President Biden said Tuesday the U.S. military is on track to finish its evacuation efforts and depart Afghanistan by Aug. 31, emphasizing the growing threat that the terrorist group Islamic State Khorasan poses to U.S. troops on the ground in Kabul.
“Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport,” said Biden. “The sooner we can finish the better.”
The president delivered his update on the Afghanistan evacuation efforts following a virtual meeting with G-7 leaders Tuesday morning — and more than five hours after he was originally scheduled to speak to reporters at the White House. He said that he has asked the Pentagon and State Department for contingency plans to extend the timeline for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in case that becomes necessary, adding, “I’m determined to ensure that we complete our mission.”
Biden said the U.S. has now helped 70,700 people get out of Afghanistan since Aug. 14, with more than 12,000 evacuated since Tuesday morning. He said he asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken to provide the press with a detailed update on the number of Americans who’ve been evacuated from Afghanistan so far and how many are still in the country.
Over the weekend, Biden suggested that he may delay the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan if necessary to complete evacuations of U.S. citizens. Some U.S. allies, including Britain and France, had reportedly urged him to delay, raising concerns that there was still not enough time to evacuate all of their own citizens from the country, let alone the Afghans who face reprisals from the Taliban because of their work for the U.S.-led military coalition.
But extending the withdrawal could prove difficult. The Associated Press reported Tuesday that a Taliban spokesman said the U.S. must complete evacuations from Afghanistan by the Aug. 31 withdrawal date, with “no extensions.”
On Tuesday, Biden acknowledged that the U.S. military’s ability to complete its evacuations by the end of the month is dependent on the continued cooperation of the Taliban.
U.S officials have said repeatedly that they are in constant contact with Taliban leaders, who have agreed to provide safe passage to the airport in Kabul for U.S. citizens and Afghan allies seeking to evacuate. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that while foreign nationals are still being permitted to leave Afghanistan, the Taliban are now blocking Afghan citizens from reaching the airport and calling on the U.S. to stop encouraging them to leave.
By later Tuesday afternoon, other reports had already begun to emerge from Kabul indicating that Taliban forces were also preventing Americans from accessing the airport. Asked about such reports at a press briefing ahead of Biden’s speech, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that for Afghans “who have fought alongside us, who are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas ... our expectation is that they will be able to reach the airport.”
Psaki also told reporters at the White House, “If any of you are hearing from American citizens who can’t reach us, give me their contact information, and we will get in contact with them.”
According to a government document obtained by Yahoo News, 4,407 U.S. citizens had been evacuated from Afghanistan as of Monday afternoon. However, it’s not clear how many Americans still remain in the country. Biden administration officials have said they do not have a precise number because citizens are not required to register with the U.S. Embassy there, but they’ve been using a variety of means, including personalized direct phone calls, to get in touch with everyone they believe to be in the country.
At the White House on Monday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters, “We believe we have the wherewithal to get out the American citizens who want to leave Kabul.”
More than 80,000 Afghans are believed to be seeking to evacuate following the Taliban’s takeover, including more than 20,000 translators and others who worked with the U.S. military and have applied for Special Immigrant Visas.
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