President Joe Biden promised on Friday to “do everything we can” to evacuate Americans and Afghans seeking to leave Afghanistan now that Taliban militants have taken over the country ― suggesting he might extend the U.S. mission there.
“Any American who wants to come home we will get home,” the president said. He added that that commitment also applies to the tens of thousands of Afghans who worked with U.S. forces during the 20-year American mission in Afghanistan and who the Taliban are already targeting in revenge.
American forces are currently scheduled to leave Afghanistan by Aug. 31. Asked about a possible extension of the deployment, Biden said he believes evacuations can be completed by then but “we’re going to make that judgment as we go.”
Several countries in the NATO alliance — which deployed to Afghanistan alongside the U.S. back in 2001 — want the Biden administration to extend its deadline to permit more evacuations of their citizens and at-risk Afghans.
The Taliban have mostly refrained from attacking the current U.S. effort in Afghanistan because Biden is broadly abiding by the terms of a withdrawal agreement negotiated under former President Donald Trump. In an interview with NPR published on Wednesday, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the group views Sept. 11 as the deadline for American forces to leave.
Biden has been under intense scrutiny for the evacuation effort in Afghanistan.
The president has deployed more than 5,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan to control the airport at Kabul, where American officials are organizing evacuation flights for Americans, other foreign nationals and some Afghans to other countries, from neighboring Bahrain to the U.S. On Thursday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the administration is also doubling the number of consular staff working on processing visa and refugee applications in Kabul and other locations.
But Washington’s approach has clear flaws. Officials say they remain unable to ensure safe passage to the airport and snafus have slowed down the evacuations: Earlier on Friday, flights paused for hours because Qatar was unable to accept more passengers and the U.S. scrambled to find another destination.
American forces have provided some military protection to Americans trying to make it to the airport, but a broader effort to establish corridors through Kabul could have “unintended consequences,” Biden said on Friday.
Desperate Afghans and humanitarian groups say that without big improvements, the Biden administration’s strategy will abandon tens of thousands of vulnerable people. They want the U.S. to do more to organize commercial flights, supplementing the government’s own flights and helping people who are not be eligible for American evacuations. And they say it is vital for Washington to ease visa requirements, for instance for multiple different types of evidence of past employment or valid passports, and to pressure the Taliban to stop threatening people attempting to go to Kabul airport.
They note that with its mission at the airport, the U.S. has chosen to take responsibility for what an Afghan official described to HuffPost as “the only lifeline left for the Afghan people,” given the Taliban’s control of land routes and other airfields. (HuffPost is not identifying the official for security reasons.)
Friday’s remarks were Biden’s second on Afghanistan this week. He also canceled a planned trip to his home in Delaware given the ongoing situation in Afghanistan.
News reports out of Kabul continue to present alarming scenes, like Afghans handing babies to American soldiers over the barriers at the airport.
“I don’t think any one of us can see these pictures and not feel that pain on a human level,” Biden said.
Still, the president has defended his handling of the situation, saying he was focused on delivering on his campaign promise to end America’s longest war and that doing so would always involve significant difficulties and potential chaos.