The US military in Afghanistan sent helicopters to rescue over 150 Americans unable to reach the Kabul airport gates, an official said Friday, in the first evidence that US forces were willing and able to go beyond the US-secured compound to help people seeking evacuation.
The news came as American officials confirmed evacuation operations from Afghanistan stalled for about seven hours Friday, because the receiving base in Qatar was overflowing and could not take in evacuees.
That left thousands more Afghans already cleared to leave their country for the US waiting at the Kabul airport.
“It was early this morning, and it lasted about six to seven hours,” Major General Hank Taylor told reporters, adding the backlog was subsequently cleared.
The US State Department has been criticised for being overly bureaucratic and not having enough staff to process thousands of Afghans seeking to come to the US.
Evacuee accounts from Qatar describe sleeping on the floor in sweltering heat in a US aircraft hanger for three days or more, with limited facilities.
Taylor said US aircraft flew some 6,000 people, including a couple of hundred US citizens, out of Kabul in the 24 hours to early Friday, until the bottleneck halted flights.
Close to the perimeter
Flights from Kabul resumed late Friday after US operations in Qatar arranged for trips for many evacuees onward to the US military base in Ramstein, Germany.
US citizens and Afghans who worked for the US forces in Afghanistan continued to attempt to get to the airport in Kabul to leave the country.
There were numerous accounts of some struggling to reach and enter the airport, some impeded by Taliban fighters who now control Kabul.
President Joe Biden said Friday that US troops had to go beyond the perimeter of the airport to retrieve 169 Americans, potentially risking a conflict with the Taliban.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby downplayed the incident.
“They were very close to the perimeter of the airport. Very close,” he said, adding later that they had been airlifted from the Baron hotel, near the airport, by three US Chinook helicopters.
The helicopters had been deployed due to concerns for the Americans’ safety in traversing a huge crowd that had gathered outside the airport’s Abbey entry gate.
“There was a large crowd established outside the Abbey Gate, a crowd that not everybody had confidence in, in terms of their ability to walk through it, and so local commanders on the scene took the initiative and flew these helicopters out there to pick them up,” Kirby said.
Taylor said the Taliban have mostly been cooperating with US officials to allow those with US passports or visas to get to the airport and that there was “constant communication” between the US commander on the ground and the Taliban.
“We’re seeing that things that we are asking for,” such as passage to the airport, “is happening and getting better,” he said.