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Pentagon hints at more rescues outside Kabul airport, amid new security concerns and evacuation bottleneck

U.S. Marines monitor crowds at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Friday. (Lance Cpl. Nicholas Guevara/U.S. Marine Corps via AP)

The Pentagon on Saturday strongly hinted that U.S. troops may stage further operations outside the Kabul airport to help evacuate stranded American citizens and Afghans who aided the war effort, as the threat of violence in the capital grows amid the return of the Taliban’s top political leader and increased concern about potential attacks by the Islamic State.

The signal that U.S. troops could undertake enhanced efforts to rescue people outside the airport came as the Biden administration scrambles to fly thousands of people per day out of Afghanistan, and amid signs there were still significant bottlenecks to doing so. All gates at the Kabul airport were closed on Saturday, as crowds continued to swell inside and the U.S. government struggled to process people quickly enough to alleviate the issues, said three U.S. officials familiar with the issue, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the precarious and evolving situation.

“Look, without getting predictive here, we have troops in a very dynamic environment, a very perilous mission, and they understand that — and they also understand why they’re there, they’re there to help people,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said, after indicating there had been no U.S. military operations outside the airport perimeter over the past 24 hours. “I’m not going to rule out that if they see a moment, if they see an opportunity to do it, they won’t do it.”

Kirby’s comments followed the disclosure that U.S. troops, traveling aboard Chinook helicopters, left the airport Thursday to retrieve 169 Americans from a nearby hotel. European commandos have conducted such missions for days, leading some U.S. lawmakers and others to suggest the Biden administration should do more to help people reach the airport.

‘It’s not our fight’ vs. ‘We owe them’: Americans debate what’s right in Afghanistan

Several thousand American citizens — and likely far more Afghans who have worked on behalf of the United States — remain in Afghanistan as U.S. forces stare down President Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline to complete the American withdrawal, though he indicated in recent days that time frame could stretch if necessary. Since the evacuation began a week ago, the U.S. military has managed to remove about 17,000 people from Kabul, including 2,500 Americans, Pentagon officials said Saturday — a fraction of the 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. citizens the Biden administration estimated last week still remained in Afghanistan.

On Saturday night, the White House announced that Spain had agreed to temporarily house transiting evacuees from Afghanistan at military bases in Rota and Moron.

In the last measured 24-hour period, amid increased violence outside the airport and new threats that the Islamic State might try to stage an attack, the military evacuated about 1,600 people aboard six C-17 transport aircraft, Maj. General William D. “Hank” Taylor told reporters at the Pentagon. Although an additional 2,200 people left Kabul on charter flights, evacuations aboard military aircraft were down from the approximately 2,000 people they were removing in each of the past several days, already well below the Pentagon’s stated goal of between 5,000 and 9,000 daily.

The Pentagon cited a backup at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar as a reason for the slowdown. The base has been the first stop for many evacuees. On Friday, U.S. officials described overcrowding with thousands of evacuees inside Kabul airport and at Al Udeid, prompting a stoppage lasting at least six hours, officials said. As a result, the U.S. military has begun flying evacuees from Kabul directly to other military bases in the Persian Gulf, Europe and to Dulles International Airport on the outskirts of Washington, alleviating the bottleneck in Qatar.

Thousands of evacuees were due to arrive in the United Arab Emirates on Saturday night en route to the United States, said a U.S. official familiar with the situation. Like other nations, the small Arab country, though a stanch U.S. ally, does not want to host Afghans indefinitely but is allowing its territory to serve as a way station.

Three planes landed at Dulles Airport on Saturday, the Pentagon said, noting that the Afghans onboard would be transferred to Fort Bliss, an Army post in Texas, for processing. Such changes, Taylor said, means it is likely the military will “get back into numbers we saw the day before.”

Officials acknowledged Saturday that time was of the essence.

“We know that we’re fighting against both time and space,” Kirby said. “That’s the race that we’re in right now, and we’re trying to do this as quickly and as safely as possible.”

