U.S. officials in Kabul gave the Taliban a list of names of American citizens, green card holders and Afghan allies to grant entry into the militant-controlled outer perimeter of the city’s airport, a choice that's prompted outrage behind the scenes from lawmakers and military officials.
The move, detailed to POLITICO by three U.S. and congressional officials, was designed to expedite the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from Afghanistan as chaos erupted in Afghanistan’s capital city last week after the Taliban seized control of the country. It also came as the Biden administration has been relying on the Taliban for security outside the airport.
Since the fall of Kabul in mid-August, nearly 100,000 people have been evacuated, most of whom had to pass through the Taliban's many checkpoints. But the decision to provide specific names to the Taliban, which has a history of brutally murdering Afghans who collaborated with the U.S. and other coalition forces during the conflict, has angered lawmakers and military officials.
“Basically, they just put all those Afghans on a kill list,” said one defense official, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic. “It’s just appalling and shocking and makes you feel unclean.”
Asked about POLITICO's reporting during a Thursday news conference, President Joe Biden said he wasn't sure there were such lists, but also didn't deny that sometimes the U.S. hands over names to the Taliban.
"There have been occasions when our military has contacted their military counterparts in the Taliban and said this, for example, this bus is coming through with X number of people on it, made up of the following group of people. We want you to let that bus or that group through," he said. "So, yes there have been occasions like that. To the best of my knowledge, in those cases, the bulk of that has occurred and they have been let through.
"I can't tell you with any certitude that there's actually been a list of names," he added. "There may have been. But I know of no circumstance. It doesn't mean that it doesn't exist, that here's the names of 12 people, they're coming, let them through. It could very well have happened."
NSC spokesperson Emily Horne added: “It is unfortunate that the White House was not asked for comment or explanation on such a serious issue. Had Politico asked us we would have given the same answer the President shared with the nation today: that in limited cases we have shared information with the Taliban that has successfully facilitated evacuations from Kabul.”
A spokesperson for U.S. Central Command declined to comment.
The list issue came up during a classified briefing on Capitol Hill this week, which turned contentious after top Biden administration officials defended their close coordination with the Taliban. Biden officials contended that it was the best way to keep Americans and Afghans safe and prevent a shooting war between Taliban fighters and the thousands of U.S. troops stationed at the airport.
After the fall of Kabul, in the earliest days of the evacuation, the joint U.S. military and diplomatic coordination team at the airport provided the Taliban with a list of people the U.S. aimed to evacuate. Those names included Afghans who served alongside the U.S. during the 20-year war and sought special immigrant visas to America. U.S. citizens, dual nationals and lawful permanent residents were also listed.
“They had to do that because of the security situation the White House created by allowing the Taliban to control everything outside the airport,” one U.S. official said.
But after thousands of visa applicants arrived at the airport, overwhelming the capacity of the U.S. to process them, the State Department changed course — asking the applicants not to come to the airport and instead requesting they wait until they were cleared for entry. From then on, the list fed to the Taliban didn’t include those Afghan names.
As of Aug. 25, only U.S. passport and green card holders were being accepted as eligible for evacuation, the defense official said.
Still, that U.S. officials handed over a list of Afghan allies and American citizens and residents shows the extent to which they outsourced security of the airport’s outer perimeter to the Taliban. The Taliban has gone door-to-door in search of Afghan interpreters and others who helped U.S. and Western forces.
In written and verbal communications, Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, and Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, head of U.S. forces on the ground in Afghanistan, have referred to the Taliban as “our Afghan partners,” according to two defense officials.
The Biden administration has been coordinating the evacuation effort and airport security with the Taliban, which is running the checkpoints outside the airport’s outer perimeter. Officials have been “in daily communication” with Taliban commanders about who to let in, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters this week.
The news comes just hours after two Islamic State terrorist attacks rocked the area just outside the airport, killing at least four U.S. Marines and wounding dozens more. A number of Afghans were also killed in the bombings.
After the attacks, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) appeared to criticize the Biden administration’s strategy of coordinating with the Taliban, writing in a statement: “As we wait for more details to come in, one thing is clear: We can’t trust the Taliban with Americans’ security.”