American service members could stay in Afghanistan beyond the end of this month if they are needed to secure the evacuation of US citizens and NATO’s Afghan allies from the Taliban-controlled country, President Joe Biden said Wednesday.
“We’re gonna do everything in our power to get all Americans out, and our allies out,” Biden told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos in an exclusive interview.
“Does that mean troops will stay beyond Aug. 31, if necessary?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“Depends on where we are, and whether we can get — ramp these numbers up to five to seven thousand a day coming out,” Biden responded. “If that’s the case, then they’ll all be out [by Aug. 31].”
Biden confirmed with a nod to Stephanopoulos that between 10,000 and 15,000 Americans remain in Afghanistan following the Taliban reconquest of Kabul over the weekend.
The fall of the capital climaxed an offensive by the Islamic fundamentalist group that swept aside Afghan security forces and overran the country’s four largest cities in the space of 96 hours.
“Are you committed to making sure that the troops stay until every American who wants to be out, is out?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“Yes,” Biden said before repeating, “Yes.”
The president added that the administration estimates that between 50,000 and 65,000 Afghans who worked with Western forces are still in the country, a number that includes their families. US veterans of the Afghan War have warned that their onetime colleagues on the battlefield face brutal retaliation from the Taliban.
“Does the commitment hold for them as well?” Stephanopoulos inquired.
“The commitment holds to get everyone out that, in fact, we can get out and everyone who should come out,” the president said. ” And that’s the objective. That’s what we’re doing now. That’s the path we’re on. I think we’ll get there.”
“So Americans should understand that troops might have to be there beyond Aug. 31st?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“No,” Biden replied. “Americans should understand that we’re gonna try to get it done before Aug. 31st.”
“But if we don’t,” Stephanopoulos said, “the troops will stay –“
“If we don’t,” Biden interrupted, “We’ll determine at the time who’s left.”
“And?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“And if you’re American force — if there’s American citizens left, we’re gonna stay to get them all out,” Biden said.
On Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Sunil Shaheen told Sky News in the UK that all US forces should be withdrawn by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the date enshrined in Biden’s original pullout announcement in April. Shaheen added that the Taliban was “committed not to attack” American forces and “we have not attacked.”
Pentagon officials have estimated that between 5,000 and 9,000 people could be evacuated each day from Hamid Karzai International Airport on the outskirts of Kabul, assuming operations are restored in full. However, Taliban restrictions and other obstacles have led to reports of near-empty planes taking off from the airport while hundreds of Afghans clamor to be let on board a flight.
“We’re really working hard to get as many people through as possible,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday. “And quite frankly, we’re not — it’s obvious we’re not close to where we want to be in terms of getting the numbers through.
“So we’re going to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And we’re going to get everyone that we can possibly evacuate evacuated. And I’ll do that as long as we possibly can until the clock runs out or we run out of capability.”
Austin added that US forces “don’t have the capability to go out and collect up large numbers of people” who may be stranded in Taliban territory. Meanwhile, the State Department has sent out security bulletins telling Americans inside Afghanistan to make their way to the airport, but warning that their safety is not guaranteed.