A member of the Taliban troops guards a checkpoint in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 17, 2021.
Stringer | Reuters
WASHINGTON – The United States is in close coordination with the Taliban as it works to evacuate tens of thousands of people from Kabul airport before President Joe Biden set the deadline for US troops to withdraw on Aug. 31, said National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on Monday.
“We work with the Taliban and consult with the Taliban on every aspect of what is happening in Kabul,” Sullivan told reporters at the White House. “About what is happening at the airport, how we need to ensure that American citizens, SIVs and third country nationals have easy access to the airport. And we will continue these talks with them.”
Sullivan said the coordination would be done “through political and security channels” on a daily basis, but refused to elaborate on it.
Tens of thousands of Americans, NATO coalition members and Afghans who have helped NATO are desperately trying to leave the country via the only airport not controlled by the Taliban.
Sullivan defended the Biden administration from critics who say the chaotic and often tragic scenes that played out in and around Kabul airport over the past week could have been avoided through better planning and execution.
Sullivan said an element of chaos is inevitable with any US withdrawal.
“Whether Kabul fell in August or September or December or next August, the fact is that there would be American citizens in Kabul who had to be evacuated,” he said.
Nonetheless, “we believe that we have until July 31st to get any American who wants to get out of Afghanistan.”
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Sullivan stated that it was impossible to know exactly how many Americans stayed in Afghanistan because some citizens never informed the State Department of their arrival in the country, while others informed the government of their arrival but not their departure.
State Department spokesman Ned Price later told reporters, “We believe there are currently several thousand Americans in Afghanistan who would like to leave.”
It remained unclear on Monday how the United States was planning to pull away those exact thousands of citizens believed to be outside of the capital, Kabul.
Last week, the Pentagon said the US military could not even guarantee Americans within Kabul safe passage to Hamid Karzai International Airport, even though several thousand US soldiers were stationed there.
On Saturday, the US embassy in Kabul warned American citizens not to travel to the airport, which soldiers and diplomats call “H-KAIA”, because of security threats at the gates.
August 31, deadline in case of doubt
“The president believes we are making significant progress,” said Sullivan.
He added, however, that Biden “is busy this day in and day out and will make his decisions over time” on whether to extend the August 31 deadline.
On Sunday the president said: “Our hope is that we don’t have to extend. But I suspect there will be discussions about how far we are in the process.”
Meanwhile, the Taliban have made it clear that they consider any attempt to keep Western troops in Afghanistan, even if only at the airport, beyond August 31, as a foreign occupation of their newly conquered country.
“It’s a red line,” said Taliban spokesman Dr. Suhail Shaheen told UK Sky News on Monday. “President Biden has announced that they will withdraw all of their forces on August 31st.
Shaheen added, “If the US or UK were to seek additional time to evacuate, the answer would be no.
The pace of evacuation is increasing
US-led international efforts to get the people out of Afghanistan have picked up pace in the past 24 hours.
Sullivan said the US had flown about 10,400 people on cargo planes from Kabul in the past 24 hours. Non-US coalition planes evacuated an additional 5,900 people.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily press conference at the White House in Washington, DC on August 23, 2021.
Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images
Since August 14, the United States has evacuated or facilitated the evacuation of around 37,000 people from Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon. If it is extended until the end of July, this number increases to around 42,000 people.
The Pentagon said evacuees from Kabul are flying to temporary safe havens in the Middle East and Europe, including U.S. installations in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Italy, Spain and Germany.
Afghan nationals arriving in the United States will be transferred to Ft. McCoy in Wisconsin, Ft. Lee, Virginia, Joint Base McGuire Dix Lakehurst, New Jersey, and Ft. Luck in texas.
To expedite the transit of evacuees to countries outside the Middle East, Biden on Sunday activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, a seldom-used program that instructs civil airlines to deploy aircraft to assist the military in times of catastrophic emergency. The CRAF activation applied to 18 aircraft from six airlines.
– CNBC’s Amanda Macias contributed to this report.
This is a development story, please check back for updates.