After a week of chaos outside the Kabul airport, President Joe Biden again defended the American evacuation effort in Afghanistan during a national address on Sunday, saying the work was going to be difficult no matter the circumstances.
“Evacuation of thousands of people from Afghanistan was going to be hard and painful, no matter when it started,” Biden said in his third national address in six days on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. “That 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 of heartbreaking images you see on television. It’s just a fact.”
About 33,000 American citizens and Afghan allies have been evacuated from the country since late July, 11,000 in the last few days alone. The moves come as tens of thousands more are seeking to escape the country amid the fall of the democratic government there and the return to Taliban rule.
Biden has faced significant criticism in recent days for the turbulent withdrawal effort, which comes three months after he announced a full drawdown of all American military personnel from the country after nearly 20 years of war.
One week ago, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country as Taliban fighters advanced on the capital city of Kabul, leading the remainder of the U.S.-backed Afghanistan military to walk away from fighting.
Republican lawmakers have attacked Biden for the decision to pull out all U.S. troops despite the threat posed by Taliban fighters and terrorist groups there, and Democratic leaders in Congress have promised hearings on the missteps in recent weeks.
About 6,000 U.S. military personnel are deployed to the Kabul airport to help with securing the area and processing of refugees out of the country. Earlier in the day, during an appearance on Meet the Press, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan left open the possibility of increasing that total in coming days.
Advocates have said that thousands of would-be evacuees are trapped in the region just outside the Kabul airport, blocked from the safety of American protection by Taliban checkpoints or paperwork problems preventing their entry to the airfield.
Biden said that in recent days “we’ve been able to significantly increase the number of people who are getting through” but again repeated his vow to get all Americans and Afghan allies out of the country.
“At my 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 to move to safety,” he said. “I will say again today what I have said before: Any American who wants to get home will get home.”
Earlier on Sunday, White House officials announced plans to activate the Civil Reserve Air Fleet program, asking to borrow 18 aircraft from major American airlines to help transport refugees from foreign holding points outside of Afghanistan to other locations.
They also acknowledged threats against the airport (and the crowds gathered around it) from groups connected to Islamic State terrorists. Biden said that has added even more urgency to the evacuation effort.
“Every day we have troops on the ground [in Afghanistan], these troops and innocent civilians of the airport face the risk of attack,” he said. “We’re working as hard and as fast as we can to get people out. That’s our mission.”
Biden declined to elaborate on what new security measures have been taken for those trying to get to HKIA.
“What I’m not going to do is talk about the tactical changes we’re making to make sure we maintain as much security as we can,” he said.
U.S. military officials have said that the evacuation mission is slated to run through Aug. 31. When asked if that deadline may be extended, Biden said that “our hope is we will not have to extend, but there have been discussions” about a possible extension.
The American president also praised outside advocates who have helped with the evacuations so far. Many have been working around the clock with federal officials to identify individuals trapped behind Taliban lines and ensure housing and support after they have safely left the region.
“I’ve been touched by the outpouring of support that we’ve seen from communities across America, mobilizing to support these efforts,” he said.
“So many of these Afghans stood bravely by U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And now, the United States, including veterans groups, refugee settlement agencies, religious organizations and so many others, are standing with our Afghan allies. It exemplifies the best of America.”
A new NBC News poll released Sunday found that 60 percent of individuals surveyed disapproved of Biden’s handling of the Afghanistan situation thus far, versus 25 percent who approve of his work.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.