Biden Says U.S. Has Expanded Evacuation Efforts at Kabul Airport
(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden said the U.S. has expanded its evacuation efforts beyond the perimeter of the Kabul airport, warned of possible terror attacks and acknowledged that he may be forced to push back his deadline for leaving Afghanistan.
Biden, speaking Sunday at the White House, declined to give details about “tactical changes we’re making” given the developments, saying it was “still a dangerous operation.”
Biden, who has enlisted civilian aircraft in the effort, said about 7,800 people were evacuated over the weekend, bringing the total since Aug. 14 to more than 25,000.
“We’re working hard and as fast as we can to get people out,” Biden said. “That’s our mission, that’s our goal.”
The chaos in Afghanistan and around the Kabul airport is fueling widespread criticism of the president’s handling of the withdrawal of thousands of Americans and of Afghans who helped U.S. forces over the past two decades and now face the risk of Taliban reprisals. But Biden has repeatedly defended his decision to leave.
“I think history is going to record that this was the logical, rational and right decision to make,” Biden said.
Biden’s remarks come just two days before a virtual meeting with Group of Seven leaders -- the same group he promised in June that “critical U.S. enablers” would remain in place to keep Kabul safe following the drawdown of NATO forces, according to a British diplomatic memo seen by Bloomberg.
He suggested Sunday the U.S. may not complete its withdrawal as soon as he hoped.
“There’s discussions going on among us and the military about extending” the Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawal, Biden said. “Our hope is we will not have to extend.”
It isn’t clear exactly how many Americans remain in the country, or the number of Afghans seeking to leave. Biden has pledged the same commitment to evacuate Afghans who aided the U.S. as he’s made to Americans.
Between Aug. 21 and Aug. 22 at 3 a.m., 23 U.S. military flights evacuated about 3,900 people, and 35 coalition aircraft -- including foreign military and commercial aircraft -- evacuated another roughly 3,900, according to a senior White House official. About 30,000 people have been evacuated since the end of July.
“We see no reason why this tempo will not be kept up,” Biden said.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, said Sunday that the U.S. is placing “paramount priority” on defending crowds at the Kabul airport, and warned of the “acute” risk of a terrorist attack by Islamic State.
Biden said the U.S. knows that terrorists, including Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate, may try to exploit the situation and he has “no illusions” about the threat.
Earlier Sunday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that he activated stage one of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, which gives the military access to U.S. commercial airlines to assist with the evacuation effort. In a tweet Sunday, Austin said that aircraft from American Airlines, Delta Airlines, United Airlines, Atlas Air, Omni Air and Hawaiian Airlines are being used in the effort. They’re not flying into Kabul’s airport, instead flying passengers out of safe havens to interim staging bases, he said.
In recent days, Biden has held calls with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi, the White House said.
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