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Biden to speak about chaotic evacuations in Afghanistan

Filed on August 20, 2021

Tens of thousands of people remain to be evacuated ahead of the United States’ August 31 deadline.

Facing a torrent of criticism, US President Joe Biden plans to speak Friday about the chaotic evacuation of Americans and allies from Afghanistan as the US struggles with obstacles ranging from armed Taliban checkpoints to airport pandemonium and cumbersome red tape.

While Biden has previously blamed Afghans for the US failure to get out more allies ahead of this month’s sudden Taliban takeover, US officials told The Associated Press that American diplomats had formally urged weeks ago that the administration ramp up evacuation efforts.

Tens of thousands of people remain to be evacuated ahead of the United States’ Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw its troops from the country, although the pace picked up overnight. A defence official said about 5,700 people, including about 250 Americans, were flown out of Kabul aboard 16 C-17 transport planes. On each of the previous two days, about 2,000 people were airlifted.

With desperate crowds thronging Kabul’s airport, and Taliban fighters ringing its perimeter, the US government is renewing its advisory to Americans and others that it cannot guarantee safe passage for any of those desperately seeking seats on the planes.

The advisory captured some of the pandemonium, and what many Afghans and foreigners see as their life-and-death struggle to get inside. It said: “We are processing people at multiple gates. Due to large crowds and security concerns, gates may open or close without notice. Please use your best judgment and attempt to enter the airport at any gate that is open.”

Biden is set to meet with his national security team about the evacuations, and to speak from the White House Friday afternoon. In addition to criticism from some lawmakers who say the US failed to adequately plan for the Taliban’s swift takeover, US diplomats have voiced dissent.

In a cable sent through the State Department’s dissent channel, a time-honoured method for foreign service officers to register opposition to administration policies, the diplomats said the situation on the ground was dire, that the Taliban would likely seize control of the capital within months of the Aug. 31 pullout, and urged the Biden administration to immediately begin a concerted evacuation effort. That’s according to officials familiar with the document who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal debate.

Biden has said that the chaos that unfolded as part of the withdrawal was inevitable as the nearly 20-year war came to an end. He said he was following the advice of Afghanistan’s US-backed president, Ashraf Ghani, in not earlier expanding US efforts to fly out translators and other Afghans in danger for the past work with Americans.

Biden also said that many at-risk Afghan allies had not wanted to leave the country. But refugee groups point to years-long backlogs of applications from thousands of those Afghans for visas that would let them take refuge in the United States.

The administration has also portrayed its contingency planning as successful after the Afghan government fell much faster than publicly anticipated by administration officials. Yet the White House received clear warnings that the situation was deteriorating rapidly before the current evacuation push.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that US citizens are able to reach the airport, but face an obstacle in the large crowds at the airport gates.

The administration has committed to ensuring that all Americans can leave, even if that means staying past the August deadline.

“This is a risky operation,” Sullivan told NBC Nightly News Thursday. “We can’t count on anything.”

There is no firm figure of the number of people — Americans, Afghans or others — who are in need of evacuation as the process is almost entirely self-selecting.

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