Trump exaggerates claim that many Americans are ‘hostages’ in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — When former President Donald Trump argues that President Joe Biden botched the 2021 American withdrawal from Afghanistan — a broad point that even some of Biden’s fellow Democrats will concede — he often laments what his campaign says are hundreds or thousands of U.S. citizens trapped in a country ruled by the Taliban.

“For 18 months, we lost nobody in Afghanistan. And then we had that horrible, horrible withdrawal where we lost 13 soldiers, 38 horribly wounded, left Americans behind,” Trump said in remarks after his Super Tuesday victories earlier this month.

“You have Americans right now still behind,” he continued. “Call them hostages, if you like.”

In a video his campaign released last week, Trump repeated the charge.

“We have many American people still living in Afghanistan, probably as hostages,” he said.

But two senior Biden administration national security officials told NBC News that the Taliban is holding two Americans that the U.S. government would like to see released. Other Americans in Afghanistan are there of their own volition, they said.

“Every American who wanted to leave has left,” the first official said. “In fact, we didn’t leave a single person behind. And we are also getting Afghan allies out every month.”

State Department officials said they could not provide an exact figure for how many U.S. citizens are in Afghanistan and have requested assistance in getting out of the country.

“It is impossible to say with certainty how many U.S. citizens are in Afghanistan today,” a State Department spokesperson said. “In the 30 months since our embassy closed, many U.S. citizens departed, returned, and departed again.”

One of the Americans being jailed by the Taliban, Ryan Corbett, started a microfinance company in the country during the war, fled with assistance from the U.S. government in 2021, and then returned in 2022. The harsh conditions he faces, and his deteriorating physical condition, have been detailed by onetime fellow prisoners who were released. He has not been charged with a crime.

The national security officials declined to name the other person whose release they are seeking but noted that person entered Afghanistan on a tourist visa after the 2021 evacuation.

“Both went to Afghanistan AFTER we left,” the first official said in a text message.

At least 67,000 Afghans have applied for what are known as special immigrant visas created for local nationals who supported the U.S. mission in the country, according to State Department officials. At least 20,000 Afghans have been found eligible for those visas and are moving forward in the process.

Since regaining power, the Taliban have reportedly killed at least 200 members of the Afghan security forces, which fought alongside U.S forces. The Taliban have also banned girls over the age of 11 from attending school, the only government in the world to do so.

The ban is enforced unevenly across Afghanistan, but an unknown number of Afghan women are believed to also want to leave the country.

Karoline Leavitt, a spokeswoman for Trump, defended the former president’s argument.

“President Trump is absolutely right to call out Joe Biden for his betrayal of Americans in Afghanistan,” Leavitt said in a statement. “Biden’s calamitous withdrawal left hundreds, if not thousands, of citizens behind and led to the tragic deaths of 13 U.S. Service Members at Abbey Gate.”

Abbey Gate is the location outside the Kabul Airport where 13 American service members were killed in a terrorist attack as the U.S. evacuated Afghanistan in August 2021.

“Now the Taliban has regained control of the country using billions of dollars of our military equipment, and radical terrorists are emboldened across the entire region,” Leavitt said.