WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden said flights from Afghanistan resumed Friday afternoon after an hour-long hiatus, and he promised to get any Americans out of the country who wanted to leave.
Almost as important as the liberation of the Americans is the evacuation of US military translators and others who have helped American troops, said the president, along with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Biden said at the White House that over 18,000 people have been evacuated from the country since late July and 5,700 in the past 24 hours. At the Pentagon, spokesman John Kirby said the vast majority of those evacuated were Afghan nationals. Kirby added that the U.S. military’s top priority is to fly U.S. citizens and their families first.
Biden’s remarks come as more than 5,000 U.S. forces evacuate as many people as possible before a self-imposed deadline of August 31 to leave Afghanistan.
“I think we can make it by then, but we’ll make that judgment over time,” Biden said of the retreat’s schedule.
Evacuees populate the interior of a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft that is bringing about 640 Afghans to Qatar from Kabul, Afghanistan, August 15, 2021.
Courtesy Defense One | Handout via Reuters
The president also reiterated his belief that American troops could not have left Afghanistan, either in the past or in the future, without chaos.
“There was no way we could have left Afghanistan without some of what you are seeing,” he said.
For many Americans, “what you see now” are scenes of desperate families with children fleeing the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul to seek a flight out of the country. Critics have accused the president of no longer showing empathy for these people.
Earlier this week, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters that the Pentagon was unable to safely escort Americans to the airport for evacuation.
“I currently do not have the opportunity to expand operations into Kabul,” said Austin when asked about those who cannot reach the airport gates because they are behind Taliban checkpoints.
The US is relying on an agreement with the Taliban to ensure safe passage for Americans. While the State Department has declared that the Taliban have met their obligations to ensure safe transit for US citizens, some Afghan nationals are being held up by the militants.
Biden said he did not plan to extend the US security perimeter beyond the airport as it would have “unintended consequences”.
“We are in constant contact with the Taliban leadership in Kabul and with the Taliban leadership in Doha,” he said. “And we coordinated what we do.”
When asked at the Pentagon whether US forces would expand their mission outside the airport, Kirby declined to speculate about future military operations. He repeated that Biden would have to agree to such a mission.
At the State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters that American citizens in Afghanistan will shortly receive personalized phone calls to coordinate their departure from the country or relocation to the United States should they decide to leave.
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The Pentagon has said its goal is to move around 5,000 to 9,000 people from Kabul every day. US Army Maj. Gen. William “Hank” Taylor, assistant director for regional operations, said Thursday that the speed of departure depends on who is allowed to leave the country by the State Department.
Taylor said he anticipates a departure speed of one US military cargo plane an hour. But less than a day later, Taylor’s expectation collided with the reality of long flight stops.
The Pentagon confirmed during a briefing Friday that the flights were about seven hours late, saying the temporary pause was due to the plane’s no destination outside of Kabul. Taylor said at least one flight has left Kabul since then and other planes have been lined up to take off.
Kirby added that the U.S. military is looking for additional locations to dispatch evacuation flights.
Price said Friday that more than a dozen countries, including Turkey, Bahrain, Germany and Italy, have agreed to “move to safety” both Americans and Afghan nationals through their territories.
“Albania, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Mexico, Poland, Qatar, Rwanda, Ukraine and Uganda have also made generous offers on relocation efforts for vulnerable Afghans,” Price added.