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President Biden pledged on Friday to use “every resource necessary” to evacuate “any American who wants to come home” from Afghanistan. But, he warned, “I cannot promise what the final outcome will be, or whether it will be without risk of loss.”
In a speech from the East Room of the White House, Biden defended his administration’s halting efforts to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies following the Taliban’s swift takeover of the country in the past week.
“We’ve made significant progress,” Biden said, telling reporters that 13,000 people, including Americans and Afghans who have applied for Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, have been evacuated since Aug. 14, including 5,700 on Thursday.
At the same time, he acknowledged that the U.S. had been forced to delay the evacuation effort for several hours on Friday because countries processing the new arrivals had been overwhelmed.
“We paused flights in Kabul a few hours this morning to make sure we could process the arriving evacuees at their transit points. But our commander in Kabul has already given the order for outbound flights to resume,” Biden said.
While the president acknowledged that the U.S. military’s top priority is to evacuate Americans from Afghanistan, he also said that “we are making the same commitment” to Afghan citizens, including those who assisted the U.S.-led military coalition and others whose affiliations with the U.S. put them at high risk under Taliban rule.
Pentagon officials have emphasized this week that the U.S. military’s authority on the ground in Kabul does not extend beyond the parameters of Hamid Karzai International Airport, and that those who are eligible for evacuation, including U.S. citizens, would need to get to the airport on their own.
Asked on Friday whether he was considering ordering rescue operations for Americans and Afghan allies who are unable to access the airport, Biden said, “Yes, we are considering every means and opportunity by which we can get folks to the airport.”
He reiterated that U.S. officials have been “in constant contact with the Taliban to ensure civilians have safe passage to the airport,” insisting that they’ve received no indication that Americans have not been able to get to the airport.
There have been numerous reports this week, however, that Afghans seeking to evacuate have encountered harassment and violence from Taliban forces. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued an alert on Wednesday to people in the Afghan capital, saying it “cannot ensure safe passage” to the airport.
In separate press conferences following Biden’s speech Friday afternoon, Pentagon and State Department officials deflected questions about potential efforts to rescue Americans and others who are unable to access the airport in Kabul, suggesting that such operations are not necessary at this point.
“Every single report of impeded access is something we take extraordinarily seriously,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters. He said he’s seen some harrowing anecdotal stories in the press and on social media about Americans not being able to reach the airport, but he insisted that such incidents are few and far between.
“We have been in regular touch with U.S. citizens in Afghanistan during this evacuation effort and before that, offering them guidance about security risks of remaining in Afghanistan,” Price said. “As we have directed them to consider making that transit to the airport, we have received reports from only a small number of Americans that their access has been impeded in some way.”
Price acknowledged that the majority of reports about the Taliban restricting access to the airport are coming from Afghan citizens.
“The Taliban have told us the same thing they have said publicly, that they have no intention of impeding our operations or of standing in the way of those who are seeking passage to the airport,” he said. “Their words are one thing; the only thing that matters to us are their actions.”
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