The State Department’s top spokesman insisted Friday that US officials had only received “a small number of reports” that Americans in Afghanistan are being prevented from reaching Kabul’s international airport by a ring of Taliban checkpoints.
“We have not received a large number — in fact, we’ve only received a small number and sporadic reports of individuals whose passage has been impeded,” spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
Price’s statement was at odds with President Joe Biden’s claim earlier Friday that the White House knew of “no circumstance where American citizens are carrying an American passport and are trying to get through to the airport.” After that statement was challenged by a NPR reporter, the president changed tack, claiming that “to the best of our knowledge, the Taliban checkpoints, they are letting through people showing American passports” and blaming what he called the “mad rush of non-Americans” for blocking would-be evacuees from getting through.
Price insisted to reporters that the issue was being treated “with the utmost importance,” adding that US officials had contacted the Taliban “through both political and military channels.”
“We are engaging with the Taliban to do everything we can to facilitate safe passage; safe passage for Americans, safe passage for third-country nationals, but also, of course, safe passage for Afghans who may be at risk — and many of these harrowing stories are emanating from Afghans who are finding resistance,” he said.
However, that statement contradicted Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who confirmed to House lawmakers on a conference call following Biden’s remarks that Americans had been beaten by members of the Taliban while trying to pass the checkpoints, a state of affairs Austin called “unacceptable.”
Price’s statement also countered a report from ABC News correspondent Ian Pannell in Kabul, who told anchor David Muir that he knew of American citizens who had presented their US passports at a checkpoint and “were beaten by the Taliban with the rubber fan belt from a vehicle.”
“It just seems the reality and the rhetoric are miles apart,” Pannell said. “I’m not quite sure what advice the president’s receiving, but the truth on the ground is that these people who are in fear of their lives can’t get through.”
Meanwhile, Afghan-Americans have told The Post that Taliban fighters have attempted to confiscate their US passports and other identification papers.
“I got to the [airport] gates and was about to show my passport, but the Taliban got it, and he said, ‘You are not allowed to go through’ and wouldn’t give it back,” said one man who served for several years as a military interpreter during the war and lives in the US, but requested anonymity for safety reasons. “I was lucky a US Marine was right there and forced him to give it back.”
Despite the harrowing reports, top Biden administration officials have insisted all week that the Taliban was playing a constructive role in the evacuation of Afghanistan by ensuring “safe passage” to Hamid Karzai International Airport — something the State Department has repeatedly told Americans it could not guarantee.
“The Taliban have told us the same thing they have said publicly, that they have no intention of impeding our operations or of standing in the way of those who are seeking passage to the airport,” Price repeated Friday.
The spokesman later claimed that the Taliban “have assured us that they will allow Afghans who wish to leave the country to do so after August 31 … They say that they will allow safe passage to anyone who wishes to reach the airport.
“Again, these are the words of the Taliban,” Price went on. “We take them for what they are. But we are going, together with our international partners, to do everything we can to see to it that they make good on their words and at the same time that they understand the consequences of not doing so.”
With reporting by Juliegrace Brufke and Hollie McKay