Washington — President Biden said Tuesday the U.S. is “on pace” to meet his August 31 deadline to pull the remaining American forces from Afghanistan as his administration rushes to evacuate thousands of U.S. citizens and vulnerable Afghans from Kabul following the Taliban’s lightning-fast takeover of the country.
“We are currently on a pace to finish by August the 31. The sooner we can finish, the better,” Mr. Biden said at the White House Tuesday. “Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops. But the completion by August 31 depends upon the Taliban continuing to cooperate and allow access to the airport for those who we’re transporting out — and no disruptions to our operations.”
The pace of military evacuations has picked up in the last few days. According to the president, “As of this afternoon, we’ve helped evacuate 70,700 people just since August 14 — 75,900 people since the end of July.”
But in case the evacuations are not complete, he said he has “asked the Pentagon and the State Department for contingency plans to adjust the timetable, should that become necessary,” and he added, I’m determined to ensure that we complete our mission, this mission.”
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But the Taliban has made it clear that it wants no U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan after August 31. A Taliban spokesman warned there would be “consequences” if the U.S. or United Kingdom were to keep forces in Afghanistan beyond the end of the month.
Pentagon officials have said troops would need several days to draw down operations in Kabul, and August 31 is just one week away. Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Tuesday the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is still slated to end at the end of the month, and the military will need “several days” to organize the final drawdown of personnel and equipment. U.S. officials anticipate the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan to begin in the next several days or over the weekend, a U.S. defense official said.
Kirby said late Tuesday that “several hundred” U.S. troops have already departed, representing a mix of headquarters staff, maintenance and other functions. But their departure will have “no impact on the mission at hand,” Kirby said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, asked whether evacuations would stop before the deadline so that troops and their equipment could be completely removed from Afghanistan by August 31, replied, “That would be correct, that there would need to be time to wind down the presence.”
The administration has remained in regular contact with the Taliban as the evacuations continue, and in fact, CIA Director William Burns met with the Taliban’s de facto leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, on Monday in Kabul, a source familiar with the situation confirmed to CBS News. Burns is the highest-ranking Biden administration official to meet with the Taliban. The Washington Post first reported the meeting.
The president and administration officials have repeatedly said the aim is to leave Afghanistan by August 31, but the U.S. would ensure any American citizen who wants to return home will be flown out of the country.
The U.S. has ramped up the pace of evacuations from the airport in Kabul, with roughly 21,600 people evacuated over a 24-hour period beginning early Monday morning.
Mr. Biden announced in July the U.S. mission in Afghanistan would conclude at the end of August, bringing the two-decade war there to a close. But with the collapse of the Afghan government and Taliban’s return power just over a week ago, roughly 6,000 U.S. forces were sent to Kabul to help with the airlift of U.S. citizens and at-risk Afghans.
Confronted with the massive operation to move thousands of American citizens and Afghans out of Kabul and growing Taliban threat, Mr. Biden has faced pressure to extend next week’s deadline and keep military forces on the ground to ensure those who are at risk from the Taliban can safely leave the country.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, told reporters Monday after a briefing on Afghanistan it is “very unlikely” the evacuation can be completed in the next week, given the number of Americans and Afghans who still need to leave.
The Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan led to chaos in Kabul, as thousands of Afghans rushed to the airport in hopes boarding a military flight out of the country. U.S. allies have also joined in efforts to help evacuate their personnel and Afghans. They, too, urged Mr. Biden to extend his withdrawal deadline.
Earlier Tuesday, the president met virtually with fellow “Group of 7” leaders earlier Tuesday to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, during which he “conveyed that our mission in Kabul will end based on the achievement of our objectives and “confirmed we are currently on pace to finish by August 31,” Psaki said. The president also told the leaders that the risk to U.S. troops grows with each day they remain on the ground in Kabul, facing increasing threats from ISIS-K.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday the U.S. has contacted Americans who are still in Afghanistan by phone, email and text to give specific instructions on departing the country and said the government has “developed a method to safely and efficiently transfer” U.S. citizens to the airfield in Kabul.
Olivia Gazis and Ellee Watson contributed to this report.