On Sunday morning, Kabul fell to the Taliban, leaving some 10,000 to 15,000 Americans trapped in a country almost entirely controlled by violent Islamist extremists.
It wasn’t until Wednesday evening that President Biden made a commitment to bring home every last one of those Americans.
Between the fall of Kabul on Sunday and Biden’s interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos more than 72 hours later, top Biden administration officials hedged about whether it was official U.S. policy to stay in Afghanistan until every American citizen who wanted to come home was taken home.
“If that [evacuation] mission is not complete by August 31st and there are Americans and Afghan allies who remain there, will U.S. troops stay until everyone is out, or will they leave?” Biden’s national-security adviser, Jake Sullivan, was asked in a White House press conference on Tuesday. “So, I’m not going to comment on hypotheticals,” he replied. “What I’m going to do is stay focused on the task at hand, which is getting as many people out as rapidly as possible.”
At a press conference on Wednesday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said “we fully intend” to “successfully evacuate all American citizens who want to get out of Afghanistan,” which isn’t quite the same as saying we will evacuate all Americans who want to be evacuated. At the same press conference, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin did not inspire confidence when he said the United States would evacuate everyone it could “until the clock runs out or we run out of capability.”
It took multiple questions from George Stephanopoulos, but President Biden finally promised later Wednesday that “if there’s American citizens left” after August 31 “we’re gonna stay to get them all out.” As for Afghans who helped the American war effort and now face Taliban reprisals, Biden said on Wednesday that he was committed to evacuating “between 50,000 and 65,000” of them from the country.
But what good is Biden’s pledge if he doesn’t have a plan to follow through on it?
Biden said on Wednesday that the Taliban is offering “safe passage for Americans to get out” of Afghanistan. But earlier that very same day, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman had suggested the opposite at a press conference: “We have seen reports that the Taliban, contrary to their public statements and their commitments to our government, are blocking Afghans who wish to leave the country from reaching the airport.”
There were more reports on Thursday that some Americans can’t get past Taliban checkpoints as they seek to leave the country.
Although French and British forces have been deployed to Kabul to escort those countries’ citizens to the airport, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said at a separate press conference, “I don’t have the capability to go out and extend operations into Kabul” to collect stranded Americans or Afghan allies.
Biden is now getting strong, bipartisan pushback from lawmakers in Congress, who are urging him to rescue Americans stranded behind Taliban lines in Afghanistan. In a letter to the president on Thursday, 53 senators asked the “Administration to assist with the passage of individuals to the airport to safety — both those within Kabul and those outside of the capital — as well as to consider cases where Afghans fleeing quickly may not have been able to collect or gather appropriate documents.”
One of the letter’s signatories, Senator Ben Sasse (R., Neb.), said in a separate statement that Biden should give “American troops the power to push back the airport perimeter and create safe, American-controlled corridors to the airport. We cannot wait for Americans to find their own way. Go get them. It’s the duty of the commander-in-chief.”
Whether the commander in chief has the will to fulfill that duty, only time will tell.
PHOTOS: The Fall of Afghanistan