WASHINGTON — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says the U.S. military doesn't have the capacity at this point to extend security forces beyond the perimeter of the Kabul airport in order to get more civilians safely evacuated out of Afghanistan.
Afghans and aid organizations have said that citizens are having a hard time getting past the Taliban and into the airport, in a mass exodus triggered by the insurgents' rapid takeover of the country and its capital on Sunday.
Austin told reporters at a Pentagon press conference on Wednesday that the U.S. is working to get as many people through the evacuation process and out of the country as quickly as possible, but "we're not close to where we want to be."
The Pentagon says that about 5,000 civilians have been taken out of Afghanistan so far, but officials have said they want to get to a goal of getting a maximum of 5,000 to 9,000 people out a day.
Austin said that securing the airport is the paramount mission right now and he doesn't want to do anything to detract from that. He said the U.S. military doesn't have the capability to go out and collect large numbers of citizens and get them to the airport.
HERE'S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Afghan President Ashraf Ghani defended his decision to flee Kabul in the face of the Taliban advance, describing it as the only way to prevent bloodshed. He also denied claims by his country's ambassador to Tajikistan that he had stolen millions of dollars from state funds.
Ghani posted a video on his Facebok page late on Wednesday, confirming that he was in the United Arab Emirates. He thanked Afghan security forces in his message, but also said that the "failure of the peace process" led to the Taliban snatching power.
He also indirectly tried to quash an accusation by Afghanistan's ambassador to Tajikistan that he had stolen $169 million from state funds.
He claimed that he was "forced to leave Afghanistan with one set of traditional clothes, a vest and the sandals I was wearing."
"Accusations were charged in these days that money was transferred, these accusations are fully baseless." he said.
Ghani left Afghanistan on Sunday just as the Taliban approached Kabul.
ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he welcomes the Taliban's recent moderate statements and is willing to meet with Taliban leaders for the good of the Afghan people and Turkey's interests.
Erdogan also told Kanal 7 television on Wednesday that Turkey was determined to stand by Afghanistan, regardless of who is in charge of the country.
"Our relevant institutions have been in contact with the Taliban for a while. We have previously stated that we can host the Taliban leaders. We maintain this stance," Erdogan said. "We are ready for any kind of cooperation for the peace of the Afghan people, the well-being of our ethnic Turkic brothers in the country and to protect our interests."
The Turkish leader described the Taliban's approach toward majority-Muslim Turkey as being "careful" and "very sensitive."
"I hope that the same sensitivity will continue from now on," he said.
On Turkey's proposal for Turkish troops in Afghanistan to carry on running and guarding Kabul's airport, Erdogan said Turkey's continued military presence would "strengthen" the Taliban's hand internationally and "make things easier for them."
Erdogan said a total of 552 Turkish nationals have so far been evacuated from Afghanistan.