WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said Tuesday that the United States is on track to meet the current Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, leaving a narrow timeline to finish evacuating Americans and Afghan allies.
Speaking from the White House Tuesday afternoon, Biden said that the timeline depended on the Taliban's continued cooperation in allowing people to access the Kabul airport. Biden said he asked the Pentagon and the State Department to prepare contingency plans to stay in Afghanistan longer if it becomes necessary, but that he was mindful of the increased risk of military conflict.
"We are currently on a pace to finish by August the 31st. The sooner we can finish, the better," Biden said. "Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops."
After a chaotic start, the pace of evacuations has increased in recent days, but officials have previously expressed skepticism that everyone seeking to leave will be out by the deadline.
Biden has faced criticism in recent weeks at home and abroad for his handling of the withdrawal after the Taliban rapidly took control of the country, sending Americans and Afghans who aided the war effort scrambling to leave the country and escape the hard-line group.
The military advised Biden that he needed to make a decision on whether to extend the withdrawal deadline by Tuesday in order to allow enough time for the roughly 6,000 troops and the small number of embassy staff to leave, according to two U.S. officials.
The pace of evacuations has increased in recent days. A White House official said about 19,000 people had been evacuated from Kabul on Wednesday. Since mid-August, the U.S. has evacuated or aided in the evacuation of about 82,000 people on U.S. military and coalition flights, the official said.
Although Biden has committed to evacuating all Americans who wish to leave as well as Afghan allies, it is unclear if he will be able to uphold that promise on such a tight timeline. Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Tuesday that it would take a few days to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. The pace of evacuations will likely decline as U.S. military personnel begin to leave.
The Biden administration has been unable to say how many Americans remain in Afghanistan.
The Taliban have warned any delay in the withdrawal would cross a "red line" and threatened consequences. Some U.S. officials have expressed concern that the Taliban would lash out at Americans and other foreign nationals still in Afghanistan if the U.S. attempts to change the deadline.
In a press conference Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid accused the U.S. of instigating Afghans to leave the country, particularly skilled people, and said they would prevent Afghans from heading to the airport in Kabul but allow foreigners to go.
"We are not going to allow Afghans leave, and we will not extend the deadline," he said, according to a translation from the BBC.
Biden was expected to face fresh pressure from the international community to extend the deadline during a Group of Seven virtual meeting Tuesday morning. Some G-7 members have encouraged Biden to stay in Afghanistan a few days longer to make sure all evacuations can be completed.
Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have been critical of Biden’s decision to stick to the self-imposed deadline. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said Biden should “tell the Taliban we’re getting our people out however long it takes,” while Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., urged the Biden administration in an interview with MSNBC to “make the changes and revisions to that deadline to get the mission done.”
The U.S. has been in close contact with the Taliban leadership since they took over the country and have negotiated with them to ensure that the Kabul airport remained safe for Americans and Afghans hoping to leave.
CIA Director William Burns held a secret meeting with Taliban co-founder and political leader Abdul Ghani Baradar on Monday, the highest-level in-person meeting between the Biden administration and the new de facto leadership of Afghanistan, according to a senior diplomat in the region and another source familiar with the matter.
The Taliban seized control of Afghanistan’s capital last Sunday following President Ashraf Ghani's departure from the country, bringing an abrupt end to the 20-year U.S. effort to restructure the Afghan government and its military. Biden was criticized for not being better prepared for the possibility of a Taliban takeover.
Biden has said that staying longer in Afghanistan would not improve the situation.
While in office, then-President Donald Trump negotiated a deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. military personnel by May 1 of this year. After he was inaugurated, Biden said the withdrawal would be completed by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In July, Biden insisted that a Taliban takeover was not inevitable and that the Afghan military was well-equipped and trained to keep the group at bay. "I trust the capacity of the Afghan military," he said at the time.
A recent NBC News poll found that just 25 percent of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of Afghanistan, while 60 percent disapprove. The poll was conducted Aug. 14-17 — before, during and after Afghanistan’s capital city, Kabul, fell to the Taliban.