The Department of Defense is laser-focused on operations at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said during a Pentagon news conference yesterday, but Pentagon Spokesman John F. Kirby told Pentagon reporters attending an operational update of U.S. military operations in that country that the crisis in Afghanistan remains fluid and dynamic and it is ever-changing.
The secretary and Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefed the media on operations in Afghanistan as American service members work to evacuate Americans, allies, Afghans who served with coalition forces and Afghans at special risk from the Taliban.
The U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan is at about 4,500 troops on the ground in Kabul at Hamid Karzai International Airport, which they secured days ago. The operation to hold down the airport and evacuate civilians from Afghanistan is ongoing and a few hundred more troops might arrive today, Kirby said.
The Kabul airport remains secure and open for flight operations; military flights are arriving and departing consistently, and there are limited commercial flight operations, in addition to some foreign contracted flights that are coming and going, Kirby said.
These troops control the airport and are helping process those wishing to leave the Taliban-controlled capital.
Austin said his first priority is “the safety and security of our people and the people that we’re trying to evacuate.”
The number of American service members in Kabul could grow to around 6,000.
“They are trained and equipped to defend themselves and their operations,” Austin said. “There have been no hostile interactions with the Taliban, and our lines of communication with Taliban commanders remain open, as they should be.”
Maintaining the security at the airport is the secretary’s second priority. “In concert with forces from our allies, our troops have set up defensive positions around the airport, and the airport is able to function safely,” Austin said. He is in daily contact with leaders on the ground to ensure they have all they need to continue the mission.
Austin’s final area of focus is increasing the pace of evacuation operations.
“We’ve flown out several thousand since the 15th of August and our goal is to be able to increase our capacity every day going forward,” Austin said. “And as we build out this capacity, we’re working hand in glove with the State Department, which is leading the whole of government effort to notify and process American citizens who are leaving, and to urgently identify and process Afghan applicants as well.”
The military has dispatched small teams to assist State Department consular officials as they process those arriving at the airport. “We expect to be able to augment that capability in the coming days,” he said. “This is truly a team effort across the interagency.”
Austin praised service members operating in these challenging circumstances. He said they are showing their humanity and their compassion.
The chairman said the key military task is to establish and maintain security at the Kabul International Airport, and to defend the airport from attack.
“The President of the United States made a decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan on April 14,” he said. “Since that day, we conducted a deliberate and responsible drawdown of U.S. forces, to less than 1,000, with a specific task of securing the U.S. Embassy and our diplomatic presence in Afghanistan.”
Since April the security situation in Afghanistan has degraded, and the Taliban now control the country.
“Today, the situation is still very dangerous, very dynamic and very fluid,” Milley said. “All of us can be proud of the soldiers, sailors, airmen [and] Marines [who are] executing this mission. They are currently in harm’s way. That needs to be our focus. There will be plenty of time to do [after action reviews]. Right now, our mission is to secure that airfield, defend that airfield and evacuate all those who have been faithful to us.”
Milley said no intelligence scenario foresaw the rapidity of the dissolution of Afghan security forces. “There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this [Afghan] army or this government in 11 days,” he said.
Right now, there are 20 maneuver battalions on the airfield from two Marine battalions and a battalion from the Minnesota National Guard. In addition, there are forces from the 10th Mountain Division and special operations forces that had been involved in the counterterrorism mission.
They are working with allied forces from the United Kingdom and other coalition partners.
Added to this is U.S. air power. If needed, there are any number of fighter and bomber aircraft that can be called upon as well as rotary wing aircraft, Milley said.
“This force is capable of extracting a significant amount of people,” the chairman said. “Right now we’re averaging about 20 sorties of C-17, every 24 hours. We have the capability to significantly increase that throughput, as the Department of State makes evacuees available.”