Joe Biden has said US troops may stay past a 31 August deadline so as to evacuate all Americans from Afghanistan, and defended the withdrawal, saying there was no way for the US to pull out “without chaos ensuing”.
As critics in the US and abroad questioned his handling of the withdrawal, the president said in his first on-camera interview since the Taliban took Kabul that troops would stay in the country to get American citizens out.
“If there’s American citizens left, we’re going to stay until we get them all out,” Biden told ABC News, implying that he would listen to US lawmakers who had pressed him to extend the 31 August deadline he had set for a final pullout.
Asked if he thought the handling of the crisis could have gone better, Biden said: “No.”
“We’re gonna go back in hindsight and look … but the idea that somehow, there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens,” he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.
The sentiment contradicts what Biden had said weeks back, when he insisted that it was “highly unlikely” that the Taliban would be “over running everything and owning the whole country”.
It has also emerged that classified intelligence documents from the past few weeks gave multiple warnings to the Biden administration of the prospect of an imminent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the likely rapid collapse of Afghan troops, with Kabul portrayed as highly vulnerable. It raises questions as to why the US administration was not better prepared for security and evacuations in the event the Taliban took control.
The speed with which Taliban forces retook Afghanistan, as US and other foreign forces withdrew, has led to continued chaotic scenes at the airport with diplomats, foreign citizens and Afghans trying to flee. Taliban and Nato officials said a total of 12 people have been killed in and around the airport since Sunday.
The Taliban official said the deaths were caused either by gunshots or in stampedes and he urged people still crowded at the gates of the facility to go home if they did not have the legal right to travel. “We don’t want to hurt anyone at the airport,” said the Taliban official, who declined to be named.
However, there have been multiple reports of Afghans and foreigners with passports and papers being turned away at airport checkpoints by Taliban fighters, leading to foreign evacuation flights departing with empty seats.
The US said it has evacuated nearly 6,000 people from Afghanistan since Saturday but thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans who want to leave the country remain and it is feared the slow speed of evacuations was putting lives at risk. Educated young women, former US military translators and other Afghans most at-risk from the Taliban appealed to the Biden administration to get them on evacuation flights as the United States as quickly as possible.
“If we don’t sort this out, we’ll literally be condemning people to death,” said Marina Kielpinski LeGree, the American head of nonprofit organisation Ascend.
Biden told ABC the Taliban were cooperating in helping get Americans out of the country, but admitted “we’re having some more difficulty” in evacuating US-aligned Afghan citizens.
He said: “They’re cooperating, letting American citizens get out, American personnel get out, embassies get out, et cetera, but they’re having … we’re having some more difficulty having those who helped us when we were in there.”
The president was asked what his response had been to images that emerged of packed US military planes taking off from Kabul airport as people clung to their sides. At least two people apparently fell to their deaths from the undercarriage soon after takeoff.
Biden replied: “What I thought was: we have to gain control of this. We have to move this more quickly. We have to move in a way in which we can take control of that airport. And we did.”
Thursday marks Afghanistan’s independence day, celebrating the country’s freedom from British rule in 1919. The Taliban seized on the celebrations, stating that “as a result of our jihadi resistance, [we] forced another arrogant of power of the world, the United States, to fail and retreat from our holy territory of Afghanistan”.
However, it also raised the prospect of galvanising further anti-Taliban protests across the country. On Wednesday, at least three people and were killed and over a dozen injured when hundreds of Afghans marched in the city of Jalalabad, brandishing the Afghan flag, to protest against Taliban rule and were beaten and shot at by Taliban fighters.
The humanitarian cost of the Taliban insurgency also became increasingly apparent, as ATMs ran out of cash and concerns were raised about food shortages. Though the Taliban has appealed for international aid to continue to flow into the country, which currently accounts for 42.9% of GDP, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) joined growing number of donors and lenders who said they would suspend funds going to Afghanistan. IMF Resources of over £268m had been set to arrive this month but an IMF spokesperson said “lack of clarity within the international community” over recognising a government in Afghanistan meant they would no longer send the funds.
Former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country of Sunday as Taliban troops entered Kabul, made his first appearance since it emerged he had been granted entry into the United Arab Emirates on “humanitarian grounds”.
Ghani, speaking in a video posted on Facebook, said he supported talks between the Taliban and former government officials, led by former president Hamid Karzai. He said he was “in talks” to return to Afghanistan and that he was making efforts to “safeguard the rule of Afghans over our country”.
Looking pale and gaunt, Ghani denied he had betrayed Afghans by fleeing and said the Taliban had entered Kabul, despite an agreement they would not.
“Do not believe whoever tells you that your president sold you out and fled for his own advantage and to save his own life,” said Ghani. “These accusations are baseless.”
He also denied reports he had taken money with him when he fled. “I was expelled from Afghanistan in such a way that I didn’t even get the chance to take my slippers off my feet and pull on my boots,” said Ghani.