White House still can’t say how many Americans are in Afghanistan

President Joe Biden departs the White House Wednesday, April 14, 2021, en route to Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, to lay a wreath at Section 60. The President earlier announced plans to withdraw remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan. (Official White House Photo by Carlos Fyfe)

The White House was still unable to identify how many Americans were still stranded in Afghanistan on Friday, while appearing to describe the situation on the ground in Kabul as more serious than senior administration officials have admitted in previous days.

“We don’t have a precise number,” White House communications director Kate Bedingfield told CNN in an interview. He said the official U.S. tally of Americans in Afghanistan had been muddied by those who may have departed the country over the past six months.

“As of a few weeks ago, we had already begun reaching out to all American citizens who were in Afghanistan via email, via text, via messaging app to hear from them and to understand their plans and work with them to get them out, if they want to get out,” Bedingfield said. “And so that is a massive logistical operation that’s underway.”

Addressing the ongoing US evacuation mission from Kabul’s international airport, Bedingfield’s remarks appeared to include several caveats. She declined to guarantee that all Americans and Afghan allies would be safely transported out of the country.

“The president has committed, we will get every American who wants to get out, out of Afghanistan. And we are working to move as many of our allies — who helped us, who stood by us, who helped our servicemen and women — get out as possible,” Bedingfield said.

Asked whether the administration was prepared to leave some people behind in Afghanistan, Bedingfield responded: “We are doing everything we can to get as many people out who want to get out before the Aug. 31 deadline. That is the sole focus of the president of the United States and his team right now. They are doing everything operationally within their capacity to get out.”

President Joe Biden told ABC News on Wednesday that if evacuation operations were not completed by the end of the month, he would keep the US military presence in Afghanistan.

However, in a news briefing on Thursday, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby stated that there had been “no decision to change the deadline.” He admitted that an extension of the timetable for evacuations would require tacit approval from the Taliban in the form of a new agreement between US officials and militant group commanders.

According to the White House, the US military evacuated approximately 3,000 people from Hamid Karzai International Airport on Thursday aboard 16 American C-17 transport planes. There were 350 American citizens among the evacuees, with the remainder being families of American citizens, Special Immigrant Visa applicants and their families, and vulnerable Afghans.

According to the White House, 11 charter flights carrying an unspecified number of people have also left the airport in the last 24 hours. Since the end of July, the US military has evacuated approximately 14,000 people from Afghanistan, with an additional 9,000 people evacuated since August 14.

Nonetheless, numerous media reports and social media posts have depicted desperate and increasingly dangerous scenes outside Kabul International Airport, as Americans and Afghan allies struggle to navigate past Taliban checkpoints and face violence from Taliban fighters.

In a news briefing Thursday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price appeared to downplay the level of chaos, saying he understood “that things are moving quite efficiently at this hour at the airport now.” Price also stated that the department had only received a “handful of reports” from Americans in the region.

On Friday, however, Bedingfield was more explicit in assessing the threats to potential evacuees in Kabul. “Obviously, look, this is an incredibly violent and chaotic scene on the ground. It’s dangerous. It’s dangerous for our troops who are there working to get people out. So we are trying to move quickly,” she said.

“Of course, the images that we’re seeing are heartbreaking, they’re appalling,” Bedingfield added. “It is a scary moment.”

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