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US President Joe Biden on Tuesday reaffirmed his plan to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan by August 31, rebuffing pressure from G7 countries to extend the deadline to allow further evacuations of their citizens and Afghans seeking to flee.
Biden’s commitment came after he met virtually with other leaders of the G7 – the bloc also comprising Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan – to address the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan that has emerged after the chaotic US withdrawal earlier this month.
Justifying his decision to maintain the August 31 deadline, Biden told his counterparts that the risk to American troops – including the threat of terrorist attacks – increased with each day they remained.
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White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden told the G7 leaders that the US mission was “currently on pace to finish by August 31st and provided an update on progress in evacuating Americans who want to come home, third-country nationals, and Afghans who were our allies during the war”.
Facing mounting political pressure over the decision to stick with what critics called an “arbitrary” deadline, Biden took to the presidential podium at the White House to frame the move as a way to mitigate growing risks to the safety of troops and civilians.
“Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both US and allied forces and innocent civilians,” Biden said, referring to the Islamic State’s affiliate group in Afghanistan.
Biden’s remarks came as Pentagon officials told lawmakers in a closed-door meeting that ISIS-K was targeting airport gates as well as civilian and military aircraft, according to POLITICO. The new threats significantly affected evacuation efforts on Tuesday, they said, with one official reporting that gates at the airport had been forced to close at one point.
While the Taliban had taken some steps to facilitate US evacuations, Biden said the situation remained “tenuous”, adding: “We run a serious risk of it breaking down as time goes on.”
While he stood by the August 31 deadline, Biden said he had directed the departments of State and Defence to devise contingency plans to adjust the timetable “if necessary”. Pressed repeatedly at a news briefing about the circumstances that would necessitate an extension, Psaki would not weigh in.
The Taliban has called the date a “red line”, vowing an unspecified response should US troops remain.
“President Biden announced [that by the] 31st of August they would withdraw all their military forces,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Sky News on Tuesday. “So if they extend it that means they are extending occupation while there is no need for that.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who convened Tuesday’s emergency G7 meeting, was among the leaders reportedly in favour of the US extending its deadline.
Johnson was planning to use the meeting to call on Biden to leave troops in place for longer, according to British Defence Minister Ben Wallace, who said that British forces would be unable to stay in Afghanistan without the infrastructure put in place by the US at the airport.
The US had “over 6,000 people in Kabul airport, and when they withdraw that will take away the framework that has allowed us to [evacuate people], and we will have to go as well,” Wallace told Reuters.
As well as pressure from foreign allies, Biden has faced rising calls from US lawmakers from both parties to be flexible on the deadline.
In a letter to Biden on Monday, a bipartisan group of US House members urged the administration to not only extend its operations at the Kabul airport beyond August 31 but also to negotiate with the Taliban to expand the perimeter around the airport.
Frantic efforts by the US and other nations to evacuate people from the airport were dealt a blow on Tuesday when the Taliban said it would not permit more Afghans to leave the country.
“[The US] can take all the people that belong to them but we are not going to allow Afghans to leave,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said at a news conference on Tuesday.
Asked about the Taliban’s announcement, Psaki said that US officials were in regular contact with the Taliban and that the administration expected that people would “be able to reach the airport”.
Even before the Taliban’s decision to restrict access to the airport, US citizens based in other parts of the country have already reported difficulty in reaching the capital.
But the administration has continued to express confidence that it will be able to pull out all Americans before August 31, with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan telling CBS on Tuesday that there were “plenty more seats on flights than we believe that there are possibly Americans still in Afghanistan, and there is plenty of time to get to the airport”.
Over the past 24 hours US military planes have evacuated some 12,700 people from Kabul, while coalition flights evacuated an additional 8,900, according to the White House. That brings the total evacuated by the US since August 14 – shortly before the Taliban took control – to some 58,700.
To date, the US has evacuated around 4,000 American passport holders plus their family members, Psaki said on Tuesday. The exact number of those that remain in Afghanistan is unknown.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that evacuees, “the vast, vast majority” of whom are Afghans, are filling 14 temporary safe haven locations across Europe and the Middle East. “This allows us to expedite movement out of Kabul and gives us flexibility from these intermediate staging bases,” he said.
He added that four flights carrying more than 1,000 passengers had landed at Dulles International Airport near Washington in the past 24 hours, with the evacuees going to one of the four military installations designated as processing locations.
Additional reporting by Robert Delaney
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