These six-figure evacuation figures from Kabul veil the limits of the American response


These things did not happen. Instead, the United States, under the leadership of President Biden, has attempted to evacuate American citizens wishing to leave and remove SIV holders capable of navigating the gauntlet outside the airport of Kabul. Politics being politics, the administration has regularly touted the number of evacuees who have left the country since the fall of Kabul two weeks ago, a number which as of Monday morning approached 117,000. But that higher figure masks huge uncertainty about who came out and who didn’t.

Even before the terrorist attack at the airport last week, the number of daily evacuations had slowed. More than 21,000 people left Kabul in the 24-hour period ending the morning of August 24, and by August 27 that number had dropped to 12,500. In the 24-hour period ending Monday morning, only 1,200 people had been evacuated, the fewest since the early days of the evacuation effort.

This is partly because the United States began winding down operations at the airport ahead of the August 31 withdrawal deadline, which the government has agreed to. This is partly because there are fewer citizens left in the country. In part, that’s also obviously a reflection of the heightened tension on the pitch.

This figure of 116,700, the total number of evacuees who have left since August 14, includes people who were evacuated by groups or countries other than the US military. The government has included what it calls ‘coalition’ figures since August 20, looping in evacuations from foreign countries and the private sector altogether because the US military is responsible for security at the airport . It’s transparent to include those numbers, yes, but without including coalition evacuations, the number of US military evacuations drops to between 66,000 and 75,000 evacuations. (It is unclear how many evacuations that took place before August 18 were undertaken by non-military operations.)

A week ago, most of the flights evacuating people from Kabul were coalition flights. Now that flow of thefts has essentially ceased. At that time, about half of the evacuations were from coalition flights. Overall, just over a third of evacuations were completed.

The drop in flights and evacuations also reflects a drop in the number of people evacuated per flight. Since the White House began reporting daily evacuation numbers, US military flights have averaged more than 200 evacuees per plane. Over the past three days, that number has dropped to 80 air evacuees, even though the same types of planes are being used (C-17 and C-130). Recent coalition flights have also carried fewer people, although it is unclear which aircraft this is.

The central question regarding the evacuations is how many Americans and SIV holders have been evacuated. The State Department estimated that some 6,000 Americans requested evacuation. About 300 Americans are still in the country, figures show published Sunday. This indicates that some 5,700 citizens have been evacuated. (The White House only releases sporadic numbers on daily evacuations of Americans.)

The number of evacuated SIV carriers and their families is less clear. On Friday, the State Department announced that 7,000 people in this category have arrived in the United States, a figure that does not include SIV holders and their family members evacuated from Afghanistan to other countries. In response to questions from the media, a military official confirmed that less than half of the more than 100,000 evacuees were SIV holders and their families, but it is unclear how many are in this category.

There’s a lot of blurring here. Presumably, flights operated by foreign military forces are less likely to include SIV holders, so we expect reduced numbers of this group on coalition flights. But it’s also unclear how many SIV holders or other Afghan allies need to evacuate. One estimate put the total number of visa recipients and their family members at 88,000, while The New York Times last week quoted figures estimating that no less than 250,000 Afghans who helped the army were still in the country.

Asked about the operation last week, Biden said he was confident the government would be able to withdraw allies after the August 31 deadline expired. Nearly 100 countries signed a statement insisting that the Taliban honor their commitment to let those nations evacuate citizens after that time, although the White House has insisted that it will be able to evacuate all citizens before the deadline arrives.

What the administration’s numbers don’t do is answer a central question: How many of those who helped the military will remain trapped in Afghanistan later this week, at the mercy of those they hoped to defeat? It may be impossible to concretely answer this question, given the fuzziness of categorizing, locating and counting the individuals who fall into this category. But it is clear that the figures published by the White House do not answer the question.

Update: At a press conference on Monday afternoon, General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, compiled the final numbers.

“Over an 18-day period, US military aircraft evacuated more than 79,000 civilians from Hamid Karzai International Airport,” McKenzie said. “This includes 6,000 Americans and more than 73,500 third-country nationals and Afghan civilians. This last category includes special immigrant visas, at-risk consular personnel, Afghans and their families. In total, US and coalition aircraft combined to evacuate more than 123,000 civilians, all of whom were activated by US military service members securing and operating the airfield. On average, we evacuated over 7,500 civilians per day during the 18 day mission, which includes 16 full days of evacuations and over 19,000 in a single day.

The total number of civilians evacuated, he said, “represents in our view the vast majority of those who wanted to leave at that time.” He later added that no citizens had made it to the airport to leave on any of the last five planes that had departed. His estimate was that the number of citizens still in the country was in the “very low hundreds”.

“We didn’t get everybody out that we wanted to get out,” he said in response to a question. “But I think if we had stayed 10 more days we wouldn’t have gotten everyone we wanted out and there would still have been people who would have been disappointed.”

At another point, McKenzie summed up the day’s transition.

“The military phase of this operation is over,” he said. “The diplomatic aftermath of this will now begin.”


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