At the center of the scramble to airlift American citizens out of Afghanistan after its fall to the Taliban is a simple question: How many Americans are waiting to be evacuated?

It is a question the Biden administration has been unable to answer.

“We cannot give you a precise number,” Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.

Sullivan said the United States had been in touch with a “few thousand Americans” and was working on making arrangements to get them out of the country. In another interview, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he estimated that “roughly a few thousand” Americans were trying to leave Afghanistan.

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American officials had estimated Tuesday that 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. citizens were in Afghanistan. Maj. Gen. William Taylor of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff said Saturday that about 2,500 Americans had been evacuated since Aug. 14, the day before the Taliban took Kabul, the Afghan capital.


The evacuation of American citizens is one piece of the broader airlift effort that is underway in Kabul, with thousands of Afghans also being flown out of the country. The White House said on Sunday that about 25,000 people, in total, had been evacuated on military and other flights since Aug. 14.

Complicating matters for the Biden administration is a lack of clarity about how many Americans were in Afghanistan when the Taliban seized control of the country.

When American citizens come to Afghanistan, they are asked to register with the U.S. Embassy, Sullivan said. Some register but then leave the country without notifying the embassy. Others never register to begin with.

“We have been working for the past few days to get fidelity on as precise a count as possible,” Sullivan said in the NBC interview. “We have reached out to thousands of Americans by phone, email, text. And we are working on plans to, as we get in touch with people, give them direction for the best and most safe and most effective way for them to get into the airport.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.