WASHINGTON - U.S. military helicopters flew into Taliban-held Kabul on Friday to scoop up would-be evacuees, American officials confirmed to The Associated Press, as President Joe Biden pledged firmly to bring all Americans home from Afghanistan — and Afghans who aided the war effort, too.
But Biden’s promises, and the limited U.S. helicopter sorties beyond the concrete barriers ringing the Kabul airport, came as thousands more Americans and others seeking to escape the Taliban struggled to get past crushing crowds, Taliban airport checkpoints and sometimes-insurmountable U.S. bureaucracy.
"We will get you home," Biden promised Americans who were still in Afghanistan days after the Taliban retook control of Kabul, ending a two-decade war.
His comments, delivered at the White House, were intended to project purpose and stability at the conclusion of a week during which images from Afghanistan more often suggested chaos, especially at the airport.
His commitment to find a way out for Afghan allies vulnerable to Taliban attacks amounted to a potentially vast expansion of Washington’s promises, given the tens of thousands of Afghan translators and other helpers, and their close family members, seeking evacuation.
"We’re making the same commitment" to Afghan wartime helpers as to U.S. citizens, Biden said, offering the prospect of assistance to Afghans who largely have been fighting individual battles to get the documents and passage into the airport that they need to leave. He called the Afghan allies "equally important" in the evacuations.
Biden is facing continuing criticism as videos and news reports depict pandemonium and occasional violence outside the airport.
"I made the decision" on the timing of the U.S. withdrawal, he said, his tone firm as he declared that it was going to lead to difficult scenes, no matter when. Former President Donald Trump had set it for May in negotiations with the Taliban, but Biden extended it.
Thousands of people remain to be evacuated ahead of Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw most remaining U.S. troops. Flights were stopped for several hours on Friday because of a backup at a transit point for the refugees, a U.S. airbase in Qatar, but they resumed in the afternoon, including to Bahrain.
A defense official said about 5,700 people, including about 250 Americans, were flown out of Kabul aboard 16 C-17 transport planes, guarded by a temporary U.S. military deployment that’s building to 6,000 troops. On each of the previous two days, about 2,000 people were airlifted.
Senior American military officials told The Associated Press that an American CH-47 Chinook helicopter picked up the Afghans, mostly women and children, and ferried them to Hamid Karzai International Airport on Friday. U.S. Army’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division airlifted the Afghans from Camp Sullivan, near the Kabul airport.
The officials say sorties like this one have been underway for days from various points in Kabul as Afghans seek to flee the country taken over by the Taliban. Intelligence teams inside Kabul are helping guide both Americans and Afghans and their families to the airport or are arranging for them to be rescued by other means.
For those living in other cities and provinces outside Kabul, CIA case officers, special operation forces and agents from the Defense Intelligence Agency on the ground are gathering some U.S. citizens and Afghan nationals who worked for the U.S. at pre-determined pick-up sites.
The officials would not detail where these airlift sites were for security reasons. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss ongoing operations.
At a Pentagon briefing this afternoon, spokesman John Kirby was asked to confirm reports that US helicopters had flown beyond the airport, to multiple locations, to pick up people, both Afghans and Americans. Kirby responded: "I can’t confirm those reports. Not at this time."
In Washington, some veterans in Congress were calling on the Biden administration to extend a security perimeter beyond the Kabul airport so more Afghans could get through.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said a "small number" of U.S. troops did go outside the perimeter a short distance for a "short amount of time" to help bring in 169 people, but gave no details. Those were Americans, Biden said. The administration has said it’s not capable at current deployment levels in Kabul of bringing order to the chaos.
The lawmakers also said they want Biden to make clearer that the Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops is not a firm one.
The deadline "is contributing to the chaos and the panic at the airport because you have Afghans who think that they have 10 days to get out of this country or that door is closing forever," said Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Mich., who served in Iraq and also worked in Afghanistan to help aid workers provide humanitarian relief.
With mobs of people outside the airport and Taliban fighters ringing its perimeter, the U.S. renewed its advisory to Americans and others that it could not guarantee safe passage for any of those desperately seeking seats on the planes inside. The Taliban are regularly firing into the air to try to control the crowds, sending men, women and children running.
The advisory captured some of the pandemonium, and what many Afghans and foreigners see as their life-and-death struggle to get inside. It said: "We are processing people at multiple gates. Due to large crowds and security concerns, gates may open or close without notice. Please use your best judgment and attempt to enter the airport at any gate that is open."
While Biden has previously blamed Afghans for the U.S. failure to get out more allies ahead of this month’s sudden Taliban takeover, U.S. officials told The Associated Press that American diplomats had formally urged weeks ago that the administration ramp up evacuation efforts.
In July, more than 20 diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul registered their concerns that the evacuation of Afghans who had worked for America was not proceeding quickly enough.
In a cable sent through the State Department’s dissent channel, a time-honored method for foreign service officers to register opposition to administration policies, the diplomats said the situation on the ground was dire, that the Taliban would likely seize control of the capital within months after the Aug. 31 pullout, and urged the Biden administration to immediately begin a concerted evacuation effort. That’s according to officials familiar with the document who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal debate.
Biden said Friday he had gotten a wide variety of time estimates, though all were pessimistic about the Afghan government surviving.
He has said he was following the advice of Afghanistan’s U.S.-backed president, Ashraf Ghani, in not earlier expanding U.S. efforts to fly out translators and other endangered Afghans. Ghani fled the country last weekend as the Taliban seized the capital.
Biden has also said that many at-risk Afghan allies had not wanted to leave the country. But refugee groups point to yearslong backlogs of applications from thousands of those Afghans for visas that would let them take refuge in the United States.
Afghans and the Americans trying to help them also say the administration has clung to visa requirements for would-be evacuees that involve more than a dozen steps, and can take years to complete. Those often have included requirements that the Taliban sweep has made dangerous or impossible — such as requiring Afghans to go to a third-country to apply for a U.S. visa, and produce paperwork showing their work with Americans.