GOING HOME — Ittook weeks, from April to July, for the Pentagon to remove just 1,500 troops and their equipment from Afghanistan — dropping the number from 2,500 when President Joe Biden took office to just under 1,000 when Kabul fell nine days ago. So when the White House announced today that it would not immediately be extending an Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, it not only prompted concerns that thousands of American citizens and tens of thousands of Afghan allies could be left stranded in Kabul, it also meant, for logistical reasons, that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan had to accelerate.
For that reason, the deadline isn’t really next week. It’s this week. The evacuation will actually have to end sometime before Aug. 31 in order to get all the troops out, White House press secretary Jen Psaki conceded in a briefing with reporters today.
Here’s why. In orderto get all the troops out by next Tuesday, the military needs to start redeploying personnel and equipment by Friday, according to multiple reports.The Pentagon confirmed today the departure of several hundred troops who had completed their mission, including headquarters staff, maintenance and other “enabling functions.”
There are roughly 6,000 service members currently on the ground at Kabul airport helping with the evacuation effort, all but 1,000 of which were rushed there from prepositioned locations in the Middle East over the past week, along with armored vehicles and aircraft.
Biden is not quite ruling out adjusting the timeline. As Psaki told reporters, the president conveyed to the G-7 leaders this morning that “we are currently on pace to finish by Aug. 31,” but stressed that the mission “will end based on the achievement of our objectives,” and that completing the evacuation depends on “continued coordination with the Taliban.”
Biden has also asked the Pentagon and State Department for contingency plans so that he can adjust that timeline if necessary, Psaki said.
The president was set to address the nation about the situation in Afghanistan at noon in Washington, but the speech was rescheduled twice — first to 2 p.m., then again to 4:30 p.m. He began speaking just after 5 p.m.
The Taliban has threatened “consequences” if American troops stay past the Aug. 31 deadline Biden set earlier this year. White House and military officials are fearful of a Taliban or terrorist attack that could set back the evacuation efforts and draw the United States back into a prolonged conflict they are trying to end after two decades.
While the situation in and around the Kabul airport deteriorates, White House officials continue to project optimism — leading some experts to accuse them of “gaslighting,” POLITICO reported today. The evacuation has significantly picked up speed in recent weeks, but there are still reports of squalid conditions at the airport, violence at the gates, and even American citizens being turned away by Afghan guards. Three sources told me and POLITICO’s Alex Thompson today that the Taliban had begun halting people trying to get through the airport gates, including both Afghans and American citizens.
The window for evacuating the thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Afghan allies left in Kabul may be narrowing even further. The Pentagon warned today in a new intelligence assessment briefed to lawmakers that threats from the Islamic State to the airport are now jeopardizing the evacuation effort, your Nightly host, Andrew Desiderio and Alex Ward scooped this evening.
The security situation at the airport deteriorated so drastically today that the military may now have to wrap up its evacuation by the end of the week, the assessment warned.