The Defense Department has come under heavy criticism this week for keeping US forces holed up at Kabul’s international airport while other Western nations’ special forces dash into the Taliban-controlled city to rescue their citizens and Afghan allies.
Earlier this week, the Daily Mail reported that the British government had dispatched 300 elite troops and other officials to Afghanistan in an attempt to bring out 6,000 UK nationals and other eligible Afghans. On Monday, the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that rescue operations had begun Saturday night and the first evacuation flight carrying around 200 Brits had set off.
Still, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby insisted Thursday that the US had not made any agreement with the Taliban restricting American forces to the airport.
“But,” Kirby told Fox News’ “Special Report”, “that’s where the mission is. The troops are there for really two things. One, to keep that airport safe and secure for people and for flight operations, and two, to make sure that those flight operations can go as unimpeded as possible, with as few delays.”
“But if the British can take their paratroopers and they can get in vehicles and go get their people and get them to the airport, why can’t the US do that?” host Bret Baier asked.
“If there is a deal with the Taliban to provide safe passage, why is it left to the Americans outside of that ring to get there on their own? Why can’t we send vehicles to go get them?”
“We have not seen any great impediments to the safe passage that the Taliban have agreed to facilitate,” Kirby insisted. “Americans are getting through those checkpoints and they are getting onto the base — the airfield, and they are being flown out of Kabul. I won’t speak to potential future operations that may or may not be conducted. What I can tell you is the operation we’re conducting now, and that is to keep that airfield open and running and Americans are getting through the lines. They are getting onto planes.”
John Noonan, a national security adviser to Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), disputed the Pentagon’s claim in a series of Twitter posts earlier Thursday.
“Have been speaking with evacuees directly on the ground in Kabul,” he tweeted in the morning. “Taliban not honoring their word. Obstructing ingress points to the airport, beating and harassing evacuees, scaring many off. US troops prohibited from expanding perimeter or helping. Many still stuck.”
“Sincere respect to DoD,” Noonan added in a later tweet, “but we have spoken directly with evacuees on the ground who have had backs and hands broken and concussions from the Taliban. That’s today. Current. We have been sent text photos of Taliban checkpoints obstructing movement to airport. They aren’t complying.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, confirmed Tuesday that more than 200 French nationals, foreign nationals and Afghans who worked with French forces had left Hamid Karzai International Airport.
“To our armies, police and diplomatic teams who organize these sensitive operations, thank you,” Macron tweeted. “We continue.”
The Pentagon maintained Thursday that while 5,200 US forces were on the ground in Afghanistan, they were not authorized to go outside the perimeter of the airport. Hundreds of desperate Afghans have stormed the terminal and tarmac of the facility, hoping to catch evacuation flights out.
The State Department has repeatedly urged Americans stuck in Kabul to make their way to the airport, but have stressed that the US government cannot guarantee their safety. Multiple reports have described checkpoints manned by Taliban fighters who assault and beat those who attempt to pass.
On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters that US forces “don’t have the capability to go out and collect up large numbers of people” before vowing to “get everyone that we can possibly evacuate evacuated.
“And I’ll do that,” he added, “as long as we possibly can until the clock runs out or we run out of capability.”
President Biden has estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 Americans remain in Afghanistan, along with between 50,000 and 65,000 Afghans who assisted US-led forces during the two-decade-long war and have been marked for death by the Taliban.