White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday said US troops left Afghanistan this week — stranding hundreds of Americans and thousands of at-risk Afghans — and not on Biden’s original Sept. 11 deadline because the military said it needed just 120 days for its evacuation mission.
Biden in April announced that he would withdraw US troops from the country by the 20th anniversary of the al Qaeda attacks on U.S. soil that sparked the war, but he later changed the date to Aug. 31 in what was seen as a bid to avoid the poor optics of a Taliban celebration on the anniversary and the appearance that the president was tying the withdrawal to the symbolic date,
Reporter Jeff Zeleny of CNN asked Psaki at her daily press briefing about the date change and any conversations between Biden administration officials and the Taliban about the timeframe.
“The president said in his remarks a little while ago that in April a deadline was set for Aug. 31. In fact, in his April remarks he set a deadline for September 11. What changed over the last few months?” Zeleny asked.
“The military gave their assessment that they need 120 days to wind down our presence in Afghanistan. So we abided by that,” Psaki said.
When Zeleny pressed Psaki on the change, she added, “He bases his strategic decisions — I mean his tactical decisions, I should say — on the advice of the military and commanders on the ground and the timeline they needed to wind down our presence.”
She added: “It was his timeline, though. It was not the Taliban’s timeline.”
Biden took no questions on his decision to remove US troops by Aug. 31 during a defensive speech on Tuesday. He declared the evacuation an “extraordinary success” and said that he wanted neither a “forever war” nor a “forever exit” in Afghanistan.
Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., commander of US Central Command, said Monday afternoon, however, that “we did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out” and that “we think the citizens that were not brought out number in the low, very low hundreds.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday night that “we believe there are still a small number of Americans, under 200 and likely closer to 100, who remain in Afghanistan and want to leave.”
The Americans were left behind despite Biden’s assurances that US troops would remain so long as US citizens needed help to evacuate.
Biden said in an Aug. 18 interview with ABC News that “if there’s American citizens left, we’re going to stay until we get them all out.”
The president also said in that interview that for Afghans who helped the US government, “the commitment holds to get everyone out that, in fact, we can get out … that’s the path we’re on. And I think we’ll get there.”
But on Tuesday, an Afghan interpreter who helped rescue then-Sen. Biden during a snowstorm in 2008 said that he was among the thousands local workers unable to escape the Taliban takeover.
He said that he had been given the option of entering Kabul airport to board an evacuation flight, but only if he abandoned his wife and children.
Psaki defended Biden’s decision to complete the pullout before helping rescue all Americans who wanted to leave, pointing to the deadly blast on Thursday that killed 13 US troops and nearly 200 Afghan at a Kabul airport gate.
“The president remains committed to getting every American citizen who wants to get out, out,” she said.
“Over the course of the last two weeks, we have seen a terrorist attack that took the lives of 13 of our service members, And there was an assessment — part of our assessment always is going to be the risks,” Psaki said.
“So I think the question was do you leave 6,000 service members as there are heightening threats, heightening risks every single day? Or do you work through a diplomatic process and efforts to ensure that we will have the ability to get these American citizens out?”
Former President Donald Trump set in motion the withdrawal from Afghanistan, but has been sharply critical of Biden’s performance in managing the drawdown. Trump had set a May 1 deadline to remove troops, which Biden extended first to Sept. 11, before shortening the window to Aug. 31.
The last US military flight departed Kabul’s airport at 11:59 p.m. local time on Aug. 30. There remains uncertainty on why the US interpreted the Aug. 31 deadline as meaning before the date, rather than using another 24 hours for rescue efforts.