Latest on Afghanistan: At least 500 Americans are trying to get out; 4,500 evacuated so far – USA TODAY

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday afternoon that as many as 1,500 Americans may still be in Afghanistan, as the deadline for U.S. withdrawal looms.

Earlier Wednesday, the White House said about 19,000 people were evacuated from Afghanistan by U.S. and allied military forces on Tuesday.

President Joe Biden said Tuesday that the U.S. is on track to evacuate all American and allied citizens, as well as Afghans eligible for special immigrant visas or otherwise at risk of persecution by the Taliban, out of the country by Aug. 31.

“The sooner we can finish, the better. Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops,” the president said.

To meet the Aug. 31 deadline, U.S. military forces will need to stop evacuating people out of the airport days before their final troop withdrawal, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Tuesday. That means the window for evacuating refugees and others is even closer than the official end of American presence on the ground.

‘They should say yes’: Advocates see hope in GOP governors offering Afghan refugees aid

Evacuations in Afghanistan: What to know 

Since the Taliban seized the Afghan capital on Aug. 14, more than 82,000 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan in one of the largest U.S. airlifts in history. While the pace has picked up in recent days, it’s still a chaotic scramble as people seek to escape. Afghans trying to reach the Kabul airport face a gauntlet of danger, and there are far more who want to leave than will be able to do so.

Those who do make it out will face the many challenges of resettlement, either in the U.S. or somewhere else. And time is running out. President Joe Biden set an Aug. 31 deadline to complete the U.S.-led evacuation.

How did we get here?

President Donald Trump signed a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020 as part of an effort to end what he called the “endless wars” in the Middle East. He agreed to a May 1 deadline to have all troops out of the country. Biden, who says he no longer wants to risk American lives in a civil war among Afghans, kept with the withdrawal plan but extended the deadline to September. The Taliban quickly seized control of most of the country as the U.S. withdrew air support to the Afghan military. Afghans, fearing retribution and the harsh rule of the Taliban, rushed to the airport in hopes of getting out of the country.

More: Evacuations in Afghanistan: What to know about who’s going out, where are they going and more

Blinken: At least 500 U.S. citizens still in Afghanistan want to leave

About 1,500 Americans remain in Afghanistan, and the U.S. is in contact with 500 of them who want to leave, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday, less than one week before the U.S. deadline to withdraw from the country.

Yet even after the military exits Aug. 31, the Biden administration says it will not end its mission to evacuate Americans out of the country. 

Blinken said the U.S. has evacuated 4,500 U.S. passport holders since Aug. 14 out of 6,000 Americans the State Department believes were in Afghanistan at that time. He said the department is “aggressively reaching out” to the other 1,000 Americans in Afghanistan but said many of them may not want to leave.

Of that group, Blinken said the number actively seeking assistance to leave Afghanistan is “likely significant lower.”

“Since Aug. 14, we’ve reached out directly to every American enrolled with us in Afghanistan, often multiple times,” Blinken said.

He added that the State Department is working on how to facilitate departures for Americans in Afghanistan who wish to leave after Aug. 31.

“Those who want to leave, it does not end with the military evacuation plan on Aug. 31. We are very focused on what we need to do to facilitate the further departure of people who wish to leave Afghanistan. That is primarily going to be a diplomatic effort,” he said.

The Biden administration had previously declined to estimate the number of Americans still in Afghanistan because of registration discrepancies at the U.S. embassy when Americans arrived in the country or left.

Blinken said said 82,300 people – a combination of Americans and Afghan allies – have safely departed Afghanistan since the U.S. and coalition forces began the evacuation. That includes 19,000 in the last 24 hours. More than 10,000 people are currently at the Kabul airport awaiting departure, according to the Pentagon.

President Joe Biden said Tuesday the U.S. is on pace to meet its Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline but said the state and defense departments have back-up contingency plans in case the Taliban does not cooperate with evacuations.

– Joey Garrison

World Bank cuts off funding for programs in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON – The World Bank is suspending funding for programs in Afghanistan amid concerns over the Taliban’s return to power.

“We are deeply concerned about the situation in Afghanistan and the impact on the country’s development prospects, especially for women,” a World Bank spokesperson said in a statement.

The Washington-based financial institution, which provides loans and grants to the governments of low- and middle-income countries, has committed $5.3 billion for development and emergency reconstruction projects in Afghanistan since 2002. The support includes more than $4.8 billion in grants and $436 million in no-interest loans.

The decision to withhold the funding follows the Biden administration’s move last week to block the Taliban’s access to billions of dollars in assets Afghanistan’s central bank holds in the Federal Reserve and other U.S. banks. Barring access to those assets deprives the Taliban of crucial financial resources as it tries to establish a new government.

The International Monetary Fund also announced last week it was cutting off Afghanistan’s access to emergency currency reserves, citing a “lack of clarity” within the international community concerning recognition of a government in Afghanistan.

The World Bank said it is closely monitoring events in Afghanistan and will continue to consult closely with the international community and its development partners.

“Together with our partners, we are exploring ways we can remain engaged to preserve hard-won development gains and continue to support the people of Afghanistan,” the spokesperson said.

– Michael Collins

Pentagon: 20 Americans rescued as evacuation effort continues

Pentagon officials further detailed evacuation efforts on Wednesday. About 19,000 people were evacuated from Afghanistan in the last 24 hours by U.S. and allied military aircraft and charter flights, they said.

There were about 4,400 American citizens on those flights, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said. Kirby did not have an estimate on the number of Americans who remain in Afghanistan before the end of evacuation flights, scheduled for Aug. 31.

Overnight, U.S. troops mounted an operation to rescue U.S. citizens and bring them to the airport, said Army Maj. Gen. William Taylor, director of regional operations for the Joint Staff. About 20 Americans were retrieved by helicopter, the third such rescue since the evacuation began, Kirby said.

