The Pentagon on Friday appeared to flatly contradict two claims just minutes after they were made by US
President Joe Biden
Flanked by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Biden
on the US military’s ongoing evacuation efforts in Afghanistan.
In his speech from the East Room of the White House, the Commander-in-Chief declared success in ridding Afghanistan of Al Qaeda and dismissed earlier reports of Americans being prevented from reaching Kabul airport for evacuations.
When asked if US troops would be sent out of their base in Hamid Karzai International Airport to help Americans reach the evacuation site, Biden said:
“We have no indication that they haven’t been able to get in Kabul through the airport… We’ve made an agreement with the Taliban thus far, they’ve allowed them to go through, it’s in their interest for them to through.”
Minutes later, however, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, told House lawmakers in a briefing call that Americans trying to leave Afghanistan have been beaten by
while trying to reach the sole evacuation point in Afghanistan that is not controlled by the Taliban*, according to sources cited by Politico.
During the conference call with members of Congress, which also reportedly involved Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, Austin is cited as saying:
“We’re also aware that some people, including Americans, have been harassed and even beaten by the Taliban. This is unacceptable and [we] made it clear to the designated Taliban leader.”
However, Austin is described as having stopped short of clarifying what efforts would be made to ensure Americans’ safe passage to the airport in Afghanistan’s capital city. He purportedly declined to “rule in or out” the possibility of US troops moving beyond the airport to help Americans and others reach the airport.
Austin was quoted as adding that “with the exception of those cases, we continue to see Americans and appropriately credentialed Afghans continue to move through.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, at a Defense Department Briefing later, when asked about Austin’s remarks, said:
“We’re certainly mindful of these reports and they’re deeply troubling and we have communicated to the Taliban that that’s absolutely unacceptable, that we want free passage through their checkpoints for documented Americans and – by and large – that’s happening.”
Kirby also said
at the briefing
that “we know that Al Qaeda remains… we have talked about it for some time,” adding that the US “intelligence gathering ability in Afghanistan is not what it used to be”.
During the briefing call, Gen. Mark Milley told lawmakers that the military would be increasing C-17 evacuation flights out of Kabul up from 12 daily to more than 30 in the coming days, according to sources. Austin is said to have confirmed that the US military “absolutely” agreed to evacuate top Afghan commandos who aided Americans during their mission in the country.
AFP 2021 / NICHOLAS GUEVARA
Earlier Friday, President Joe Biden for the first time committed to evacuating all Afghan allies of the US who want to leave the country, extending the same pledge he has previously made to Americans inside Afghanistan.
“There’s no one more important than bringing American citizens out, I acknowledge that. But they’re equally important, almost,” Biden told reporters.
Previously, Biden told ABC News in an interview Wednesday he would maintain the US troop presence in Afghanistan beyond the August 31 pullout deadline if evacuation operations were not yet completed.
The House briefing cited by US media outlets was the first of several in the coming days. Amid bipartisan condemnation of the Biden’s
execution of the troop pullout
, lawmakers have been seeking answers about Taliban’s lightning-swift power grab and the floundering US evacuation efforts.
Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) was cited by the New York Post as saying said that Biden’s “counterproductive” messaging has conflicted with media reports of the situation on the ground.
“There remains a massive gap between the message that President Biden shared with the American people and the reality on the ground. He says Americans are not having trouble accessing the airport, while the media is reporting of the Taliban roaming the streets beating Americans and our allies,” Gonzalez told The Post.
A Republican lawmaker was cited by the Post as saying the Friday conference call was cut short before all lawmakers could have their questions answered.
“The big thing for me is, there’s a huge gap between what Biden says on TV, and then what we hear in these calls,” said the source.
To date, at least four Democrat-led congressional committees reportedly intend to go ahead with hearings to investigate the Joe Biden administration over its conduct regarding the events in the South Asian country.
During the Friday conference call, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy reportedly branded the withdrawal an “enormous mistake” while urging Lloyd Austin to reopen Bagram Air Base.
REUTERS / Mohammad Ismail
The base was shut down and abandoned earlier this year amid the US pullout. Bagram, with its two runways, was suggested as a way to accelerate the evacuations of Americans and Afghan allies.
“We will work hard to evacuate as many people as we can between now and when we have to stop. If I’m given more time, I will take more time. … It’s unclear whether or not we’ll be able to do that,” Austin was cited as saying.
Joe Biden earlier vowed he would keep troops in Afghanistan beyond August 31 if the evacuations weren’t completed by then. Biden also said earlier that the US was “considering every opportunity and every means by which we could get folks to the airport.” There is currently no clarification whether that would entail sending American troops outside of the airport perimeter.
Regarding the plight of those who were successfully airlifted out of Afghanistan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken allegedly told lawmakers in the Friday conference call that more countries has offered to house Afghan evacuees in addition to those that have already begun
Americans and Afghans inside their territory.
The latter include Bahrain, Germany, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Qatar, Spain, Tajikistan, the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan. The countries that have agreed to join the effort, according to Blinken, include Albania, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Mexico, Romania, Qatar, Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan and Ukraine.
REUTERS / US AIR FORCE
Earlier, a reported backlog on Friday at Al Udeid Air Base, in Qatar, where passengers were flown to be processed, had resulted in a seven-hour pause on flights from Kabul. After the hiatus, flights out of the airport resumed.
*The Taliban and al-Qaeda are listed as terrorist organizations in Russia.