With the Afghanistan pullout deadline drawing near, some signs of progress were seen in the Afghan capital. 12,000 people were flown out of Kabul in the past 12 hours on U.S. and coalition flights. The U.S. has evacuated more than 70,700 people from Afghanistan since August 14. But President Joe Biden did not fully commit Tuesday to a complete withdrawal. Jane Ferguson reports from the ground.
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Amna Nawaz: President Biden says the United States will work to finish its evacuation in Afghanistan by August 31. But he did not fully commit today to a complete withdrawal, as American and allied evacuations continued and thousands remained desperate to flee. With the pullout deadline drawing near, there were some signs of progress in the Afghan capital; 70, 700 people have now been evacuated by the United States from Kabul since August 14; 12,000 have been flown out in just the last 12 hours by the U.S. and its partners; 4,000-plus Americans have now also been evacuated. The president says the secretary of state will update the numbers of Americans trying to leave Afghanistan tomorrow. Now, again with the support of Pulitzer Center, Jane Ferguson reports from Kabul.
Jane Ferguson: With just a week to go before the U.S. military mission expires in Afghanistan, President Biden is still aiming for his August 31 deadline, but left open the option to extend the mission beyond that date. He said that decision came down to concerns about the safety of American forces.
President Biden: We are currently on a pace to finish by August the 31st. The sooner we can finish, the better. Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops. In addition, I have asked the Pentagon and the State Department for contingency plans to adjust the timetable, should that become necessary. I am determined to ensure that we complete our mission.
Jane Ferguson:The Taliban has been adamantly against any such extensions.
Zabihullah Mujahid, Taliban Spokesman (through translator): We are not in favor of allowing Afghans to leave, and, after August 31, we will not allow the Americans to be here.
Jane Ferguson: This comes amid word that CIA Director William Burns secretly met face to face with the Taliban's leader on Monday in Kabul, but no details were released. Pentagon officials reported at least one flight is departing from Kabul every 45 minutes. Spokesman John Kirby said they expect to build on that momentum.
John Kirby, Pentagon Press Secretary: We still believe, certainly now that we have been able to increase the capacity and the flow, we believe that we have that — that we have the capability, the ability, to get that done by the end of month. Our plan is to continue this pace as aggressively as we can.
Jane Ferguson: Back in Kabul, the desperation grows as the clock ticks down. Thousands of people are still attempting to flee, their possessions reduced to what they can carry or wheel around. While the evacuation numbers are higher, they're only allowing in people with passports and green cards, not the many more who were promised to be considered for a flight out.
Abdul Razzaq, Afghanistan (through translator): The situation at the airport is really bad. People are crowding. And because of the rush of people, women and children are in miserable condition.
Woman (through translator): The situation is unclear, and we don't know who will come and who will run the country. There is unemployment, insecurity. There is no source of income, and we have food and security issues.
Jane Ferguson: Also today, the Taliban released an order to all Afghan women that they must stay in their homes for their own protection. Less than 10 days since the group took control of the country, and promised women that this time it would be different, they're beginning to look a lot like the old Taliban rulers of the 1990s. Mahbooba Saraj, the founder of the Afghan Women's Network, is one of the most prominent voices advocating for the rights of Afghan women.
Mahbooba Saraj: I don't have anything to say to the international community, especially the leaders. I have a lot to say to the women of the world. I have a lot to say to the people of the world, but not to the governments of the world.
Jane Ferguson: What do you say to the women who are watching this right now? What do you say to American women who are watching who are concerned, but feeling helpless? How can they help the women of Afghanistan?
Mahbooba Saraj: I know. I just want to tell them how much I appreciate their solidarity, how much I appreciate the fact that they have been always standing next to us, how much I appreciate the fact that they are still looking after us. I want them to say to the world, just, you know, just watch it. See what the Taliban are doing. Are they keeping their promises? Are they really behaving the way they are supposed to? If they are not, then at least don't give them the money that you promised them. I would tell every Afghan woman tonight that, my sisters, I love you so much from the bottom of my heart. The ones of you that have left this country is not because you wanted to. It was because you had to. The ones of you that are staying in this country and you can't get out, please don't give up hope. Please don't be afraid. Things are going to change. There's nothing in this world that is going to stay the same.
Jane Ferguson: Back in Washington, demands for accountability are coming from both sides of the aisle, especially as the Biden administration has yet to say just how many Americans remain in Afghanistan.
