Former CIA Director David Petraeus called the chaotic evacuation of Americans and Afghan civilians from Afghanistan a “Dunkirk moment” –as Biden administration officials reveal they are unaware of the exact number of US civilians in the nation now under Taliban control.
“This is a Dunkirk moment and our decisions created it. We need to acknowledge that. And we should now act as if we do recognize the catastrophe that we have created for Afghans who supported us,” Petraeus, who commanded US forces in Afghanistan during the Obama administration, said in an interview with The Cipher Brief on Tuesday.
“We should ensure that the Taliban knows that we will not tolerate their efforts to impede the movement of individuals to get to the airport and get out of the country. And we should demonstrate that if need be. That is the only way to discharge our moral obligation to those who supported and served with us and who are now marked men and women in their own country because of that,” he said.
The Kabul international airport erupted into chaos on Monday when hordes of Afghan civilians desperate to flee the Taliban’s strict rule made a dash to escape the country.
Video shows crowds of Afghans following a US Air Force transport plane as it taxied along the runway with many of them trying to cling to the aircraft. At least two plunged to their deaths after the aircraft took off.
The throngs of people trying to escape forced the US military to temporarily shut down the airport and suspend the evacuations because of the deteriorating security situation.
As the flights resumed on Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby admitted there were “certainly thousands” of Americans still in Afghanistan, but that he did not have an “exact count.”
“We think there are certainly thousands of Americans. We don’t have an exact count, I would say somewhere, best guess between 5,000-10,000 that are near Kabul,” he said in an interview with CNN.
He was also asked what plan the administration had for evacuating the Americans who live in Kabul or elsewhere in Afghanistan now that the Taliban has taken over and is restricting movement and transportation.
Kirby said the military is focused on ensuring security at the airport so that the evacuation operations can continue — but didn’t want to “set the expectation” that the US had the capacity to retrieve people trapped elsewhere in the country.
“I don’t want to set the expectation that we are equipped and able to go out into the countryside and physically move people into Kabul. Our focus right now the troops that we have there are at the airport,” he said.
Kirby said that Americans in Kabul no longer need to shelter in place and should “queue up and get to the airport,” Kirby said.
“They can begin movement to the airport for processing flights out,” he added.
But he was pressed by CNN’s John Berman about the Americans who aren’t in Kabul and are unable to get to the airport.
“I understand that, and we all understand that the security situation in Kabul is not ideal. Right now, the airport is open, that people are able to get through the gates there and there’s a processing process that actually has to occur. But right now, things are moving out of the airport and again our focus is on making sure that continues,” he said.
But Robert Charles, a former assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, said there could be as many as 40,000 Americans in Afghanistan.
“There’s a document in the embassy called the F-77. … I am told the F-77 of Afghanistan indicates there are 15,000, potentially upwards of 40,000 Americans, scattered around Afghanistan right now,” Charles said on Fox News.
“The Taliban has given a two-week grace period for them to get out, but most of them have been told to shelter in place by the State Department,” he said, noting that many of the Americans are in towns and cities outside Kabul where travel is difficult because of the Taliban.
At a briefing on the Afghanistan evacuation efforts, Gen. Hank Taylor said between 700 and 800 people were flown out of the country and that 165 of them were American citizens.
“Right now, we’re looking at one aircraft per hour in and out of [the airport]. It looks like 5,000 to 9,000 passengers departing per day,” Taylor said.
With Post wires