WASHINGTON DC, USA: The White House has reiterated it will complete evacuation and all US troops will leave Kabul by August 31.
US President Joe Biden was set to deliver a speech at noon local time in Washington (16:00 GMT) announcing – according to several US media outlets – that American forces would leave Afghanistan by August 31.
The speech was delayed several times. And hours later, the White House released a statement saying that the evacuation of American citizens, third-country nationals and Afghan allies was “on pace to finish” by the end of the month.
Still, the statement by White House press secretary Jen Psaki left the possibility for extending the withdrawal deadline open. She said the operation will “end based on the achievement of our objectives”.
Psaki said Biden told fellow G7 leaders that US troops are facing “increasing threats” each day from ISIS-K, ISIL’s branch from Afghanistan.
“In addition, the president has asked the Pentagon and the State Department for contingency plans to adjust the timeline should that become necessary,” she said.
Psaki later told reporters that coordination with the Taliban, the threat from ISIS-K and the contingency plan that Biden requested are “key caveats” in the decision about the withdrawal deadline.
Biden reiterated Psaki’s message when he finally spoke later in the day. He said the US is “determined” to finish the evacuation mission, which he predicted will conclude by August 31.
“The sooner we can finish, the better. Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops,” Biden said. “But the completion by August 31 depends upon the Taliban continuing to cooperate and allow access to the airport for those who we’re transporting out with no disruptions to our operation.”
Washington’s European allies had urged Biden to extend the deadline to allow more time for the evacuation operation, but the Taliban warned of “consequences” if US forces remain in the country past August 31.
“We are concerned about the deadline set by the United States on August 31. Additional time is needed to complete ongoing operations,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Monday.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid had ruled out extending the deadline, saying that the US and its partners have the resources to evacuate their citizens by the end of August.
As for Afghan allies of Washington, he said the group is “not in favour of allowing Afghans to leave”, especially those with special skills, including doctors and engineers.
“This country needs their expertise. They should not be taken to other countries,” Mujahid said.
Key US lawmakers, including members of Biden’s own Democratic Party, have called for extending the deadline as well.
Congressman Adam Schiff, a Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said on Monday that it was “unlikely” to evacuate all US citizens and allies from Afghanistan by August 31.
“I’m certainly of the view that we maintain a military presence as long as it’s necessary to get all US persons out and to meet our moral and ethical obligation to our Afghan partners,” Schiff told reporters in Washington on Monday.
A bipartisan group of 25 legislators who have served in the US military sent a letter to Biden calling for keeping the troops at the airport for as long as necessary.
“This is about more than doing the right thing,” the letter said. “This is a national security imperative. The eyes of the world are watching whether we will stand by our friends.”
The Taliban took over Afghanistan in a blitz this month, capturing the capital Kabul on August 15 with government forces collapsing and President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country.
Thousands of US troops remain in control of the Hamid Karzai International Airport to oversee the evacuation of Americans and Afghan civilians who worked with the US.
Despite scenes of chaos at the airport, the Biden administration has defended its actions in Kabul.
On Monday, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the airlifts in Kabul were one of the largest in history, describing the operation as a “massive military, diplomatic, security, humanitarian undertaking”.
Sullivan also said Biden, not the Taliban, will make the final decision on when US troops will leave Afghanistan.
Administration officials have said that Washington is in regular contact with the Taliban to facilitate the evacuations, but stress that the Afghan group must respect human rights, including the rights of women, to gain international recognition.
Major US media outlets reported on Tuesday that CIA Director William Burns held secret talks with Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar in Kabul this week.