President Biden is attempting to navigate between calls from allies to extend the Kabul airlift operation beyond Aug. 31 and warnings from the Taliban that doing so would cross a red line.
Driving the news: U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to push for an extension beyond the end of August at a virtual G7 meeting tomorrow, which he will chair.
- French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also said today that France was "concerned about the deadline set by the United States" as "additional time is needed to complete ongoing operations."
- But National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden still believes all Americans can be evacuated before Aug. 31. The goal remains to conclude the evacuations by then, though Biden will consult with allies, Sullivan added.
- It will likely be impossible to evacuate all Afghans who worked with NATO troops by Aug. 31, and dozens of other countries are still working to track down and extricate their citizens.
The big picture: As they conduct those operations amid scenes of chaos that the Biden administration arguably precipitated, and failed to anticipate, NATO allies are grappling with their own reliance on American power.
What they’re saying: “You look at the scenes at the Kabul airport, and what I see is the United States securing an airfield at the risk of several thousand U.S. troops to facilitate not just the evacuation of Americans but…third-country nationals from friends and foes alike,” Sullivan said today from the White House podium.
- Some critics of the chaotic withdrawal within NATO see instead a bungled retreat by a humbled superpower. But they likely agree with Sullivan’s next point: “There is no other country in the world that could pull this off, bar none.”
- One such critic, U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, has acknowledged that hopes of keeping the evacuation window open for a few additional days rest on the participation of American troops.
- “When they withdraw, that will take away the framework,” Wallace said, “and we will have to go as well.”
Coordination with the Taliban is vital to the U.S. airlift operation. The militants have pledged to give Americans safe passage to the airport and to also let eligible Afghans through, though some are still reportedly being turned back.
- Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said today that continuous efforts at “deconfliction” with the Taliban had helped the U.S. pick up the pace of its evacuations.
- Kirby also acknowledged that it would take time to evacuate the 5,800 U.S. troops at the airport, meaning civilian evacuations could be suspended prior to a deadline that is already just a week away.
The other side: Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said that it will “provoke reaction” and “consequences” if Biden reneges on his deadline.
- The Taliban have not said what those consequences would be, but the militants control access to the airport perimeter.
- It’s unclear whether they would risk conflict with the U.S. while on the precipice of total victory, or whether Biden would potentially jeopardize the security of the withdrawal operation by extending it beyond the deadline.
What to watch: The Taliban has said it intends to keep the airport open beyond Aug. 31 and allow Afghans who want to leave the country to do so.
- But allies including Germany have expressed concerns about the feasibility of continuing evacuations after control of the airport passes from the U.S. to the Taliban.
State of the airlift
U.S. officials seemed to speak with newfound confidence about the evacuation efforts after announcing this morning that the U.S. had evacuated 10,400 people in the previous 24 hours, and 37,000 since the airlift began on Aug. 14.
Breaking it down: The vast majority of those are Afghan nationals. The White House and Pentagon both said "several thousand" Americans had been evacuated without offering more precise numbers.
The evacuees are being housed temporarily on U.S. bases in Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, Italy, Germany and Spain — as well as New Jersey, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.
- The U.S. was initially heavily reliant on the base in Qatar, but the hangar grew overcrowded, unsanitary and dangerously hot, forcing the administration to suspend flights for several hours on Friday and scramble to prepare facilities in other countries.
- Food, water and other essentials have also run low inside Kabul airport. Kirby said that, to remedy that, military aircraft were bringing supplies in and people out.
- Outside the airport's walls, the death toll has climbed to at least 20. One Afghan soldier was killed and three injured in a firefight early this morning with unidentified attackers. Seven people were trampled to death on Saturday in the large, desperate crowds.
The evacuation operation has in some cases been extended beyond the airport, Sullivan said: “We have developed a method to safely and efficiently transfer groups of Americans onto the airfield.”
- The Qatari ambassador has been transporting small groups of stranded Americans to the Kabul airport, per the Washington Post.
- Kirby also said the military was "going out as needed" to pick up Americans, but provided no details beyond the fact that one operation involved a helicopter while others did not.