Biden says priority is evacuating US citizens out of Afghanistan, but much 'could still go wrong'

U.S. President Joe Biden responds to questions about the ongoing U.S. military evacuations of U.S. citizens and vulnerable Afghans, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on August 20, 2021. Biden said Friday he has not seen America's allies question U.S. credibility over the conduct of its withdrawal from Afghanistan as the Taliban took over the country. | ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

President Joe Biden said Sunday that his administration’s first priority is getting American citizens out of Afghanistan “as quickly and as safely as possible” but added that there is still “a long way to go and a lot could still go wrong.”

“Our first priority in Kabul is getting American citizens out of the country as quickly and as safely as possible,” Biden said Sunday afternoon in remarks from the Roosevelt Room at the White House.

Biden continued that at his direction, “the State Department continues to reach out to the remaining Americans we have identified by phone, email and other means to ascertain their whereabouts and their plans.”

It's been estimated that as many as 10,000 to 15,000 Americans have yet to be evacuated from Afghanistan.

He said his administration is “executing a plan to move groups of these Americans to safety and to safely and effectively move them to the airport compound. … Any American who wants to get home will get home.”

“We are proving that we can move thousands of people a day out of Kabul,” ... “we have a long way to go and a lot could still go wrong,” he said, regarding evacuating Americans and Afghan allies.

Asked if he will extend the Aug. 31 deadline for removing all troops from Afghanistan, Biden responded, “There’s discussions going on among us and the military about extending."

"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," he said. 

The U.K. Times reports that British foreign secretary Dominic Raab and Defense Secretary Ben Wallace have also requested that the Biden administration extend its deadline.

The president also assured that “all evacuated Afghan allies will be given a home in the United States after they are screened and vetted at bases in other countries.”

“We will welcome these Afghans who have helped us in the war effort over the last 20 years to their new home in the United States of America," Biden said. "Because that’s who we are. That’s what America is.”

The first groups of Afghan evacuees arrived at Dulles International Airport Saturday, one week after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.

At a Defense Department briefing at the Pentagon Saturday, Army Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor told reporters that three flights carrying Afghan evacuees had landed at Dulles in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. Those evacuees will be transitioned to Fort Bliss in Texas “for further processing.”

Biden said in an interview with ABC News last week that as many as 65,000 Afghans might be evacuated.

U.S. governors have said they would be willing to take in Afghan evacuees.

“We are eager to continue that practice and assist with the resettlement of individuals and families fleeing Afghanistan, especially those who valiantly helped U.S. troops, diplomats, journalists and other civilians over the past 20 years,” Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, said in a statement.

In a little over 30 hours this past weekend, about 11,000 people were evacuated.

“That number will change day-to-day as the air and ground operations in Kabul vary,” Biden said Sunday.

Biden said the administration is also “working to move our Afghan allies, who stood with us side by side, and other vulnerable Afghans such as women leaders and journalists, out of the country.”

“As of this morning (Sunday), we have evacuated nearly 28,000 people since August the 14th, on both U.S. and coalition aircraft, including civilian charters, bringing the total number of people we have evacuated since July to approximately 33,000 persons," he said.

The situation at the U.S.-held airport in Kabul continues to be chaotic and dangerous, however, with the Taliban surrounding the entire perimeter. 

The U.K. Ministry of Defense said in a statement earlier on Sunday that seven Afghan civilians were crushed to death outside the airport as crowds attempted to board evacuation planes.

“Conditions on the ground remain extremely challenging but we are doing everything we can to manage the situation as safely and securely as possible,” the ministry stated, according to Deutsche Welle, which reported Taliban fighters also sparked panic by firing into the air to control the crowd.

U.S. citizens in Afghanistan were told Saturday not to travel to the Kabul airport due to security threats. The Journal Gazette said potential Islamic State threats against Americans forced the U.S. military to develop new ways to get evacuees to the airport.

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby confirmed during the Defense Department briefing on Saturday that Americans had been beaten by the Taliban while attempting to reach the airport.

“We are aware of sporadic cases where they aren't being allowed, where there is some harassment going on, and yes, some physical violence has occurred” within the last week, Kirby said. “What appears to be happening is that not every Taliban fighter either got the word or decided not to obey the word [to allow Americans to get to the airport].”

Following the drawing down of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban quickly seized control of much of the country, eventually taking the capital Kabul and forcing the government to flee.

In response to the unexpected speed at which they retook the nation, tens of thousands of Americans, Afghan allies, and others have desperately tried to leave the country.

A return to Taliban rule for Afghanistan has led many to express concern over the treatment of women, as well as religious minorities, such as the small Christianity community.

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