US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to make public remarks at any moment, to update us on the latest situation with Afghanistan and US evacuations.
Blinken has strongly defended the Biden administration’s decision to pull out rapidly from Afghanistan, although he attracted criticism when he said that the withdrawal chaos was “manifestly not Saigon”, in relation to the US pull out from Vietnam as North Vietnamese forces took over.
For many the situation in Kabul has been manifestly worse than Saigon because the US has been in charge of supporting the Afghan government and training its security forces for the last 20 years before they crumpled in the face of the Taliban in less than two weeks.
My colleague Ed Pilkington reported Blinken’s remarks on Sunday 15 August even as Kabul was falling to the Taliban, the Afghan president was fleeing abroad with no warning, and panic was unfolding in the Afghan capital, writing:
Blinken’s rejection of any parallels with the iconic image of helicopters evacuating personnel from the US embassy in Saigon in April 1975 at the end of the Vietnam war came as the skies over the Afghan capital were filled with Chinooks and Black Hawks ferrying US embassy staff to a secure location at the international airport. The secretary of state made his remarks with Taliban forces amassing inside the capital, and with their representatives already negotiating a “peaceful transfer” of power at the presidential palace.
The Pentagon is not very happy about the surprise visit of two congressmen to Kabul airport yesterday.
Democrat Seth Moulton and Republican Peter Meijer, both of them Iraq veterans, said they made the stealth visit for the purpose of oversight of a critical situation.
“We were not aware of this visit, and we are obviously not encouraging VIP visits to a very tense, dangerous and dynamic situation at that airport and inside Kabul generally,” the Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby, said.
He added that he did not know whether the two visitors had taken seats on planes that would have gone to American or Afghan evacuees, but Kirby said pointedly: “They certainly took time away from what we had been planning to do that day.”
Asked about a report in Politico overnight that the threat of an attack on Kabul airport by Isis could jeopardise the evacuation, Maj Gen Hank Taylor said he would not go into specific threat but “we know, as previously reported, there is a threat.”
“This has been a dangerous place that has had threats by ISIS, and we continue to ensure that we collect [intelligence], and keep the force protection to the highest levels possible to ensure that we’re able to continue the evacuation operation,” Taylor said.
As the evacuation goes on, the Pentagon made clear today that military personnel and equipment would take up an increasing share of the capacity.
The US military presence at the airport is already beginning to draw down, from 5,800 at its peak in the past few days, to 5,400 now.
On the subject of the 31 August deadline, the Pentagon line remains the same. The military is working towards that date, but as a matter of course, has contingencies in case it needs to be extended. Apparently, in military-speak, such options are called “branches and sequels”.
The Pentagon has said there was a US helicopter rescue mission last night that brought people stranded in Kabul city to the airport.
“Last night, during the period of darkness, there was an operation to safely evacuate evacuees back into Kabul, they are at HKIA (Hamid Karzai International Airport), and they’re safely preparing to be evacuated,” Maj General Hank Taylor said at a press briefing.
Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby, would not give further details other than there were less than 20 evacuees on the flight.
It is the third such helicopter rescue, but the Pentagon said yesterday the US military is also conducting extractions by road, but will not release details for security reasons.
Two thousand Afghan interpreters and others who worked for the British government are still to be airlifted out of Kabul by the RAF, defence sources said, as the emergency evacuation reaches its final stages amid rising fears of a terrorist attack.
There also remain an unidentified number of “special cases” – human rights activists, judges, LGBTQ+ advocates and others – placed on a special list by the Foreign Office waiting to get out, plus a small number of single-nationality Britons.
A total of 10,291 people have been evacuated by the RAF since the fall of Kabul, including 6,380 Afghans and 2,570 Britons and their dependants, 341 embassy staff plus citizens of 38 other countries, according to official figures.
The Ministry of Defence would not be drawn on how long the evacuation would last – although defences sources suggested it would be as little as 24 to 36 hours to allow the British military to pack up, followed by the US before a final 31 August deadline.
Evacuation flights leaving Kabul every 39 minutes, Pentagon says
The Pentagon is giving its regular morning update on the progress of the evacuation operation in Kabul.
According to Maj Gen Hank Taylor, 90 evacuation flights left in the past 24 hours with 19,000 people aboard, a new daily record.
Of that total, 11,700 people left on 42 US military transports. Another 7,800 went on 48 planes flown by coalition nations and other countries.
On average, a flight left Kabul every 39 minutes. At the moment, there are 10,000 people at Kabul airport waiting for a flight out.