Reaching goal dependent on continued cooperation from Taliban, US president says.
U.S. President Joe Biden said on Tuesday the United States is on pace to finish evacuations from Afghanistan by Aug. 31, but left open the chance of the deadline being extended, saying reaching that goal is dependent on continued cooperation from the country’s new Taliban rulers.
The Taliban said earlier on Tuesday that all foreign evacuations from the country must be completed by Aug. 31.
In remarks at the White House, Biden said the United States was racing to meet that deadline as concerns mount over the threat of militant attacks.
“The sooner we can finish, the better,” Biden said. “Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops.”
Continued coordination with the Taliban remains crucial to meeting the deadline, he said, but he called it a “tenuous situation” with a “serious risk of breaking down as time goes on.”
Biden said he asked the Pentagon and the State Department to develop contingency plans to push past the deadline should that prove necessary.
The Democratic president, whose administration has been under fire for its handling of the pullout, said U.S. forces had now helped evacuate 70,700 people since Aug. 14.
Biden said his administration was working to rebuild a system for processing refugees that he said was “purposely destroyed” by his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump.
“We must all work together to resettle thousands of Afghans who ultimately qualify for refugee status. The United States will do our part,” he said.
Two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was growing concern about suicide bombings at the airport, which has been overwhelmed by Afghans and foreign citizens rushing to leave, fearing Taliban reprisals.
One U.S. official said it was no longer a question of if, but when, militants would attack and the priority was to get out before it happened.
The Taliban told the thousands of Afghans crowding into the airport in the hope of boarding flights that they had nothing to fear and should go home.
“We guarantee their security,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told a news conference in the capital, which Taliban fighters seized on Aug. 15 from the Western-backed government after most foreign forces withdrew following two decades of war.
The Pentagon said several hundred U.S. troops had departed Kabul under a previously scheduled move but that it would not affect evacuation efforts.
Mujahid said the Taliban had not agreed to an extension of the Aug. 31 deadline and called on the United States not to encourage Afghan people to leave their homeland. He also urged foreign embassies not to close or stop work.
The White House said, however, that it expects some Afghans who qualify for special visas will not be barred from going to Kabul airport to evacuate in coming days.
Some Democrats in the U.S. Congress argued the evacuations must be completed regardless of the target date.
“To me, the mission of evacuating personnel takes priority over deadlines,” said Representative Jake Auchincloss, a former Marine who commanded infantry in Afghanistan.
Auchincloss spoke to reporters after a classified briefing for members of the House of Representatives by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley.