The Pentagon on Monday revealed it had performed another rescue mission to transport Americans stranded in Kabul to the Afghan capital’s international airport, where the urgent U.S. evacuation effort remains underway.
The announcement comes after the Pentagon confirmed that three Army CH-47 Chinook helicopters last Thursday airlifted a group of 169 Americans from the Baron Hotel in Kabul to the Hamid Karzai International Airport just 200 meters away.
Apart from that mission, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said at a news briefing Monday there had been “at least one additional instance where rotary airlift was used to help Americans get from outside the airport into the airport.” He declined to elaborate further, telling reporters: “I think I’m just going to leave it at that today.”
Kirby also indicated that rescue missions by U.S. troops in recent days have been more frequent than senior administration officials have thus far acknowledged — and that some have been facilitated by means other than military helicopters.
“On occasion — where there’s a need, and there’s a capability to meet that need — our commanders on the ground are doing what they feel they need to do to help Americans reach the airport,” Kirby said.
Kirby said there were “a variety of methods” by which rescue missions “can be effected,” and “without going into detail, we’re using the variety of methods at our disposal.”
Although Kirby only confirmed one additional rescue mission had taken place since the airlift last Thursday, “that doesn’t mean it’s the sum total of what we’re doing to go out and try to bring and assist Americans coming in,” he said. “We’re just not going to detail all of them, because the threat environment is so high.”
Still, Kirby emphasized rescue missions were not being authorized on a “regular” basis. “I don’t want to leave you with the idea that we’re somehow patrolling the streets of Kabul,” he said.
Kirby’s remarks regarding ongoing rescue missions by U.S. troops indicate an apparent shift in the Pentagon’s capability since last Wednesday, when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin acknowledged that efforts to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies were entirely limited to the airport itself.
At the time, Austin assessed that the U.S. military did not “have the capability to go out and extend operations currently into Kabul,” saying: “The forces that we have are focused on the security of the airfield.”
On Monday, Kirby sought to revise the secretary’s comments, arguing Austin was conveying that the U.S. military “didn’t have the capability to do large-scale, massive movements of people” as of last Wednesday.
“But [Austin] did say if there’s an incident where somebody’s in extremis, and we need to get them in small numbers, we can do that. And we have been doing that,” Kirby said.
“Over the course of the ensuing days, more capability has flown in, more troops have flown in,” Kirby added. “And so we do have the ability to help when we can and where we can … Americans move towards the gates. And we’re not going to talk about the details of each and every one of those, but we do have those capabilities.”
Kirby was similarly vague when asked to provide the number of Americans who have been evacuated from Afghanistan since Aug. 14, describing the total as “very fluid” and changing “nearly by the hour.”
“We think that, overall, we’ve been able to evacuate several thousand Americans,” Kirby said. “And I’d be reticent to get … more specific than that.”
President Joe Biden mentioned the first publicly known rescue mission by U.S. troops in a White House address last Friday, saying “there were 169 Americans who … we got over the wall into the airport using military assets.”
Biden also told reporters following his address that he would be open to deploying U.S. troops into Kabul to extract endangered Americans and Afghan allies. “We’re considering every opportunity and every means by which we could get folks to the airport,” he said.