Situation At Kabul Airport “Would Have Been Difficult For Anyone To Predict” Says Pentagon Spokesman (Updated)

Criticism of how the Biden administration has handled evacuation operations in Kabul has only grown amid images of chaos at the city’s main airport.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Afghanistan photo


Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby has insisted that the U.S. military was prepared for noncombatant evacuation operations out of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, but that "the Images...would have been difficult for anybody to predict." A flood of disturbing videos and pictures has emerged in the past 24 hours of the utterly chaotic situation at the airport in Afghanistan's capital. You can get fully up to speed on this still fast-moving situation in The War Zone's previous reporting here.

Kirby's comments about preparedness, which are highly debatable considering the reality on the ground leading up to the crisis at the airport, followed his announcement that Hamid Karzai International Airport had finally opened again for evacuation flights after mobs of Afghan civilians desperately trying to get out of the country had stormed the flightline and runway earlier in the day. Some individuals even grabbed onto the outside of a U.S. Air Force C-17A Globemaster as it was taking off, and then appeared to fall to their deaths. While the airport is supposedly open, according to the Pentagon, very few flights have come and gone since the announcement was made.

Kirby made all of his remarks at a press conference alongside Gary Reed, head of the Pentagon's Afghanistan Crisis Action Group, and U.S. Army Major General Hank Taylor, the Director of Current Operations within the Office of the Joint Staff. This came after President Joe Biden had addressed the nation to defend his decision earlier this year to continue with the total withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. How that drawdown has been carried out directly contributed to the Taliban's rapid conquest of the vast majority of the country, culminating in the group's almost total takeover of Kabul yesterday. There has been mounting criticism about the Biden administration's handling of the entire debacle, including from members of Congress from the President's own Democratic Party

"I would take issue with your designation of this operation at the airport as a failure," Kirby said in response to questions from CNN reporter Barbara Starr. "Yes, we do plan for all manner of contingencies. This is a planning organization. We do that specifically to try to mitigate risk and to try to be ready for unforeseen circumstances, but it is not a perfect process. Plans are not always perfectly predictive."

Kirby highlighted how there had been no major Taliban attacks on the airport. He could not say whether or not two Afghans who had been shot and killed there earlier today by American troops were Taliban members. It was confirmed that one U.S. service member did suffer "superficial" wounds during the incident, but was immediately returned to duty. The Pentagon's Press Secretary had no further details about any other reported Afghan casualties.

Still, "as is a well-known military maxim that plans don't often survive first contact and you have to adjust in real-time," he continued, insisting that the Taliban's rapid progress toward Kabul was something that would have been difficult for anyone to predict. "We did plan on noncombatant evacuation operations."

"As far back as May, there were drills being done here at the Pentagon to walk through what different noncombatant evacuation operations might look like," he added. "There was another one recently done just two weeks ago, a tabletop exercise to again examine what a noncombatant evacuation would look like out of Hamid Karzai International Airport, specifically at the airport."

You can watch today's Pentagon press briefing on the situation in Afghanistan in full below.

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It is important to note that the security situation in Afghanistan by the end of July was significantly different than it had been in May, which could only have impacted the utility of any earlier contingency planning. A few weeks ago, the Afghan government also still appeared to be holding the Taliban at bay, at least to a degree, but there had been increasing questions about the capacity and willingness of forces aligned with the government in Kabul to keep fighting well before then. 

Perhaps most importantly, the handing over of major U.S. bases, such as Bagram Airfield near Kabul, to the Afghan government in recent months, has only put further constraints on any plans for a major evacuation operation. As it stands now, the airport in Kabul is the only realistic option available to the U.S. military and other foreign powers for airlifting people out without having to attempt far more austere operations that present major challenges of their own.

"We think that those exercises did prepare us in terms of having the resources forward," Kirby also insisted, referring to the prepositioning of Marines closer to Afghanistan before Kabul fell. "It would be wrong to conclude that the United States military did not view, as a distinct possibility, that the Taliban could overrun the country, including Kabul," he said, adding the caveat that the speed with which Afghan forces collapsed was unforeseen.

Whatever planning did occur, the chaos that has since enveloped the airport has only continued to hamper its implementation. Kirby spoke of the continuing plan to deploy thousands of additional U.S. troops – the total expected force size still appears to be approximately 6,000 personnel, despite reports earlier than it had grown to 7,000 – to Hamid Karzai International Airport to assist with the ongoing evacuations, with the goal still being for American forces to eventually be able to airlift up to 5,000 people out of the country every day. Kirby said that U.S. diplomatic staff, as well as other American nationals, and certain "Afghans we can help" were expected to be put on those flights.

