US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has told congressional lawmakers that Americans who are trying to leave Afghanistan have been beaten by Taliban fighters, according to several people who participated in the meeting.
During the briefing call on Friday, Austin described the reports of Taliban beatings as “unacceptable,” but he did not provide details on how the US military would ensure Americans’ safe passage to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
The Pentagon chief declined to “rule in or out” the possibility of American troops moving beyond the Kabul airport to protect Americans and others from the Taliban.
“We’re also aware that some people, including Americans, have been harassed and even beaten by the Taliban,” Austin said on the call, according to multiple sources. “This is unacceptable and [we] made it clear to the designated Taliban leader.”
Austin stated that “with the exception of those cases, we continue to see Americans and appropriately credentialed Afghans continue to move through.”
“We will work hard to evacuate as many people as we can between now and when we have to stop,” Austin said in an apparent reference to the August 31 withdrawal deadline. “If I’m given more time, I will take more time. … It’s unclear whether or not we’ll be able to do that.”
Commenting on Austin’s remarks, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby stated that the US has told the Taliban that it wants “free passage through these checkpoints for documented Americans,” adding: “By and large, that’s happening.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley also participated in the House briefing. The briefing was arranged after lawmakers demanded answers about the botched US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s lightning-fast ascension to power.
Austin’s remarks to House members contradicted US President Joe Biden’s assessment made earlier on Friday, in which Biden said his administration was not aware of Americans having trouble getting through Taliban checkpoints and to the airport in Kabul.
Biden has come under intense scrutiny for the chaotic exit of the military from Afghanistan, and his failure to provide a safe passage for US citizens and some Afghans from Kabul.
He has suggested that he would keep troops in Afghanistan beyond August 31 if the evacuations weren’t completed by then.
Austin also refused to rule out any options when it comes to the possibility of sending in additional troops to Afghanistan.
The US president had repeatedly vowed the withdrawal from Afghanistan would be orderly, deliberate and safe and that there were no circumstances that Afghanistan would suddenly fall to the Taliban, after 20 years of war and occupation.
The Pentagon has evacuated about 7,000 people since Saturday, and has deployed more than 5,200 troops to the Kabul airport. Biden has ordered the deployment of up to 7,000 American troops to Kabul in total.
Biden said earlier that the US was “considering every opportunity and every means by which we could get folks to the airport,” amid reports that the Taliban are trying to prevent safe passage there.
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