U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, enters a plane evacuating Afghans from  Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, on August 17, 2021.

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, enters a plane evacuating Afghans from Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, on August 17, 2021. U.S. Navy / Capt. William Urban

‘Cannot Ensure Safe Passage’: US Tells Americans in Kabul to Get to Airport On Their Own

Biden says U.S. forces may have to stay past Aug. 31 to help evacuate stranded personnel.

Updated: 7:45 p.m. to add remarks by President Biden.

U.S. forces may remain in Afghanistan beyond the Aug. 31 deadline set for complete withdrawal, President Joe Biden told ABC News in an interview. Faced with the possibility that thousands of U.S. citizens and Afghans who worked with the U.S. could be stranded for weeks amid the violence and chaos of the Taliban takeover, Biden said those forces will remain “to get them all out.” 

Biden’s message came just a few hours after his Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the United States does “not have the capability” to help Americans and Afghans travel safely to the Kabul airport to be evacuated, and said that the U.S. government was negotiating with the Taliban to ensure their safe passage.   

“I do not have the capability to go out and extend operations currently into Kabul,” Austin said at a Pentagon press conference Wednesday. “We don’t have the capability to go and collect up large numbers of people.” 

The U.S. has roughly 4,500 troops on the ground at Hamid Karzai International Airport.  But those forces will not be sent beyond the airfield perimeter to quell the chaos or help people pass Taliban checkpoints, Austin said.

“We will stay focused on securing the airfield,” he said. “We cannot afford to either not defend that airfield or not have an airfield that’s secure.” 

In his interview with ABC, Biden said, “Americans should understand that we're gonna try to get it done before Aug. 31,” but if that’s not possible, forces will stay.

The Kabul airport is the last way out for thousands of Americans and Afghans seeking to flee Taliban rule. But travel to the airport, which sits northeast of the city’s center, has been dangerous and few people are getting through Taliban-controlled checkpoints. After the city fell Sunday, the State Department had issued guidance for Americans and those Afghans who had applied for a special immigrant visa to shelter in place and wait for the security situation to settle. 

On Wednesday, the U.S. embassy in Kabul issued a similar dire warning to the Americans still trapped in Afghanistan: Go to the airport, but we can’t help you get there. 

"U.S. government-provided flights are departing. U.S. citizens, [legal permanent residents], and their spouses and unmarried children (under age 21) should consider travelling to Hamid Karzai International Airport," the alert read. “THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT CANNOT ENSURE SAFE PASSAGE TO THE HAMID KARZAI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT."

Both Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told reporters on Wednesday that the U.S. government is in continued talks with the Taliban to negotiate safe passage for U.S. citizens to the airport, where the military is ramping up a massive non-combatant evacuation. 

Over a recent 24-hour period, eighteen U.S. C-17 airlifters departed Kabul, evacuating another 2,000 people. 

But those numbers pale next to the estimated 15,000 U.S. citizens in Afghanistan, and the estimated 70,000 Afghans and their dependents who worked with the U.S. government, who are now at risk under Taliban rule. 

Under the terms of the withdrawal deadline set by President Joe Biden, all U.S. forces must be out of Afghanistan by Aug. 31, leaving the military only 13 days to get everyone out. 

“We’re going to get everyone that we can possibly evacuate, evacuated,” Austin said. “And I’ll do that as long as we possibly can until the clock runs out or we run out of capability.” 

The Pentagon has said it is planning to have the capacity to get out as many as 5,000 to 9,000 people per day.

But the problem facing many Afghans who are trying to get out is the inability to get the State Department and other U.S. agencies they supported over the last 20 years to help them get the necessary paperwork to be able to pass through Taliban checkpoints.

In addition, an 8 p.m. curfew the Taliban has put in place has cut the window that people trying to gain entry into the airport can get there safely. 

In a briefing earlier Wednesday, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the Pentagon was aware of reports that people trying to get to the airport have been attacked or harassed. He said Navy Rear. Adm. Peter Vasely, who is heading the U.S. evacuation mission at Hamid Karzai International Airport, is in frequent communication with Taliban leaders to try and increase the number of people getting through. 

Overnight, the U.S. increased the number of U.S. troops on the ground to 4,500, including two teams that specialize in airfield operations and mass evacuations. 

In addition, U.S. fighter jets have been conducting low flights over the airport, U.S. Central Command confirmed.

The flights are to “have a robust presence of aircover over our troops at Hamid Karzai International Airport to ensure protection of our forces and our mission,” Central Command spokesman Navy Capt. Bill Urban said in a statement. “We expect cover to continue until the mission is complete and all U.S. forces have departed.” 

Beyond the thousands of people still stranded in Afghanistan, the Pentagon is also weighing what to do about military weapons such as helicopters that were left behind for Afghan security forces when U.S. forces withdrew, that have now fallen into the hands of the Taliban. 

All options remain on the table, Kirby said, including the possibility the U.S. would destroy that equipment.

“There are several options that we have at our disposal to try and deal with that problem,” Kirby said. “We don’t obviously want to see our equipment in the hands of those who would act against our interests, or the interests of the Afghan people, and increase security and violence inside Afghanistan.” 

In his first public remarks since the fall of Kabul, Milley also refuted reports that U.S. intelligence reports knew this collapse would be the outcome.

“Let me make one comment on the intelligence because I’m seeing all over the news there were warnings of a rapid collapse. I have previously said from his podium and in sworn testimony before Congress, that the intelligence clearly indicated multiple scenarios were possible. One of those was an outright Taliban take over following a rapid collapse of the Afghan security forces and the government. Another was a civil war. And the third was a negotiated settlement," the Joint Chiefs chairman said at the Pentagon press conference.

"However, the timeframe of a rapid collapse—that was widely estimated and ranged from weeks to months and even years following our departure. There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days.”

Marcus Weisgerber and Patrick Tucker contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of Rear Adm. Peter Vasely.