The unscheduled visit by two congressmen required U.S. forces to take time away from their duties in order to protect the lawmakers, Kirby said.

– Tom Vanden Brook

Uganda takes 51 Afghans at request of US

KAMPALA, Uganda – Uganda’s government said that 51 people evacuated from Afghanistan arrived in the East African country Wednesday at the request of the United States.

Authorities said in a statement that the group, transported on a chartered flight, included men, women and children.

Ugandan officials said last week that the country would shelter up to 2,000 people fleeing the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. They said the Afghans would be brought to Uganda in small groups as a temporary arrangement before being relocated elsewhere.

“The decision to host those in need is informed by the government of Uganda’s consistent policy of receiving refugees and persons in distress as well as playing a responsible role in matters of international concern,” the statement said.

Ugandan officials have repeatedly said the United States would pay the cost of caring for people evacuated from Afghanistan, and groups such as Mercy Corps are offering to help.

The U.S.-based humanitarian group said it would support Ugandan authorities “to respond to the most immediate needs” of the evacuees.

Uganda has long been an ally of the U.S., especially on security matters in the region.

But some activists and opponents of President Yoweri Museveni, who was reelected in January, say the U.S. arrangement with Uganda is problematic because it appears blind to allegations of rights abuses and bad governance in a country that has never had a peaceful transfer of power. 

– Associated Press

Pelosi admonishes Moulton, Meijer over Kabul trip

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rebuked two congressmen who said Tuesday they had gone to Kabul on a secret trip to examine the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“There’s a real concern about members being in the region … The resources necessary to facilitate their visit, and to protect them, was an opportunity cost of what we needed to do to be evacuating as many people as possible. So it’s not just about them going to Afghanistan, going to the region because there’s a call on our resources diplomatically, politically, militarily in the rest of the region as well. So this is deadly serious,” she said at a Wednesday morning press conference.

“We do not want members to go… It was not in my view a good idea (for the two members to go).”

Pelosi added that she’d not spoken with Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Mich.

On Tuesday, the speaker issued a letter to her House colleagues, addressing travel to Afghanistan.

 “Given the urgency of this situation, the desire of some Members to travel to Afghanistan and the surrounding areas is understandable and reflective of the high priority that we place on the lives of those on the ground,” Pelosi wrote. “However, I write to reiterate that the Departments of Defense and State have requested that Members not travel to Afghanistan and the region during this time of danger.”

She noted that briefings and calls would continue to be organized to keep members informed.

– Ledyard King

More: Women soccer players leave Afghanistan on evacuation flight

Congressmen visit Afghanistan

Amid the efforts to evacuate Americans and allies, two congressmen are drawing criticism for their unannounced visit to the Kabul airport. 

Officials said Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Mich., flew in on a charter aircraft and were on the ground at the Kabul airport for several hours.

“As Members of Congress, we have a duty to provide oversight on the executive branch,’” the two said in their statement. “We conducted this visit in secret, speaking about it only after our departure, to minimize the risk and disruption to the people on the ground, and because we were there to gather information, not to grandstand.”

Read more: Two members of Congress fly to Kabul amid evacuation, stunning State department and military officials

How many American citizens are in Afghanistan?

President Joe Biden said on Tuesday that Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to give an update on Afghanistan on Wednesday. That briefing should include a number on how many U.S. citizens remain in Afghanistan. 

The Biden administration has not yet offered a firm count. On Thursday, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told “CBS Evening News” that the US doesn’t have an accurate number because of how citizens are tracked while in Afghanistan. 

Updated evacuation numbers 

The latest round of evacuations brings the number of people ferried from Hamid Karzai International Airport to 82,300 people since Aug. 14, when the Taliban first took control of Kabul, the capital city, and 87,900 evacuated people since late July, the White House said.

The operation Tuesday involved 42 U.S. military flights that carried around 11,200 people out of the country collectively alongside another 48 flights from U.S. coalition allies that took around 7,800 people out of Kabul.

The Biden administration has repeatedly stressed that the withdrawal operation is on pace to be the largest U.S. air evacuation in history. “There is no other country in the world who could pull something like this off, bar none,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a Monday press briefing.

Yet the administration has also face fierce bipartisan criticism from the members of Congress and the national security community, who see the chaotic scenes of withdrawal as calamitous and avoidable. It is also unclear how many Americans and eligible Afghans remain in the country.

– Matthew Brown

China builds ties with Taliban

BEIJING — China says it has established an “open and effective communication and consultation with the Afghan Taliban,” following a meeting between representatives of the group and Beijing’s ambassador to Kabul.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin gave no details about the Tuesday meeting between the deputy head of the Taliban’s political office, Abdul Salam Hanafi and Ambassador Wang Yu.

But he said China considered Kabul to be an “important platform and channel for both sides to discuss important matters of all kinds.”

Who’s who: Who and what to know as Afghanistan moves toward a new government

China hosted a delegation led by senior Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar for talks last month, prior to the group’s lightning sweep to power in Kabul.

China has kept its embassy in the city open and says it has no plans for a wholesale evacuation of its citizens in Afghanistan, while relentlessly criticizing the U.S. over the chaotic scenes at Kabul airport.

“We have always respected Afghanistan’s sovereign independence and territorial integrity, pursued a policy of non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and adhered to a policy of friendship toward the entire Afghan people,” Wang told reporters at a daily briefing Wednesday in Beijing.

“China respects the Afghan people’s independent decision on their own future and destiny, supports the implementation of the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned principle, and stands ready to continue to develop good-neighborly relations of friendship and cooperation with Afghanistan and play a constructive role in the peace and reconstruction of the country,” Wang said.

– Associated Press