“Every day we’re on the ground is another day that we know ISIS-K seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and allied forces and innocent civilians,” President Joe Biden said Tuesday from the White House, throwing new urgency and specter into the American withdrawal from now Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Calling ISIS-K the foe of the Taliban as much as America, and sending many pundits prattling in a new chorus, Biden seemed to be working out a new rationale in real time for sticking to his decision to exit America’s longest war.
“We are currently on pace to finish by August the 31st,” Biden said in a 12-minute speech as both the State Department and Pentagon canceled their respective afternoon briefings. “The sooner we finish, the better. Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops.”
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Not for the first time in this foreign policy crisis set to see all U.S. troops out of the South Asian nation by month’s end, the 46th POTUS made sure to take a swipe at the 45th POTUS and former Celebrity Apprentice host as well as calm domestic fears and a burgeoning right-wing reaction.
“We’re conducting thorough security screenings in the intermediary stops they’re making for anyone who not a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident of the United States,” Biden said of Afghan citizens being ferried out of their home in dozens of U.S. military flights daily.
“Anyone arriving in the United States will have undergone a background check, and we must all work together to settle thousands of Afghans who ultimately qualify for refugee status,” he said. “The United States will do our part and we are already working closely with refugee organizations to rebuild the system that was purposefully destroyed by my predecessor.”
Not taking questions after his speech from the Roosevelt Room, Biden said that the G-7 is “united” on the tactics in Afghanistan even as it appears more and more that the Taliban is controlling the agenda and who gets to the Kabul airport to try and get out. Proclaiming that the Taliban is “continuing to cooperate,” Biden said 70,700 individuals have been taken out of Afghanistan since August 14, with 19 U.S. military flights in the past 12 hours having evacuated more than 6,000.
Pushed back three times from its originally scheduled slot and hence more dramatic and covered by all the cable news networks plus ABC, NBC and CBS, Biden’s remarks come after waves of crises Tuesday and one legislative win.
“Today the House of Representatives took a significant step toward making a historic investment that’s going to transform America,” Biden said at the top of the foreign policy speech. “I want to thank Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi, who was masterful in her leadership,” he added of the progress in the multitrillion-dollar budget and infrastructure bills.
Having presented a sobering Covid-19 briefing earlier in the day, the administration’s key procedural vote in the House on Biden’s big-bucks and wide-ranging infrastructure legislation served to soften the Afghan lede by the White House. Stick-handled by Pelosi and giving Biden some good domestic news cover, the House passed a framework measure for the $3.5 trillion budget that will now see the body vote on both the budget agreement and a separate and already Senate-approved $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill September 27.
In Afghanistan, meanwhile, after the turmoil of last two weeks, fully loaded U.S. aircraft are now leaving Kabul every 45 minutes.
The administration claims that 21,600 individuals have been evacuated in the past 24 hours alone. This morning, as the chaotic process of getting Afghan nationals and Americans out received widespread criticism, Biden was steadfast in his declaration to fellow G-7 leaders in a virtual emergency conference that America will hold its August 31 exit deadline as long as things remain “on pace,” according to a White House recap.
But a number of House Democrats want the administration to extend that deadline. Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO), a veteran who served three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, told reporters that “we must do everything necessary to save all American citizens and to evacuate our Afghan partners and our allies.”
He added, “Now we have a moral obligation to make sure we are standing by our Afghan partners and our allies, protecting American citizens, and that moral obligation does not have a deadline. …The deadline is, when the mission is accomplished, can we bring our people home. Full stop.”
Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ), who served as a civilian adviser in Afghanistan, said that “I certainly recognize the significant numbers thatt have been evacuated, but again, just the cries for help are ones that cannot be ignored.”
Also on Monday, CIA director William Burns held a then-secret sit-down with Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar in Kabul on the situation in Afghanistan, officials confirmed today.
In that context, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet told a Geneva meeting Tuesday that she has strong intel of “summary executions” by the Taliban of former government soldiers and officials. In addition, reports of more violent door-to-door searches and oppression of women and girls are emerging, per UN observers.
Amidst the return to power of the Taliban and a subsequent humanitarian catastrophe, Biden told his international colleagues this morning that risk to U.S. military personnel was the raison d’être behind the swift withdrawal in Afghanistan and end of the 20-year war there.
After days of soft-peddling its theocratic approach, the Taliban on Tuesday openly exclaimed that while Americans and other foreigners can leave the country, Afghans can’t – even as thousands crowd around the sprawling and increasingly restricted airport at Kabul in desperation.
Keeping his options fluid, poll-lagging President Biden is reported to have bit the bullet and asked the Pentagon to prepare contingency plans if events demand troops are required to stay past next week. At the same time, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in an interview with Sky News today that the August 31 date is a “red line” and any extension would “provoke a reaction.”
Today, President Biden met virtually with G7 leaders to discuss a continuation of our close coordination on Afghanistan policy, humanitarian assistance, and evacuating our citizens, the brave Afghans who stood with us over the last two decades, and other vulnerable Afghans. pic.twitter.com/zFxjsm2W8H
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) August 24, 2021
Leading up to Biden’s delayed speech and the virtual G-7 conference Biden, today also saw a mysterious delay in Vice President Kamala Harris’ departure from Singapore to Vietnam due to a “recent possible anomalous health incident,” according the State Department. “After careful assessment, the decision was made to continue with the Vice President’s trip,” the statement said.
The flavorless language used by Foggy Bottom is pretty well established euphemism for the mysterious Havana Syndrome that has been affecting U.S. diplomatic personnel since a first reported occurrence in the Cuban capitol in 2016. Leading to nausea, severe headaches, memory and hearing loss and more ailments, the syndrome is thought to be initiated by a foreign power and has been detected in U.S. and Canadian embassies in Russia, China and Germany, among other nations. Held back around three hours, Harris traveled to Hanoi after all, arriving in the past few hours.
Biden did not mention the situation impacting Harris’ travels in his speech this afternoon.
Ted Johnson contributed to this report.
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