The US has an “unwavering commitment” to get American citizens and at-risk Afghans to safety out of Afghanistan, President Joe Biden said, as Taliban fighters beat back thousands desperate to flee outside Kabul airport on Sunday.
Biden said the security situation in Afghanistan was changing rapidly and his administration was under no illusions about the threat from Islamic State militants in Afghanistan known as ISIS-K (for Khorasan).
The Taliban, which seized power in Afghanistan last week as the United States and its allies withdrew troops after a 20-year war, fired in the air and used batons to force people to form queues outside the airport, witnesses said. On Saturday, seven people were killed in a crush at the gates.
“Let me be clear, the evacuation of thousands from Kabul is going to be hard and painful” and would have been “no matter when it began,” Biden said in a briefing at the White House.
“We have a long way to go and a lot could still go wrong,” Biden said.
Biden said he had directed the State Department to contact Americans stranded in Afghanistan by phone, email and other means, and the United States had a plan to move them to the airport.
“We’re executing a plan to move groups of these Americans to safety and to safely and effectively move them to the airport compound. For security reasons, I’m not going to go into detail ... but I will say again today what I’ve said before: Any American who wants to get home will get home.”
Afghan allies of the West and vulnerable Afghans such as women activists and journalists would be helped too, he said.
On Sunday, there were no major injuries as gunmen beat back the crowds, according to witnesses. The Taliban had been “cooperative” about extending the airport perimeter, Biden said.
Asked by a reporter whether the United States would extend an Aug. 31 deadline for evacuations, Biden replied: “Our hope is we will not have to extend but there are going to be discussions I suspect on how far along we are in the process.”
Britain’s defense ministry said seven Afghans were killed in the crush around the airport on Saturday as thousands tried to get a flight out. Sky News showed soldiers on a wall on Saturday attempting to pull the injured from the crush and spraying people with a hose to prevent them from getting dehydrated.
A NATO official said at least 20 people have died in the past seven days in and around the airport. Some were shot and others died in stampedes, witnesses have said.