White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday would not commit to the US continuing efforts to get 11,000 Americans out of Afghanistan if they were still there at the end of the month.
‘Can you offer any guarantee to Americans and Afghan allies that if they remain there past the end of month us troops will help them evacuate?’ a reporter asked the press secretary in her first briefing in six days.
‘Our focus right now is on doing the work at hand, the task at hand. That is day by day getting as many American citizens, as many SIV applicants, as many members of the vulnerable population who are eligible to be evacuated to the airport and out on planes,’ the press secretary said.
Biden has promised to have all troops out of Afghanistan by Aug. 31.
And in another sign of interagency confusion, Psaki said there were 11,000 ‘self-identified’ Americans, but there could be more who come forward to request assistance.
Earlier on Tuesday, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby had said there are between 5,000 and 10,000.
As of Tuesday, there were 3,500 people on the ground at Hamid Karzai International Airport, and US military flights were taking off with American citizens and US embassy personnel on board.
On Monday, the US evacuated only 700 people, including 150 American citizens. The Pentagon has said it hopes to evacuate between 5,000 and 9,000 people per day for the next two weeks.
Biden on Monday authorized 6,000 troops to deploy to the region to rescue American nationals and allies.
Meanwhile, former Assistant Secretary of State Robert Charles said on Fox News that the number of American citizens waiting to be rescued could be anywhere between 15,000 and 40,000, according to inside sources.
That’s not including the 80,000 SIV (special immigrant visa) applications the State Department is handling, according to the Washington Post.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan meanwhile defended the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces and personnel from Afghanistan, saying the Biden administration acted on information it had ‘at the time’ and calling images of desperate allies ‘heartbreaking.’
But, ‘The president stands by his decision because he knows it’s in the interests of the United States, our national security, and the American people,’ Psaki said.
A day after Biden returned to the White House from Camp David to address the nation, Sullivan said he and the security team took ‘responsibility’ for the administration’s decisions, and spoke repeatedly about the cost on Afghan allies of the U.S. in its 20-year war.
‘The human toll of the end of the conflict in this way is real and it’s raw,’ he said. Sullivan said of himself and other policymakers: ‘We’re also people. This is tough stuff. There’s no doubt about it. But these are hard choices too.’
‘Our focus right now is on doing the work at hand, the task at hand. That is day by day getting as many American citizens, as many SIV applicants, as many members of the vulnerable population who are eligible to be evacuated to the airport and out on planes,’ the press secretary said when asked if the White House could ‘guarantee’ help for stranded Americans after Aug. 31
Taliban fighters stand guard at a checkpoint near the US embassy that was previously manned by American troops, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021
Afghan security guards try and maintain order as hundreds of people gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. There are now ‘three rings’ around the airport and the Taliban controls the outer ring
With the administration under fire for failing to speed along an orderly evacuation after Biden announced the deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, Sullivan repeatedly pointed to other scenarios, each also grim.
Sullivan said that even if the US hadn’t begun Biden’s drawdown of the last 2,500 the country would be subjected to chaos.
‘There are those who argue that with 2,500 forces — the number of forces in country when President Biden took office — we could have sustained a stable, peaceful Afghanistan. That is simply wrong.’
‘We made the judgements we made based on the information we had at the time while preparing for the alternative contingency,’ he said.
