A member of Taliban forces keeps watch at a checkpost in Kabul, Afghanistan August 17, 2021.
Stringer | Reuters
WASHINGTON — The United States is in close coordination with the Taliban as it works to evacuate tens of thousands of people out of the Kabul airport before President Joe Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw U.S. troops, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Monday.
“We are engaging with the Taliban, consulting with the Taliban, on every aspect of what’s happening in Kabul right now,” Sullivan told reporters at the White House. “On what’s happening at the airport, on how we need to ensure that there is facilitated passage to the airport for American citizens, SIVs and third country nationals. And we’ll continue those conversations with them.”
Sullivan said the coordination was happening on a daily basis “through political and security channels,” but he refused to elaborate.
Tens of thousands of Americans, NATO coalition nationals and Afghans who have aided NATO are desperately trying to leave the country via the only airport not controlled by the Taliban.
Sullivan defended the Biden administration from critics who say the chaotic and often tragic scenes that have played out in and around the Kabul Airport in the past week could have been avoided with better planning and execution.
Sullivan said an element of chaos was inevitable in any U.S. withdrawal.
“Whether Kabul fell in August or September, or December or next August, the fact is, there were going to be American citizens in Kabul who needed to be evacuated,” he said.
Nonetheless, “we believe that we have time, between now and the 31st, to get out any American that wants to get out” of Afghanistan.
Sullivan explained that it was impossible to know exactly how many Americans remained in Afghanistan, because some citizens never informed the State Department that they had arrived in the country, while others informed the government of their arrival, but not their departure.
State Department spokesman Ned Price later told reporters, “we believe there are several thousand Americans in Afghanistan right now who would like to leave.”
It remained unclear Monday exactly how the United States planned to extract these thousands of citizens, many of whom are believed to be located outside the capital city of Kabul.
Last week, the Pentagon said that the U.S. military could not even ensure safe passage for Americans inside Kabul to the Hamid Karzai International Airport, despite the fact that several thousand U.S. troops are stationed there.
On Saturday, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul warned American citizens not to travel to the airport, which soldiers and diplomats refer to as “H-KAIA,” due to security threats outside the gates.
“The president believes we are making substantial progress,” Sullivan said.
Yet he added that Biden is “taking this day by day, and will make his determinations as we go” about whether to extend the Aug. 31 deadline.
On Sunday, the president said, “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.”
Meanwhile, the Taliban have made it clear that they consider any effort to keep Western troops in Afghanistan, even if only in the airport, beyond Aug. 31 tantamount to a foreign occupation of their newly seized country.
“It’s a red line,” Taliban spokesman Dr Suhail Shaheen told the UK’s Sky News on Monday. “President Biden announced that on 31 August they would withdraw all their military forces. So if they extend it that means they are extending occupation while there is no need for that.”
Shaheen added: “If the US or UK were to seek additional time to continue evacuations – the answer is no. Or there would be consequences.”
The U.S.-led international effort to get people out of Afghanistan has picked up pace in the last 24 hours.
Sullivan said the U.S. had airlifted about 10,400 people out of Kabul in the last 24 hours by cargo aircraft. Non-U.S. coalition aircraft evacuated an additional 5,900 people.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, on August 23, 2021.
Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images
Since August 14, the U.S. has evacuated or facilitated the evacuation of approximately 37,000 people out of Afghanistan, according to Pentagon figures. If extended to the end of July, that number jumps to approximately 42,000 people.
The Pentagon said that evacuees are flying from Kabul to temporary safe haven locations across the Middle East and Europe, including U.S. installations in Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Italy, Spain and Germany.
Afghan nationals arriving in the United States will be housed at Ft. McCoy in Wisconsin, Ft. Lee in Virginia, Joint Base McGuire Dix Lakehurst in New Jersey and Ft. Bliss in Texas.
In order to speed up the transit of evacuees to countries beyond the Middle East, Biden activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet on Sunday, a rarely used program under which civilian airlines are ordered to provide planes to assist the military in times of catastrophic need. The CRAF activation was for 18 aircraft from six airlines.
— CNBC’s Amanda Macias contributed to this report.
This is a developing story, please check back for updates.