WASHINGTON | President Joe Biden has said the “hard and painful” airlift for Americans and tens of thousands of others from the Afghan capital is accelerating, but he does not rule out extending it beyond the deadline. August 31, which he set ahead of the Taliban’s rapid takeover.
In remarks to the White House on Sunday, a day after the Taliban ended their victory by capturing Kabul, Biden defended his decision to end the war and insisted that getting all Americans out of the country would have been difficult under the best circumstances. Critics blasted Biden for a serious error in judgment in waiting too long to start organizing an evacuation, which has become trapped in fear and panic sparked by the sudden collapse of the government.
“The evacuation of thousands of people from Kabul is going to be difficult and painful, no matter when it started, when we started,” Biden said. “It would have been true if we had started a month ago, or in a month. There is no way to evacuate so many people painlessly and without losing heartbreaking pictures you see on TV. “
Biden said military talks were underway over whether to extend the airlift beyond the deadline set by Biden of August 31. “Our hope is that we won’t have to extend, but there are discussions,” he said, suggesting the possibility that the Taliban could be consulted.
In a statement released later Sunday, a White House official said eight U.S. military flights – seven C-17s and one C-130 – evacuated around 1,700 passengers from Hamid Karzai International Airport over a 12-month period. hours ending at 3:00 p.m. EDT. In addition, 39 coalition planes took off with around 3,400 passengers, the official said.
Since August 14, the United States has evacuated and facilitated the evacuation of around 30,300 people on military and coalition flights, the official said. Tens of thousands of people remain to join the airlift, which has been slowed down by security concerns and obstacles from American bureaucracy.
3,900 Americans left Kabul on 23 US military flights on Saturday, Biden said.
“We see no reason why this pace will not be maintained,” he said. The US military says it has the capacity to transport 5,000 to 9,000 people out of Kabul per day.
Biden claimed, without a full explanation, that US forces had been successful in improving access to the airport for Americans and others seeking to take flights. He suggested that the perimeter had been extended, widening a “safe zone”.
“What I’m not going to do is talk about the tactical changes we’re making to make sure we maintain as much security as possible,” he said. “We constantly have, how can I say it, increased rational access to the airport, where more people can get there more safely. It’s still a dangerous operation, but I don’t want to go into the details of how we’re doing it.
Later, Biden added, “We talked a lot with the Taliban. They cooperated to extend part of the perimeter.
He said groups of Americans in Kabul were being moved more efficiently and safely to the airport, but he did not provide details.
“Any American who wants to go home will go home,” he said.
Earlier Sunday, administration officials said the U.S. military was considering “creative ways” to bring Americans and others to Kabul airport for evacuation, and the Pentagon ordered six US airlines help move evacuees from temporary sites outside of Afghanistan.
Responding to a criticism cited by many Republicans, Biden said no Afghan evacuees were sent directly to the United States from Afghanistan without prior vetting. He said they are being examined in third countries.
Biden and his top aides have repeatedly expressed concern that extremist groups in Afghanistan are trying to exploit the chaos around Kabul airport.
“The threat is real, it is acute, it is persistent and we are focusing with all the tools in our arsenal,” said Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
The Biden administration has given no precise estimate of the number of Americans seeking to leave Afghanistan. Some put the total between 10,000 and 15,000. Sullivan on Sunday put it at “several thousand.”
Speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” Austin said that as Biden’s August 31 deadline approaches to end the evacuation operation, he will recommend whether to give him more. of time.
Republicans in Congress have stepped up their criticism of Biden’s response. “If the Taliban say Americans can get to the airport safely, then there is no better way to make sure they get to the airport safely than to use our military to escort them “, GOP Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, an army veteran, told ABC’s “This Week.”
Ryan Crocker, who served as US ambassador to Afghanistan under Presidents George W, Bush and Barack Obama, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Biden’s handling of the pullout was “catastrophic” and had triggered a ” world crisis”.
Vice President Kamala Harris received numerous reminders of the situation in Afghanistan during her visit to Singapore. She dismissed several questions about what was wrong there at a press conference in Singapore after meeting with the country’s prime minister.
Harris said that while “there will be and should be a solid analysis of what happened,” the current focus “must be on the evacuation of the American citizens, the Afghans who have worked with us. and vulnerable Afghans, including women and children ”.
“We cannot in any way be distracted from what must be our main mission at this time, which is to evacuate people from this region who deserve to be evacuated,” she said.
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong offered his support for the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, saying the country understood the decision and was “grateful” for US efforts to fight terrorism in the region. He also announced that Singapore would offer the use of its Air Force planes to help with the evacuation there.
A central problem in the evacuation operation is the treatment of evacuees once they reach other countries in the region and in Europe. These temporary stations, notably in Qatar, Bahrain and Germany, sometimes reach their maximum capacity, although new sites are made available, notably in Spain.
In an attempt to mitigate this and free up military planes for missions from Kabul, the Pentagon activated the civilian reserve air fleet on Sunday. The Defense Department said 18 planes from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, Omni Air, Hawaii Airlines and United Airlines would be directed to transport evacuees from intermediate stations. Airlines will not serve Afghanistan. The six participating airlines have agreed to help for just under two weeks, which roughly coincides with the currently scheduled duration of the airlift, which is due to end on August 31.
Associated Press editors Aamer Madhani, Lolita C. Baldor, Ellen Knickmeyer, Hope Yen, and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.