WASHINGTON (CN) — Eager to get out of Afghanistan while the now-ruling Taliban remains cooperative, President Joe Biden said the U.S. military presence there cannot continue for as long as it takes to get every American out of the country.
The announcement follows Biden's celebration Friday of resumed military flights and civilian charters out of the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, in the wake of the Afghanistan government's rapid collapse. Biden had vowed Friday that any of America's allies still in the country who want to leave will be able, pointing to the remaining 6,000 U.S. troops who could provide runway security, stand guard around the airport or otherwise assist in civilian departure.
But Biden said Tuesday his administration's Aug. 31 pullout date will remain the goal based on increased security risks, including potential for terror attacks at the Kabul airport that Americans face each day they remain in the country.
“Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS is seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and allied forces and innocent civilians,” Biden said in an address from the White House late Tuesday afternoon.
“Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS is seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and allied forces and innocent civilians,” he continued, using an abbreviation for the Islamic State group.
Biden said the U.S. has evacuated more than 70,700 from Afghanistan since August 14, for a total of 75,900 since July, and that the Pentagon is on pace to finish the mission by August 31, although he related that this will depend entirely on if the Taliban keeps cooperating.
“The Taliban has been taking steps to work with us so we can get people out but it’s a tenuous situation,” Biden said, noting that he has asked the Pentagon and the State Department for contingency plans to adjust the timetable if necessary.
This morning Biden met with the intergovernmental political forum called Group of Seven, made up of the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom, as well as NATO, and the heads of the European Union and the United Nations. He said the leaders had all agreed that their recognition of the Taliban will depend on the group preventing Afghanistan being used as a base for terrorist groups.
They also jointly renewed their humanitarian commitment to the Afghanistan people. The United States will be a leader in these efforts, Biden said, indicating it will work to qualify thousands of displaced Afghans for refugee status.
“We are already working closely with refugee organizations to rebuild a system that was purposely destroyed by my predecessor,” Biden said of former President Donald Trump.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken will present a detailed report on how many Americans remain in Afghanistan and how many have been successfully evacuated tomorrow, Biden said.
Biden will still have contingency plans if it is later determined that Americans need to stay in the country for longer, he said.
The president had said that the focus now is making sure every American or ally who wants to leave can get to the airport.
The president has said the U.S. is standing by Afghans who've worked alongside Americans, like translators and interpreters, and is facilitating flights for allies and partners, working in close operational coordination with NATO.
Not given asylum status in advance of America's military pullout, many Afghans who assisted U.S. and coalition forces are still waiting to be evacuated as the Biden administration seeks countries in which to temporarily house those in danger of Taliban retaliation. He has said those allies were not evacuated sooner because the Afghanistan government discouraged a swift exodus to avoid further tumult in the area.
Early last week, Biden defended his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and end the 20-year war that erupted after al-Qaida — a terror group that had been protected in Afghanistan by the then-ruling Taliban — carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Biden maintained that the mission of going into Afghanistan was to make sure that al-Qaida could not use the country as a base from which to attack the U.S. again.
Taliban forces overran Afghanistan's capital city of 6 million on Sunday within 10 days of the sped-up withdrawal of U.S. troops, and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani yielded control to an interim government led by Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar as he fled.
Late last week, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul advised American citizens to leave Afghanistan immediately.
The Taliban's captured 12 provincial capitals by Thursday, prompting the State Department to announce that it would send troops to the Kabul International Airport to aid an evacuation of the embassy.
Both Biden and former President Trump both expressed a desire to end America’s longest war. During the Trump administration, the number of troops on the ground was reduced to 2,500.
The Trump administration struck a deal last year with the Taliban, agreeing to pull U.S. forces from Afghanistan by May 2021 if Taliban leaders engaged in peace talks with the Afghanistan government and agreed not to serve as a safe harbor for groups like al-Qaida.
Handling the situation on his own terms, Biden announced in April that all U.S. troops would be removed from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. His administration then accelerated the withdrawal to Aug. 31.
Biden said two weeks back that Afghans "must fight for themselves" but also committed to keeping U.S. troops in the country until every American is out. Biden has admitted that the Afghan government’s collapse occurred much more rapidly than anticipated but holds that the U.S. had provided the Afghan government every tool it needed to fend off the Taliban, including the funding of its air force. American taxpayers have poured $89 billion into the Afghan National Army alone.
He said that he expects his decision to draw criticism, but that he would rather be criticized for his actions than pass the decision on to a fifth U.S. president.
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