President Biden on Sunday left open the possibility of extending U.S. troop deployments in Afghanistan beyond an Aug. 31 deadline if necessary to facilitate the evacuation of American personnel and Afghan allies.
Biden previously said troops would remain in Afghanistan until all Americans were out of the country, though his comments Sunday were the clearest indication yet an extension is under discussion within the administration.
Biden said he remained optimistic that all necessary evacuations could be completed before Aug. 31. But he acknowledged the difficulty of getting tens of thousands of people out of the country as it comes under Taliban rule once again.
It was Biden’s second address in three days updating the nation on the state of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan amid chaotic scenes this week of evacuation efforts in and around the airport in Kabul as U.S. citizens and Afghan allies attempt to flee the country.
“There are discussions going on among us and the military about extending,” Biden said in response to a question about the deadline. “Our hope is we will not have to extend. But there are going to be discussions, I suspect, on how far along we are in the process.”
Biden sought to underscore how the U.S. evacuation effort was ramping up in the face of bipartisan and international criticism about a withdrawal effort that has been marred by reports of Afghan allies fearful of retribution under Taliban rule.
The U.S. has evacuated roughly 25,100 people from Afghanistan over the past week, the White House said Sunday, with nearly 8,000 of those evacuees coming in the last 24 hours.
The administration activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet on Sunday, allowing commercial airliners to assist with getting Americans and Afghan allies and their families relocated.
Biden would not explicitly say the U.S. had expanded the perimeter around the Kabul airport but hinted American forces had taken steps to improve access for those trying to leave the country.
“We have constantly … increased rational access to the airport where more folks can get there more safely,” Biden said, declining to get into specific strategy. “It’s still a dangerous operation, but I don’t want to go into the detail of how we’re doing that.”
Biden has been unwavering in his decision to pull U.S. forces out of Afghanistan after 20 years in the country and has said he has no regrets about how the withdrawal was conducted. He repeatedly laid out his rationale that he would not send another generation of young men and women there with Osama bin Laden dead and al Qaeda diminished.
But new polling has shown that much of the public disapproves of how the withdrawal has played out, with lawmakers in both parties urging the administration get American personnel and Afghan interpreters, female leaders and other vulnerable individuals out of the country.
Biden on Sunday suggested the chaotic images that have dominated the airwaves in recent days would have been unavoidable regardless of timing, but he stressed that any American who wants to come home from Afghanistan will be brought home.
“Let me be clear: The evacuation of thousands of people from Kabul is going to be hard and painful, no matter when it started or when we began,” Biden said. “Would have been true if we had started a month ago or a month from now. There is no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss and the heartbreaking images you see on television. It’s just a fact. My heart aches for those people you see. We are proving that we can move, though, thousands of people a day out of Kabul.”
Via The Hill