How many Americans are still in Afghanistan? State Department number is 'way off,' GOP lawmaker says
WASHINGTON – When the last American troops left Afghanistan Aug. 31, State Department officials said that 100 to 200 Americans remained in the country and vowed to get them out.
Since then, the U.S. government has helped at least 234 Americans leave Afghanistan, according to the State Department's latest tally. Separately, U.S. veterans and other private groups have evacuated at least 32 U.S. citizens – and probably many more.
Yet the State Department's chief spokesman, Ned Price, said Friday that 100 to 200 Americans were still in the country and trying to leave – the same range he cited nearly two months ago.
On Monday, Colin Kahl, the Pentagon's undersecretary of defense for policy, gave lawmakers far more specific response when testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Kahl said the State Department was in contact with 196 Americans who were ready to depart. Another 243 U.S. citizens have been contacted but were not ready to depart, Kahl said.
Price has repeatedly said the number of U.S. citizens seeking to leave is "dynamic" – constantly in flux as people and families make difficult decisions about whether to stay or go. And as more Americans leave, he said, others see it's safe to come forward and seek help to leave.
But others question the State Department's estimates and believe the number of Americans stranded after Kabul fell to the Taliban was much higher than State Department officials revealed. Some say the Biden administration has fudged the numbers, either because it doesn't have a good handle on the situation or because it's being intentionally misleading.
“The Biden Administration has shamelessly and repeatedly lied about the number of Americans trapped behind Taliban lines," Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, said in a statement on Friday. "For weeks, their official number was ‘about a hundred’ and it magically never changed – as Americans slowly got out the total number never went down."
Bryan Stern, a 23-year veteran of the Navy and Army and co-founder of Project Dynamo, a private volunteer group that has been working to evacuate U.S. citizens, green card holders and allied Afghans, said: "I don't know if anyone has a good handle on the numbers. What I know is that there's more than 100. That much I know."
Stern's group recently organized a private charter flight that evacuated more than 100 people, including 28 American citizens, 81 legal permanent residents and four Afghan families who had ties to the U.S. military. After weeks of scrambling to get the evacuees to safe houses and then to the Kabul airport, Project Dynamo's plane landed in Chicago on Sept. 30.
The U.S. government does not keep track of Americans abroad, whether they're living in another country or just visiting. The only way for the State Department to know if an American is in Afghanistan or another foreign country is if they voluntarily register through the State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. The program alerts officials at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate of their presence in the country, and those who register receive updates about safety conditions and other travel guidance.
"We’ve repeatedly asked Americans who are in Afghanistan to enroll," Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on Aug. 25, 10 days after the Taliban took over Kabul and triggered a panicked rush for the exits.
He and others have defended the State Department's handling of the evacuation. As the U.S. prepared to withdraw its military forces, Blinken said, U.S. consular officials sent 19 separate messages to Americans who had registered with the embassy in Kabul, urging them to leave the country.
By the time the last U.S. military plane departed Kabul, the State Department said it had evacuated 6,000 American citizens, along with more than 100,000 at-risk Afghans and others.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, has urged the State Department to appoint an "evacuation czar" to spearhead a more intense, coordinated effort to evacuate the remaining U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents and allied Afghans. He is working to enlist other senators to support that step and plans to make a formal request to the State Department.
In mid-October, the State Department announced that Elizabeth Jones, a former U.S. ambassador and career foreign service officer, would become the agency's coordinator for Afghan relocation efforts.
But her portfolio includes the ongoing evacuation along with several other massive tasks, including processing refugees who are still outside the U.S. and helping those already in the U.S. build new lives.
"She will focus not only on the very complex issues related to relocation and resettlement but also on outreach" to veterans and aid groups that can help Afghan families with the daunting challenges of beginning a new life in the United States, Price said.
Rep. Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican and former Green Beret who served multiple tours in Afghanistan, said the State Department should still be laser-focused on the evacuation.
"It's a matter of prioritization," he said. "And for the life of us, we can't figure out why that's not happening."
Price says that Blinken's top priority since the fall of Kabul has been the evacuation of Americans and that will continue until everyone who wants to leave is out.
"Our goal in all of this is to make flights out of Kabul more routine so that we are able to facilitate even more departures of Americans, of lawful permanent residents, of others to whom we have a special commitment," he said.
Waltz says that caveat – counting only those who want to leave – is part of the problem. Many of the U.S. citizens still in the country are Afghan Americans and are torn over leaving family behind in a country now under Taliban rule. They're not seeking immediate evacuation because they don’t want to abandon spouses or children who don’t have U.S. citizenship.
But that doesn't mean they don't want to leave, Waltz says.
“It's phenomenally misleading to say 'about 100 that want leave' with the strong implication that all of the others don't,” Waltz said. "It's clear that number is way off."
Blumenthal said his office became a "mini-evacuation center" after the fall of Kabul, with U.S. citizens and Afghan allies flooding his staff with requests for help.
"We were getting calls from veterans, from families, Afghan-Americans who were caught there," Blumenthal said.
His office worked with a company, Sayara International, which had done business in Afghanistan and was trying to help its employees, to get two planeloads of nearly 800 people, including four American citizens, out of the country.
"We really have no reliable or specific number (of remaining Americans)," Blumenthal said. "Frankly, nobody really does."
Part of that is because registration is voluntary, Blumenthal said. "But also many of these families are in hiding now," he said. "And their situation is increasingly urgent and desperate."
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