However, the bulk of those forces have yet to deploy, and the arrival of at least some contingents was delayed by the halt to all flight operations earlier today. At the same time, plans to have a Turkish force deploy to help provide general security at Hamid Karzai International Airport, an expected component of the overall U.S. military withdrawal plan prior to the fall of Kabul, have reportedly been dropped.

Regardless, it also continues to remain unclear how the airport will be able to accommodate all of the foreign military personnel heading to Kabul, which also includes forces from other countries that are now inbound to help their nationals evacuate, or the expected tempo of U.S. military flight operations. Fuel reserves at the airport are of particular concern as well as other basic aviation services. Getting U.S. forces out at the end of the evacuation operation is also a very pressing concern in light of recent developments 

Beyond that, neither Kirby nor Major General Taylor nor Mr. Reed could provide a firm number of how many people, in total, the U.S. military has flown out so far. Just getting to the airport could be a challenge. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul, which is now operating in a dramatically reduced fashion from the airport, issued a travel notice earlier today warning American citizens to shelter in place until they receive further instructions about flights out of the country.

More than 700 Afghans who are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) due to past work with the U.S. government that has now made them vulnerable to Taliban reprisals have departed in the past 48 hours, according to Taylor, who added that this brought the total number of SIV applicants evacuated to almost 2,000. The U.S. military, however, is presently making arrangements for tens of thousands of such individuals to come to the United States or otherwise leave Afghanistan, which will be a major undertaking.

When it comes to SIV applicants, another reporter also noted at the press conference that Mr. Reed's Afghanistan Crisis Action Group, which is helping with that process, was only established in July, despite President Biden announcing the withdrawal timeline back in April. Reed said that the Pentagon could not act until it had gotten a specific request for help from the U.S. State Department, which is in charge of the SIVs.

When the entire evacuation operation, which is still, at best, days away from reaching the peak airlift capacity, might wrap up is also unclear. In addition to evacuees, the thousands of American troops now pouring into the country, along with their helicopters, vehicles, weapons, and other materiel, will also need to be redeployed at the end of the mission. All of this applies equally to other foreign forces and whoever they plan to extract from Afghanistan. 

Kirby declined to speculate on what might happen after Aug. 31, which is just a couple of weeks away and is the current expected end date for the mission, if there are still people trying to get out of Afghanistan. The U.S. government also still does not appear to have any specific plans to aid the rest of the Afghans who have made their way to Hamid Karzai International Airport and are increasingly desperate to flee the country's new Taliban leadership. 

Maybe the biggest wild card in all of this is the Taliban, who have so far acquiesced to the ongoing foreign military operations at the airport in Kabul, so long as all of the troops there ultimately leave. How they might react as these evacuation operations continue to drag out, and as more foreign troops flood into the airport, is yet to be seen. The group could decide at any time that American and other foreign forces will no longer be tolerated in the country. Any sort of chance occurrence, like the death of Afghan civilians or Americans, could splinter the crisis into a new direction, as well. 

All told, no matter how prepared the U.S. military was or wasn't to conduct major evacuation operations in Afghanistan, or is or isn't now, it's uncertain whether its current plans will survive the next few days, let alone until the end of the month.

We will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.

Update 8/17/2021:

Imagery of the arrival of other foreign security forces in Kabul has begun to emerge as evacuation operations continue. A contingent of troops from Azerbaijan is now at the airport and say they are attached to a larger Turkish force that is now providing security there. Despite earlier reports that plans for Turkey to deploy troops to guard Hamid Karzai International Airport had been scrapped, Ankara has at least sent some personnel for this purpose. Whether they continue with this mission after the U.S. military pulls out the last of its forces, as had been planned, remains to be seen given the Taliban takeover.

A new video that appears to have been taken by an Afghan clinging to the side of a departing U.S. Air Force C-17A Globemaster III transport has also emerged online. There is no way to immediately confirm whether or not this shows a first-person perspective of a now-infamous incident wherein some Afghan civilians held onto a C-17A as it took off, with some then appearing to subsequently fall off to their deaths, or if those horrifying circumstances may have repeated themselves. Separately, it has also emerged that, tragically, another Afghan got trapped in that aircraft's wheel well and died.

Our updates to this story have ended. You can find our continuing coverage of the crisis in Afghanistan here.

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