President Joe Biden pledged on Friday that the United States will “mobilize every resource necessary” to get Americans and Afghan allies out of Afghanistan before U.S. troops depart the country. But he stopped short of committing to continue the effort past when troops leave at the end of the month.
“Yes, yes, we're making the same commitment,” Biden said in response to a question about whether he would promise to get Afghan holders of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) out. “There's [nothing] more important than bringing American citizens out, I acknowledged that.”
But, he said, it was “equally important” to evacuate translators who helped the U.S. for decades, as well as workers for private humanitarian organizations that have been aiding Afghanistan for years.
Asked whether the evacuation effort would extend past the Aug. 31 withdrawal date, Biden said he thought the U.S. could get everyone out before then, “but we are going to make that judgment as we go.”
Flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Biden spoke for the second time this week on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, updating the country on the progress of evacuating American citizens and Afghan allies who “might be targeted” because of their association with the United States.
“Make no mistake, this evacuation mission is dangerous, and involves risks to our armed forces, and has been conducted under difficult circumstances,” he said. “I cannot promise what the final outcome will be, or... that it will be without risk of loss. But as Commander-in-Chief, I can assure you that I will mobilize every resource necessary.”
Biden said 18,000 people had been evacuated since July, and 13,000 since the military began evacuating people on August 14. But the president acknowledged that the conditions on the ground have continued to worsen.
“The past week has been heartbreaking,” he said. “We've seen gut-wrenching images of panicked people acting out of sheer desperation. You know, it's completely understandable. They're frightened, they’re sad, uncertain what happens next. I don't think anyone—I don't think any one of us can see these pictures, and not feel that pain on a human level.”
Biden’s comments cap a week of increasingly dire news out of Afghanistan, as his administration has faced withering criticism from members of Congress, refugee advocates, veterans, and others for not evacuating Americans before the troop draw-down neared.
Several committees—all led by Democrats—have already pledged to hold hearings to examine how the administration got their predictions so wrong.
“Mistakes were made here, we’ve got a hearing on Tuesday, a classified brief, where we are going to press the administration on A), what happened, B), what they are doing now to get as many people out as possible,” House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) told CNN in an interview hours before Biden’s Friday remarks.
In a press conference Monday, Biden said some Afghans who held SIVs didn’t want to leave because they were “hopeful” that the government would hold. But advocates have dismissed that explanation as nonsensical.
A Wednesday interview with ABC News did little to clarify why the administration failed to prepare for the swift fall of Kabul and the humanitarian crisis that immediately ensued.
“There was no consensus,” Biden said when asked why, in July, he had said a Taliban takeover was unlikely after U.S. troops withdrew. “If you go back and look at the intelligence reports, they said that it's more likely to be sometime by the end of the year.”
Again and again, Biden defended the administration’s handling of the withdrawal and refused to acknowledge any missteps.
“I don't think it could've been handled in a way that there—we—we're gonna go back in hindsight and look, but the idea that somehow there's a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing,” he said. “I don't know how that happens. I don't know how that happened.”
Smith told CNN on Friday that the president’s remarks before and after the fall of Kabul don’t “add up.”
“I mean, play the tape, it’s not hard when the president says, as this was going on… he said quite clearly it would not be chaotic and now he’s saying it was inevitable that it was going to be chaos, OK, well that doesn’t really add up,” Smith said. “One of those two things is not true.”
He added that Biden was put in a terrible position by the Trump administration negotiations with the Taliban, but said that it was clear during committee hearings earlier this year that Pentagon officials were not coordinating properly with the State Department on evacuating Afghan allies.
“There’s two parts to this, was it the right decision to leave, but the second part is, did the president do it right?” Smith said. “On that second part, the evidence is very clear that they did not.”