The U.S. Department of Defense said on Wednesday that there are likely “dozens” of family members of U.S. troops still trapped in Afghanistan following President Joe Biden’s chaotic pullout from the country back in August.
“The Defense Department is trying to compile a master list of relatives of U.S. troops who may still be in Afghanistan and wanting to leave, per a Nov. 4 memo from the Pentagon’s policy chief,” The Army Times reported. “The memo encourages military or civilian personnel to send a note to a DoD email address created specifically for referrals of Afghan nationals.”
At a press conference on Wednesday, a reporter asked Pentagon spokesman John Kirby to provide updates on the “number of immediate family members of U.S. service members in Afghanistan.”
“We believe it’s certainly most likely in the dozens, but one of the reasons we put the memo out last week was to encourage service members to come forward,” Kirby said, later adding, “We’re working this as hard as we can. We take the obligation seriously to our people and to their families.”
TRANSCRIPT PROVIDED VIA THE DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE:
REPORTER: John? Afghanistan?
JOHN KIRBY, DOD SPOKESMAN: Can I get to somebody else just in case, since I already — nobody? All right, go ahead.
REPORTER: You can go.
KIRBY: Lucas, you’ve had, like, seven. Go ahead.
REPORTER: John, can you please update us on — on the number of immediate family members of U.S. service members in Afghanistan?
KIRBY: Update you on the number?
KIRBY: I don’t have a whole number on that, no.
REPORTER: OK. So, I mean, the withdrawal ended on August 30th, and it’s — today is November 10th. I mean, how is it possible that — that the department doesn’t know how many immediate family members are still left…
KIRBY: I didn’t say…
REPORTER: … especially in Afghanistan?
KIRBY: I — I didn’t say we didn’t know; I said I don’t have a number for you. We believe it’s certainly most likely in the dozens, but one of the reasons we put the memo out last week was to encourage service members to come forward.
It’s a dynamic thing, Fadi. I mean, you make it sound like a snap on a chalk line, and boom! You’ve got to know all the — you’ve got to know every number. That’s not even true for American citizens, as other — as American citizens in Afghanistan continue to come forward, because maybe they’ve changed their mind. Maybe they didn’t want out by August 30th, and maybe now they do. And so the number has — is changed a little bit.
We’re working this as hard as we can. We take the obligation seriously to our people and to their families. And we’re — and that’s why we put the advisory out to the services last week, to give them a place, a portal where they can go to put information on — on — on there that we can then share with our State Department colleagues to get them out. We’re going to stay at this.
I’ve said it before but I think it bears repeating — the military mission in Afghanistan is over but the mission itself, to continue to — to get our people out — out of Afghanistan and back home or to their new homes in the United States, is not over, and we’re going to continue to work inside the interagency to do that.
REPORTER: I understand and appreciate all of that but my question remains — these are — these are the immediate family members of U.S. service members in Afghanistan. While many Afghans who have no relatives in the U.S. were evacuated a long time ago, the department, up until last week, did not issue a memo or considered this issue. I mean, don’t you think it’s…
KIRBY: That doesn’t mean…
REPORTER: … it’s late in the process…
REPORTER: … you shouldn’t — don’t you think this should have been the priority to begin with?
KIRBY: It was a…
REPORTER: … talking about…
KIRBY: Fadi, let me answer your question, please.
REPORTER: No, no, I’m just — I — I…
KIRBY: I — I know that, I get it, but we did take it as a serious priority back then. We were working it. Just because there wasn’t a memo on the streets doesn’t mean that we weren’t focused on it or that we weren’t talking to people about it.
But more and more people were coming forward and wanted help for how to organize this effort, and now that the State Department has set up a — an interagency process over there, we now want to more discreetly, more carefully funnel these requests and that information to the care coordinator, as appropriate.
So it’s an ongoing process, it’s somewhat iterative, we’re getting better at it over time, and the fact that — you — you — you know, you’re — you — that we didn’t issue a memo earlier doesn’t mean that we weren’t thinking about it, weren’t focused on it, weren’t hearing from troops or concerned about family members.
I mean, I — I have to take issue, I think, with the tone of your question, which seems to be that we just didn’t care until last week, and that’s just not true.
REPORTER: Yeah, but the facts remains that we’re talking about that issue still now.
KIRBY: And you know what, Fadi? We’re probably going to be talking about that issue for some time to come, and that has to be OK. It doesn’t mean that we’re not taking it seriously. In fact, quite the contrary.
REPORTER: Are — are they — are there — is there any concern about their safety in Afghanistan?
KIRBY: Of course there is — of course there is.