Top Pentagon officials said Wednesday that the U.S. military does not “have the capability” to retrieve all Americans who have been unable to reach the U.S.-secured airfield in Kabul as the State Department continues to negotiate safe passage with the Taliban.
The White House said that on Wednesday the military evacuated approximately 1,800 people, bringing the total since Aug. 14 to 6,000.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the U.S. intends to increase that flow using various U.S. military aircraft.
"We're going to get everyone that we can possibly evacuate, evacuated. And I'll do that as long as we possibly can until the clock runs out or we run out of capability,” Austin said.
President Joe Biden said that if needed, U.S. forces could remain in Afghanistan past his Aug. 31 deadline to get every American out of the country.
“If there’s American citizens left, we’re going to stay to get them all out,” Biden told ABC News in an interview that aired Wednesday evening.
“Americans should understand that we’re going to try to get it done before Aug. 31," Biden said. "If we don’t, we’ll determine at the time who’s left.”
Austin, when pressed by a reporter on the capabilities of the forces on the ground, said the U.S. does not “have the capability to go out and collect up large numbers of people.”
But, Austin said the U.S. has “a moral obligation to help those who helped us."
He added that the State Department will also work with the Taliban to create “facilitation measures” for American passport holders.
“Right now our mission is to secure that airfield and defend that airfield and evacuate all those who have been faithful to us,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Gen. Mark Milley told reporters. “There will be many post-mortems on this topic, but right now is not the time to address that. Right now there are troops at-risk.”
Milley said soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are working to maintain security at the international airport in Kabul, which he said to date is “stable.” In total, roughly 4,500 American forces remain on the ground, he said.
He added, “We are the United States military, and we will successfully evacuate all American citizens who want to get out of Afghanistan. They are our priority No. 1. In addition, we intend to evacuate those who have been supporting us for years, and we are not going to leave them behind. And we will get as many out as possible.”
The White House has been attempting to weather the onslaught of criticism from both sides of the unfolding foreign policy crisis. On Tuesday, Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan defended the administration's policy, saying it was doing the best it could to quickly respond to the chaotic withdrawal.
Milley told reporters at the briefing that “there was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days.”
On Wednesday, Biden told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos in an interview — his first since the withdrawal — that the chaos was unavoidable and suggested that there were no significant blunders made by U.S. officials.
"The idea that somehow, there's a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don't know how that happens," he said.
Biden said the Taliban is "cooperating, letting American citizens get out, American personnel get out, embassies get out" but that it has been more difficult than expected to evacuate Afghans who assisted the U.S.