People wait outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 17, 2021
Thousands of Afghans rush to the Kabul International Airport as they try to flee the Afghan capital of Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 17, 2021
FALL OF KABUL: A TIMELINE OF THE TALIBAN’S FAST ADVANCE AFTER 40 YEARS OF CONFLICT
Feb. 29, 2020 Trump negotiates deal with the Taliban setting U.S. withdrawal date for May 1, 2021
Nov. 17, 2020 Pentagon announces it will reduce troop levels to 2500 in Afghanistan
Jan. 15, 2020 Inspector general reveals ‘hubris and mendacity’ of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan
Feb 3. 2021 Afghan Study Group report warns against withdrawing ‘irresponsibly’
March Military command makes last-ditch effort to talk Biden out of withdrawal
April 14 Biden announces withdrawal will be completed by Sept. 11
May 4 – Taliban fighters launch a major offensive on Afghan forces in southern Helmand province. They also attack in at least six other provinces
May 11 – The Taliban capture Nerkh district just outside the capital Kabul as violence intensifies across the country
June 7 – Senior government officials say more than 150 Afghan soldiers are killed in 24 hours as fighting worsens. They add that fighting is raging in 26 of the country’s 34 provinces
June 22 – Taliban fighters launch a series of attacks in the north of the country, far from their traditional strongholds in the south. The UN envoy for Afghanistan says they have taken more than 50 of 370 districts
July 2 – The U.S. evacuates Bagram Airfield in the middle of the night
July 5 – The Taliban say they could present a written peace proposal to the Afghan government as soon as August
July 21 – Taliban insurgents control about a half of the country’s districts, according to the senior U.S. general, underlining the scale and speed of their advance
July 25 – The United States vows to continue to support Afghan troops “in the coming weeks” with intensified airstrikes to help them counter Taliban attacks
July 26 – The United Nations says nearly 2,400 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in May and June in escalating violence, the highest number for those months since records started in 2009
Aug. 6 – Zaranj in the south of the country becomes the first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban in years. Many more are to follow in the ensuing days, including the prized city of Kunduz in the north
Aug. 13 – Pentagon insists Kabul is not under imminent threat
Aug. 14 – The Taliban take the major northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and, with little resistance, Pul-e-Alam, capital of Logar province just 70 km (40 miles) south of Kabul. The United States sends more troops to help evacuate its civilians from Kabul as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani says he is consulting with local and international partners on next steps
Aug. 15 – The Taliban take the key eastern city of Jalalabad without a fight, effectively surrounding Kabul
Taliban insurgents enter Kabul, an interior ministry official says, as the United States evacuate diplomats from its embassy by helicopter
He indicated Biden was aware the Afghan regime, plagued by corruption and dysfunction, might not withstand a military onslaught once the U.S. pulled out – despite a series of officials attesting to the government’s ability to at least put up a fight.
‘We were clear eyed going in when we made this decision that it was possible that the Taliban would end up in control of it. We were clear eyed about that,’ Sullivan said.
‘Now, as the President said in his remarks yesterday, we did not anticipate [that it] would happen at this speed [but] we were planning for these potential contingencies,’ he said.
‘The reason I say that at the outset that we knew it was possible they could take over and that had to be built into our calculus and making the determination as the president did to draw down our forces is because once the Taliban came into Kabul, we were still going to be faced with the situation, no matter if there were still U.S. troops on the ground or no U.S. troops on the ground,’ he said.
He said Biden has ‘not yet spoken with any other world leaders’ since the fall of Kabul, but said other officials have been in touch with foreign counterparts.
He acknowledged a ‘channel’ of communication of the Taliban, also alluded to by the Pentagon Tuesday.
Although the U.S. military has secured the airport, thousands of people seeking to flee the country remain stuck in their homes amid Taliban checkpoints.
He said the Taliban officials through the channel said they were ‘prepared to provide the safe passage of civilians to the airport and we intend to hold them to that commitment.’
Hit repeatedly with questions about why the U.S. couldn’t have spirited diplomats out sooner, Sullivan said the administration calculated it would send the wrong signal about the stability of the Afghan government.
‘We as a national security team collectively take responsibility for every decision, good decision, every decision that doesn’t produce perfect outcomes,’ he said.
Sullivan said Biden ‘is laser focused on accomplishing the core national security objectives of the United States’ to prevent further terrorist attacks. But he said it could be done without a residual force or fighting a war – although the U.S. also also is forfeiting substantial intelligence and allied capabilities through the hasty withdrawal.
He repeatedly sought to explain the difficult choices President Biden was confronted with, and returned again and again to the human toll.
‘When you work on any policy issue … the human costs and consequences loom large.’ He said images, which have included U.S. aircraft being swarmed by Afghans desperate to leave, have been ‘heartbreaking.’
He said the loss of state of the art Blackhawk helicopters to the Taliban were another hard choice, meant to give the Afghan forces the ability to fight.
‘Those Blackhawks were not given to the Taliban. They were given to the Afghan national security forces to be able to defend themselves at the specific request of President Ghani, who came to the Oval Office and asked for additional air capability,’ he said, referencing the former president who fled the country.
He said Biden faced the choice of giving it to the government with the risk the Taliban might eventually get the equipment, or deprive the government of the equipment due to the risk.
‘At some point it was time for the United States to say that the Afghan people need to stand up to themselves,’ said Sullivan.
‘We gave 20 years of American blood, treasure, sweat and tears in Afghanistan. We gave them every capacity in terms of training and equipment to stand up and fight for themselves.’
With the Taliban poised to shutter schools set up with U.S. help and women and girls facing harsh reprisals and loss of freedoms, Sullivan said: ‘My heart goes out to afghan women and girls in the country today … that’s a very hard thing for any of us to face.