US president acknowledges that completing airlift by 31 August depends on Taliban continuing to cooperate
Joe Biden has rejected the pleas of domestic and international allies to keep troops in Afghanistan for evacuation efforts beyond the end of the month, citing the growing threat of a terrorist attack.
In a move likely to fuel criticism that America is abandoning Afghan partners to the Taliban, the US president made clear that he is resolved to withdraw forces from Kabul airport by next Tuesday’s deadline.
“We are currently on a pace to finish by August the 31st,” Biden said at the White House on Tuesday. “The sooner we can finish, the better. Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops.”
The president acknowledged that completing the airlift – one of the biggest in history – by 31 August depends on the Taliban continuing to cooperate and allowing access to the airport with no disruption to operations.
Biden also noted that he has asked the Pentagon and the state department for “contingency plans to adjust the timetable should that become necessary”.
He continued: “I’m determined to ensure that we complete our mission, this mission. I’m also mindful of the increasing risks that I’ve been briefed on and the need to factor those risks in.”
These “acute and growing” risks include possible terrorist attacks by Isis-K, the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate that is also a sworn enemy of the Taliban, he said. “Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that Isis-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both US forces and allied forces and innocent civilians.”
Biden pointed out that 70,700 people have been evacuated from Kabul since 14 August. But his reluctance to extend the 31 August deadline disappointed politicians at home and leaders abroad who contend that it is unrealistic.
Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, told a press conference: “There’s no possible way that we can get every American that’s still in Afghanistan out in the next seven days.”
Mitt Romney, a Republican senator for Utah and former presidential candidate, added: “We have been given every indication that evacuation efforts cannot be concluded by August 31. Americans are still stranded in the provinces outside of Kabul and it’s unacceptable that there is still no plan to get these individuals to safety.”
There are particular fears for Afghan civilians who, if left behind, face reprisals from the Taliban for working with western forces, missions and nongovernment organisations.
Romney added: “Leaving vulnerable Afghans – many of whom risked their lives, and their families’ lives, in service to our country – to face the wrath of the Taliban would be an utter disgrace and moral failure. Evacuation efforts should end only when the job is done.”
The US made an agreement with the Taliban, which overthrew Afghanistan’s government with shocking speed, to withdraw its forces by 31 August, including from Kabul airport. But the Biden administration has been unable to say how many Americans are in Afghanistan or how many have been evacuated.
On Tuesday a virtual meeting of the G7 – Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the US – debated the withdrawal date and ended in bitter disappointment for those seeking to persuade Biden to extend the end date.
Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, said: “Several leaders during the G7 meeting expressed concerns about this timing, August 31, and we have also had the opportunity to express our opinion on that.”
Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, added after the meeting: “We will go on right up until the last moment that we can. But you have heard what the president of the United States has had to say, you have heard what the Taliban have said.
“I think you have got to understand the context in which we’re doing this. We’re confident we can get thousands more out. But the situation at the airport is not getting any better, there are public order issues, it’s harrowing scenes for those who are trying to get out, and it’s tough for our military as well.”
The Taliban has allowed the airlift to continue without major interference so far. But at a press conference in Kabul, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said his group will accept “no extensions” of the deadline.
Mujahid also said the Taliban is still allowing foreign nationals to leave but preventing Afghans from reaching the airport on the grounds that it is dangerous and their skills are are needed to rebuild the country. “We are asking the Americans please change your policy and don’t encourage Afghans to leave,” he added.
A 2020 deal struck by then president Donald Trump and the Taliban initially set a May deadline for US troops to fully withdrawn, after nearly 20 years of war there. Biden extended the deadline to 31 August but failed to anticipate how quickly the Afghan government and army would collapse.
Both Democrats and Republicans have argued that more time is needed and the Taliban should not be allowed to dictate terms.
Mikie Sherrill, a member of the House armed service committee and former navy helicopter pilot, said after a classified briefing: “Make no mistake, this evacuation is an extremely dangerous mission and it’s set to get more dangerous in the coming days. I requested that the SecDef and SecState encourage the president in the strongest possible terms to reconsider that deadline.”
Ben Sasse, a Republican senator for Nebraska, added bluntly: “Damn the deadline. The American people are not going to surrender our fellow citizens to the Taliban. Americans want us to stay until we get our people out, and so do our allies.
“The Biden administration needs to cut the Stockholm syndrome. There’s absolutely no reason to trust the Taliban – they’re violently blocking Americans and our Afghan partners from reaching the airport.”
The US accelerated its round-the-clock airlift of evacuees from Afghanistan to the highest level yet on Tuesday. About 21,600 people were flown safely out of Afghanistan in the 24-hour period that ended early on Tuesday, the White House said, eclipsing the 16,000 moved out the previous day.
But on Tuesday the Axios website reported that it obtained an email in which a US official describes conditions at the Al Udeid airbase in Doha, Qatar, where many Afghan refugees are staying, as “a living hell” littered with faeces, urine and rats. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said “nobody is making excuses” and “everybody’s focused on trying” to improve the conditions.
Meanwhile the CIA director, William Burns, secretly visited Kabul on Monday to meet with the Taliban’s top political leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, according to multiple media reports which the White House declined to confirm.
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