WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Friday said "significant progress" had been made in getting Americans and allies out of Afghanistan as the White House grappled with the fallout from the chaotic mass evacuation.
Biden said that after a "pause," evacuation flights had resumed out of Kabul, the capital.
Two U.S. officials told NBC News earlier Friday that no flights had departed Kabul in at least eight hours. Qatar, where the U.S. was taking thousands of people in recent days, has reached capacity, and the U.S. is working with allies to find other locations in Europe and in the U.S. Central Command region to send the planes.
"This is one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history," Biden said in an address from the White House, where he was flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
"Any American who wants to come home, we will get you home," Biden said, while vowing to help Afghans who'd assisted U.S. forces in the country and others who might be in danger.
"We're going to do everything, everything that we can, to provide safe evacuation for our Afghan allies, partners and Afghans who might be targeted because of their association with the United States," Biden said. "The United States stands by the commitment it made to these people," he said, a sentiment he hadn't expressed in remarks earlier in the week.
Biden said his administration had made clear to the Taliban that "any attack on our forces or disruption of our operations at the airport will be met with swift and forceful response."
"I cannot promise what the final outcome will be, or that it will be without risk of loss, but as commander-in-chief I can assure you that I will mobilize every resource necessary," he said.
“We've seen gut-wrenching images of panic, people acting out of sheer desperation. You know, it's completely understandable. They're frightened or sad, uncertain what happens next. I don't think anyone of us can see these pictures, and not feel that pain on a human level,” Biden said.
He also pledged to assist NATO allies who are getting their own personnel out of Afghanistan. "We went in together. We're leaving together," Biden said.
Biden’s remarks were his third attempt this week to publicly defend his position on the execution of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan following a speech on Monday and an interview Wednesday with ABC News.
Biden was briefed earlier Friday by his national security team on the situation in Afghanistan and postponed a planned trip to his home in Wilmington, Delaware, for the weekend, the White House said.
The remarks capped a week of the biggest foreign policy crisis of Biden’s presidency, as thousands of Americans and Afghans who aided U.S. efforts remain trapped in the country. The crisis abroad threatens to upend Biden’s wider agenda, with criticism coming from allies in Congress, foreign leaders and top national security officials from the Obama administration.
Biden has remained defiant in his decision to pull out U.S. troops and sought to deflect blame for the chaotic scenes of the past week.
Yet the president and his top officials have struggled to land on an explanation for what precipitated the rapid unraveling in Afghanistan.
They have argued that the Taliban takeover was faster than anyone had anticipated. But the CIA’s intelligence assessments had recently begun to warn in increasingly stark terms about the potential for a rapid, total collapse of the Afghan military and government, current and former U.S. officials have told NBC News.
Biden acknowledged Friday that there had been conflicting assessments, including from the State Department, about how quickly the Afghan government could fall. "I took the consensus opinion," Biden said. "I made the decision. The buck stops with me."
Biden and top officials have also said chaos was always inevitable once the United States withdrew from Afghanistan and have placed blame on the Afghan military for lacking the will to fight.
“The idea that somehow there's a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don't know how that happens,” Biden said in his ABC News interview on Wednesday.
But that assessment conflicts with Biden’s statement just a month ago that it was “highly unlikely” the Taliban would take over the entire country.
Amid the chaos, the president has dismissed any comparisons to the fall of Saigon in 1975, when Americans had to be rescued by helicopter from the U.S. embassy — a scene that played out Sunday in Kabul.
Administration officials have sought to highlight the improved efforts in recent days to help Americans and eligible Afghans leave the country, a counter to images over the weekend of desperate Afghans clinging to airplanes trying to flee the country.
On Friday, the White House said the U.S. military had evacuated over 6,000 people in the past 24 hours, including over 200 Americans. In all, the U.S. has evacuated over 18,000 people since the end of July, officials said, and the military is increasing the number of flights to get more people out.
The Pentagon said that more than 5,800 troops were at the Kabul airport, which remained open.
But the scenes of U.S. military planes evacuating Afghans have been mixed with images of chaos outside the airport as thousands attempt to get on a flight. Stories of Taliban attacks on those trying to flee, on journalists and on women also increased as the week wore on.
The United States still faces the daunting challenge of evacuating the thousands of Americans and Afghans who assisted the U.S. efforts, many of whom are spread throughout the country. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said the U.S. lacks the ability to get those Afghans safely to the airport in Kabul.
Biden downplayed those problems Friday while taking questions from reporters.
“To the best of our knowledge, at Taliban checkpoints, they are letting through people showing American passports. Now that's a different question of when they get into the rush and crowd of all the folks just outside the wall, near the airport," he said, adding that the military hadn't set up a perimeter outside of the airport, saying that would be "likely to draw an awful lot of unintended consequences.”
Biden said he would consider rescue operations for Americans and Afghan allies who are trapped behind Taliban checkpoints.
White House officials have insisted for months that they have the American public on their side, if not lawmakers and foreign policy experts in Washington. But early indications have suggested that support might be diminishing.
The percentage of Americans who back the troop pullout fell to 40 percent this month from 50 percent in July, according to a Yahoo News poll, though those in favor still outnumber the 28 percent who wanted the U.S. to maintain a military presence. A Morning Consult/Politico poll found that 49 percent supported the withdrawal, while 37 percent opposed it — a sharp decrease from April, when 69 percent backed withdrawal.
Even before the crisis in Afghanistan unfolded, Biden's public support had begun to slip, with his approval rating falling below 50 percent for the first time in his presidency in polling taken shortly before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, according to polling averages by FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics.