Pentagon press secretary John Kirby on Thursday admitted he “doesn’t know” how many Americans remain in Afghanistan as the Biden administration scrambles to evacuate American citizens and Afghans at risk of Taliban reprisals from the country.
Kirby and Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor said that 7,000 people had been flown out of Hamid Karzai International Airport since the evacuations began on Saturday — 2,000 in the past 24 hours.
But Kirby said he was unable to break down how many Americans had been on the flights, compared to Afghans and people from other countries.
Kirby was asked directly how many Americans are in Afghanistan.
“I don’t know,” he said.
The reporter pressed him on the numbers, questioning why, as the US is carrying out the frantic operations, there isn’t an account of how many Americans are in harm’s way or still needing to be evacuated.
“I think as you probably know, first of all, the State Department would be a better place to go for an estimate of how many Americans are in Afghanistan or in and around Kabul. That is not a figure that the United States military would know, and I think you also know not every American citizen in another country that there’s no obligation that they register their presence. And that you can have a perfect accurate count,” Kirby said defensively at a Pentagon briefing.
“But I don’t have that figure, and I’m referring to my State Department colleagues for the best estimate on that,” he added.
The Pentagon said it wants to evacuate up to 9,000 people each day from the Kabul airport, but Taylor acknowledged that many of the flights are taking off without a full load of passengers due to a combination of slow processing and the tangle of Taliban roadblocks to get to the airport.
“We’re ready to increase throughput and have scheduled aircraft departures accordingly. We intend to maximize each plane’s capacity, we’re prioritizing people above all else. And we’re focused on doing this as safely as possible with absolute urgency,” he said, noting that 13 C-17 US transport planes arrived in Kabul with troops and equipment and 12 C-17 planes had departed.
Kirby and Taylor said the military had managed to open more gates at the airport and the State Department provided more staffers to check the special immigration visas some Afghans are eligible for and to help Americans get on flights.
“We have seen by opening up another gate, by adding consular officers now, we believe that we will soon begin to see an opening up of the aperture and we’re hopeful that that means a more consistent increase in the flow,” Kirby said.
“We’ve got additional consular officers at these additional gates with additional troops helping the consular officers so I think we’re poised to see an increase but I want to be careful before I make predictions,” he said. “What we’re trying to do, what we want to drive, is an increase. That’s very much on everybody’s mind.”
But he wouldn’t guarantee that the gates have been continuously accessible and that the Taliban isn’t blocking entry at times.
“I can’t tell you with perfect clarity that there haven’t been times over the last 72 hours when temporarily because of maybe security incidents that they’ve had to close. I suspect that that’s true. I don’t have a firm answer for you on that. Our goal is obviously to keep them as open as possible and to increase the flow as much as we can,” Kirby said.
The US evacuation operation has been punctuated by chaos since it began as panicked Afghans fearing the Taliban made a desperate dash to the airport to try to escape the country — many running alongside and even clinging to a US Air Force plane as it taxied down the runway.
Other images showed hundreds of Afghans crammed inside a US military plane as it prepared to take off.
On the streets outside the international airport, Taliban checkpoints make it difficult and even deadly for Afghans to get through.
The US Embassy in Kabul on Wednesday alerted Americans that they couldn’t guarantee safe passage to the airport.
Between 10,000 and 15,000 Americans remain in Afghanistan, President Biden told ABC News in an interview.
The president added that the administration estimates that between 50,000 and 65,000 Afghans who worked with Western forces are still in the country, a number that includes their families.
The two Pentagon officials were also grilled about F-18 fighter jets flying over Kabul the past couple of days.
Taylor said the jets were dispatched from the Ronald Reagan Carrier group and were flying “armed overwatch flights” over the capital city “to ensure safety.”
“We maintain a watchful high and are continuously conducting in-depth assessments to protect the safety of Americans. We’ll use all of the tools in our arsenal to achieve this goal. I want to reinforce that we are absolutely focused on this mission of national importance. We are committed to the safe evacuation of as many people as quickly and as safely as possible,” Taylor said.
Kirby said the fighters are “at altitude” and denied that they were making “low pass” flights.
He was asked if the planes have authorization to fire on the Taliban if they attack US troops and said they do. “As always, we have the right to defend ourselves and our people and our operations,” he affirmed.