President Joe Biden said Wednesday in an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos that U.S. troops will stay in Afghanistan beyond Aug. 31 if necessary to evacuate any remaining Americans who wish to leave the country.
“If there are American citizens left, we’re going to stay until we get them all out,” Biden said.
The United States and other countries operated evacuation flights from Afghanistan into Wednesday, though not all those seeking to leave the country were able to reach Kabul’s international airport. The Taliban erected checkpoints throughout the capital and near the airport’s entrance, beating some Afghans who attempted to cross and intimidating others, according to reports and an eyewitness account. In one case, a former interpreter for the Australian army was shot by a Taliban fighter as many Afghans crowded at the airport gates.
The Biden administration has repeatedly said that all U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan by the end of August. But the swift Taliban takeover this week caused a chaotic rush to evacuate foreign nationals and their Afghan allies. Estimates place the number of Americans in Afghanistan between 11,000 and 15,000. Asked whether some troops might stay beyond the end of the month if necessary to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies, Biden said: “It depends on where they are and whether we can ramp these numbers up to five [thousand] to 7,000 a day coming out. If that’s the case, they’ll all be out.”
Biden’s response to whether that applied to Afghans appeared more equivocal. He said an estimated 50,000 to 65,000 Afghan allies of the United States — including people who helped U.S. efforts and their families — remain in the country.
“The commitment holds to get everyone out that, in fact, we can get out and everyone who should come out,” he said. “And that’s the objective. That’s what we’re doing now. That’s the path we’re on. And I think we’ll get there.”
“Americans should understand that we’re going to try to get it done before Aug. 31,” he said.
If that doesn’t happen, however, Biden made clear that the decision to keep troops in the country would hinge on whether American citizens remained there.
Biden defended his handling of the U.S. withdrawal, arguing that there was no way to pull out of the country without “chaos ensuing.”
“The idea that, somehow, there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens,” Biden told Stephanopoulos in his first interview since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, according to an excerpt released by ABC.
The United States has evacuated about 5,000 people from Kabul, Gen. Mark Milley, chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday. The situation at the airport is stable, Milley said. But earlier Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul warned that the U.S. government “cannot ensure safe passage” to the airport. The Taliban has erected checkpoints throughout the capital and beat and harassed some Afghans who had attempted to reach the airport.
The State Department said Wednesday that it is negotiating with the Taliban to ensure safe passage to the airport.
Meanwhile, Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday defended the military’s efforts to secure the Kabul airport and deflected questions about recent decisions at their first public appearance since the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban.
“There will be plenty of time for postmortems on this topic,” Milley said. “But right now is not that time.”
“Right now, there are troops at risk, and we in the United States military fully intend to successfully evacuate all American citizens who want to get out of Afghanistan,” he added. “They are our priority number one.”
Milley said the United States will get out as many Afghans who supported the U.S. military “as possible,” a tacit acknowledgment the military knows it may not evacuate them all.
He said the current security situation at the airport is stable, with hundreds of evacuees flowing through airport gates each hour. Milley said the United States has evacuated some 5,000 people from the Kabul airport so far. But threats remain, he said, and the U.S. military will respond if they emerge.
Austin said that the military is sending additional teams to the airport’s gates to assist State Department personnel who are processing evacuees. Asked if the military might extend its security perimeter outside to contend with Taliban checkpoints, Austin indicated such a move is unlikely.
“The forces that we have are focused on securing the airfield,” Austin said. “You know how important that is, and what happens if we lose the ability to provide that security. And so I don’t want to detract from that.”
Instead, State Department officials are negotiating with the Taliban to secure safe access to the airport.
Austin, who previously served as an Army general, also addressed veterans of the war.
“I’m hearing strong views from all sides on … this issue,” Austin said. “And that’s probably the way that it should be. What’s important is that each of us will work our way through this in our own way. And we need to respect that, and we need to give one another the time and space to help do it.”
Also Wednesday, former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani surfaced in the United Arab Emirates days after fleeing Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf nation’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. He denied accusations that he fled the country with huge sums of cash.
“The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation can confirm that the UAE has welcomed President Ashraf Ghani and his family into the country on humanitarian grounds,” the statement released Wednesday evening said.
It remains unclear where the 72-year-old Ghani is in the UAE and whether he plans to remain in the country. Previous reports indicated that he had fled the Afghan capital, Kabul, just as the Taliban entered the city, heading with his family and senior officials to neighboring Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, and possibly then to Oman.
Inside Afghanistan, Ghani has been widely condemned by even his staunchest supporters for abandoning the country as the Taliban took control. In a Facebook post Monday, Ghani defended his actions, insisting that he left Afghanistan to prevent “bloodshed.” He described his departure as “a hard choice” and said the Taliban had “won with the judgment of their swords and guns.”
Russian officials in Kabul have charged that Ghani fled with four cars and a helicopter filled with cash, the Russian news agency RIA reported Monday. Ghani has not responded to the allegation.
“Four cars were packed with money, and they tried to cram another bag of cash into the helicopter. Not all the cash managed to squeeze in, and some of the money was left lying on the airfield,” the news agency quoted Nikita Ishchenko, a spokesperson for the Russian Embassy, as saying.
On Wednesday, the Afghan Embassy in Tajikistan urged Interpol to serve an arrest warrant for Ghani and two senior aides, Hamdallah Mohib and Fazal Mahmood Fazli, for allegedly stealing the country’s wealth, according to Afghanistan’s ToloNews network.