John Kirby, the press secretary for the Defense Department and a retired rear admiral in the Navy, said the U.S. military does not know how many Americans remain in Afghanistan during a briefing on Thursday morning.
After being asked for a number, Kirby admitted “I don’t know,” before trying to move on. A quick follow-up from a reporter forced him to expand on that.
“So you’re planning for these operations and you should be, you know, have some kind of a count of how many Americans are, whether in harm’s ways or need to be evacuated, right?” inquired the journalist.
“First of all, the State Department would be a better place to go for an estimate of how many Americans are in Afghanistan or in and around Kabul. That is not a figure that the United States military would know,” responded Kirby, who went on to note that Americans are not required to register upon arriving in the country. Biden announced in early July that U.S. troops would be leaving Afghanistan by August 31.
Amazingly incompetent moment as Defense Department spokesman John Kirby says they don't have a breakdown of the people who've been on flights out of Afghanistan AND they still have no idea how many Americans are still trapped in the country behind enemy lines. pic.twitter.com/jyV4Z2nZZe
— Curtis Houck (@CurtisHouck) August 19, 2021
Just prior to that exchange, Kirby also professed not to have a breakdown of how many of the approximately 7,000 people evacuated on U.S. government flight since August 14 are American citizens. “It’s not the only way out of Kabul,” he noted, “the commercial side is open, it’s limited… but people are still getting out that way.”
The U.S. military is running the evacuation effort out of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, but is not venturing outside of the complex. The State Department has sent notices to U.S. citizens in Afghanistan encouraging them to “make your way” to the airport, but also making it plain that “THE UNITED STATES CANNOT GUARANTEE YOUR SECURITY AS YOU MAKE THIS TRIP.”
Kirby seemed to confirm this when asked if the military had permission to enter Kabul proper to retrieve American citizens and bring them to safety.
“The mission, Helene, is to provide safe and secure operations at the airport… We are focused on security at the airport,” he explained.
The press secretary also said on Thursday that he was not sure if gates to the airport had needed to be closed at various points over the last 72 hours. “I suspect that that’s true” he speculated.
On Tuesday, Kirby estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 Americans were left in Kabul and the surrounding area. The White House, meanwhile, has estimated that 11,000 Americans remain in country.