Pentagon: We may have 10,000 Americans stuck in Kabul

Get ready for a hostage crisis at some point as an all-but-inevitable consequence of the collapse of American security in Afghanistan. Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told CNN’s John Berman on New Day that estimates of trapped Americans in the Kabul area run somewhere between five and ten thousand, although no one apparently knows for sure. Why no one knows for sure is a question Berman doesn’t get to, but Berman gets to the more important questions instead.

“What is the plan to get these people to the airport?” Berman asks, but Kirby dodges it by explaining how American troops are restoring security at the airport. Berman punctures that evasion by posing the obvious question — “If they can’t get to the airport, what does it matter?”

Kirby admits that “the security situation in Kabul is not ideal,” which should be a nominee for the Understatement Hall of Fame. Kirby then evades when Berman asks whether Biden’s ultimatum to the Taliban to keep their hands off Americans applies anywhere other than the Karzai airport. So far, the Taliban has not attacked the airport operations, although they are trying to prevent people from entering it, which might make exfiltration of Americans more difficult than what Kirby tries to pose here.

Josh Rogin is appalled that the Pentagon appears to be building an exfil operation on the fly:

Rogin points out in his Washington Post column today that a number of journalists are among those trapped in Afghanistan. With the Taliban conducting door-to-door searches, Rogin foresees hostage crises popping up and dominating news cycles for a long time to come unless the Biden administration gets its act together:

As the situation on the ground in Afghanistan’s capital continues to deteriorate, thousands of U.S. citizens are trapped in and around Kabul with no ability to get to the airport, which is their only way out of the country. As Taliban soldiers go door to door, searching for Westerners, these U.S. citizens are now reaching out to anyone and everyone back in Washington for help. The Biden administration must get moving on a plan to rescue them before it’s too late.

There will be plenty of time later to look back on how and why the 20-year American intervention in Afghanistan failed so miserably, why the U.S. withdrawal was so badly mismanaged and how the U.S. government failed to predict that the Taliban would take over the country with almost no resistance. But right now, the No. 1 job of the U.S. government and the roughly 7,000 U.S. troops in or on their way to Kabul must be to rescue American citizens first and then all the Afghans who risked their lives based on America’s promise of safety.

The U.S. Embassy staff have all been safely transported to the Kabul airport, officials say. But as the U.S. military struggles to even secure the airport grounds, thousands of U.S. citizens who didn’t make it there yet are hiding and hoping someone saves them before roaming Taliban gangs find them. …

An administration official who was not authorized to speak on the record told me that there are an estimated 10,000 U.S. citizens in the country, with the vast majority in or near Kabul. Some are residents, journalists or aid workers who may not want to leave. Most are scrambling to escape. Some are dual nationals or children of Americans who may not have the proper passport or visas, but the State Department has not told them how to fix their paperwork.

The State Department and the Defense Department basically have two options: negotiate safe passage for American citizens with the Taliban, if possible, or send the U.S. military out into the city to bring Americans back to the airport before the Taliban gangs find them. Officials working on these cases inside the government told me they have no clear guidance from the White House and not enough support.

No one’s surprised by that by now. The White House had no clear plan for an orderly withdrawal even of its embassy, let alone the contractors, aid workers, and journalists who came to Afghanistan. It didn’t even apparently occur to Biden and his team that they would need to have these plans in place until the Taliban came into the streets of Kabul. The failure here is astounding, inexplicable, and entirely disgraceful.

Speaking of disgraceful, did we hear Kirby correctly? Only 18,000 Afghans are eligible for SIVs to get out? That seems remarkably low for a city of millions that had been until a fortnight ago in full support of the American-allied Afghan central government.