President Biden said Wednesday that U.S. forces will stay in Afghanistan until all Americans are safely out, even if it means staying beyond the Aug. 31 deadline for a total withdrawal.
His comments in his first media interview since the Taliban took control of the country came just hours after Mr. Biden‘s defense secretary said the U.S. military lacks the capacity on its own to reach stranded U.S. citizens who can’t get to the Afghan capital’s only international airport.
The mixed messages were the latest sign that the Biden administration is in full improvisation mode as the insurgent Taliban cement their control of the country and thousands run a gauntlet of Taliban fighters to reach Kabul’s airport and try to secure a flight out.
Pressed in an interview with ABC News on how long an emergency contingent of U.S. troops will stay in Afghanistan to manage the withdrawal, Mr. Biden said, “If there’s American citizens left, we’re going to stay till we get them all out.”
That message clashed with acknowledgments by the State Department and Defense Department that the U.S. has little practical way of ensuring safe passage for Americans — and their Afghan allies fleeing possible Taliban retribution — who have not made it to the airport compound and could soon find themselves trapped.
“We don’t have the capability to go out and collect large numbers of people,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters in a briefing shortly before the Biden interview aired. “The forces that we have are focused on the security of the airfield. I don’t want to detract from that.”
Separately, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul sent an alert warning that the U.S. government can’t ensure safe passage for Americans who are not already inside the airport gates.
Amid another day of grim scenes of Afghans and Westerners desperately seeking access to the country’s only international airport, Pentagon officials said they didn’t know how many Americans might still be in Afghanistan and unable to access Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, the only portal out for U.S. and allied governments scrambling to bring their nationals home.
“We have to make sure that we can not only secure the airfield but defend it as well,” Mr. Austin said. “There are a number of threats still in the environment.”
As he has before, Mr. Biden offered no apologies for his larger strategy of abruptly ending America’s longest war, arguing that the situation would be messy whenever the U.S. and its allies withdrew.
“The idea that somehow there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens,” the president said. “I don’t know how that happened.”
Pentagon officials said the airport is firmly under the control of about 4,500 U.S. combat troops, who have set up defensive positions there in the past few days, an American island surrounded by a sea of Taliban fighters. But some evacuees have been unable to pass through the tight cordon the Taliban have placed around it.
In one of the most surprising developments of the 20-year war in Afghanistan, the Taliban have become something of a partner in ensuring the speedy evacuation of American citizens from the country. Military commanders and State Department officials at the airport are in regular contact with senior Taliban fighters outside the perimeter.
“The Taliban are in and around Kabul right now, but they are not interfering with our operations” at the airport, said Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “The Taliban are facilitating the safe passage to the airport for American citizens — U.S. passport holders.”
Within hours, 18 Air Force C-17 cargo jets lifted off from the airport with about 2,000 passengers, of which 325 were U.S. citizens. The remaining numbers were Afghan civilians and some NATO personnel, officials said.
About 5,000 people have been safely evacuated from Afghanistan since the complete collapse of the U.S.-trained and -equipped Afghan military. About 20 C-17s are taking off every day, and that number is expected to increase, Pentagon officials said.
Military troops and consular officials are manning the gates leading to the airport and processing 120 to 130 people every hour. “Right now, there’s a steady flow of people. As it goes on, those numbers will continue to grow,” Gen. Milley said.
Navy Rear Adm. Peter G. Vasely, commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan-Forward, is on the ground and in overall command at the airport. Mr. Austin said he is in daily contact with U.S. commanders there to ensure they have everything needed for the mission to succeed.
“All this is very personal for me. This is a war that I’ve fought in and led,” Mr. Austin said. “I know the country, I know the people and I know those who fought alongside me. I feel the urgency deeply.”
Analyzing the disaster
Gen. Milley said there will be ample opportunity for an in-depth analysis of what went wrong in Afghanistan but with U.S. combat troops working to evacuate thousands of terrified Americans and pro-U.S. Afghan civilians from a country firmly under Taliban control, now is not the time.
“This needs to be our focus. Our mission is to secure [the airport], defend that airfield, and evacuate all those who have been faithful to us,” Gen. Milley told reporters.
Asked about the Taliban‘s lightning-quick victory and the failure of the Kabul government to put up resistance without U.S. and allied backing, Gen. Milley said the intelligence reports he was privy to indicated multiple scenarios were possible: a negotiated settlement among all parties; a protracted civil war; and an outright Taliban victory after a collapse of the Afghan government and military. The time frame for a Taliban victory ranged from weeks to months to years after the U.S. withdrawal, Gen. Milley said.
“Nothing I or anyone else saw indicated a collapse of [the Afghan] army and the government in 11 days,” he said. “But right now we have to focus on this mission because we have soldiers at risk.”
Mr. Biden has bluntly faulted the Kabul government and Afghanistan‘s security forces, which the U.S. spent 20 years building, equipping and training, for the rout, saying he and his advisers were caught off guard by the swift Taliban triumph. Gen. Milley said he always said the country’s forces had the capacity, the training and the capability to defend their country.
“This comes down to an issue of leadership,” he said.
That has not spared the White House and the Pentagon from searing bipartisan criticism from Congress on how this month’s events have played out in Afghanistan. Multiple hearings have been scheduled to look into the weak performance of the Afghan troops, the cost to the U.S. military, and why U.S. and allied leaders were blindsided by what unfolded.
Pentagon officials said they opted to close the larger and more secure Bagram Air Base and rely on the civilian airport, smaller and with only a single runway because their mission was to protect the U.S. Embassy. Securing Bagram would have required a larger number of troops.
Mr. Austin and Gen. Milley declined to address the aircraft, vehicles and firepower provided to the Afghan military now in the hands of the Taliban. But Pentagon officials have said there are options on the table, including destroying any that can be located.
On Tuesday, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the Biden administration doesn’t have a “complete picture” of where every article of defense materials, including several Black Hawk helicopters, have gone.
“Those Black Hawks 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 [former Afghan President Ashraf] Ghani,” Mr. Sullivan said. “The president had a choice. He could not give it to them with the risk that it would fall into the Taliban’s hands eventually or he could give to them with the hope that they could deploy it in service of defending their country.
“Both of those options had risks. He had to choose, and he made a choice,” Mr. Sullivan said.
As the evacuation continues and the Taliban solidify their hold on power in Afghanistan, Mr. Austin said, there will be difficult days ahead for those who fought in Afghanistan over the past two decades.
“Afghan vets are not some monolith. I’m hearing strong views from all sides on this issue,” Mr. Austin said. “Each of us will work our way through this in our own way. We need to give one another the time and space to help do it.”