Biden under growing pressure to extend Afghanistan deadline
The Biden administration is coming under growing pressure to extend the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan to help evacuate all American citizens and Afghan allies, even though doing so risks increasing tensions with the Taliban.
President Biden has already committed to staying beyond Aug. 31 to evacuate remaining Americans but added on Sunday that he is weighing whether to extend the deadline to evacuate thousands more people, including Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants and their families.
The United Kingdom said it wants to see the military mission stretch into September if circumstances allow for it. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke with Biden on Monday, and both leaders will participate in a virtual call Tuesday among Group of Seven leaders.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also told reporters on Monday that France believes it necessary for the U.S. to extend the Aug. 31 deadline in order to evacuate American citizens and their Afghan allies, according to Le Parisien.
On Monday, 10,900 people were evacuated on U.S. and coalition flights, according to the White House. The U.S. has evacuated or facilitated the evacuation of 48,000 people since Aug. 14.
But the administration still doesn’t know exactly how many Americans remain in Afghanistan, estimating the number to be in the thousands. With only one week left until Biden’s previous self-imposed deadline, administration officials are increasingly acknowledging the possibility of a longer stay to complete the evacuation efforts for all those who want to leave.
“We are in talks with the Taliban on a daily basis through both political and security channels,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Monday, declining to get into specifics.
“We are also consulting closely with our allies and partners on the issue of the evacuation and its progress,” Sullivan said. “We are taking this day by day. We believe we are making enormous progress.”
A Taliban spokesperson said the U.S. would be crossing a “red line” if it keeps troops in Afghanistan beyond Aug. 31.
“If they extend it, that means they are extending occupation. … It will create mistrust between us,” Suhail Shaheen told Sky News in an interview. “If they are intent on continuing the occupation, it will provoke a reaction.”
Sullivan on Monday shrugged off the idea that Taliban statements would influence Biden’s decision on whether to keep troops in Afghanistan.
“Ultimately, it will be the president’s decision how this proceeds, no one else’s,” Sullivan said when asked if the White House feels some agreement with the Taliban is needed to extend the U.S. presence into September.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the military remains focused on completing the operation by the end of the month but indicated Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley would provide recommendations to Biden on extending the deadline if needed.
Kirby also said that the U.S. would “absolutely” consult with its allies and partners on any decision.
Multiple administration officials said Monday that the U.S. would continue to get at-risk Afghans out of the country after military forces have left.
Biden initially announced in April that he would end U.S. involvement in Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. He announced last month that all U.S. forces would withdraw before Aug. 31, though the mission effectively ended in early July when forces vacated Bagram Airfield.
Some experts suggested the Aug. 31 date is no longer relevant given that the U.S. has ramped up its troop numbers in recent weeks to assist with the evacuation effort. Biden inherited roughly 2,500 troops in the country upon taking office, but those forces grew to roughly 6,000 after reinforcements were sent to the region in recent weeks.
“That Aug. 31 date is nothing but an aspiration. There’s no agreement we made with the Taliban. That should not in any way be some sort of a deadline,” said retired Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, who was deployed twice to Afghanistan.
Further adding to the pressure for Biden are calls from lawmakers, human rights organizations and veterans groups to ensure all Afghan allies who assisted in the war effort over the last two decades are able to make it out of the country safely as they face threats of retribution from the Taliban.
Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led a bipartisan letter to Biden on Monday calling on him to extend the military operation beyond Aug. 31 and start discussions with NATO about handing over the Kabul airport to a NATO force to continue evacuations for Afghans looking to flee the country.
AMVETS, VoteVets, Human Rights First and Common Defense sent a separate letter to the White House, signed by roughly 30 groups, urging the safe evacuation of Afghan allies.
“I would like to see a clear commitment to staying until all the people at risk are evacuated,” said Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch, which was not one of the 30 groups. “I think it’s really essential that the U.S. goal be to stay until vulnerable people are evacuated, whatever date that may be.”
Prasow and others say the administration needs to provide more clarity on which at-risk individuals — beyond Americans, green card holders, and SIV applicants and their families — are eligible for evacuation.
“It seems like physical access to the airport issue is improving, I wouldn’t say it has been solved,” said Prasow. “That part is improving but there are people who don’t have flights, don’t have visas, don’t know what status they will have when they arrive anywhere.”
Updated at 6:18 p.m.