Biden vows to complete Afghan evacuation, but admits risks
President Biden on Friday sought to assure the public that his administration would do everything possible to evacuate American citizens and Afghans who assisted U.S. forces in Afghanistan, while acknowledging the mission faced risks and the situation was unpredictable.
In remarks from the East Room of the White House, Biden defended his administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and insisted that officials have made progress in evacuation efforts.
“Make no mistake, this evacuation mission is dangerous. It involves risks to our armed forces and it’s being conducted under difficult circumstances,” Biden said. “I cannot promise what the final outcome will be or … that it will be without risk of loss. But as commander in chief, I can assure you that I will mobilize every resource necessary.”
Saying the “buck” stops with him, Biden defended the decision to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan but deflected some questions about the way the U.S. has exited, which is where most of the criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike is coming amid scenes of chaos at Kabul’s airport.
Biden insisted that the U.S. would evacuate every American before troops leave and that his administration is committed to evacuating Afghans who assisted the U.S. in the 20-year conflict.
Biden said that the U.S. has evacuated more than 18,000 people since July and 13,000 since Aug. 14. He also noted that nearly 6,000 troops are on the ground, providing runway security and standing guard around the airport to assist civilian departure.
“This is one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history,” Biden said.
Biden has been under enormous pressure to address the evacuation efforts in Afghanistan, where Afghan civilians have scrambled at Kabul’s airport to flee the country.
His comments came after flights resumed at Kabul’s international airport; officials were forced to pause evacuation flights earlier when the facility in Qatar where evacuees were being taken reached capacity.
The president acknowledged the “heartbreaking” images that have come out of Afghanistan, but was largely defensive of his decision-making. Biden and his officials have been adamant that getting out of Afghanistan now was the correct call, though they acknowledge that the Taliban overran the country quicker than officials anticipated. Still, administration officials insist they were prepared for all contingencies.
“Now we have a mission, a mission to complete in Afghanistan. It’s an incredibly difficult and dangerous operation for our military of almost 6,000 of America’s finest fighting men and women at the Kabul airport who are putting their lives on the line, they’re doing it in a dangerous place to save other Americans, our Afghan allies, and citizens of our allies,” Biden said.
The president has kept a low public profile in recent days, delivering two speeches on Afghanistan and the coronavirus pandemic earlier this week and sitting for an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. On Friday, he scrapped plans to travel to his home in Wilmington, Del., where he was supposed to spend Friday night. Biden indicated during his remarks that officials would provide regular updates over the coming days.
For the first time since Kabul fell to the Taliban, Biden also fielded questions from reporters at the White House following his address that touched on the evacuation efforts and concerns about the resurgence of terror threats.
Amid pressure to get Afghans at-risk and those seeking special immigrant visas (SIVs) out of Afghanistan, Biden seemed to open the door to staying past his Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline to evacuate remaining Afghan SIVs in Afghanistan.
“I think we can get it done by then but we’re going to make that judgment as we go.”
He said the U.S. would do “everything that we can to provide safe evacuation for our Afghan allies, partners, and Afghans who might be targeted because of their association with the United States.”
Biden also said officials are in “constant contact” with the Taliban to make sure Americans have safe access to the airport. He added that the U.S. is also keeping close watch of terrorist threats at or around the Kabul airport, including from ISIS.
“We’ve made clear to the Taliban that any attack on our forces or disruption of our operations at the airport will be met by swift and forceful response,” he said.
Biden said the Group of Seven leaders will meet virtually next week to discuss the situation on the ground. The meeting follows calls this week between the president and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Some have expressed concerns that the handling of the withdrawal could hurt America’s standing on the world stage, but Biden dismissed those concerns.
“I have seen no question of our credibility from our allies around the world,” he said.