How many Americans are in Afghanistan?
Thousands of US citizens who provided various types of support to the military invasion have yet to be evacuated, following days of chaos at the airport
After two long decades, with thousands of casualties on both sides, America's longest war has come to an end.
With images reminiscent of the US withdrawal from Vietnam, the world has watched in horror as thousands of Afghans fled to the last remaining US holdout, Hamid Karzai International Airport, desperate to escape Taliban rule.
On Tuesday, 17 August, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan held a press briefing from the White House to inform the public on the administration's plans in the ongoing evacuation.
After days of chaos, Sullivan said that the US military had secured the airport and that it “is open, and U.S. military evacuation flights are taking off.” The operation, being carried out by the Department of Defense, aims to evacuate “American citizens and Afghan nationals who worked with us, along with other vulnerable Afghans," as quickly as possible.
However, more than a week after the Taliban’s takeover, the federal government has yet to release any solid figures on how many American’s remain in the country.
Updates from the Department of Defense
While late last week, the Department had told the media that US forces had not had any “hostile interactions, no attack and no threat by the Taliban" since the group took Kabul, these statements have been adjusted.
Press Secretary Kirby admitted that the Department had seen reports of Americans being held up Taliban run checkpoints but that “by and large, what we’ve been seeing is that Americans are able to get through those checkpoints and are able to get onto the airfield.”
Earlier today on 23 August, Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby, Major General Hank Taylor, and the Deputy Director of the Joint Staff For Regional Operations, J-35 hosted a press conference, offering new information on the status of the evacuation.
Still unable to provide official figures, General Taylor told the media that it is their belief that the Department of Defense has “been able to evacuate several thousand Americans,” since 14 August.
Journalists pushed back hoping the officials would offer more detail, but Taylor quickly ended the line of questioning by stating firmly “number is very fluid, and it literally changes nearly by the hour,” and that he was more comfortable leaving “it several thousand right now.”
The White House and State Department also struggles to provide an accurate headcount of US citizens left in Afghanistan
Earlier the number of Americans still in Afghanistan stood at around 15,000.
However, in recent days, like their colleges at the Department of Defense, officials from the State Department have struggled to calculate the exact number.
The department had encouraged those working and living in Afghanistan to register with the embassy. However, with registration-optional, many did not, limiting the government’s ability to compile a headcount.
On Friday 20 August during an interview with CNN, White House communications director Kate Bedingfield confirmed that the administration did not “have a precise number.”
Bedingfield shifted her message to talk about the outreach efforts that had been conducted saying, “As of a few weeks ago, we had already begun reaching out to all American citizens who were in Afghanistan via email, via text, via messaging app to hear from them and to understand their plans and work with them to get them out, if they want to get out.”
When are all US citizens expected to be evacuated?
Bedingfield also evaded questions related to if the US military would be able to safely evacuated all American citizens and Afghans who supported the US mission. This came after President Biden had affirmed his commitment to getting all American citizens out of the country, earlier in the week.
During a speech made by the Presidnet on 18 August, he said “If there’s American citizens left, we’re gonna stay till we get them all out.” Weeks prior, the President had marked 31 August as the date for all forces to be out of the country, but with Defense officials unable to provide a timeline, this date could be postponed.
When asked on 23 August if the Department had a timeline on when all citizens would be home, Press Secretary Kirby responded, he was “not prepared today to speak to the specific dates or process by which that would occur but.” Kirby did however say that “the focus is on getting as many people out as we can, as fast as we can.” This is no easy task and includes airport transport, which US forces are currently undertaking.
Kirby also said that the departure timeline will depend on various factors and the Department will “continue to maximize throughput as best we can and without getting anybody hurt.”
How many Afghans will be evacuated?
In addition to the number of American citizens that will be brought home, figures on the number of Afghans that will be able to leave the country have not been made public.
For years, many activists and policymakers have argued that special support must be provided to Afghans that supported the US mission. Many of these brave people translated for US soldiers in need of information from local populations. Now, with the Taliban in charge, they and their families are at risk.
During the Defence press conference on 23 August, Kirby stated that since July, more than 42,000 people have been relocated. Many of those evacuated have SIV, or Special Immigration Visas since they were employed by the US government. These visas will allow them entry into the United States.
However, just how many people have been awarded this visa, and the larger question of how many people are eligible to have yet to be answered.
What is the process for getting an SIV?
The State Department has recently updated its web portal with information on the SIV program for Afghans. Through the Emergency Security Supplemental Appropriations Act (ESSA), 2021, and previous pieces of legislation allowed for 34,5000 SIV "for Afghan principal applicants." By Friday, 1,200 SIV recipients had arrived in the United States.
The ESSA increased the number of SIVs available by around 8,000 and earlier this year, the US government announced that all those who had worked at US-based NGOs or media organizations could apply for a P2 visa. Former World Bank official, James Schwemlein, who served as the senior adviser to the US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, stated that there could be more than 100,000 people eligible for the P2 visa.
However, regardless of the visa type, applicants must undergo lengthy background checks. While many of those who have applied have been evacuated, they will be held in a third country until their application can be processed.
But, many who have applied or could, however, are now in hiding as they cannot risk the trek to the airport because if caught by the Taliban they could be killed.
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