Defense Secretary says military will evacuate “in the time available”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said Wednesday there “there was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse” of the Afghan government and army in 11 days, in a pointed response to reports that the intelligence community had sounded warnings about the increasing fragility of Afghan forces. Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also stressed at a news conference on Wednesday that the key mission right now is to evacuate Americans and at-risk Afghans from  Kabul.

“This is a war that I fought in — and I know the country. I know the people, and I know those who fought alongside me,” Austin said. “As I said, we have a moral obligation to help those who helped us.”

Austin and Milley also told reporters there would be time later to review what went wrong in the withdrawal and evacuation efforts, but they are focused now on evacuating Americans and vulnerable Afghans from the airport, the only area of Kabul that Americans control. Milley said the U.S. military has the situation at the airport — where online videos and news reports in the past few days showed scenes of chaos  as desperate Afghans try to flee —  “under control” now.

While there have been reports that people in Kabul have been unable to gain access to the airport, Austin said the U.S. does not “not have the capability to go out and and extend operations currently into Kabul.” Milley said the Taliban are “in and around Kabul,” but “they are not interfering with our operations through the State Department.”

Pentagon US Afghanistan
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, listen to a question during a media briefing at the Pentagon, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, in Washington. Alex Brandon / AP

After the closure of the U.S. embassy, a small contingent of embassy staff have been working at the airport to process Afghans trying to leave the country. “Our task given to us was to protect the embassy in order for the embassy personnel to continue to function with the consular services,” Milley said. 

Milley stressed there will be ” many post mortems on this topic,” but “right now, there are troops at risk. And we are the United States military, and we fully intend to successfully evacuate all American citizens who want to get out of Afghanistan.”

Austin told reporters, “It’s obvious we’re not close to where we want to be in terms of getting the numbers through.”

He added, “So we’re going to work that 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and we’re gonna get everyone that we can possibly evacuate — evacuated. And I’ll do that as long as we possibly can — until the clock runs out or we run out of capability.”

It’s not yet clear how long the U.S. will have to finish the task, but Austin said that the U.S. is getting around 500 Americans and Afghans an hour through consular processing at the airport, and he was confident that rate would increase.