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President Joe Biden touted on Sunday the surging number of Afghanistan evacuations carried out so far by the United States, but acknowledged that such a massive operation does not come “without pain and loss.”
The White House said that the U.S has evacuated 30,300 people out of Afghanistan since Aug. 14, including more than 13,000 people over the weekend. That brings the total evacuated by the U.S. to about 35,500 since July, though the president stressed in a televised address that “we have a long way to go, and a lot could still go wrong.”
“Let me be clear, the evacuation of thousands of people from Kabul is going to be hard and painful no matter when it started, when we began,” Biden said. “It would have been true if we had started a month ago, or a month from now. There is no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss, [like] those heartbreaking images you see on television. It’s just a fact.”
The British military said earlier Sunday that at least seven Afghans died in a panicked crush of thousands of people trying to flee the country at Kabul’s international airport, in an attempted exodus resulting from the Taliban taking over just a week ago. Others may have been trampled, suffocated or experienced heart attacks as Taliban fighters fired shots into the air to try and drive back crowds from the airport ― the last spot still held by the U.S. military.
Some of the seven who were killed had plunged to their deaths after clinging on to a U.S. plane as it took off on Aug. 16, while thousands of others poured on to the tarmac in a desperate attempt to escape life under Taliban rule. Photos and video showed Afghans passing babies and small children above their heads so Western soldiers could raise them over walls and ensure their safety.
“My heart aches for those people you see,” Biden said on Sunday. “We are proving, though, that we can move thousands of people a day out of Kabul. We’re bringing out citizens, NATO allies, Afghanis who in fact have helped us in the war effort ― but we have a long way to go, and a lot could still go wrong. But to move out 30,000 people in just over a week, that’s a great testament to the men and women on the ground in Kabul.”
Earlier on Sunday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN that 23 U.S. military flights had evacuated about 3,900 people from Afghanistan, with an additional 3,900 airlifted by 35 non-U.S. military flights, in the past 24 hours. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet program, requesting 18 aircraft from U.S. carriers to assist in transporting Afghan refugees after they’ve been evacuated to other countries.
To help continue the evacuations safely, the U.S. has extended the “safe zone” perimeter around the Kabul airport to expand access to people trying to flee the country. This change includes changing the gate operations, which Biden explained is why the military has been able to increase the number of evacuees.
The president said that the Taliban “have been cooperative with regard to changing the perimeter” during discussions, but when asked by a reporter if he trusts Taliban promises, Biden said: “I don’t trust anybody, including you.”
Biden did say that the Taliban have not taken action against U.S. forces so far during the evacuation, and “by and large” have followed through on allowing Americans to pass through. But the president also emphasized that U.S. troops and Afghans still face danger at the airport, such as terrorists like ISIS and its Afghan affiliate ISIS-K who may “seek to exploit the situation ― including trying to strike from a distance.”
The president said he still hopes to meet the Aug. 31 evacuation deadline out of Kabul, but is currently having discussions for the potential of extending the timeline to make sure the U.S. can evacuate as many people as possible.
The chaotic rollout of Biden’s evacuation plan has unleashed bipartisan anger, though many officials and experts stress that this is not on one administration, but on decades of government and military officials. Still, with the evacuation occurring under the current White House that has a lackluster record on refugee issues, advocates are blasting Biden for not moving fast enough and claiming the president is more focused on avoiding political attacks than on helping vulnerable people abroad.
“I had a basic decision to make. I either withdraw America from a 20-year war ― that depending whose analysis you accept cost us $150 million a day for 20 years or $300 million a day for 20 years ― where we lost 2,248 Americans dead and 20,722 wounded,” Biden said, pulling out a card he says he always carries that tells him the war’s casualty count.
“I either increase the number of forces we keep there, and keep that going, or I end the war. And I decided to end the war.”