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA): The buck stops here. President Biden said that actually about a week ago, and then he went off blaming everybody else. But, ultimately, it's his decision. He's got to own this, but he's got to own up to the American people.
Jane Ferguson: Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner of Virginia issued a statement vowing to get to the bottom of — quote — "why we weren't better prepared for a worst-case scenario involving such a swift and total collapse of the Afghan government and security forces. Lawmakers have already announced investigations into the administration's handling of the Afghan withdrawal, hoping to reveal some of those answers.
Amna Nawaz: And Jane Ferguson joins me now again from Kabul. Jane, good to see you. So, we heard President Biden say the U.S. will be finished by August 31. You just showed us the thousands of people outside the airport, many more still hoping to make it there. What does that mean for them?
Jane Ferguson: There are so many more out there, Amna, many of them sleeping, bedding down for the night. Some of them have been there for several days. There are also people in the city who are desperate to make it out here. All of us journalists field frantic calls from former interpreters or anybody who worked with the USAID or other agencies, and generally was known to work with the foreigners over the last 20 years, are really concerned, saying, the situation, can we get through to the airport? So, for them, now this is a hard deadline. It applies pressure. But we have to also remember that they have to get to the airport anyway, and the Taliban have said that they're going to stop people from here on in, stop Afghans getting to the airport, and that the airport is really just there for foreigners who wish to leave to go. So that essentially could end up stopping anybody's chances anyway of getting through. It's tonight that we're beginning to see the Taliban stopping Afghan civilians. Now, they have already had a kind of informal curfew in the evenings. It was never guaranteed anybody could get through checkpoints. But, after tonight, we will really know if they're going to act on that promise that they were going to stop Afghan people from getting to the airport. Having seen the crowds of people showing up and the desperate anxiety to get onto a plane, I think that's going to be a challenge for the Taliban. But for anybody who's already here, it's still very, very difficult to get inside the airport and onto a plane, whether or not you're clutching a partly guaranteed visa, an approved visa that hasn't been issued. If you're anywhere along process, that is not the end, it's extremely difficult to get in.
Amna Nawaz: And, Jane, clearly there are intense negotiations underway between U.S. officials and the Taliban, even the head of the CIA meeting with them in Kabul. What leverage does the U.S. have at this stage, when it's days away from leaving?
Jane Ferguson: It's days away from leaving, and it's clinging to the edge of an airport. So, the leverage in terms of the situation on the ground in Kabul, when you look at it from that literal strength and military perspective, is very low. This area is surrounded by the Taliban. Obviously, the soldiers here are heavily armed, and the Taliban are unlikely to want to really poke the bear to that extent when it's on its way out the door. But at the same time, it's clear that the Taliban are happy to put pressure on the United States to leave and that, from their perspective, they are very much so keen to be seen as the victors here, and that they really do — from a P.R. perspective, they want to be able to show the Americans wanting to get out, and in a hurry, and that they are dictating terms to them. But, however, there is some leverage potentially. I mean, the Taliban are under pressure to actually run this country. It's one thing to menace a country as an insurgent group. It is another thing entirely to run one. And they are under pressure to provide services, to provide security here, and they will be, as the last government was, dependent on international aid and support. This country has been suffering under COVID lockdowns. It's been suffering under droughts. There's a huge amount of food insecurity for millions of Afghans. Everything from the educational system to the health care system is dependent on the international community. That is a form of leverage. And, lastly, one other form of leverage is the issue of basically the leadership of the Taliban being on sanctions lists. That's always been something that they have been negotiating with even throughout the whole negotiations with the Trump administration during the drawdown deal. So, that is one way that the Americans might be able to negotiate with them. And I imagine, in that meeting with the CIA chief, that these topics all came up.
Amna Nawaz: Jane, very briefly, before I let you go, we heard the president mention the threat from ISIS-K to the airport compound. I wonder if you can give us briefly, what is sort of the overall security threat there?
Jane Ferguson: The security threat is dictated by the fact that they can't really secure the compound. These are roads that are dictated by the Taliban themselves. You're relying on the Taliban providing security on the way in. No one's really being checked. No one's really being checked by metal detectors. You have got crowds of people showing up. And you have got military from America, Britain, their allies all out in the street next to Taliban commanders. It is a chaotic scene, and a very vulnerable one.
Amna Nawaz: Another long day of extraordinary reporting by our own Jane Ferguson on the ground there for us in Kabul, Afghanistan. Jane, thank you again, and please stay safe.
Jane Ferguson: Thanks, Amna.