Federal officials are scrambling to aid the few hundred remaining Americans in Afghanistan in need of evacuation help ahead of next week’s deadline to withdraw all U.S. forces from the Taliban-controlled country, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on Wednesday.
“Let me be crystal clear about this: There is no deadline on our work to help any remaining American citizens who decide they want to leave, along with the many Afghans who have stood by us over these many years,” Blinken said in a press conference on the ongoing situation overseas. “That effort will continue, every day, even past August 31.”
In the last 11 days, more than 82,000 individuals have been evacuated through the Kabul airport by U.S. military personnel. Blinken said about 4,500 of those were American citizens.
State Department officials — who in recent days have been reluctant to identify the number of U.S. citizens potentially trapped in Afghanistan — said on Wednesday that they estimated about 6,000 Americans were in country on Aug. 14.
With the recent evacuations, that leaves as many as 1,500 U.S. citizens still awaiting escape from Afghanistan. Bliken said about 500 of those are in contact with the State Department, receiving regular communication about their evacuation efforts.
“For the remaining roughly 1,000 contacts that we had, we’re aggressively reaching out to them multiple times a day, through multiple channels … to determine whether they still want to leave,” Blinken said.
“Some may no longer be in the country. Some may have claimed to be Americans, but turned out not to be. And some may choose to stay. Thus, from this list of approximately 1,000. We believe the number of Americans actively seeking assistance to leave Afghanistan is likely significantly lower.”
The estimates of American citizens still trapped in Afghanistan do not include green-card holders or Special Immigrant Visa applicants, groups that could add thousands more to that total.
Members of Congress — particularly Republican lawmakers — in recent days have demanded that President Joe Biden extend the withdrawal mission deadline past Aug. 31 to ensure that no American citizens are left behind, vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by the new Taliban government there.
But Biden on Tuesday stuck by the Aug. 31 deadline, saying that keeping U.S. forces there longer would make them a potential target for terrorist groups already regrouping in Afghanistan.
Bliken’s department has taken extra criticism for the slow pace of processing evacuees in the emergency situation, and for their optimistic statements about potential evacuations after U.S. military personnel leave the country.
But Bliken insisted his department is developing contingency plans for individuals who may not be evacuated by next Tuesday, and urged individuals in Afghanistan to continue reaching out to his department.
“We know that this is about real people, many scared, many desperate,” he said. “All of us at the State Department and across the U.S. government feel that.
“We know that lives and futures, starting with our fellow citizens, including the lives of children, are hanging in the balance during these critical dates … but the effort to bring [people] out of Afghanistan, those who want to leave, does not end with the military evacuation plan.”
But Blinken did not specify what that could entail, only that “we’re looking at a number of options” for potential operations beyond next week.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.