WASHINGTON (AP) – President Joe Biden said he is committed to keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan until all Americans are evacuated, even if that means maintaining a military presence there beyond the Aug. 31 deadline for the withdrawal.
Biden also dismissed criticism that the United States should have done more to plan the evacuation and withdrawal, which has been marked by scenes of violence and chaos as thousands tried to flee as the Taliban advanced.
In an interview Wednesday with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, Biden said the United States will do “everything in our power” to evacuate the Americans and their allies from Afghanistan before the deadline.
Pressed repeatedly on how the administration would help Americans who stayed in the nation after Aug. 31, Biden said: “If there are American citizens left, we will stay until we get them all out.”
Up to 15,000 Americans remain in Afghanistan after the Taliban took full control of the nation last weekend.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said early Wednesday that the US military does not have the forces and firepower in Afghanistan to expand its current mission from securing the Kabul airport to picking up Americans and Afghans at risk in other parts of the capital and escort them for evacuation.
The question of whether those seeking to leave the country before Biden’s deadline should be rescued and taken to the airport has come up amid reports that Taliban checkpoints have detained some designated evacuees.
“I don’t have the ability to go out and expand operations in Kabul currently,” Austin said. “And where do you take that? How far into Kabul does it go, and how long does it take for those forces to flow to be able to do that? “
Austin, a retired four-star army general who commanded forces in Afghanistan, spoke at his first Pentagon press conference since the Taliban came to power in Kabul on Sunday.
He said the State Department was dispatching more consular affairs officers to speed up the processing of evacuees.
“We’re not close to where we want to be” in terms of the pace of the airlift, Austin said.
He said he focused primarily on the airport, which faces “a number of threats” that must be monitored.
“We cannot afford not to defend that airfield or not have a safe airfield, where we have hundreds or thousands of civilians who can access the airfield,” he said, adding that talks with the Taliban continue to ensure safe passage for those. evacuation.
Austin said there were about 4,500 US troops at the airport, maintaining security to allow for the State Department evacuation operation that has been marked by degrees of chaos and confusion.
Biden, however, told ABC that there was nothing his administration could have done to prevent such chaos.
“The idea that somehow, there is a way out without chaos, I don’t know how it happens,” he said.
Senior US military officials were talking to Taliban commanders in Kabul about checkpoints and curfews that have limited the number of Americans and Afghans who can enter the airport.
John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said that over 24 hours some 2,000 people, including 325 US citizens, had flown aboard 18 flights of US Air Force C-17 transport planes. The number of Air Force flights departing is likely to be similar in the next 24 hours, Kirby said, though he said he could not estimate how many people they would carry.
Nearly 6,000 people have been evacuated by the US military since Saturday, a White House official said Wednesday night.
Kriby said the administration was considering its options for dealing with a separate but related problem: the abandonment by Afghan security forces of a variety of military equipment, weapons and aircraft that have fallen into the hands of the Taliban or other militant groups. .
“Obviously, we do not want to see our equipment in the hands of those who would act against our interests or the interests of the Afghan people and increase violence and insecurity within Afghanistan,” Kirby said. “There are numerous political options that can be made, up to and including destruction.” He said those decisions had yet to be made.
Kirby said several hundred more US troops are expected to arrive at the airport on Thursday.
An Air Force unit arrived overnight that specializes in quickly establishing and maintaining airfield operations, Kirby said. And he said Marines trained in evacuation support have continued to arrive and will help civilians get on flights.
Top Congressional Republicans, Rep. Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Mitch McConnell, asked Biden for a “gang of eight” classified briefing on Wednesday: Top Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate intelligence committees, as well as the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. , Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, McCarthy and McConnell.
McCarthy and McConnell said they want a briefing on the number of Americans still in Afghanistan and plans to evacuate those outside of Kabul. Her letter prompted Pelosi spokesperson Drew Hammill to tweet that she had already requested such a meeting. He also said that House members will receive an unclassified telephone briefing on Friday and an in-person briefing on Tuesday.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor, Darlene Superville, Matthew Lee, Eric Tucker, Alexandra Jaffe, and Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed to this report.