WASHINGTON (AP) – President Joe Biden said on Sunday that the US-led evacuation of Americans, at-risk Afghans and others from Kabul airport accelerated over the weekend , although it remains vulnerable to threats posed by the extremist Islamic State group.
A week after the Taliban completed their takeover of Afghanistan by capturing Kabul, Biden said discussions were underway among military officials over the possibility of extending the airlift beyond the deadline set by Biden on August 31. âOur hope is that we won’t have to extend, but there are discussions,â he said, suggesting the possibility that the Taliban could be consulted.
Since August 14, a day before the Taliban entered Kabul, the airlift has evacuated 28,000 people, Biden said. He did not specify, but that number appeared to include not only US military flights, but also charter and non-US military flights.
Speaking at the White House, Biden said 11,000 people were flown from Kabul in 36 hours over the weekend, but he did not provide details. The number appeared to include charter flights and non-US military jets as well as the US Air Force’s C-17 and C-130 transport planes that flew daily from the capital. Tens of thousands of people remain to join the airlift, which has been slowed down by security concerns and obstacles from American bureaucracy.
Biden claimed, without a full explanation, that US forces had been successful in improving access to the airport for Americans and others seeking to take flights. He suggested that the perimeter had been extended, widening a “safe zone”.
âWhat I’m not going to do is talk about the tactical changes we’re making to make sure we maintain as much security as possible,â he said. “We constantly have, how can I say it, increased rational access to the airport, where more people can get there safely. It’s still a dangerous operation, but I don’t want to get into them. details of how we operate.
Later, Biden added, âWe talked a lot with the Taliban. They cooperated to extend part of the perimeter.
He said groups of Americans in Kabul were being moved more efficiently and safely to the airport, but provided no details.
“Any American who wants to go home will go home,” he said.
Earlier Sunday, administration officials said the US military was considering “creative ways” to bring Americans and others to Kabul airport for an evacuation from Afghanistan amid threats ” acute “for security, and the Pentagon on Sunday ordered six US airlines to help move the evacuees from temporary sites outside of Afghanistan.
Responding to a criticism cited by many Republicans, Biden said no Afghan evacuees were sent directly to the United States from Afghanistan without prior vetting. He said they are being examined in third countries.
Biden and his key aides have repeatedly expressed concern that extremist groups in Afghanistan are trying to exploit the chaos around Kabul airport.
âThe threat is real, it is acute, it is persistent and we are focusing with all the tools in our arsenal,â said Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
Sullivan told CNN’s “State of the Union” that 3,900 people had been airlifted out of Kabul on US military flights in the past 24 hours. A US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to provide details not yet released, said the people had made 23 flights in total – 14 on C-17 transports and nine on planes cargo ship C-130.
This is an increase from the 1,600 planes flown on US military jets in the past 24 hours, but still well below the 5,000 to 9,000 that the military says it has the capacity to airlift on a daily basis. Sullivan also said about 3,900 people were airlifted on non-U.S. Military flights in the past 24 hours.
The Biden administration has given no precise estimate of the number of Americans seeking to leave Afghanistan. Some put the total between 10,000 and 15,000. Sullivan on Sunday put it at “several thousand.”
Speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” Austin said that as Biden’s August 31 deadline approaches to end the evacuation operation, he will recommend whether to give him more. of time. Tens of thousands of Americans and others have yet to leave the country by air.
Austin’s interview with ABC aired Sunday but was taped on Saturday. In a notice released on Sunday, the State Department urged those seeking to leave Afghanistan as part of an organized private evacuation effort not to travel to Kabul airport “until you have received specific instructions âfrom the organizer of the flight at the US Embassy. The notice says others, including U.S. citizens, who have received specific instructions from the embassy to get to the airport should do so.
Austin said the airlift will continue for as long as possible.
âWe’re going to do our best to get everyone out, every American citizen who wants to get out,â Austin said in the interview. “And we have – we continue to look at different ways – in creative ways – to reach and contact American citizens and help them get into the airfield.”
The British military said on Sunday that seven more people were killed in the relentless crushing of crowds outside the airport.
Republicans in Congress have stepped up their criticism of Biden’s response. “If the Taliban say Americans can get to the airport safely, then there is no better way to make sure they get to the airport safely than to use our military to escort them “, GOP Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, an army veteran, told ABC’s “This Week.”
Ryan Crocker, who served as US ambassador to Afghanistan under Presidents George W, Bush and Barack Obama, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Biden’s handling of the pullout was “catastrophic” and had triggered a ” world crisis”.
A central issue in the evacuation operation is the treatment of evacuees once they reach other countries in the region and in Europe. These temporary stations, notably in Qatar, Bahrain and Germany, sometimes reach their maximum capacity, although new sites are made available, notably in Spain.
In an attempt to mitigate this and free up military planes for missions from Kabul, the Pentagon activated the civilian reserve air fleet on Sunday. The Defense Department said 18 planes from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, Omni Air, Hawaii Airlines and United Airlines would be directed to transport evacuees from intermediate stations. Airlines will not fly to Afghanistan. The six participating airlines have agreed to help for just under two weeks, which roughly coincides with the currently scheduled duration of the airlift, which is due to end on August 31.
The civilian airline reserve system was last activated in 2003 for the Iraq war. Commercial airliners will retain their civilian status, but the Army’s Air Mobility Command will control flights.
Associated Press editors Aamer Madhani, Lolita C. Baldor, Ellen Knickmeyer, Hope Yen, and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.