‘Serious risk’: Rising threat of terror attack
Thousands of people have yet to be evacuated from Kabul – and with each passing day, the risk of a terror attack on the airport grows.
US President Joe Biden says he has asked for “contingency plans” to keep US forces in Afghanistan after August 31, despite the Taliban’s warning that it “won’t allow” the deadline to be extended and the “serious risk” of a terror attack targeting Kabul airport.
Speaking at the White House today, Mr Biden insisted the evacuation of US citizens and eligible Afghans was “on pace to finish” by the end of the month.
He said a total of 75,000 people had already been flown out of the country, including 6000 in the past 12 hours.
But he conceded that US forces were reliant on the Taliban “continuing to cooperate”.
“I’ve asked the Pentagon and State Department for contingency plans to adjust the timetable, should that become necessary,” Mr Biden said.
These remarks came several hours after a Taliban press conference in Kabul, where spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the militant group would not allow an extension past the August 31 deadline.
“They have planes, they have the airport. They should get their citizens and contractors out of here,” Mujahid said.
“They can evacuate all people, but we will not allow Afghans to leave, and we won’t extend the deadline.
“All people should be removed prior to that date. After that we do not allow them, it will not be allowed in our country, we will take a different stance.”
Yesterday Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban’s diplomatic delegation in Doha, made similar comments on Sky News UK.
“If the US or UK were to seek additional time to continue evacuations, the answer is no,” Shaheen said.
He said it was a “red line” and “there would be consequences” for crossing it.
“If they are intent on continuing the occupation, it will provoke a reaction.”
During his address at the White House, Mr Biden made it clear that his plan was still to withdraw the remaining US forces on schedule.
He cited the rising threat of a terror attack by ISIS-K, an affiliate of the Islamic State.
“Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops,” the President said.
“Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and target US forces and civilians.
“It’s a tenuous situation. We’ve already had some gunfighting break out. We run a serious risk of more as time goes on.”
At a Pentagon media briefing, Press Secretary John Kirby said there had been “no change” to the withdrawal timeline.
“There’s been no change to the timeline of the mission, which is to have it done by the end of the month,” Admiral Kirby said.
He said the Taliban had “been very clear about what their expectations are”.
Earlier, Mr Biden spoke to his fellow G7 leaders. They discussed the evacuation efforts, as well as their “united” stance towards the Taliban going forward. Mr Biden said they did not trust the militant group’s claims that it won’t allow Afghanistan to become a haven for terrorsists again.
“We agreed that none of us are going to take the Taliban’s word for it. We will judge them by their actions,” he said.
“We renewed our humanitarian commitment to the Afghan people.”
About 6000 US troops remain in Afghanistan, alongside the forces of other western nations. An unknown number of American citizens and tens of thousands of Afghans seeking to leave the country have yet to be evacuated.
Mr Biden told reporters to expect a briefing by Secretary of State Antony Blinken tomorrow, at which Mr Blinken will finally reveal the specific number of Americans still in the country.
Mr Biden has previously suggested that US forces could stay past August 31 if necessary.
“Our hope is we will not have to extend, but there are going to be discussions, I suspect, on how far along we are in the process,” the President said on Sunday.
“I think we can get it done by (August 31), but we’re going to make that judgment as we go,” he said late last week.
“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.”
That promise is looking shakier by the day, particularly as the Taliban is now saying it won’t allow Afghans to leave.
Other NATO powers have a far blunter assessment of the situation.
“I must say already that even if it goes on until August 31 or even a few days longer, it will not be enough time to fly out everyone we want to fly out,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told Bild TV today.
“We will evacuate as many people as possible but there are people who will stay behind, for reasons that do not depend on us but on the situation there,” Spanish Defence Minister Margarita Robles told Cadena Ser radio.
The British government had foreshadowed an effort to convince Mr Biden to extend the deadline ahead of today’s discussion between G7 leaders.
“It is definitely worth us trying, and we will,” Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told Sky News before the meeting.
After it had ended, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was asked whether he had failed to persuade the President. He dodged the question.
“The immediate phase of the evacuation is actually being a very considerable success by the military, and I think most people looking at the numbers we have got out would say it was quite remarkable,” he told reporters.
Mr Johnson said the G7 should use its “huge leverage” in its engagements with the Taliban going forward.
“I don’t think anybody is going to pretend that this is anything other than a very difficult situation, but that doesn’t mean that we should ignore the leverage that we have.”
Today the Pentagon said it had evacuated 12,700 people from Kabul International Airport in the previous 24 hours, adding to 8900 people flown out by US allies.
“I’m pleased to report our best departure results since evacuation operations began have happened in the last 24 hours,” Adm Kirby said.
“This tremendous display of teamwork and focus resulted in a passenger count of 21,600 individuals leaving Afghanistan in just 24 hours.
“To date, 63,900 American citizens, NATO and other partners’ personnel, Afghan SIV applicants and vulnerable Afghans are out of harm’s way. They are now safer, and on their journey to a better life.”
That number had gone up by another 11,000 by the time Mr Biden spoke.
Adm Kirby said they were seeing “an increased pace” in the number of departures. In the most recent 24-hour period, an aircraft left every 45 minutes.
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