President Joe Biden said Sunday the U.S.-led evacuation of Americans, at-risk Afghans and others from the Kabul airport accelerated this weekend, although it remains vulnerable to threats posed by the Islamic State extremist group.
One week after the Taliban completed its takeover of Afghanistan by capturing Kabul, Biden said discussions are underway among military officials about potentially extending the airlift beyond Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline. “Our hope is we will not have to extend, but there are discussions,” he said, suggesting the possibility that the Taliban will be consulted.
Since Aug. 14, one day before the Taliban entered Kabul, the airlift has evacuated 28,000 people, Biden said. He did not elaborate, but that number appeared to include not just U.S. military flights but also charter and non-U.S. military flights.
Speaking at the White House, Biden said 11,000 people had been airlifted from Kabul in a 36-hour period this weekend, but he did not provide details. The number appeared to include flights by charter and non-U.S. military aircraft as well as the U.S. Air Force C-17 and C-130 transport planes that have been flying daily from the capital. Tens of thousands of people remain to join the airlift, which has been slowed by security issues and U.S. bureaucracy hurdles.
Biden asserted, without a full explanation, that U.S. forces have managed to improve access to the airport for Americans and others seeking to get on flights. He suggested that the perimeter had been extended, widening a “safe zone.”
“What I’m not going to do is talk about the technical changes we’re making to make sure we maintain as much security as we can,” he said. “We have constantly, how can I say, increased rational access to the airport, where more folks can get there, more safely. It is still a dangerous operation but I don’t want to go into the detail of how we’re doing that.”
Later Biden added: “We discussed a lot with the Taliban. They’ve been cooperative in extending some of the perimeter.”
He said groups of Americans in Kabul are being moved more efficiently and safely to the airport, but he did not provide details.
“Any American who wants to get home, will get home,” he asserted.
Earlier Sunday, administration officials said the U.S. military is considering “creative ways” to get Americans and others into the Kabul airport for evacuation from Afghanistan amid “acute” security threats, and the Pentagon on Sunday ordered six U.S. commercial airlines to help move evacuees from temporary sites outside of Afghanistan.
Addressing a criticism cited by many Republicans, Biden said no Afghan evacuees are being flown directly to the United States from Afghanistan without prior screening. He said they are being screened in third countries.
Biden and his top aides have repeatedly cited their concern that extremist groups in Afghanistan will attempt to exploit the chaos around the Kabul airport.
“The threat is real, it is acute, it is persistent and something we’re focused with every tool in our arsenal,” said Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan.
Sullivan said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that 3,900 people had been airlifted out of Kabul on U.S. military flights over the past 24 hours. A U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to provide details not yet made public, said those people were flown on a total of 23 flights — 14 by C-17 transports and nine aboard C-130 cargo planes.
That represents an increase from 1,600 flown out aboard U.S. military planes in the previous 24 hours, but remains far below the 5,000 to 9,000 that the military says it has the capacity to airlift daily. Sullivan also said about 3,900 people were airlifted on non-U.S. military flights over the past 24 hours.
The Biden administration has given no firm estimate of the number of Americans seeking to leave Afghanistan. Some have put the total between 10,000 and 15.000. Sullivan on Sunday put it at “several thousand.”