The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Those six-figure Kabul evacuation numbers veil the current limits of the U.S. response

A U.S. Air Force cargo plane takes off from the airport in Kabul on Aug. 30. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)
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This article has been updated.

Over the next few months — or really, decades — there will be discussion about what could have been in Afghanistan after the United States decided to fully withdraw from the two-decade-old conflict. What if Washington had correctly predicted the collapse of the government? What if holders of special immigrant visas (SIVs), the Afghans who aided the U.S. military during the war, had been evacuated before the military withdrawal? What if the United States had managed to get Americans out of the country before this month without triggering a more rapid collapse of the Afghan government?

Those things didn’t happen. Instead, the United States, under the direction of President Biden, has been trying to evacuate U.S. citizens who wish to leave and removing SIV-holders who are able to navigate the gantlet outside Kabul’s airport. Politics being politics, the administration has regularly touted the top-line number of evacuees who have left the country since the fall of Kabul two weeks ago, a number that, as of Monday morning, has neared 117,000. But that top-line figure masks enormous uncertainty about who has gotten out and who hasn’t.

Even before the terrorist attack at the airport last week, the number of evacuations each day had slowed. More than 21,000 people left Kabul in the 24-hour period ending on the morning of Aug. 24, and by Aug. 27, that had fallen to 12,500. In the 24-hour period ending Monday morning, only 1,200 people had been evacuated, the fewest since the early days of the evacuation effort.

In part, that’s because the United States has begun winding down operations at the airport in advance of an Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline to which the government agreed. In part, it’s because there are fewer citizens left in the country. In part, it’s also obviously a reflection of the increased tension on the ground.

That 116,700 figure, the total number of evacuees who have left since Aug. 14, includes people who were evacuated by groups or countries other than the U.S. military. The government has included what it calls “coalition” figures since Aug. 20, looping in foreign-country and private-sector evacuations to the total because the U.S. military is responsible for security at the airport. It is transparent in including those figures, yes, but without including coalition evacuations, the number of U.S. military evacuations drops to somewhere from 66,000 to 75,000 evacuations. (It’s not clear how many of the evacuations that occurred before Aug. 18 were undertaken by nonmilitary operations.)

A week ago, most of the flights evacuating people from Kabul were coalition flights. Now, that stream of flights has essentially ceased. At that point, about half of the evacuations came from coalition flights. Overall, a bit over a third of evacuations have been.

The decline in flights and evacuations also reflects a decline in the number of people being evacuated per flight. Since the White House began reporting daily evacuation numbers, U.S. military flights have been averaging more than 200 evacuees per plane. Over the past three days, that has fallen to 80 evacuees per plane, even though the same types of aircraft are being used (C-17s and C-130s). Recent coalition flights have also carried fewer people, although it’s not clear what aircraft those are.

The central question about the evacuations is how many Americans and SIV-holders have been evacuated. The State Department has estimated that some 6,000 Americans sought evacuation. About 300 Americans are still in the country, according to figures released Sunday. That indicates that some 5,700 citizens have been evacuated. (The White House releases only sporadic numbers on the daily evacuations of Americans.)

The number of evacuated SIV-holders and their families is less clear. On Friday, the State Department reported that 7,000 people in that category have made it to the United States, a figure that doesn’t account for SIV-holders and family members evacuated from Afghanistan to other countries. In response to media questions, a military official confirmed that fewer than half of the 100,000-plus evacuees were SIV-holders and their families, but it’s not clear how many are in that category.

There’s a lot of blurriness here. Presumably, flights operated by foreign military forces are less likely to include SIV-holders, so we would expect a reduced number from that group in the coalition flights. But it’s also not clear how many SIV-holders or other Afghan allies there are to evacuate. One estimate put the total number of visa recipients and family members at 88,000, while the New York Times last week cited figures estimating that as many as 250,000 Afghans who aided the military were still in the country.

Asked about the operation last week, Biden expressed confidence that the government would be able to remove allies after the Aug. 31 deadline passed. Nearly 100 countries signed a statement insisting that the Taliban respect its commitment to let those nations evacuate citizens after that point, although the White House has insisted that it will be able to evacuate all citizens before the deadline arrives.

What the administration figures don’t do is answer a central question: How many of those who aided the military will remain trapped in Afghanistan later this week, at the mercy of those they hoped to defeat? This question is perhaps impossible to answer concretely, given the blurriness of categorizing, locating and counting individuals who fit into that category. But it is clear that the numbers being released by the White House do not answer the question.

Update: At a news conference Monday afternoon, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, tallied the final numbers.

“Over an 18-day period, U.S. military aircraft have evacuated more than 79,000 civilians from Hamid Karzai International Airport,” McKenzie said. “That includes 6,000 Americans and more than 73,500 third-country nationals and Afghan civilians. This last category includes special immigrant visas, consular staff at-risk Afghans and their families. In total, U.S. and coalition aircraft combined to evacuate more than 123,000 civilians, which were all enabled by U.S. military service members who were securing and operating the airfield. On average, we have evacuated more than 7,500 civilians per day over the 18 days of the mission, which includes 16 full days of evacuations and more than 19,000 on a single day.”

The total number of evacuated civilians, he said, “we believe represents the vast majority of those who wanted to leave at this time.” He later added that no citizens made it to the airport to depart on any of the last five planes that departed. His estimate was that the number of citizens still in the country was in the “very low hundreds.”

“We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out,” he said in response to a question. “But I think if we stayed another 10 days, we wouldn't have gotten everybody out that we wanted to get out and there still would have been people who would have been disappointed with that.”

At another point, McKenzie summarized the day's transition.

“The military phase of this operation is ended,” he said. “The diplomatic sequel to that will now begin.”