Associated Press correspondent Matt Lee laid into State Department spokesman Ned Price during Wednesday’s briefing, saying “it defies logic” that officials have not been able to provide an estimate of the number of legal permanent US residents left in Afghanistan following the US military’s botched withdrawal from that country.
The Biden administration has estimated that between 100 and 200 American citizens remain in Afghanistan following the completion of the US evacuation mission Monday. However, they have not been forthcoming with the numbers of legal permanent US residents or holders of visas permitting resettlement in America who remain in Taliban-controlled territory.
After Price confirmed to Lee that the “100 to 200” number cited by officials referred to US passport holders, the reporter said, “you must have some estimate of LPRs [legal permanent residents] who are still there who want to get out, and if you don’t, why not?”
Price ignored the question and focused on the US citizens left behind.
“We have been in touch with everyone in that remaining 100 to 200, and we do have a little bit more fidelity on that group that we’ve been able to garner over the past couple days,” he said. “We have said that the number is likely closer to 100. Everything we have seen over the course of the past 48 to 72 hours indicates that is, in fact, the case. The number is likely closer to 100, perhaps considerably closer to 100.”
“In fact,” Price went on, “we have received confirmation that some of the individuals we initially included in this range of 100 to 200 were, in fact, never in Afghanistan or were not in Afghanistan when we were doing that outreach, or have safely returned home in recent hours.”
At that point, Lee reminded Price that his question was about green card holders, “who you also have a responsibility to.”
“Was there a decision made at some point to forget about those people —”, the reporter began.
“No,” Price interrupted as Lee continued: “– and only allow US passport holders in and onto – into the airport through your checkpoints, not the Taliban checkpoints, but through your checkpoints and onto planes?
“Because a lot of them feel like they frankly got screwed here and that they were lied to,” Lee continued, “because they had been told by people on the [State Department’s Afghanistan] task force … that we know where you are, we’re not going to let you – we’re not going to strand you, don’t worry, stay tight – hold tight. And now, what do they do? I mean, are you in touch also with the green card holders?”
Price answered that that “we absolutely did and continue to message lawful permanent residents.”
“How many?” asked Lee, to which Price eventually acknowledged that “we’re just not able at present to give you a firm figure as to how many LPRs may be in Afghanistan who wish to leave … If there is an LPR in Afghanistan who indicated a desire to leave before or who changes his or her mind in the coming days, weeks, months, or beyond, we will help that person. We will help that person depart Afghanistan.”
Lee repeated that he and other reporters had heard from green card holders who were given instructions to stay put and not attempt to go to Hamid Karzai International Airport.
“I mean, they were told,” Lee said. “You guys do know. It defies logic to think that you guys don’t have even a rough estimate of the number of LPRs who are out there.”
“We have endeavored throughout this to provide only numbers in which we have a high degree of confidence,” said Price, who later added: “We have done everything we can to provide you with information that is both timely, but that is also accurate. And given the complexities involved in boiling down a number like that, not only taking the number of LPRs but then boiling it down to how many of those LPRs may wish to leave the country, that is something that will take time for us to offer publicly with some degree of precision.”
Lee has not hesitated in recent months to spar with Price over some of the Biden administration’s claims. In February, he accused the White House of “taking credit for stuff the previous administration did” during a discussion of Biden’s approach to the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany.
In July, Lee questioned Price over the Biden administration’s argument that the withdrawal from Afghanistan was forced by the cease-fire agreed between the Taliban and the Trump administration in February 2020.
“The argument that you guys inherited an agreement with the Taliban that the previous administration concluded and that you had no choice, I don’t understand that,” the reporter said.
After Price challenged Lee to come up with “an international agreement that the United States signed on to during the last administration that this administration has jettisoned,” the correspondent rattled off some examples, a performance that achieved a measure of viral fame on Twitter.