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Clock Ticking as US Ramps Up Evacuation from Afghanistan

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Afghans board a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transport plane during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, August 22, 2021. (U.S. Air Force/Handout via Reuters)

The scramble by the United States and its allies to get their citizens and Afghan helpers to the U.S.-controlled airport in Kabul and out of Afghanistan may be running out of time.

With just more than a week to go until U.S. President Joe Biden's August 31 deadline for the military withdrawal from Afghanistan, tens of thousands of Western citizens and Afghans who supported U.S. efforts have pushed toward Hamid Karzai International Airport hoping to make it through the gates and to the safety of outgoing flights.

However, many Afghans have said it has been difficult, if not impossible, to get past Taliban checkpoints lining the airport's perimeter. And Taliban officials seem unwilling to give the U.S. much leeway, calling the upcoming deadline a "red line."

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Aug. 23, 2021.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Aug. 23, 2021.

"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 Monday at the White House.

Biden is "taking this day by day and will make his determinations as we go," Sullivan added, defending the White House's handling of the withdrawal, which has seen most of the U.S.-backed Afghan security forces melt away as the Taliban claimed control of the country.

"We are overperforming in terms of the evacuation numbers," Sullivan said.

Biden Admin Faces Criticism Amid Looming Humanitarian Crisis in Afghanistan
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Criticism from U.S. lawmakers, former military officials and even some U.S. allies has poured in since Taliban forces entered the Afghan capital on August 15. But after a slow start to the evacuation, efforts to get people out of the country have picked up.

"The situation in Afghanistan is worsening by the day," Republican Senator Mike Rounds said Monday. "The Biden administration must make the safe evacuation of Americans still stuck in Afghanistan its top priority."

But after a slow start to the evacuation, efforts to get people out of the country have picked up.

U.S. officials said late Monday that in the past 36 hours more than 27,000 people had been airlifted out of Afghanistan, including more than 17,000 on U.S. military flights, more than the number of people who left in the first week.

And some military officials Monday expressed optimism that they will be able to sustain the heightened pace of evacuations.

"I assure you that we will not rest until the mission is complete, and we have evacuated Americans who are seeking to be evacuated and as many Afghan partners as humanly possible," General Stephen Lyons, commander of U.S. Transportation Command, told Pentagon reporters late Monday.

"We are clearly laser focused on clearing the Kabul international airport of every evacuee that can move," he said. "For me, like all of our veterans who served in Afghanistan, this mission is very personal."

At a separate briefing earlier in the day, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said despite the surge in evacuation numbers, "We're not taking anything for granted."

"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," he said, noting the goal has been to evacuate between 5,000 and 9,000 people a day.

Families evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, walk through the terminal before boarding a bus after they arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport, in Chantilly, Va., Aug. 23, 2021.
Families evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, walk through the terminal before boarding a bus after they arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport, in Chantilly, Va., Aug. 23, 2021.

A growing number of U.S. officials, however, have started warning that despite the increased flow of evacuees out of Afghanistan, more time will be needed.

"We will not stop our efforts to bring out anyone in the categories that I've listed (eligible Afghan SIVs and P2 applicants) who want to come out of Afghanistan," a senior State Department official said Monday, describing August 31 as the deadline only for the "military retrograde out of Afghanistan."

"Our commitment to at-risk Afghans doesn't end on August 31," the official added.

But whether the Taliban will give the U.S. and its allies more time is questionable.

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."

U.S. officials have countered that any additional evacuations could still take place even without a U.S. military footprint in Kabul.

"A government that has some semblance of a relationship with the rest of the world needs a functioning commercial airport," said State Department spokesman Ned Price. "We are in discussions with the Taliban on this very front."

Still, the White House on Monday left open the possibility that the U.S. military will keep troops at the Kabul airport into September, with officials raising concerns about the "risky and volatile" situation on the ground and the ongoing threats of attacks against U.S. interests by Islamic State's Afghan affiliate, IS-Khorasan.

Another concern is the number of Americans in Afghanistan who are unable to make it to the airport.

U.S. defense officials have said in recent days that there is no "perfect number." And Monday, Kirby was vague when asked 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. troops 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.

Further complicating the evacuation efforts are 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.

If some of the Afghans who worked for the U.S. military during the past 20 years have not been able to leave the country by the end of this month, VOA asked Sullivan what advice he has for them.

"We will continue to get Afghans at risk out of the country even after U.S. military forces have left," Sullivan replied.

VOA's Nike Ching and Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report.

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