Although the military insists it has control of the Kabul airport and that the gates are open to Americans who arrive with the proper credentials, the State Department on Saturday, citing an unspecified security threat, warned Americans there “to avoid traveling to the airport and to avoid airport gates at this time unless you receive individual instructions from a U.S. government representative to do so.”

That warning appears to have been inspired, at least in part, by concerns that Americans could be targeted by fighters loyal to the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan. But Kirby also said Saturday that, although the United States has been communicating with the Taliban to guarantee safe passage for Americans and U.S.-sponsored Afghans, apparently “not every Taliban fighter either got the word or decided to obey the word.”

Anti-Taliban fighters claim victories as first stirrings of armed resistance emerge

Meanwhile, the Taliban’s de facto leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, returned to Kabul on Saturday to begin the process of setting up a new government, though north of the capital resistance fighters managed to push back Taliban forces in three districts of Baghlan province — raising the specter that the militant group may not have an absolute lock on power in the country, and that more violent battles for control could ensue.

Baradar appeared in Kabul with Abdullah Abdullah, a senior Afghan official who was a political rival of Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president who fled the country as the Taliban seized control, according to photographs that Abdullah tweeted. They were joined by Afghanistan’s former president, Hamid Karzai, who was installed as the country’s leader after the U.S. military toppled the Taliban in 2001 and remained in charge through September 2014. Baradar founded the extremist group in 1994 along with three other men and went on to serve as a negotiator for peace talks in Doha, Qatar.

Inside the airport, uncertainty and hardship remains for those who have managed to make it through Taliban checkpoints. An Afghan American, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to security concerns about his family, said Saturday that his brother and other family members had been at the airport since Thursday night. The family, with three children, entered the military side of the airport after braving angry and desperate crowds. The brother was beaten by the Taliban while crossing through a checkpoint, the man said.

Many families inside the airport have been cloistered in tightly packed tents. Some opted to stay outside in the open air because of the smell inside, the Afghan American said. The families have received prepackaged meals and water, but there were no additional accommodations for infants, the man said.

The Afghan American who spoke with The Washington Post said his brother had been directed by U.S. Embassy staff to come to the airport as a special immigrant visa applicant. But when he attempted to find a staff member to talk to about his paperwork, he was told to sit down by U.S. Marines defending the facility and helping to coordinate evacuation flights, the Afghan American said. One Marine told the brother at the airport that the American service members were doing the best they could with limited resources, and that if the Afghans knew anyone who could contact members of Congress, they should, the Afghan American said.

The brothers were communicating in small bursts, with the one in Kabul bringing three cellphones with him to the airport and already burning through batteries on the first two of them.

“The moment your phone is dead, you’re disconnected,” the brother in the United States said.

The number of evacuees inside the Kabul airport has climbed from the estimated 10,000 who were there Friday, a defense official said. The official declined to say how much larger the crowd was Saturday, but noted that the increase had prompted the U.S. military to reduce the number of people it was allowing into the airport from the chaotic streets outside.

Logistically, the official said, it had been “impossible” to keep up with the evacuees entering the airport.

The departments of State and Homeland Security have faced criticism for the pace at which they are able to process non-American citizens. One U.S. official attributed the delays to the Department of Homeland Security’s process for assessing evacuees’ biometric data, which is run through various databases to determine whether an individual has a criminal record, has previously entered the United States illegally or has links to terrorist organizations.

A senior U.S. official said that the military playing catch-up on the bottleneck of people at the air base in Qatar and security screening of Afghans both were playing an issue.

When asked if it is responsible for delays in visas processing, a DHS spokesman said the agency is working alongside the FBI and other agencies to conduct the vetting, “which includes biometric and biographic screening.” The official said DHS personnel are working “around-the-clock” to ensure individuals are screened against U.S. government databases before arriving in the United States and upon arrival.

Another U.S. official familiar with the issue expressed frustration that the government did not appear to be relying more on screening the United States already has done with Afghan partners.

“Every day that the gates aren’t open at the airport is another day lost,” the official said. “We’re running out of time.”

Missy Ryan and Jennifer Hassan contributed to this report.