The United States embassy in Afghanistan has warned it “cannot ensure safe passage” for its citizens to Kabul International Airport, where it is trying to evacuate them from the country.
In a security alert, the embassy urged Americans to consider making a break for the airport, whose interior is protected by thousands of US troops. But entrances to the complex are being controlled by Taliban forces.
“US government-provided flights are departing,” the alert said.
“US citizens, their spouses and unmarried children should consider travelling to Hamid Karzai International Airport. You should plan to enter the airport at Camp Sullivan.”
It provided directions to help people find that entrance.
“Please note that gates may change frequently and that we will provide updates as necessary.”
Then, a warning in all caps.
“THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT CANNOT ENSURE SAFE PASSAGE TO THE HAMID KARZAI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT.”
The streets around the airport have been chaotic for days, with thousands of Afghan civilians who helped the United States desperately trying to enter the airport.
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Meanwhile General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has made an extraordinary admission, revealing just how much the Taliban’s rapid conquest of Afghanistan took the US by surprise.
“The time frame of a rapid collapse was widely estimated, and ranged from weeks to months, and even years following our departure,” General Milley told reporters.
“There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days.”
That contradicts public reports in recent days that US intelligence indicated the Afghan military’s resistance to the Taliban could collapse in a matter of days.
“The United States military is focused on the specific mission of conducting a non-combatant evacuation operation from Afghanistan,” General Milley said.
“The situation is still very dangerous, very dynamic and very fluid.
“There will be many post-mortems on this topic. But right now is not that time.
“We fully intend to evacuate all American citizens who want to get out of Afghanistan. In addition, we intend to evacuate those who have supported us for years, and we will not leave them behind. We will get out as many as possible.”
He added that the goal was to “evacuate all those who have been faithful to us”.
General Milley was joined at his media conference by Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, a former US Army general.
Asked whether US forces would travel outside the airport to escort citizens who have been unable to get inside due to the Taliban checkpoints, he gave a disheartening answer.
“In terms of whether or not we intend to send forces outside the airfield to collect up American citizens, or Afghans who are Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants, the forces that we have are focused on security of the airfield,” General Austin said.
“You know how important that is, and you know what happens if we lose the ability to provide that security.
“I certainly don’t want to do anything to make the airfield less safe. And we won’t do that. But we will continue to co-ordinate, deconflict with the Taliban and make sure that those people that need to get to the airfield have the right credentials to ensure passage.
“The Taliban has been checking those credentials and, if they have them, they have been allowing them to pass.”
That is not necessarily true. For example, a few hours ago CNN interviewed a man who had a US green card, which grants him permanent residence. He said the Taliban had denied him entry to the airport.
Another reporter pressed him again, querying how the US intended to evacuate people stuck outside the airport and, in some cases, in parts of Afghanistan outside Kabul.
“How would you get them, around the country, unless you go get them?” she asked.
General Milley answered first.
“The State Department is working with the Taliban to facilitate safe passage of US citizens to the airport. That’s the primary means, that’s the primary effort. We have the capability to do other things if necessary,” he said.
“We don’t have the capability to go out and collect large numbers of people,” General Austin added.
“We’re going to get everyone that we can possibly evacuate out. And we’ll do that as long as we possibly can, until the clock runs out or we run out of capability.”
In a separate briefing, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said the State Department had been “working around the clock” to handle a “challenging and fluid situation”.
“We are continuing to process visas for Afghans eligible for SIV status, and their families. For those who are early in the process, we are working with our allies and partners to move them to third countries while their paperwork is completed,” she said.
“We have seen reports that the Taliban, contrary to their public statements and their commitments to our government, are blocking Afghans who wish to leave the country from reaching the airport.
“We expect them to allow all American citizens, all third-country nationals, and all Afghans who wish to leave, to do so safely and without harassment.”