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US Ramps Up Pace of Evacuations from Kabul

By Steve Herman August 23, 2021

The United States is in daily contact with the Taliban as the race continues to complete the withdrawal from Afghanistan by President Joe Biden's August 31 deadline, White House officials said Monday.

"We are in talks with the Taliban on a daily basis through political and security channels" concerning "every aspect of what's happening in Kabul right now," national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters at the White House.

About 16,000 people were flown out of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul from Sunday into Monday, using a combination of nearly 90 military and commercial flights, according to U.S. officials, who said the majority — about 11,000 people — were taken by American military aircraft.

"We are overperforming in terms of the evacuation numbers," according to Sullivan, who said the chokehold is the capacity of transit points in third countries.

"There's a lot of factors that go into being able to reach that output capacity, to include temporary safe havens that you can bring these individuals to as they complete their screening," said Pentagon press secretary John Kirby, who told reporters at the Defense Department on Monday that the military's goal has been to evacuate between 5,000 and 9,000 people a day.

Biden is "taking this day by day and will make his determinations as we go," Sullivan told White House reporters concerning the August 31 deadline.

In an interview with Britain's Sky News, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen called the deadline a "red line."

"If they extend it, that means they are extending occupation," Shaheen said. "It will create mistrust between us. If they are intent on continuing the occupation, it will provoke a reaction."

Among other concerns, according to Sullivan, is the possibility of an attack on the Kabul airport by ISIS-K or another terrorist group.

The "risky and volatile" situation on the ground in Kabul will also be a factor on whether U.S. forces remain at the airport beyond the end of the month, according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

Earlier Monday, the White House said about 37,000 people have been flown out since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan after its U.S.-backed government collapsed more than a week ago.

But just how many Americans remain stuck in Afghanistan is murky.

U.S. defense officials have said in recent days that there is no "perfect number." On Monday, Kirby declined to say just how many Americans had made it out.

"We've been able to evacuate several thousand Americans, and I'd be reticent to get more specific than that," he told reporters, though he acknowledged that some of the 5,800 U.S. forces have been leaving the airport in Kabul to get U.S. citizens "when we can and where we can."

"If there's an incident where somebody is in extremis and we need to get them in small numbers, we can do that, and we have been doing that," Kirby said in response to a question from VOA.

"On occasion, where there's a need and there's a capability to meet that need, our commanders on the ground are doing what they feel they need to do to help Americans reach the airport," he added later, saying there have been two incidents in which U.S. helicopters have been sent out to get U.S. civilians.

Tension at the airport in Kabul has been rising, with tens of thousands of Afghans trying to get out of the country.

Many have said it has been difficult, if not impossible, to get past Taliban checkpoints. There have also been reports that supplies of food and water at the airport have been running low, and that there are concerns about conditions becoming so unsanitary that some Afghans have left the airport.

Security around the airport's perimeter has also been tested, most recently when an unidentified assailant opened fire on the Afghan forces guarding the gates, killing an Afghan soldier.

It is becoming apparent to observers that all of the Afghans who worked for the U.S. military during the past 20 years will not be able to leave the country by the end of this month.

Asked by VOA what advice he has for Afghans left behind after the American forces depart the Kabul airport, Sullivan replied, "We will continue to get Afghans at risk out of the country even after U.S. military forces have left."

VOA's Jeff Seldin and Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report.

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