Some 1,500 Americans could be in Afghanistan, with only about one-third in contact with the U.S. government as the window is closing quickly for U.S. troops to pull out by Aug. 31 or risk a direct confrontation with the Taliban.
The Biden administration does not know exactly how many Americans want to be or even can be evacuated by next week's deadline. The Taliban temporarily have ceded Kabul's airport and agreed to a cease-fire with coalition troops.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Wednesday that "it's hard to overstate the complexity and danger" of the situation in Kabul, which effectively has become a Taliban stronghold after the group conquered Afghanistan with minimal resistance.
The Taliban, which the U.S. has been fighting for 20 years, have agreed to give safe passage to Americans attempting to flee. But federal officials have no way of verifying whether Taliban fighters on the ground are complying.
So far, more than 4,500 Americans have been evacuated, according to Blinken. He added that his agency has made 45,000 phone calls and sent more than 20,000 emails and text messages trying to communicate with the remaining U.S. citizens. A few already had left the country by the time the State Department reached out to them, he said.
He also cited cases of people trying to escape Afghanistan by falsely posing as Americans.
At least two military operations have been conducted to rescue Americans outside the perimeter of the airport, where coalition troops have dug in. Troops flew into Kabul and moved roughly 180 U.S. citizens to the airport via helicopter. Those are the only such operations the Pentagon has publicly acknowledged.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters Wednesday the U.S. has the capability to extract Americans outside of Kabul, suggesting such action would be taken only in the area immediately outside the city. He offered no further details but said there are no plans to extend such missions across Afghanistan.
While Americans are getting priority for evacuations, thousands of Afghans also are seeking a route out. At least 88,000 people have been flown out of the country, including three babies born as their parents were being evacuated. One mother gave birth during a C-17 Globemaster III flight to a base in Germany; the baby was named "Reach" after the plane's call sign.
Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, head of U.S. European Command, told reporters he hopes that the newborn girl will become an American citizen one day and serve in the military.
"If you can well imagine, as an Air Force fighter pilot, it's my dream to watch that child grow up and be a U.S. citizen and fly United States fighters in our Air Force," he said.
President Joe Biden has ordered the Pentagon to plan for a possible extension to what may end up being the largest evacuation the U.S. has ever organized.
But failing to leave by Aug. 31 likely would trigger a potentially deadly standoff between U.S. troops and Taliban fighters, who have the airport surrounded and control the city.
"There is no deadline on our work to help any remaining American citizens who decide they want to leave to do so, along with the many Afghans who have stood by us over these many years and want to leave and have been unable to do so,” Blinken said. “That effort will continue every day past Aug. 31.”
In addition to the Taliban threat, U.S. officials are concerned over the possibility that ISIS-K, an Islamic State affiliate, could take advantage of the chaos on the ground and launch an attack. ISIS-K is a rival to the Taliban; the groups have been fighting in rural parts of Afghanistan for years.
"Every day we're on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and allied forces and innocent civilians," Biden said Tuesday.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.