Blinken said the State Department does not have an exact figure on the number of Americans still in the country, though it is believed to be “under 200 and likely closer to 100.” He added that efforts to determine an exact number were complicated by “longtime residents of Afghanistan who have American passports and are trying to determine whether or not they want to leave.”
“Our commitment to them, and to all Americans in Afghanistan and everywhere in the world, continues. The protection and welfare of Americans abroad remains the State Department’s most vital and enduring mission,” Blinken said. “If an American in Afghanistan tells us that they want to stay for now and then in a week or a month or a year they reach out and say, ‘I’ve changed my mind,’ we will help them leave.”
But despite the vow to help, the State Department will suspend its diplomatic presence in Kabul and relocate it to Qatar due to the “uncertain security environment and political situation in Afghanistan,” said Blinken. He added that it was the “prudent step to take.”
Blinken spoke shortly after the Biden administration confirmed the troop departures following a frantic weeks-long effort to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies from the country. The permanent withdrawal effectively concluded America’s longest-ever military conflict.
More than 123,000 people were evacuated during the operation, including 6,000 American citizens.
The international community expects Kabul’s airport to reopen “as soon as possible,” with a small number of daily charter flights to facilitate free travel, according to Blinken. He reiterated that the Taliban has publicly pledged to allow free travel, uphold the rights of its citizens, and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups.
“Any engagement with the Taliban-led government in Kabul will be driven by one thing only – our vital national interests,” Blinken said.
“If we can work with the new Afghan government in a way that helps secure those interests, including the safe return of Mark Frerichs, a U.S. citizen who’s been held hostage in the region since early last year, and in a way that brings greater stability to the country and region and protects the gains of the last two decades, then we will do it,” he added. “But we will not do it on the basis of trust or faith.”
Top Biden administration officials, including Blinken, have faced bipartisan criticism over their handling of the withdrawal.
Criticism intensified last week after 13 U.S. service members were killed in a terrorist attack perpetrated by ISIS-K, a local affiliate of the Islamic State Group. The Pentagon has carried out multiple retaliatory strikes against ISIS-K targets in recent days.
Blinken said it would work closely with international allies on policy toward the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan, including efforts to ensure the group does not access relief funds meant for humanitarian purposes.
“America’s work in Afghanistan continues. We have a plan for what’s next and we’re putting it into action,” Blinken said.