
“Those in positions of power and authority across Afghanistan bear responsibility ― and accountability ― for the protection of human life and property, and for the immediate restoration of security and civil order,” a statement signed by around 60 nations read. “Afghans and international citizens who wish to depart must be allowed to do so; roads, airports and border crossing must remain open, and calm must be maintained. The Afghan people deserve to live in safety, security and dignity. We in the international community stand ready to assist them.”
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