The lack of a set plan all but ensures that the United States’ diplomatic presence in Kabul will lapse for weeks, months or even longer — potentially complicating the Biden administration’s ability to make good on recent assurances that although the U.S. military is departing the country by Tuesday, the United States will continue to help Americans and Afghans who want to leave after they are gone.
The Biden administration will also have to decide whether to formally recognize a Taliban government, a decision that also may take some time and may be a factor in any return, officials said.
“We’re developing detailed plans for how we can continue to provide consular support and facilitate departures for those who wish to leave after August 31,” a senior State Department official said, when asked about how the United States will be able to assist those who remain. The officials said the administration is “looking at a series of options with regard to our diplomatic engagement.”
There are an estimated 350 Americans still in Afghanistan who have told U.S. officials they want to get out of the country, a State Department spokesperson said Saturday, noting that some of those individuals may have already found passage out of Kabul. The State Department also has made contact with an additional 280 people who have claimed to be Americans in Afghanistan but either have not communicated their plans, or said they intend to stay behind.
On Saturday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that any U.S. passport holder who wants to get into the Kabul airport can get in, even though the evacuations are winding down. Army Maj. Gen. William D. “Hank” Taylor reported that between 3 a.m. Friday and 3 a.m. Saturday, 6,800 people were airlifted out of Kabul — 4,000 of them on U.S. military planes. That is far less than earlier this past week, when upward of 21,000 people were being evacuated on a daily basis.
Taylor said a total of about 117,000 people — “the vast majority of which are Afghans” — have been flown out of Hamid Karzai International Airport since the evacuation operation began Aug. 14.
Yet for thousands of other Afghans fearful of returning to life under repressive Taliban rule — including many who provided assistance the U.S. military, diplomatic and nongovernmental missions and may be eligible for evacuation — the chances of departing Kabul before the end of the month are slim.
The military has begun carting out equipment on flights, leaving less room for people to board. Most gates to the airport have been closed — an apparent response to Thursday’s suicide bombing by an Islamic State affiliate known as Islamic State-Khorasan, which killed 13 U.S. service members and over 170 others, most of them Afghans.
The United States retaliated on Friday with a drone strike that killed what Pentagon officials are calling two “ISIS-K planners and facilitators,” though they refused to answer questions about whether those individuals had any role in orchestrating the Kabul airport attack.
“This strike was not the last,” Biden said in a statement Saturday, noting that another terrorist attack is “highly likely” to occur in the next 24 to 36 hours. “The situation on the ground continues to be extremely dangerous,” he added, noting that he has directed the military “to take every possible measure to prioritize force protection.”
One U.S. official familiar with the situation said Saturday that the bombing in Kabul marked a “capping point where the main evacuation ended.” Evacuations have continued, the official said, but have been scaled back and focused heavily on people already inside the airport.
On Saturday, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the head of the Taliban’s political arm in Doha and a deputy to the group’s de facto leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, released a video message appealing with Afghans to let the United States complete its withdrawal before trying to leave the country, promising that “no one will prevent” Afghans with the proper documents from leaving the country afterward.
“Afghans who have documents, passports, and want to go abroad, they have the right to do so,” he said, according to a translation provided by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghan peace negotiations. “Let the foreign forces withdraw first, finish their evacuation and then our compatriots — whether they have worked with the Americans or otherwise — may leave the country if they want . . . all airports, particularly Kabul airport, will be open for their travel.”
“The statement is positive,” Khalilzad noted on Twitter. “We, our allies, and the international community will hold them to these commitments.”
The United States is engaged in talks about the future management of the Kabul airport, discussions that involve the private sector, regional partners such as Turkey and the Taliban, officials said.
When asked whether the United States was seeking assurances on women’s rights from the Taliban before approving a diplomatic presence, Price said a future Afghan government that does not respect the rights of its people and uphold counterterrorism commitments is “almost certainly a government we cannot work with.”
The Taliban’s request for international recognition comes as it grapples with a bleak economic outlook for the country that is now its to govern, after Western nations froze billions of dollars of Afghanistan government assets and blocked promised aid money following the rapid takeover.
Afghanistan’s financial and commercial sectors are not considered to be vibrant enough to keep the economy afloat without at least some of those funds, making the release of government assets and development aid key factors in any forthcoming negotiations about reestablishing formal diplomatic ties with a Taliban-led Afghanistan.
In considering retaining a diplomatic presence, Price said Friday that the safety and security of U.S. personnel in that mission would be “first and foremost on our minds,” particularly after Thursday’s deadly suicide bombing.
A senior State Department official said that the Biden administration would remain “relentlessly focused on using every appropriate tool at our disposal to do everything possible to uphold the basic rights of all Afghans, as we continue to use every instrument of national power to ensure that terrorists cannot use Afghanistan to threaten our security and that of our allies.”
But on the ground, service members are a lot less sanguine about what they are leaving behind.
“We lost a war, and everyone who is trying to spin it differently is just trying to save face,” said one U.S. official familiar with the situation in Kabul. Although the official acknowledged that a large number of evacuations have occurred, he said he was sure that not all of the Afghans who needed to flee the Taliban have been able to. He cited Afghan attack pilots he was aware of who were still in hiding.
“We’re going to pat ourselves on the back for exceeding the high score on other evacuations, but we didn’t get all of the right people,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking to see some people get lucky — beyond lucky — and other people who needed it did not.”