The United States in recent days has ramped up its airlift amid new reports of rights abuses that fuel concern about the fate of thousands of people who fear retribution from the Taliban and are trying to flee the country.
Pentagon officials expressed confidence the airlift can get all Americans out by next Tuesday, the deadline Biden had set long before the Taliban completed their takeover. But unknown thousands of other foreign nationals remain in Afghanistan and are struggling to get out.
The Taliban, who have wrested control of the country back nearly 20 years after being ousted in a US-led invasion after the 9/11 attacks, insist the airlift must end on Aug. 31. Any decision by Biden to stay longer could reignite a war between the militants and the approximately 5,800 American troops who are executing the airlift at Kabul airport.
In Kabul, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told a news conference the US must stick to its self-imposed deadline, saying “after that we won’t let Afghans be taken out” on evacuation flights. He also said the Taliban would bar Afghans from accessing roads to the airport, while allowing foreigners to pass in order to prevent large crowds from massing. It was not immediately clear if they would stop Afghans who are escorted by foreigners or in the process of being evacuated by Western nations.
In Washington, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden, whose handling of the hastily arranged evacuation has been roundly criticised by Republicans and Democrats alike, announced during a meeting of fellow leaders of the G-7 industrialised nations that he planned to stick to the Aug. 31 deadline. British, French and other officials argued for extending the deadline, officials said.
“He also made clear that with each day of operations on the ground, we have added risk to our troops with increasing threats from ISIS-K, and that completion of the mission by Aug. 31 depends on continued coordination with the Taliban, including continued access for evacuees to the airport,” Psaki said. ISIS-K is the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, which Biden has vowed to keep in check even after the US forces leave.
During a briefing on Tuesday, Biden said the longer the US stays in the country, there is an “acute and growing risk of an attack by a terrorist group known as ISIS-K”, or Islamic State-Khorasan.
“Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both US and allied forces,” he said.
Psaki said Biden has asked the Pentagon and the state department for evacuation contingency plans to “adjust the timeline should that become necessary.”
At the Pentagon, spokesman John Kirby said Aug. 31 leaves enough time to get all Americans out, but he was less specific about completing the evacuation of all at-risk Afghans. He said about 4,000 American passport holders and their family members had been evacuated from Kabul as of Tuesday.
“We expect that number to grow in coming days,” Kirby said. He also said the military would have to start moving troops and their equipment out of Kabul several days prior to Aug. 31 in order to be out entirely by then.
It’s unclear how many Americans who want to leave are still in the country, but their status is a hot political topic for Biden. Some Republicans bristled Tuesday at the US seeming to comply with a Taliban edict. “We need to have the top priority to tell the Taliban that we’re going to get all of our people out, regardless of what timeline was initially set,” said Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana.
And Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters Monday that “it was hard for me to imagine” wrapping up the airlifts by the end of the month.
Biden decided in April that he was ending the U.S. war, which began in October 2001. Former President Donald Trump had earlier agreed in negotiations with the Taliban to end the war in May.
However, Biden waited until the Taliban had swept to power this month, following the collapse of the US-backed government and its army, to begin executing an airlift.
( With inputs from AFP)