By: Lara Jakes and Michael Levenson
@2021 The New York Times
WASHINGTON — At least 1,500 U.S. citizens remain in Afghanistan with just days left before the scheduled U.S. withdrawal from the country, but officials on Wednesday acknowledged the reality that tens of thousands of Afghan allies and others at high risk of Taliban reprisals would be left behind.
The sound of gunfire, and clouds of tear gas and black smoke, filled the air around the international airport in Kabul, the capital, as thousands of Afghans massed at the gates Wednesday, desperate to escape before the U.S. military’s final departure on Aug. 31, after 20 years of war.
As military and government charter flights took off every 45 minutes as part of an airlift, Biden administration officials said they had evacuated about 82,300 people since Aug. 14, the day before Kabul fell to the Taliban. Around 4,500 of them were U.S. citizens, with 500 more expected to depart soon.
But Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the government was trying to track down around 1,000 U.S. citizens still believed to be in Afghanistan who had not responded to a frantic flurry of emails, phone calls or other messages offering to evacuate them.
“In this critical stretch, we’re focused on getting Americans and their families onto planes, out of Afghanistan, as quickly as possible,” Blinken said at the State Department.
He also sought to assure Afghans who had worked with the U.S. military or embassy, and potentially hundreds of thousands of people who challenged the Taliban’s extremist ideology, that “they will not be forgotten.”
Likening images and reports of Afghans being trampled at the Kabul airport in the crush to evacuate to “getting punched in the gut,” Blinken said it would be incumbent on the Taliban to guarantee their safe passage.
He signaled that such an arrangement could be reached with a mix of economic and diplomatic pressure, and the lure of international aid, but he would not discuss his level of confidence in the Taliban to keep their word beyond vaguely citing what he called their public and private commitments to allow people to leave.
“Let me be crystal clear about this: There is no deadline on our work to help any remaining American citizens who decide they want to leave to do so, along with the many Afghans who have stood by us over these many years, and want to leave, and have been unable to do so,” Blinken said. “That effort will continue every day past Aug. 31.”
A Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, said Wednesday that Afghans with valid travel documents would not be prevented from entering the airport if they were allowed in by U.S. and Afghan forces there.
In his first sit-down interview with a Western media organization since the Taliban’s arrival in Kabul, Mujahid disputed reports that the group would begin to keep Afghans away from the airport, which had been based on his statements during a news conference a day earlier.
“We said that people who don’t have proper documents aren’t allowed to go,” he said. “They need passports and visas for the countries they’re going to, and then they can leave by air. If their documents are valid, then we’re not going to ask what they were doing before.”
He also insisted that the Taliban would forgive those who fought against them, and that women would be allowed to attend school and work, within what he described as Islamic principles. Human rights officials have dismissed such assurances as disingenuous, and many Afghans have hidden in their homes, fearing harassment and violence.
Mujahid acknowledged that women would need a male guardian on journeys of three days or longer. He said that rumors that the Taliban would force women to stay in their homes or cover their faces were baseless, but he confirmed that music would not be allowed in public.
“Music is forbidden in Islam,” he said, “but we’re hoping that we can persuade people not to do such things.”
White House officials said Wednesday that 90 U.S. and allied planes had flown out an estimated 19,200 people in a 24-hour period.
At least 500 were U.S. citizens and their families, Blinken said, joining Afghans who were employees of the now-shuttered U.S. Embassy in Kabul and others who had worked for the U.S. military and other government agencies, some since 2001, who qualify for a special immigration visa to live in the United States.
Congressional officials said earlier this week that the Biden administration had identified an estimated 50,000 Afghans who were eligible for the special visa. Former security forces, government officials and people who advocated women’s rights, the rule of law and other pillars of democracy also have been evacuated.
A new estimate from the Association of Wartime Allies released on Wednesday concluded that at least 250,000 Afghans — and perhaps more than 1 million — could be eligible for expedited immigration status. The advocacy group worked with American University to analyze employment contracts and other documents that those Afghans would need to prove their eligibility.
Blinken could not offer a more precise number and noted the difficulty that even tracking down how many Americans might be in Afghanistan had been for the U.S. government.
He said the State Department had identified at least 6,000 Americans — many of them with dual Afghan citizenship — by searching various databases. Officials have sent more than 20,000 emails and placed 45,000 phone calls across Afghanistan to offer U.S. citizens a chance to leave, he said.
Thousands more U.S. citizens may live in Afghanistan, but they had not registered with the U.S. Embassy and otherwise could not be found, a senior State Department official later acknowledged.
Hours before Blinken spoke, lawmakers in Congress urged the Biden administration to extend the Aug. 31 deadline to ensure that all Americans and Afghan allies could leave Afghanistan safely.
“The reporting I’m getting on the ground are that our American citizens are trying to get out,” said Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Our Afghan partners and interpreters who served with our special forces, put their life on the line. We have a moral obligation to save them.”
Blinken would not discuss whether any semblance of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul — once one of the largest American diplomatic missions in the world — would remain open after the military exits next week. A small group of U.S. diplomats remain in Afghanistan, on a secure base at the airport in Kabul, to oversee the evacuation and continue negotiations with the Taliban.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.