WASHINGTON – Senior US officials paint a very different picture of America’s final days in Afghanistan and the hasty evacuation of more than 124,000 civilians, described by US President Joe Biden as an “extraordinary achievement.”
While describing the 18-day airlift as “heroic” and the most significant in U.S. history, officials also spoke of their pain, anger and regret for the Afghans left behind, including many had qualified for special US immigrant visas.
“I would say that’s the majority of them,” a senior State Department official involved in the evacuation said on Wednesday, when asked how many SIV candidates did not have. managed to get out.
“Everyone is haunted by the choices we had to make and the people we couldn’t help,” the official said. “It involves compromises and really painful choices.”
“We unfortunately had to start prioritizing people to whom we had a legal obligation in the first place, and that was our fellow Americans,” the official added.
U.S. defense officials have also expressed frustration, despite Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s praise for the heroism of the troops overseeing the evacuation.
“No operation is ever perfect,” Austin told reporters in his first public remarks since the official end of the US war in Afghanistan.
“The SIV program is obviously not designed to adapt to what we have just done,” he added. “For the kind of operation that we just did, I think we need a different kind of capability.”
The most senior US military officer was equally blunt.
“When we see what has happened over the past 20 years and over the past 20 days, it creates pain and anger,” General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters. .
“War is tough. It’s vicious, it’s brutal, it’s ruthless. And yes, we all have pain and anger,” he said.
The Pentagon said on Wednesday that by the time the last US plane took off from Kabul airport, the United States and its coalition partners had evacuated 124,334 civilians from Afghanistan, including nearly 6,000 Americans.
Officials say about 43,000 of the evacuees are currently at 14 assembly bases in nine countries, with another 20,000 Afghans at various bases in the United States.
“Our counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan and the region for 20 years have protected the American people from terrorist attacks,” Milley said, adding that “it was not in vain.”
“The men, women and children who have just been evacuated will ultimately be the legacy to prove the value of our sacrifice,” he said.
“These days have been incredibly emotionally trying” by @thejointstaffby General Mark Milley “We are all in conflict”
“One thing I am sure of … your service mattered and it was not in vain”#Afghanistan
– Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) September 1, 2021
Milley and Austin said the Pentagon will take a close look at what happened in Afghanistan, including the evacuation, to see what lessons can be learned. They also said the US military will continue to help evacuate Americans and Afghans under the direction of the US State Department, which is now leading the evacuation effort.
Where these efforts stand, however, is unclear.
Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland told reporters on Wednesday that the State Department’s Afghan task force was working around the clock on evacuation efforts, trying to help Afghans who were on the move. are associated with the United States.
“They are also on our priority list, if they are still in Afghanistan, to try to help them evacuate if they want to or if they are in danger,” Nuland said.
The White House, meanwhile, said US officials were “however” working on a number of issues to allow Americans and Afghans to leave, even without the presence of US troops.
These efforts include talks to re-activate Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport and other Afghan airports, as well as attempts to secure “overland” routes so people can leave by car or on foot.
The White House has also defended its comprehensive effort, brushing aside claims that many Afghans have been left behind as US troops last pulled out.
During a briefing with reporters, press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about the State Department official’s belief that less than half of Afghans at risk had been evacuated.
Without answering the question directly, she said that “77 percent of those evacuated were Afghans at risk.”
“Are there more people who want to leave Afghanistan? Absolutely, ”she continued. “Our commitment to the people who want to evacuate, want to leave – American citizens, journalists, Afghan partners who have stood by our side – is enduring and remains.”
State Department officials said on Wednesday that the 77% figure did not refer to the total number of people evacuated from Afghanistan, but only to the roughly 31,000 evacuees who are already in the United States.
Just in: The White House specifies that 77% refers to the percentage of Afghans “who have arrived in the United States as part of Operation Allies Welcome since August 17 … including SIV and other visa holders, SIV applicants, references P-1 and P-2, and others “
Going through @pwidakuswara
– Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) September 1, 2021
The total number of Afghans at risk who came out is still unknown, State Department officials said.
VOA’s Patsy Widakuswara, Anita Powell and Nike Ching contributed to this report.