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U.S. military helicopters flew into Taliban-held Kabul on Friday to scoop up would-be evacuees, American officials confirmed to The Associated Press, as President Joe Biden pledged firmly to bring all Americans home from Afghanistan — and Afghans who aided the war effort, too.
But Biden's promises, and the limited U.S. helicopter sorties beyond the concrete barriers ringing the Kabul airport, came as thousands more Americans and others seeking to escape the Taliban struggled to get past crushing crowds, Taliban airport checkpoints and sometimes-insurmountable U.S. bureaucracy.
"We will get you home," Biden promised Americans who were still in Afghanistan days after the Taliban retook control of Kabul, ending a two-decade war.
His comments, delivered at the White House, were intended to project purpose and stability at the conclusion of a week during which images from Afghanistan more often suggested chaos, especially at the airport.
But his commitment to find a way out for Afghan allies vulnerable to Taliban attacks amounted to a potentially vast expansion of Washington's promises, given the tens of thousands of Afghan translators and other helpers seeking evacuation, as well as their close family members.
"We're making the same commitment" to Afghan wartime helpers as to U.S. citizens, Biden said, offering the prospect of assistance to Afghans who have largely been fighting individual battles to get the documents and passage into the airport that they need to leave. He called the Afghan allies "equally important" in the evacuations.
Biden is facing continuing criticism as videos and news reports depict pandemonium and occasional violence outside the airport.
"I made the decision" on the timing of the U.S. withdrawal, he said, his tone firm as he declared that it was going to lead to difficult scenes, no matter when. Former president Donald Trump had set it for May in negotiations with the Taliban, but Biden extended it.
Helicopter airlifts underway: military officials
Thousands of people remain to be evacuated ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline for the U.S. to withdraw its troops from the country.
Flights were stopped for several hours on Friday because of a backup at a transit point for the refugees, a U.S. airbase in Qatar, but they resumed in the afternoon, including to Bahrain.
A defence official said about 5,700 people, including about 250 Americans, were flown out of Kabul aboard 16 C-17 transport planes, guarded by a temporary U.S. military deployment that's building to 6,000 troops. On each of the previous two days, about 2,000 people were airlifted out.
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Senior American military officials told The Associated Press that an American CH-47 Chinook helicopter picked up the Afghans, mostly women and children, and ferried them to Hamid Karzai International Airport on Friday. The U.S. Army's 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division airlifted the Afghans from Camp Sullivan, near the Kabul airport.
The officials say sorties like this one have been underway for days from various points in Kabul as Afghans seek to flee the country taken over by the Taliban.
Intelligence teams inside Kabul are helping guide both Americans and Afghans and their families to the airport or are arranging for them to be rescued by other means.
For those living outside Kabul, CIA case officers, special operation forces and agents from the Defence Intelligence Agency on the ground are gathering some U.S. citizens and Afghan nationals who worked for the U.S. at pre-determined pickup sites.
The officials would not detail where these airlift sites were for security reasons and spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss ongoing operations.
At a Pentagon briefing Friday, spokesperson John Kirby was asked to confirm reports that U.S. helicopters had flown to multiple locations to pick up both Afghans and Americans. "I can't confirm those reports," Kirby responded. "Not at this time."
Aug. 31 deadline criticized
In Washington, some veterans in Congress were calling on the Biden administration to extend a security perimeter beyond the Kabul airport so more Afghans could get through.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said a "small number" of U.S. troops went outside the perimeter a short distance for a "short amount of time" to help bring in 169 people, but he gave no details. Those were Americans, Biden said.
The administration has said that at current deployment levels in Kabul, U.S. forces are not capable of bringing order to the chaos.
The lawmakers also said they want Biden to make clear that an Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops is not a firm one.
The deadline "is contributing to the chaos and the panic at the airport because you have Afghans who think that they have 10 days to get out of this country or that door is closing forever," said Rep. Peter Meijer, a Republican from Michigan who served in Iraq and also worked in Afghanistan to help aid workers provide humanitarian relief.
With mobs of people outside the airport and Taliban fighters ringing its perimeter, the U.S. government renewed its advisory to Americans and others that it could not guarantee safe passage for any of those desperately seeking seats on the planes inside.
The Taliban are regularly firing into the air to try to control the crowds, sending men, women and children running.
The advisory captured some of the pandemonium — and what many Afghans and foreigners see as their life-and-death struggle to leave — saying: "We are processing people at multiple gates. Due to large crowds and security concerns, gates may open or close without notice. Please use your best judgment and attempt to enter the airport at any gate that is open."
Backlog of visa applications
While Biden has previously blamed Afghans for the U.S. failure to get out more allies ahead of this month's sudden Taliban takeover, U.S. officials told The Associated Press that American diplomats had formally urged weeks ago that the administration ramp up evacuation efforts.
In July, more than 20 diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul registered their concerns that the evacuation of Afghans who had worked for the U.S. was not proceeding quickly enough.
In a cable sent through the State Department's dissent channel, the diplomats said the situation on the ground was dire and the Taliban would likely seize control of the capital within months of the Aug. 31 pullout.
They urged the Biden administration to immediately begin a concerted evacuation effort. That's according to officials familiar with the document who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal debate.
Biden said Friday he had received a wide variety of time estimates, though all were pessimistic about the Afghan government surviving.
He has said he was following the advice of Afghanistan's U.S.-backed president, Ashraf Ghani, in not earlier expanding U.S. efforts to fly out translators and other Afghans in danger for their past work with Americans. Ghani fled the country last weekend as the Taliban seized the capital.
Biden also said that many at-risk Afghan allies had not wanted to leave. But refugee groups point to years-long backlogs of applications from thousands of those Afghans for visas that would let them take refuge in the United States.
Afghans and the Americans trying to help them also say the Biden administration has clung to visa requirements for would-be evacuees that involve more than a dozen steps and can take years to complete.
Those have often included requirements that the Taliban sweep has made dangerous or impossible — such as requiring Afghans to go to a third country to apply for a U.S. visa and produce paperwork showing their work with Americans.