WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday said that up to 1,500 US citizens are still stranded in Afghanistan — shortly after President Biden joked with a reporter who asked about possibly leaving behind Americans in the Taliban-controlled nation.
Blinken gave the figure after Biden administration officials repeatedly said they didn’t know how many Americans remain in Afghanistan as Biden prepares to remove all US troops within just days to adhere to an Aug. 31 deadline.
“Over the last 10 days, roughly 4,500 of these Americans have been safely evacuated along with immediate family members. Over the past 24 hours, we’ve been in direct contact with approximately 500 additional Americans and provided specific instructions on how to get to the airport safely,” Blinken said.
“We’ll update you regularly on our progress in getting these 500 American citizens out of Afghanistan. For the remaining roughly 1,000 contacts that we have who may be Americans seeking to leave Afghanistan, we’re aggressively reaching out to them multiple times a day through multiple channels of communication.”
Shortly before Blinken’s press conference, Biden was asked about Afghanistan by a reporter in the White House East Room during a summit with business leaders on cybersecurity and told a joke when pressed on possibly leaving Americans behind.
“What will you do if Americans are still there after the deadline?” NBC News reporter Peter Alexander asked the commander in chief.
Biden smiled and quipped: “You’ll be the first person I call.”
The president’s joshing around outraged Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.), who said in a Fox News interview that “it incenses me to no end.”
Green, an Afghanistan war veteran, said, “I was in the military, I’ve lived by that code now leave no person behind the fact that they are so flippant about leaving Americans…. I can’t believe this. There is no excuse for pulling out because the Taliban says we have to be gone by Aug. 31.”
Blinken told reporters that there are many reasons for uncertainty about the number of Americans who remain. US citizens aren’t required to register with the government, he said, and some want to remain in the Taliban-ruled country.
“We’ve also found that many people who contact us and identify themselves as American citizens, including by filling out and submitting repatriation assistance forms, are not in fact US citizens, something that can take some time to verify,” Blinken said.
“Some Americans may choose to stay in Afghanistan… Many of them are dual nationals and may consider Afghanistan their home, who have been there for decades, or who may want to stay close to extended family. And there are Americans who are still evaluating their decision to leave based on the situation on the ground that evolves daily in fact that evolves hourly.”
Blinken said some Americans “even change their mind from one day to the next, as has happened, and will likely continue to happen.”
More than 4,000 Americans have been evacuated from Afghanistan since Aug. 14, according to officials. Initial US estimates put the number of citizens in the country at around 8,000-15,000.
Blinken said that the US will continue to try to help Americans leave Afghanistan after the projected final withdrawal of US troops next week — but stopped short of elaborating on how that would be accomplished given the Taliban’s “red line” against allowing America to operate in the country past the deadline.
“There is no deadline on our work to help any remaining American citizens who decide they want to leave to do so,” he said. “Along with the many Afghans who stood by us over these many years, and want to leave, and I’ve been unable to do so. That effort will continue every day past August 31.”