WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday said that up to 1,500 US citizens are still stranded in Afghanistan — shortly after President Biden joked with a reporter who asked about possibly leaving Americans behind in the Taliban-controlled nation.
Blinken gave the figure after US officials repeatedly said they didn’t know how many Americans remain in Afghanistan as Biden prepares to remove all troops in just days to adhere to an Aug. 31 deadline.
The top US diplomat claimed “there is no deadline” for evacuating citizens because the Taliban gave assurances that Americans and at-risk Afghans can leave even after the US troops are gone. He said many of the remaining US citizens also hold Afghan citizenship.
“There is no deadline on our work to help any remaining American citizens who decide they want to leave to do so — along with the many Afghans who have stood by us over these many years and want to leave and have been unable to do so. That effort will continue every day past Aug. 31,” Blinken said.
“The Taliban have made public and private commitments to provide and permit safe passage for Americans, third-country nationals and Afghans at risk going forward past Aug. 31.”
Blinken’s claim that the Taliban will continue to facilitate departures conflicts with a Taliban spokesman’s proclamation Tuesday that Afghan citizens are no longer allowed to reach Kabul’s airport to flee — and the publication on Wednesday of a video by a self-identified Australian citizen of Afghan origin who said he was stopped and beaten at a Taliban checkpoint near the airport.
Shortly before Blinken’s press conference, Biden surprised reporters by making a joke when pressed on possibly leaving Americans behind in Afghanistan.
“What will you do if Americans are still there after the deadline?” NBC News reporter Peter Alexander asked the commander-in-chief at a White House event on cybersecurity.
Biden smiled and quipped: “You’ll be the first person I call.”
The president’s joshing around outraged Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.), who said in a Fox News interview that “it incenses me to no end.”
Green, an Afghanistan war veteran, said, “I was in the military, I live by that code now: leave no person behind. The fact that they are so flippant about leaving Americans…. I can’t believe this. There is no excuse for pulling out because the Taliban says we have to be gone by Aug. 31.”
Blinken told reporters in Washington that about 4,500 Americans have been evacuated since Aug. 14 and that “over the past 24 hours, we’ve been in direct contact with approximately 500 additional Americans and provided specific instructions on how to get to the airport safely.”
Blinken said that in addition to the 500 US citizens seeking help, there are another “roughly 1,000 contacts that we have who may be Americans seeking to leave Afghanistan” and “we’re aggressively reaching out to them multiple times a day.”
Blinken stopped short of elaborating on how the US would continue to assist Americans seeking to depart given the Taliban’s “red line” against allowing the US military to operate in the country past Aug. 31. The Islamic fundamentalist group threatened to take the airport by force if the US sought to remain after that date.
There are many reasons for uncertainty about the number of Americans who remain, including the fact that US citizens aren’t required to register with the government and the possibility that some want to remain despite Taliban rule, Blinken said.
“Some Americans may choose to stay in Afghanistan,” he said. “Many of them are dual nationals who may consider Afghanistan their home, who have lived there for decades, or who may want to stay close to extended family. And there are Americans who are still evaluating their decision to leave based on the situation on the ground that evolves daily.”
Blinken said some Americans “even change their mind from one day to the next, as has happened, and will likely continue to happen.”
Other alleged US citizens “contact us and identify themselves as American citizens, including by filling out and submitting repatriation assistance forms, [but] are not in fact US citizens — something that can take some time to verify,” Blinken said.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday also argued that some Americans may want to stay in Afghanistan — saying that a complete evacuation of US citizens may not define success.
“Maybe they have an extended family there. Maybe they’ve spent their entire lives in Afghanistan and they’ve not yet made the decision to depart. Maybe they’re working on a range of projects they’re not ready to leave,” Psaki said.
“I know that is hard for us to understand as we’re looking at the images, but for many of these Afghans, this is their home. And yes they are dual citizens and yes it is absolutely our responsibility to make sure we are reaching out to them multiple times. We are providing opportunity and we are finding ways to get them to the airport and evacuating them. But it is also their personal decision on whether they want to depart or not.”