American troops have carried out at least two missions into the beleaguered Afghan capital city of Kabul to ferry US nationals to Hamid Karzai International Airport, Pentagon officials acknowledged Monday — operations that appear to contradict repeated White House claims that Americans are having no trouble getting flights home.

In the first known mission, which took place Thursday, 169 Americans were taken on three Chinook helicopters to the airport from a hotel located a little over 200 yards from the gate. While the mission was a success, its necessity raised questions about President Joe Biden’s insistence last week that the airport is accessible to Americans — despite the presence of Taliban checkpoints.

On Monday, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said helicopters had been used on “at least one additional” occasion, but declined to give details. The Associated Press reported later in the day that 16 Americans were picked up from a location about two hours away from the airport.

U.S. Army Chinook helicopter flies over Kabul, Afghanistan August 15, 2021.
On Thursday, 169 Americans were taken on three Chinook helicopters to the airport.

“On occasion, as needed, our commanders have the authority that they need to use their assets and their forces to help assist Americans who need to get to the airport, get to the airport on a case-by-case basis,” said Kirby, who added that such operations were “not regular.”

“I don’t want to leave you with the idea that we’re somehow patrolling the streets of Kabul,” he said. “But 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.”

With approximately 5,800 troops on the ground in Afghanistan, the Biden administration has come under pressure to “expand the perimeter” beyond the walls of the airport in a bid to bring some order to the chaotic and tragic evacuation of Western citizens and Afghans who assisted NATO forces during the two-decade conflict in that country.

U.S. service members provide assistance during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport
US service members provide assistance during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/U.S. Marine Corps via AP

US officials received criticism last week for holding US service members behind the walls while British and French special forces brought hundreds of people to the airport from safe houses around Kabul.

Joint Chiefs of Staff logistics specialist Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor told reporters Monday that as more troops have arrived in Kabul in recent days, “capability increased … We [now] have the capability and have executed other operations to ensure that American citizens are being brought in safely and prepared for evacuation.”

US officials have declined to give specific estimates of how many Americans remain in Afghanistan. Biden gave the number as between 10,000 and 15,000 in an interview with ABC News last week. Kirby would only say Monday that the Pentagon believes it has “been able to evacuate several thousand Americans” since the airport operation began Aug. 14.

Meanwhile, the State Department claimed Monday that US officials had discussed the status of the airport with the Taliban after the withdrawal deadline of Aug. 31 passes.

“There is actually an agreement between and among all these actors, of course between the United States and our partners and allies, but also with the Taliban, that all of our interests would serve with a functioning airport,” department spokesman Ned Price told reporters during a briefing.

U.S. Department of Defense Press Secretary John Kirby (R) and Army Major General William Taylor (L), Joint Staff deputy director for regional operations, participate in a news briefing at the Pentagon on August 23, 2021 in Arlington, Virgini
Department of Defense Press Secretary John Kirby said helicopters had been used on at least one more mission.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Price insisted that Biden would make the final decision on when to cease evacuation operations at the airport, but made no promises about whether the US would accede to allies’ wishes to extend the deadline.

“It is our goal to move as quickly as we can and as efficiently as we can to bring to safety as many people as we can,” the spokesman went on. “It is not our goal to be there one day, one hour, one minute longer than is absolutely necessary.”

However, the Taliban are warning President Biden that extending the Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan would bring “consequences.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price
State Department spokesman Ned Price said President Joe Biden would make the final decision on when to end evacuation operations.

“It’s a red line. President Biden announced that on Aug. 31 they would withdraw all their military forces. So if they extend it, that means they are extending occupation while there is no need for that,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Sky News.

“If the US or UK were to seek additional time to continue evacuations — the answer is no. Or there would be consequences,” he said, adding that extending the deadline would “create mistrust between us.”

Prolonging the “occupation,” he said, will “provoke a reaction.” 

With Post wires

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