WASHINGTON, DC, United States (AP) — America's 20-year war in Afghanistan entered its final hours yesterday with the last Americans seeking to be evacuated and the US military preparing to end its airlift and depart the Taliban-controlled capital.
“Obviously we are reaching the end of our prescribed mission,” Major General Hank Taylor of the Pentagon's Joint Staff told reporters, adding that details of the final evacuation movements were being kept secret for security reasons.
Speaking at the same news conference, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said it was not too late for any remaining Americans to get to the Kabul airport for evacuation flights.
“There is still time,” Kirby said.
Later, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said “a small number” of Americans were believed to still be desirous of getting out of the country. She did not offer an exact number but said about 6,000 had been evacuated by various means so far. She said some of the remaining Americans had not fully decided whether to leave.
The Islamic State group's Afghanistan affiliate claimed responsibility for targeting the Kabul airport with rockets. The US military reported no American casualties.
The focus of the US evacuation was increasingly on getting the last Americans out. Senior Administration officials said Sunday that the United States has the capacity to evacuate the approximately 300 US citizens remaining in Afghanistan who want to leave before President Joe Biden's Tuesday deadline.
“This is the most dangerous time in an already extraordinarily dangerous mission these last couple of days,” said America's top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The steady stream of US military jets taking off and landing at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan's capital continued yesterday, even after rocket fire targeted the airport and rockets hit a nearby neighbourhood. US Central Command spokesman Bill Urban said five rockets targeted the airport, and a US defensive system on the airfield known as a Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar System, or C-RAM, was employed against them. He said there were no US casualties and the airfield continued to operate. Further details were not immediately available. The White House said Biden had been briefed on the rocket attack.
Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Sunday that for those US citizens seeking immediately to leave Afghanistan by the looming deadline, “we have the capacity to have 300 Americans, which is roughly the number we think are remaining, come to the airport and get on planes in the time that is remaining”.
The White House said yesterday that about 1,200 people were evacuated from Kabul over the prior 24 hours aboard 26 US military flights and two allied flights.
Sullivan said the US does not currently plan to have an ongoing embassy presence after the final US troop withdrawal. But he pledged the US “will make sure there is safe passage for any American citizen, any legal permanent resident” after today, as well as for “those Afghans who helped us”. But untold numbers of vulnerable Afghans, fearful of a return to the brutality of pre-2001 Taliban rule, are likely to be left behind.
Blinken said the US was working with other countries in the region to either keep the Kabul airport open after today or to reopen it “in a timely fashion”.
He also said that while the airport is critical, “there are other ways to leave Afghanistan, including by road, and many countries border Afghanistan”. The US, he said, is “making sure that we have in place all of the necessary tools and means to facilitate the travel for those who seek to leave Afghanistan” after today.