DOD Planning for up to 22,000 Afghans to Evacuate

The Defense and State Departments are planning to fly thousands more Afghans out of the country in the coming days, even as disturbing images of Afghans desperately attempting to board U.S. aircraft and flee the Taliban spread across social media Aug. 16.

To date, according to officials from both departments, roughly 2,000 Afghan citizens who assisted with the U.S. mission in Afghanistan have been relocated out of the country as part of the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program in the past several weeks, officials from both departments said.

State Department press secretary Ned Price said another 1,600 individuals have been airlifted out of Afghanistan in recent days by U.S. aircraft. Those individuals include American citizens who worked at the Kabul embassy, SIV holders, refugees, and “other vulnerable Afghans,” Price said. He declined to break down the number of each category.

The Defense Department, meanwhile, is planning to establish up to 22,000 spaces for SIV refugees on its bases, according to Garry Reid, the lead for the DOD’s crisis action group for Afghanistan.

In the weeks before the Taliban’s breakneck conquest of Afghanistan, as the U.S. continued its withdrawal, several hundred Afghans approved for special immigrant visas were relocated to Fort Lee, Va., for housing and processing.

Reid said DOD is planning to establish additional spaces at Fort Bliss, Texas, and Fort McCoy, Wis. Other installations may be used in the future, he added.

Amid the chaos of Aug. 16, several hundred SIV recipients and their families were able to get on American aircraft and leave the country, Reid added. With thousands still waiting, though, the pace will have to increase.

“We certainly have a much greater requirement,” Reid acknowledged. “We are still in the process of bringing in forces. These aircraft, as space is available on the outbound, have been taking passengers, and, of course, this has been somewhat disrupted in the last 24 hours.”

In retaking control of Hamid Karzai International Airport, the U.S. also hopes to re-establish commercial travel, Price said, which could allow endangered Afghans to leave the country in another way.

Ultimately, Price added, the U.S. plans to evacuate “as many as we can” while maintaining a diplomatic presence in the airport—the American embassy has been completely abandoned, but Price said the goal is to maintain some sort of presence on the ground “as long as it is safe to do so.”

So long as that presence at the airport is maintained, Price said, the State and Defense departments will work to evacuate as many Afghan citizens as possible.

However, when asked if the State Department had reached any sort of agreement with the Taliban to continue operating out of the airport, Price demurred, saying that although there had been some “constructive” talks, “we are going to look for their actions, rather than listen to their words.”