President Biden on Sunday labored to present an optimistic picture of the chaotic evacuations from the Kabul airport in Afghanistan, though his assessment of the administration’s performance was contradicted by news reports and even his own military officials.
In remarks at the White House, Mr. Biden exuded confidence that the evacuation effort had turned the corner after a rocky start. He called it “an incredible operation.”
“We have a long way to go, and a lot could still go wrong. But to move out 30,000 people in just over a week, that’s a great testament to the men and women on the ground in Kabul in the armed services,” he said.
Even as the president hailed the effort, he confirmed discussions about keeping U.S. forces in Afghanistan after the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline.
He said he hopes the deadline will not be extended and said it depends on how much progress is made.
Mr. Biden touted the massive evacuations in recent days. He praised the efforts of the military and diplomats on the ground in Afghanistan.
“We are proving that we can move, though, thousands of people a day out of Kabul,” he said. “We are bringing our citizens, NATO allies, Afghanis who had helped us in the war effort.”
About 11,000 people were evacuated from Kabul in the previous 36 hours, Mr. Biden said. It was not clear, however, how many were U.S citizens, vulnerable Afghans or nationals from other countries.
CNN reported Sunday that more than 20,0000 people remained in and around the airport trying to board flights out in a chaotic scramble. That didn’t include the number of people who were not at the airport but were seeking to escape the brutal Taliban regime.
Roughly 25,100 had been evacuated since the collapse of the Afghan government on Aug. 14.
Mr. Biden also confirmed the use of civil reserve flights, a rarely used program that compels commercial airlines to assist the military in times of national emergencies. The program had been used only twice: during the wars with Iraq in the 1990s and 2000s.
“In a little over 30 hours this weekend, we evacuated an extraordinary number of people,” Mr. Biden said.
Mr. Biden’s reassuring statements, however, contrasted with the dire situation at the airport in Kabul as reports of deaths were increasing.
U.S. officials acknowledged that many Americans and Afghans had been beaten or harassed by Taliban militants as they tried to get to the airport.
A heartbroken mother told The New York Times on Sunday that her 2-year-old daughter was trampled to death by a stampede of people rushing to flee the Taliban.
The woman, a former interpreter for an American company in Kabul, traveled to the airport, desperate to flee the Islamist militia’s oppressive rule.
The child was one of seven people killed by stampeding crowds as thousands of frantic Afghans tried to escape the country.
Eyewitnesses flocked to social media to say the death toll was much higher.
A NATO official told Reuters that 20 people had died in the past week at the airport amid the evacuation chaos as temperatures hit the mid-90s.
Mr. Biden did acknowledge the pain and suffering in and around the Kabul airport.
“There’s no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss and heartbreaking images on television. It’s just a fact,” Mr. Biden said. He added that his heart “aches” over the crisis.
To blunt critics who said the administration was too slow to vulnerable Afghans and U.S. citizens, Mr. Biden insisted the effort would be messy no matter when it began.
“Let me be clear,” Mr. Biden said. “The evacuation of thousands of people from Kabul is going to be hard and painful, no matter when it started, when we began. It would have been true if we had started a month ago.”
The rescue efforts were further complicated this weekend as the U.S. Embassy in Kabul warned of possible threats by the Islamic State group, better known as ISIS.
U.S. officials urged Americans to find alternate routes to the airport or shelter in place as they feared a terrorist attack.
Republicans, meanwhile, pointed to the disconnect between Mr. Biden’s remarks and the reality on the ground. They said his speech reflected a disinterest in the Afghanistan situation.
“Democrats dance, dine, and vacation while Americans are left behind in Afghanistan as a result of Biden‘s failure. As crisis after crisis unfold, Biden continues to deflect blame, despite Americans knowing the root cause: Biden‘s disastrous policies,” said Nathan Brand, communications director for the Republican National Committee.
Mr. Biden will meet virtually with the leaders of other Group of Seven nations to discuss the evacuation efforts, the White House announced.
The virtual meeting was scheduled for Tuesday as international criticism mounted over Mr. Biden’s bungled withdrawal. Thousands of people remained stranded at the Kabul airport as long lines, bureaucratic confusion and Taliban checkpoints hampered rescue efforts.