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Biden says safe zone around Kabul airport to expand, as Pentagon enlists commercial airlines to aid evacuations


WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden said Sunday that the U.S. military is "executing a plan" to move stranded American citizens to the Kabul airport in greater numbers, including through an expansion of a safe zone around the facility and by creating conduits for people to access the compound "safely and effectively."

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"Our first priority in Kabul," Biden said in remarks at the White House, "is getting American citizens out of the country as quickly and as safely as possible."

The president would not say how the plan for "increased rational access to the airport" is being carried out or whether U.S. troops have expanded their perimeter outside the airport and further into Kabul, which could put them at heightened risk of attack from Taliban factions manning security checkpoints and Islamic State operatives who, U.S. officials warn, pose a serious threat.

In recent days, the Qatari ambassador to Afghanistan has escorted small groups of Americans into the airport, according to two people familiar with the effort who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive operation. American citizens have been instructed to meet at rally points in the city, and the ambassador then accompanies them to guarantee safe passage, these people said. Qatar has served as an intermediary between the United States and the Taliban at several stages of the American withdrawal, sponsoring peace talks and serving as the first point of refuge for many evacuees.

The operational shift comes as U.S. commanders gear up for what officials hope will be a dramatic acceleration of evacuations from Afghanistan in the coming days, enlisting domestic commercial airliners and a number of foreign allies to aid the effort.

Evacuations had slowed over the past couple days, as backlogs in waystations like Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar prevented planeloads of people from departing Kabul, grounding planned flights out and degrading humanitarian conditions at the already overcrowded airport.

The addition of 18 commercial airplanes - activated, the Pentagon announced Sunday, as part of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet - is intended to address those bottlenecks. The jetliners, contracted from domestic airlines United, American, Atlas, Delta, Omni and Hawaiian, will not be flown into Kabul, but used instead to move those taken to places like Qatar on to other destinations in Europe, the Americas, Africa and the Persian Gulf. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier in the weekend that 13 countries had pledged to temporarily host evacuees, while an additional 12 had agreed to serve as transit points.

Biden said Sunday that the mobilization represented a "first stage," leaving the possibility that more flights could be added to the effort.

On Saturday, the U.S. military operated 14 evacuation flights that took about 3,900 people out of the country, while 35 other planes evacuated approximately the same number, according to White House and Pentagon officials. That's up twofold from Friday - but still short of the 5,000 to 9,000 people per day that senior military officials have said they have the capability to evacuate themselves.

About 28,000 people have been evacuated since Aug. 14, including 11,000 over the weekend, Biden said. "We see no reason why this tempo will not be kept up," the president told reporters.

Yet the backlog remains significant - particularly at the Kabul airport, where people have been waiting for days in increasingly squalid conditions to learn when it might be their turn to board a plane to safety. Over 10,000 people had crammed themselves inside the airport perimeter on Sunday, as more clamored to get in.

The crush and chaos outside the airport killed seven Afghan civilians, including a toddler, on Saturday, according to the British military. Although it appears the Taliban has tried to reason

those crowds, some Afghans stayed anyway, according to a senior U.S. official. The gates to the airport remain closed to most people Sunday, the official said, though U.S. citizens and Afghans with approved special immigrant visas are being let through.

Many American citizens and U.S.-approved Afghans, however, are still sheltering in place, awaiting instruction for when it is safe to come to the airport. Over the weekend, the State Department issued a warning to U.S. citizens, telling them not to approach the airport unless expressly notified by a U.S. government official.

Last week, the Biden administration estimated there were up to 15,000 Americans remaining in Afghanistan. Officials said Saturday that about 2,500 had left the country.

U.S. officials are in contact with Taliban leaders to try to negotiate assurances of peaceful passage to the airport. But as Blinken noted during a television appearance Sunday, the Taliban "are in control of Kabul. That is the reality."

The Taliban's leaders are presently in Kabul, discussing how to form a government. On Sunday, a senior member of the Taliban's ruling council said that although the militant group would respect an amnesty for Afghan citizens, including those who cooperated with the United States, it would not apply to "troublemakers" or those "who are creating law and order situations."

The State Department's warning also was motivated in part by threats that the Islamic State might be targeting Americans.

"The threat is real. It's acute. It is persistent. And it is something we're focused on with every tool in our arsenal," Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Sunday on CNN. During remarks later in the day, the president added that "we're under no illusions" about the severity of the threat posed by the Islamic State.

The Islamic State has long been at odds with the Taliban. But the Taliban remains aligned with al-Qaida, the group behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks that prompted the United States to invade Afghanistan 20 years ago. Blinken acknowledged during an interview on Fox News that remnants of al-Qaida remain in Afghanistan, though he insisted that the group's capacity to launch a similar attack on the U.S. homeland "is vastly, vastly diminished."

Neither Blinken nor Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who appeared Sunday on ABC News, would say whether U.S. forces would be allowed to go beyond the narrow perimeter of the Kabul airport - or whether they thought Biden should extend the Aug. 31 deadline for U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan, to ensure that the maximum number of American citizens and Afghans eligible for U.S. entry are evacuated. The president indicated that such conversations are underway within the administration but that he remains hopeful it won't be necessary to stay there any longer.

Published : August 23, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Karoun Demirjian, John Hudson, Dan Lamothe, Adela Suliman