U.S. Marines with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Crisis Response - Central Command, provide assistance during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 20.

U.S. Marines with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Crisis Response - Central Command, provide assistance during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 20. U.S. Marine Corps / Lance Cpl. Nicholas Guevara

US Helicopters Rescued 169 Americans Outside Airport; More Ops Could Follow

Biden “will mobilize every resource necessary” to save more, but U.S. has yet to test Taliban checkpoints. Meanwhile, fuel-strained air operations resume.

President Joe Biden is considering sending U.S. troops on rescue missions throughout Kabul to help get Americans home, and one major operation outside the airport gates has already airlifted 169 to safety. 

On Thursday, three U.S. CH-47 Chinook helicopters were dispatched to rescue Americans who had gathered at the nearby Baron Hotel, near Hamid Karzai International Airport. 

The original plan was for those Americans to “gather themselves up and walk through” the gate, said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. But a large crowd gathered in front of the hotel, and it wasn’t deemed safe. 

A local U.S. commander “made the call on the spot” to send the helicopters, which then airlifted the Americans into the airport, part of the nearly 5,800 U.S. forces, including elements of the 82nd Airborne Division and two battalions of Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit deployed there. 

“There was an established landing zone there at the hotel premises. [They] flew in, picked up the 169 Americans and flew right back to HKIA,” Kirby said. 

Biden mentioned the rescue Friday, when he said he is “considering every opportunity and every means by which we can get folks to the airport,” and also revealed that the United States had provided “overwatch” for French troops to bring hundreds of French citizens to the airport. 

“Any American who wants to come home, we will get you home,” Biden said at the White House. “I cannot promise what the final outcome will be, or that it will be without risk of loss. But as commander in chief, I can assure you that I will mobilize every resource necessary.”

Some allies, including the British and French, have already sent troops into the city to help recover their citizens. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Wednesday that the United States did not have the military capability in Afghanistan to help people get to the airport for flights.

U.S. commanders have not negotiated with the Taliban on conducting operations in Kabul outside the airport because they have not received any orders to do so, Maj. Gen. William Taylor, the deputy director for regional operations and force management for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday at a briefing. 

Biden was asked why the United States has not expanded the perimeter outside the airport where civilians trying to enter are getting harassed. “The reason why we have not gone out—it’s likely to draw a lot of unintended consequences,” he said, of the risk to U.S. forces and civilians of being attacked by terrorist groups in Afghanistan, such as ISIS.

Biden reiterated America’s commitment to the Afghans who face threats from the Taliban because of their service alongside U.S. troops and contractors during the war. “There is nothing more important than bringing American citizens out, I acknowledge that,” he said. “But they’re equally important almost as all those...who in fact helped us. They were translators. They went into battle with us.” 

Since Aug. 14, the military has evacuated 13,000 people, including American citizens and permanent residents, plus Afghans who helped the United States during the war and their families. Nearly 6,000 of those left Afghanistan on Thursday. 

It’s unclear how many Americans and Afghan allies remain to be evacuated. Asked if the United States could complete the evacuation by the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline, Biden said he thought so, but that he would “make that judgement as we go.” 

The president also addressed reports that people are struggling to pass through the Taliban checkpoints on the way to the airport, saying that the administration has reached an agreement with the terrorist group’s leaders to allow evacuating personnel to pass through, but that disorder remains around the American-controlled airport.

“To the best of our knowledge, the Taliban checkpoints, they are letting through people showing American passports. Now, that’s a different question when they get into the rush and crowd of all the folks just outside the wall near the airport,” he said. 

At a briefing on Capitol HIll Friday however, Austin told lawmakers that in some cases U.S. citizens have been beaten by Taliban, according to Politico. Kirby said “we’re certainly mindful of these reports, and they are troubling.” 

Once civilians do get to Hamid Karzai International Airport they are facing delays there and at follow-on locations such as Al Udeid Air Base, in Qatar, where they are being processed by State Department consular officers for travel to the United States. 

Air operations in Kabul on Friday were paused for about eight hours, leaving thousands of Afghans who had been processed and were ready to board without a flight out because the Qatar base where the U.S. has been delivering passengers was at capacity—and there was nowhere else so far to take them. 

On a call with reporters Friday, the commander overseeing U.S. Air Force tanker support for the mission, Brig. Gen. Dan DeVoe, said that fuel at Hamid Karzai International Airlift is also limited, so military planes are arriving and departing without taking any of the fuel on the ground. 

“There’s obviously concerns about that,” DeVoe said. “We don’t take any gas out of HKIA,” DeVoe said, using the short form name for Hamid Karzai International Airport. 

Those aircraft are refueling in flight via aerial tankers so that the fuel on the ground can be used for other needs. 

Kabul has resumed flights, but they will be “metered” to not further overwhelm Al Udeid and other locations that are quickly spinning up in the Middle East and Europe to take evacuees. U.S. troops at Ramstein Air Base in Germany prepped temporary cots and housing structures on Friday for the potential influx of evacuees.

Air Mobility Command has the capability to fly people directly to the United States from Kabul, but that would require too many crews and tankers for the long flights over and back to Afghanistan. For now, the fastest evacuation is to fly evacuees from Kabul to locations nearby, DeVoe said.