Pentagon officials on Thursday said that while the number of Americans and special immigrant visas evacuated from Afghanistan have increased in recent days, they are still not conducting evacuations at maximum capacity.
During a Thursday morning briefing, Army Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor told reporters that 7,000 people had been evacuated from Afghanistan since the military's airport protection mission began on Aug. 14. While he noted that about 2,000 people had been evacuated in the last 24 hours alone, it's still below the maximum capacity of between 5,000 and 9,000 daily evacuations the Pentagon estimates it could conduct.
The 2,000 evacuees over the last 24 hours were transported in a total of 12 C-17 aircraft. Later on in the briefing, Kirby noted that not all seats on those planes were occupied.
"We are working hard to get there, and we're looking to build out that capacity," Kirby said.
Kirby said it isn't "air-lift capacity" that's limiting evacuations from Kabul but getting people to the airport and ready to fly. Taliban forces have set up checkpoints outside of the airport, limiting who can safely reach the airport.
Kirby could not promise that all gates at the airport have remained open in the last 24 hours, noting that some may have been closed for security reasons. He added he hoped more people would be able to access the airport soon.
"We believe that we will soon begin to see an opening up of the aperture," Kirby said.
When it comes to American citizens, Kirby said that the Pentagon hasn't "seen (the Taliban) impede or obstruct" those headed to the airport, adding that should Americans be attacked, those attacks would "be met with a forceful response."
For many in Afghanistan, the airport in Kabul is the only way to escape Taliban rule, as forces have closed border crossings into neighboring countries. The Americans have an agreement with the Taliban to end their evacuation mission on Aug. 31, but President Joe Biden has said he's open to trying to extend that deadline.
Kirby said Thursday that such an extension would need to be cleared with the Taliban.
"I don't believe those conversations have happened at this point," Kirby said.
The evacuation in Afghanistan comes after several months of a gradual troop drawdown as part of a peace agreement with the Taliban that would see U.S. forces leave the country by Aug. 31. However, the U.S.-backed government collapsed over the weekend when President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, and the Taliban seized Kabul, the country's capital.
The evacuation reached its most chaotic point Monday when hundreds of Afghans rushed the runway at the Kabul airport in an attempt to flee the country. Seven people were killed.