The Pentagon said in a Monday briefing that it will consider leaving American troops in Afghanistan past August 31, in consultation with President Biden and allies, but dismissed the idea of the U.S. military taking back Bagram Airfield to speed up evacuations.
The comments from Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby came as the crisis in Afghanistan continues one week after the Taliban toppled the country’s U.S.-backed government.
The U.S. military, according to the Pentagon, has sped up evacuations from the Kabul airport, removing nearly 11,000 people in the past 24 hours — although the Pentagon won’t say how many Americans it’s evacuated. The military has also used helicopters multiple times to help Americans stranded in Kabul get into the airport, Kirby said.
But Kabul remains highly dangerous with the gates to the airport closing and opening without notice, the Taliban beating Americans trying to make their way to the airport, and at least one Afghan soldier dying in a gunfight outside the airport. Kirby said Monday that the military will continue evacuating as many Americans, U.S. allies and vulnerable Afghans as long as possible — and potentially past the end of the month which Biden previously set as a deadline.
“The goal is to get as many people out as fast as possible,” Kirby said. “The focus is on trying to do this as best we can by the end of the month. And as the secretary said, if he needs to have additional conversations with the commander in chief about that timeline he’ll do that — but we’re just not at that point right now.”
In this Aug. 20, 2021, photo provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, a Marine with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) provides a meal ready-to-eat to a child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Sgt. Samuel Ruiz/U.S. Marine Corps via AP)
Kirby also said the U.S. is aware of public statements from the Taliban saying that it views Aug. 31 as a hard deadline for Americans to leave, and of statements from some NATO allies who may want to stay longer.
A senior State Department official Monday also said that “our commitment to at-risk Afghans doesn’t end on Aug. 31” and that there is an expectation of people who want to have a chance to exit Afghanistan after the U.S. military leaves. It is not clear how that opportunity would be available if the Taliban gains control of the Kabul airport, however.
Some have criticized the military for abandoning the massive and secure Bagram air base just a few weeks ago and suggested that the U.S. retake the base as an additional staging area for evacuations. But Kirby dismissed the idea out Monday.
“The throughput has improved and increased,” Kirby said of the operation at the Kabul airport. “I don’t think it would be a useful expenditure of our time to Monday morning quarterback the whole issue with Bagram. It was closed down as part of the retrograde.”
Pushed on whether retaking Bagram and using it to help get more Americans and allies out of Afghanistan, Kirby continued to say that doing so would be too risky.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
“What you’re talking about would be an expenditure of resources and personnel, as well as an increase most likely to the threat that they’re under — to try to go back and as you put it retake Bagram air base which is the size of a small city,” Kirby said.
The Pentagon spokesman also said Monday that in the past three weeks Pentagon leaders engaged in a “tabletop exercise” to simulate evacuating people from the Kabul airport “and we’re actually running that play now.”
Kirby dodged questions on exactly how many Americans have been evacuated from Afghanistan so far. He was asked by a reporter why he was only saying that “thousands” of Americans have been evacuated from the country even as he provided very specific numbers on other topics, including 11,000 people removed from Afghanistan by the U.S. military in the past 24 hours.
“I’m just going to leave it at several thousand,” Kirby said.
He denied to elaborate when the reporter asked him whether the vagueness was because the military does not know how many Americans have been evacuated, or if there is some other reason for that.
Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin and Nick Kalman contributed to this report.