Biden says US withdrawal from Afghanistan on track as evacuations continue

Aug. 31 deadline requires Taliban cooperation, however

President Joe Biden speaks about the ongoing evacuation of Afghanistan. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden speaks about the ongoing evacuation of Afghanistan. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted August 24, 2021 at 6:15pm

President Joe Biden said Tuesday that efforts to complete the withdrawal from Afghanistan remained on course, despite the urgent need to evacuate Americans, coalition members and local Afghan partners ahead of a deadline at the end of the month.

"We are currently on a pace to finish by Aug. 31. The sooner we can finish, the better. Each day of operations brings added risks to our troops," the president said. "But, the completion by Aug. 31 depends upon the Taliban continuing to cooperate and allow access to the airport for those we are transporting out, and no disruptions to our operations."

"I've asked the Pentagon and the State Department for contingency plans to adjust the timetable, should that become necessary," Biden said.

Biden said that his administration was working with refugee organizations in order to resurrect a refugee program that, he said, "was purposely destroyed by my predecessor," referring to the Trump administration.

The administration has been emphasizing the screening process for refugees that must occur before they are allowed to arrive in the United States, amid criticism from former President Donald Trump and his hard-line immigration supporters. Trump had issued a statement Tuesday questioning, without any evidence, whether the arriving Afghan refugees who supported U.S. and coalition war efforts would include terrorists.

Biden's late-afternoon remarks, which were delayed multiple times Tuesday, followed a morning virtual meeting of the leaders of the G-7 governments.

The leaders of the G-7 said in a statement Tuesday that they "reaffirm that the Taliban will be held accountable for their actions on preventing terrorism, on human rights in particular those of women, girls and minorities and on pursuing an inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan."

"The legitimacy of any future government depends on the approach it now takes to uphold its international obligations and commitments to ensure a stable Afghanistan," the statement said.

The statement was circulated by the British government, which holds the rotating presidency of the G-7.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a separate statement that Biden confirmed to fellow leaders of the G-7 that, "we are 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."

Later in the day, the White House said the administration anticipated the State Department will have fresh numbers on the number of Americans still present in Afghanistan on Wednesday, and Biden himself suggested that Secretary of State Antony Blinken would be briefing the press directly on that topic.

Speaking at a press briefing, Psaki described the number of Americans present as "dynamic," which is in part because the registration of U.S. persons abroad is voluntary through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.

"The U.S. government does not track our citizens when they travel around the world. We rely on self-reporting, not just in Afghanistan, anywhere in the world. People have to decide to register or not," Psaki said. "It's up to them."

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby was asked about the number of Americans evacuated earlier Tuesday.

"As of today, August 24, we have evacuated approximately 4,000 American passport holders plus their families. We expect that number to continue to grow in the coming days," Kirby said in a statement issued after the Pentagon briefing.

Biden put the total number of evacuees since Aug. 14 at 70,700.

Psaki further said that the White House would welcome contact information for Americans who have not heard from the State Department to be provided directly to her office.

"In recent days, they have reached out to every American registered in Afghanistan directly multiple times," Psaki said of the State Department's outreach campaign. "This is a 24/7 operation, embassies all over the world are supporting phone-banking, text-banking, and email efforts."