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As Aug. 31 deadline looms, United States, European nations accelerate Afghanistan evacuation effort

People gather near a checkpoint at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 25, 2021. (AP)

The United States and European allies accelerated their efforts to evacuate Western and local nationals from Afghanistan on Wednesday, with less than a week remaining before President Biden’s departure deadline, as the military prepared to hand control of the Kabul airport to Taliban forces.

European countries including France and Germany signaled that they would wrap up their evacuation missions within days, possibly as early as Thursday, despite the crush of desperate Afghans who fear Taliban reprisal but have not been able to get out.

The Pentagon acknowledged that its ability to airlift evacuees could decrease in coming days as it turns to pulling out weaponry, equipment and troops ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline, which Biden affirmed this week was likely to be a coda to the United States’ two decades in Afghanistan.

President Biden on Aug. 24 said the U.S. is "currently on a pace" to finish the withdrawal by August 31. (Video: The Washington Post)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the focus in coming days would be on assisting remaining American citizens, who are believed to number up to 1,500, and certain Afghans who have worked with the U.S. government. He said at least 4,500 U.S. citizens have been evacuated from the country since Aug. 14.

Blinken sought to telegraph continued support for Afghans despite the hurried American exit and a recognition of the United States’ limited leverage following the Taliban’s return to power.

“We know that lives and futures, starting with our fellow citizens’, including the lives of children, hang in the balance during these critical days,” he said.

Biden pushes to complete evacuation operation by Aug. 31 — but pushes for backup plan

Looming over the race to maximize use of the remaining time at Kabul’s international airport is the likelihood that many thousands of Afghans who lack links to the U.S. government but could face threats because of their work or identity, including women’s activists, judges, and religious and ethnic minorities, will be left behind.

Blinken said the United States would advocate for such Afghans, doing what it could to pressure the Taliban to respect the rights of its people. “They will not be forgotten,” he said. “We will use every diplomatic, economic, assistance tool at our disposal.”

Speaking to reporters after a virtual meeting of the Group of Seven industrial nations on Tuesday, Biden said that he had asked the Pentagon and State Department to prepare contingency plans for extended operations but emphasized that the evacuation mission should conclude as scheduled on Aug. 31, a date Biden set after his withdrawal announcement this spring.

“The sooner we can finish, the better,” the president said. “Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops.”

His decision has triggered a cascade of similar announcements from European nations that are reliant on U.S. capabilities despite their desire to stay longer.

David Helmbold, a German military spokesman, said the operation was going into “the most demanding and dangerous hours” as officials said there was credible intelligence about a terrorist attack on the airport by an Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan. “The safety of our soldiers and evacuees are equally central,” he said.

In France, European Affairs Minister Clément Beaune said it was “very probable” the French mission also would end Thursday. Polish and Hungarian officials said their efforts were close to being concluding or had been concluded.

U.S. officials have said the pace of evacuation flights continues to accelerate, with close to 20,000 people flown out in the 24 hours up to early Wednesday, bringing the total number of people airlifted by the United States and other countries to around 90,000 since the mission began.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the military would have to begin dismantling and removing equipment; U.S. troops have begun to depart.

“But again, we’re going to continue to work the evacuation mission right up until the last day,” he told reporters. “Lives will always be the priority, period.”

Biden administration scrambled as its orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan unraveled

The military has conducted a number of operations beyond the airport in recent days, Kirby said. On Tuesday, it conducted a third airlift of Americans stranded in Kabul, bringing a number Kirby put at fewer than 20 into the airport. The United States also is making special efforts to assist Afghans who are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) under a program designed for interpreters and other former employees of the U.S. government.

Although Pentagon officials had hoped before the Afghan government’s collapse that Turkey, which has been part of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan since 2002, would take over security at the airport after the U.S. departure, Kirby acknowledged that the Taliban would now assume that role.

“The Taliban are responsible for running an airport that’s in a city that they are now the titular heads of government there,” he said.

Also Wednesday, Turkey’s Defense Ministry announced that it had begun withdrawing its 600 remaining troops.

Turkish officials told the Reuters news agency Wednesday that the Taliban had asked Turkey to continue providing unspecified “technical support” in running the Kabul airport. One of the officials told Reuters that Ankara would reach a decision on the request by Aug. 31.

Rebecca Zimmerman, a senior Pentagon official, told lawmakers Wednesday that she could not say in an unclassified setting on which date the U.S. military must shift to carrying out a full withdrawal of its forces but said that the Defense Department is doing everything it can to “multitask” and continue evacuations as long as possible.

She spoke on a phone call Wednesday between administration officials and congressional staff members. The call, a recording of which was obtained by The Washington Post, included officials from the White House, Pentagon and State Department. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the call. Kirby confirmed Zimmerman’s role in the phone call.

Zimmerman acknowledged that conditions inside the airport for evacuees was less than ideal. Until recently, she said, they were offered water and one prepackaged meal with about 1,250 calories per day. The U.S. military has since bumped that up to two meals per day, she added.

Even as U.S. officials signaled that they would try to airlift some 10,000 people who remain camped at the airport awaiting flights, many more Afghans — some of whom say they have travel documents and flight bookings — have been unable to successfully navigate the chaotic and often perilous conditions around the airport.

The experience this week of one U.S.-based civil society group, whose employees are eligible for a prioritized visa consideration under a new Biden administration program for Afghanistan, illustrates those problems.

Executives from the group, who spoke about their Afghan colleagues’ experience on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns, said they had worked frantically since the Taliban takeover to secure seats on private charter flights, obtain necessary flight permissions, and get visas to a European Union country for dozens of local employees and their families.

Despite having seats and visas, the group — which included children and infants — was repeatedly turned away from the airport by soldiers of different nationalities over two successive days this week. Some, after braving Taliban checkpoints and waiting outside airport gates for hours, were forced to wade through a canal filled with sewage; others were affected by tear gas when foreign troops deployed it near where they waited.

Ultimately, only three from the group of more than 40 were able to make it through. The others, after missing the chance to board two consecutive charter flights, returned home, defeated.

One executive from the group said that while some U.S. officials had seemed eager to assist, others told them they could not facilitate airport entry for Afghans getting on charter flights. The executive said his organization had concluded that the administration would not prioritize the evacuation of Afghans beyond SIV applicants.

“What we determined is that it was never really their policy to get the most vulnerable Afghans out of the country,” the person said.

Loveday Morris and William Glucroft in Berlin and Kareem Fahim in Istanbul contributed to this report.