‘Alternate reality’: Biden’s baffling answer
US President Joe Biden is under fire again after claiming American citizens are not having trouble reaching the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Mr Biden held a media conference at the White House today to update Americans on the evacuation effort, insisting “significant progress” had been made.
He said the US military had evacuated 13,000 people since August 14, and almost 6000 people in the past 24 hours.
But thousands more US citizens, and even more Afghans, are still stuck in Afghanistan. Western forces control Kabul International Airport, but no one can get inside without passing through Taliban checkpoints, and the streets surrounding the airport are packed with people desperate to enter.
Adding to that problem, today the US had to pause its evacuation flights for about 10 hours because there was nowhere for them to go – the processing facility they’d been using in Qatar was at full capacity. That caused a backlog.
The operation has since resumed, with an additional destination reportedly found in Germany.
During his press conference, Mr Biden was asked whether he would sign off on sending US forces outside the airport to escort Americans who haven’t been able to make it inside.
“We have no indication that they haven’t been able to get into Kabul airport,” Mr Biden said.
“We’ve made an agreement with the Taliban, they’ve allowed them to go through, it’s in their interest to let them go through. So we know of no circumstance where American citizens, carrying an American passport, are trying to get through to the airport.
“But we will do whatever needs to be done to see to it that they get to the airport.”
That answer directly contradicted accounts we’ve heard from reporters on the ground in Kabul. Another reporter followed up.
“I just want to follow up on something you said a moment ago. You said there’s no circumstances where American citizens cannot get to the airport. That doesn’t really square with the images we’re seeing around the airport,” said NPR’s Scott Detrow.
“Are you saying, unequivocally, that any American who wants to get to the airport is getting there, and getting past the security barrier to the planes?”
Mr Biden said he thought the question had been “how they can get through to the airport”.
“The answer is, to the best of our knowledge, the Taliban checkpoints are letting through people showing American passports,” he said.
“Now, that’s a different question when they get into the rush and crowd of all the folks just outside the wall near the airport.”
He revealed that US forces had recently gone over the wall and escorted 169 American citizens inside.
“It is a process to figure out how we deal with the mad rush of non-Americans, those who didn’t help, those who are not on the priority list, just any Afghan,” Mr Biden said.
“We have an agreement that they will let past, through the checkpoints, Americans.”
Multiple foreign correspondents who have spent the past week in Kabul pushed back on Mr Biden’s assessment of the situation.
“The President said he has no intelligence that Americans have been unable to get there. The question, obviously, is does that square with reporting on the ground?” ABC News host David Muir asked correspondent Ian Pannell.
“I mean, just totally not. I mean the reaction was just one of – I mean it was breathtaking,” Pannell replied.
“No indications Americans can’t get to the airport? I mean just last night on World News we had American citizens who had exactly that experience. They tried to get to the airport. They waved their American passports.
“They were beaten by the Taliban with the rubber fan belt from a vehicle.
“(There are) multiple examples of Americans and Afghans who have now tried repeatedly.
“It just seems the reality and the rhetoric are miles apart. I’m not quite sure what advice the President is receiving. But the truth on the ground is, these people who are in fear of their lives can’t get through.”
Pannell’s counterpart at CNN, chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward, said even she as a journalist had struggled to make it inside the airport.
“Trying to work out how to get into the airport is like a Rubik’s cube,” she said.
“It is not a simple process at all.”
Ward reported that every gate to the airport has hundreds of people outside, all of whom are “waiting for that door to open for five seconds”.
“The minute it opens, there’s a massive surge of people pushing to get in,” she explained.
“They’ve already had to make their way past the Taliban checkpoint to even get to that stage.
“I was talking to people with green cards. People who had their applications accepted. They couldn’t get close, because of thousands of people crushing into each other, Taliban fighters with truncheons and whips pushing people back, shots being fired.
“Anyone who says that any American can get in here is, you know, technically it’s possible, but it is extremely difficult and it’s dangerous.”
Fox News national security correspondent Jennifer Griffin said there were “so many misrepresentations” from Mr Biden regarding the situation on the ground.
“This is an alternative reality that was just presented from the White House,” she said.
The US embassy in Kabul has warned American citizens it cannot “ensure safe passage” to the airport for them.
Meanwhile, Politico reports that US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin today told members of Congress that Americans had been beaten by the Taliban in Kabul.
“This is unacceptable, and we made it clear to the designated Taliban leader,” General Austin reportedly said.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby addressed that issue during his media briefing shortly afterwards.
“We’ve communicated to the Taliban that that is absolutely unacceptable and we want free passage through these checkpoints for documented Americans,” he said.
“By and large, that’s happening.”
Of course it isn’t just about American citizens. Under questioning today, Mr Biden also vowed to evacuate all Afghans who helped the US, making the same commitment to them as to his own country’s citizens.
“Yes. We’re making the same commitment,” Mr Biden said.
“There’s no one more important than bringing American citizens out, I acknowledge that.
“But equally important, almost, is all those SIVs, we call them, who helped us. They were translators, they went into battle with us, they were part of the operation.”
Afghans who helped the US are eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa. Some SIV applicants have already left the country, but tens of thousands more are still in the middle of the lengthy application process.
The reporter asked whether Mr Biden would be willing to keep US forces in Afghanistan past the current deadline of August 31 to ensure all Americans and Afghan SIV recipients get out.
“I think we can get it done by then, but we’re going to make that judgment as we go,” Mr Biden responded.
“We’re going to do everything we can to provide safe evacuation for our Afghan allies.
“Any American who wants to come home, we will get you home.”
The President said there will be “plenty of time to criticise and second guess” when the evacuation is over.
“But now I’m focused on getting this job done.”