Only three U.S. citizens are still in the process of trying to leave Afghanistan, Maine Sen. Angus King told Spectrum News.
King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, returned last week from a fact-finding mission to Pakistan and Qatar with three other members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
In briefings with U.S. officials there, King said he was told that thousands of additional people have been evacuated from Afghanistan since the U.S. withdrew the last of its military forces from Afghanistan at the end of August.
Most of those additional evacuees were Afghan citizens who had cooperated with the U.S. during the nearly 20 years of war in Afghanistan, but some were U.S. citizens, King said. In addition to the three remaining U.S. citizens who still want to exit, about 170 people with dual U.S. and Afghan citizenship remain in Afghanistan by choice, King said.
King said part of the reason for his trip was to get an accounting of how many U.S. citizens remain. He said he also wanted to assess criticism that the Biden administration and intelligence community dropped the ball in not anticipating the rapid collapse of the Afghan government after the U.S. began its final withdrawal of forces.
“Everyone we talked to… said they were totally surprised by how fast that happened. In fact, one of the leaders in Pakistan said that even the Taliban was surprised. So, I think the criticism that we should have somehow anticipated that is really just not accurate,” King said.
In February 2020, President Donald Trump struck a deal with the Taliban that the U.S. would leave Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. After taking office, President Joe Biden upheld the broad agreement, but delayed the withdrawal date to Aug. 31.
The U.S. military, along with the State Department, helped to supervise the evacuation of more than 120,000 Americans and Afghan allies in the final weeks of July and August before the last U.S. troops left and the U.S.-backed government fell to the Taliban.
Biden has been fiercely criticized for the sometimes chaotic nature of the evacuation, and for a suicide bombing that killed 13 U.S. service members at a Kabul airport gate. Biden has also been criticized for completing the U.S. withdrawal of forces while some U.S. citizens remained in the country, wanting to leave. Biden has rejected the criticism, saying chaos was inevitable once U.S. forces began leaving, and that remaining in the country past the deadline to withdraw was not a viable option.
After U.S. forces left, the State Department vowed that it would continue to work on evacuating U.S. citizens who wanted to leave, and based on King’s assessment, that is what has happened. It has been reported that many of those who have left since the end of August did so on charter flights, with the cooperation of the Taliban government.
King said another priority of his trip, was to thank officials from Qatar’s government for their assistance during the U.S. withdrawal.
“They helped us to set up and made arrangements to accommodate something like 50,000 people in a couple of weeks and as one of the people in the state department told us, they never said no,” King said of Qatar’s role in transporting thousands out of Afghanistan.
King categorized his meetings with leaders in Pakistan as “excellent” and “productive.”
One thing he did not expect, however, was to hear some admiration among Pakistani officials for China’s Government.
King said Pakistan’s Prime Minister told him, “What China has done is amazing, bringing 800 million people out of poverty… They moved people around, they’ve built factories, they’ve built hospitals overnight.”
“He said, ‘democracies can not do that’,” King recalled of his conversation with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Khan was referring to a 2015 initiative by the Chinese government vowing to eradicate poverty by 2020.
“I was really shocked the way the Prime Minister said, you know, a democracy couldn’t do that. It was like, ho hum… and I found that to be very disturbing,” King said.
Due to safety concerns, King said that he did not reveal that he traveled overseas until after he returned to the U.S.
“I didn’t do any publicity about the trip,” King said.
As for the mission, he added, “You always learn things when you are on the ground.”
“This area of the world has been an amazing part of our recent history. It’s an important part of the world. Terrorism is still a factor and I wanted to be there to get the facts myself, directly, without any filter and that was what we achieved,” King said.