President Joe Biden on Tuesday resisted mounting pressure to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan past his Aug. 31 deadline but ordered his national security team to come up with contingency plans if he determines that a delay is needed.
“The completion by Aug. 31 depends on the Taliban continuing to cooperate, allowing access to the airport for those who we’re transporting out, and no disruption to our operations,” Biden said in an address from the White House. “I’ve asked the Pentagon and the State Department for contingency plans to adjust the timetable, should that become necessary.”
The president has come under withering criticism from lawmakers who say his administration is going to leave behind American citizens and Afghan allies who aided U.S. forces over the past 20 years if the military evacuation mission isn’t extended. Biden promised his administration would spell out on Wednesday how many Americans remain in Afghanistan.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that Biden should “forget about Aug. 31” and send troops out beyond the Kabul airport’s perimeter to ensure more people are evacuated.
Democrats also questioned Biden’s decision. Representative Adam Smith of Washington state, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said “it would be malpractice” to not have a contingency plan if the evacuation must continue past Aug. 31. Representative Elissa Slotkin of Michigan cited “strong bipartisan support” to extend the deadline.
But Biden said the risks to U.S. troops are growing. He and top White House officials expressed confidence the U.S. could evacuate a substantial — but unspecified — number of Americans and Afghan allies from the country in the coming days. So far, he said, about 71,000 people have been evacuated since Aug. 14.
“Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and allied forces and innocent civilians,” Biden said, citing the local offshoot of Islamic State.
After days in which U.S. officials repeatedly refused to say how many Americans have been evacuated, and how many may remain in Afghanistan — trapped in Kabul or further afield — Biden said Secretary of State Antony Blinken will provide a “detailed report” on Wednesday.
Biden spoke with Group of Seven allies earlier in the day and cited areas of agreement, including on the need for the Taliban to protect womens’ rights, but extending the end-August deadline was also a key goal for leaders in nations including the U.K. and France.
The G7 meeting, convened by U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, may have been the last chance to press Biden to push back the U.S. withdrawal date. If the deadline holds, it effectively means that civilian evacuations at the Kabul airport must end within the next few days to allow enough time to get remaining U.S. and other troops out.
Earlier in the day, a Taliban spokesman said at a news conference that “the airport is now closed and Afghans are not allowed to go there now. Only foreigners are allowed to go.” It only served to underline the obstacles on the ground, with a new regime in charge.
The degree of discord was apparent in the final G-7 statement that had little in terms of concrete steps yet warned that “we will judge the Afghan parties by their actions, not words.”
“In particular, we reaffirm that the Taliban will be held accountable for their actions on preventing terrorism, on human rights — in particular those of women, girls and minorities — and on pursuing an inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan.”
The fate of foreigners and Afghans whose ties to outside powers leave them vulnerable to Taliban reprisals dominated the buildup to the meeting. Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron were among those expected to urge Biden to shift his position — though the British government also warned that was unlikely due to the deteriorating security situation in Kabul.
Johnson said the G7 agreed Tuesday on a road map for how to deal with the Taliban, and that the “number one condition that we are insisting upon is safe passage” beyond Aug. 31 for those who want to leave Afghanistan.
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