In his first interview since the Taliban took over control of Afghanistan, US President Joe Biden has said there wasn’t anything his administration could’ve done to avoid the chaos witnessed in Kabul over the last few days, and stood by the country’s withdrawal.
Speaking to ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, Mr Biden pushed back against criticism that the US should have done more to plan for the evacuation and withdrawal, which has been marked by scenes of violence and chaos as thousands attempted to flee from Kabul while the Taliban advanced.
"No, I don't think it could have been handled in a way that, 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, I don't know how that happens. I don't know how that happened", Biden stated.
Pressed on whether the scenes of hundreds of Afghans swarming Kabul’s airport and desperately clinging onto planes in an attempt to escape were priced into his decision, Biden initially said yes, but quickly changed his tune.
“Look, one of the things we didn't know is what the Taliban would do in terms of trying to keep people from getting out. What they would do. What are they doing now? They're cooperating, letting American citizens get out, American personnel get out, embassies get out, et cetera, but they're having - we're having some more difficulty having those who helped us when we were in there", he told Stephanopoulos.
Up to 15,000 Americans remain in Afghanistan after the Taliban took full control of the nation last weekend.
John Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said that over 24 hours about 2,000 people, including 325 American citizens, had left aboard 18 flights by US Air Force C-17 transport planes.
The number of departing Air Force flights was likely to be similar in the coming 24 hours, Kirby said, although he said he could not estimate how many people they would carry.
Officials have said they’re hoping to be able to increase those numbers to be able to evacuate 9,000 people each day.
Senior US military officers were talking to Taliban commanders in Kabul about checkpoints and curfews that have limited the number of Americans and Afghans able to enter the airport, with the threat of violence breaking out always looming overhead.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said earlier Wednesday there were about 4,500 US troops at the airport, maintaining security to enable the State Department-run evacuation operation that has been marked by degrees of chaos and confusion. But he added that the US military does not have the forces and firepower to expand its current mission of securing the airport.
During the interview with ABC News, Biden also said that he is committed to keeping US troops in Afghanistan until every American is evacuated, even if that means maintaining a military presence there beyond his August 31 deadline for withdrawal.
Pressed repeatedly on how the administration would help Americans left in the nation after August 31, Biden said, "If there’s American citizens left, we’re gonna stay till we get them all out”.
But while the President said the US will do “everything in our power” to evacuate Americans and US allies from Afghanistan before the deadline, the question of whether those seeking to leave the country should be rescued and brought to the airport has arisen amid reports that Taliban checkpoints have stopped some designated evacuees.
Asked by Stephanopoulos whether what’s happened over the last week was a failure of intelligence, planning, execution or judgement, Mr Biden remained adamant in his decision and said the choice was simple.
"When you had the government of Afghanistan, the leader of that government, get in a plane and taking off and going to another country; when you saw the significant collapse of the Afghan troops we had trained, up to 300,000 of them, just leaving their equipment and taking off - that was, you know, I'm not, that's what happened. That's simply what happened.
“And so the question was, in the beginning, the threshold question was, do we commit to leave within the timeframe we set, do we extend it to September 1, or do we put significantly more troops in?
"I had a simple choice. If I said, 'we're gonna stay,' then we'd better be prepared to put a whole hell of a lot more troops in," he said.