Biden says U.S. has ‘long way to go and a lot could still go wrong’ in Afghanistan evacuation

US President Joe Biden responds to questions about the ongoing US military evacuations of US citizens and vulnerable Afghans, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on August 20, 2021.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds | AFP | Getty Images

President Joe Biden on Sunday said the U.S. has a “long way to go and a lot could still go wrong” amid the chaotic evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies from Kabul after the Taliban took over Afghanistan one week ago.

“The evacuation of thousands of people from Kabul is going to be hard and painful no matter when it started, when we began,” the president said during a press conference at the White House.

“It would have been true if we had started a month ago, or a month from now. There is no way to evacuate this many people without pain,” Biden said.

The Biden administration is facing criticism of its handling of the overall U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The withdrawal, announced earlier this year, has been beset by chaos.

Thousands of people have crowded the Kabul airport and some even plunged to their deaths after clinging to the exterior of a U.S. military aircraft while attempting to leave the country. Seven Afghan civilians were killed in crowds attempting the enter Kabul’s airport, according to the British military.

The president said U.S. forces continue to make progress on evacuations from Kabul. Up to 33,000 people have been evacuated since July, including 28,000 since August 14 and 11,000 over the weekend, Biden said.

The president reiterated that Americans are the first priority for evacuation out of Afghanistan, vowing that “any American who wants to get home will get home.” Biden said his administration is in discussions about extending its Aug. 31 deadline to exit Afghanistan, but that “our hope is that we will not have to extend.”

Biden also defended his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the country, arguing that it was the “logical, rational and right decision to make.”

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U.S. defense officials said Sunday that the military is seeking alternative ways to get people to the airport safely amid specific threats from ISIS against the airport. The U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan on Saturday warned American citizens not to travel to the airport due to security threats outside the gates.

The Pentagon on Sunday ordered U.S. commercial airlines to provide planes to transport people who have already flown out of the country to military bases in Europe and the Middle East.

The president emphasized that planes taking off from Kabul are not flying directly to the U.S. but rather landing at military bases and processing centers around the world. Security screenings are in place at those sites for anyone who is not a U.S. citizen, he added.

Biden’s job approval ratings have dropped amid the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan . An NBC News poll released Sunday shows a vast majority of adults surveyed say they disapprove of the president’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan, with only 25% noting they approve of how he’s dealt with it.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during an interview on Fox News , said Sunday that 8,000 people have been evacuated from Kabul on 60 flights in the last 24 hours.

The U.S. has also reached an agreement with about two dozen countries over four continents who are helping or will soon help with moving people out of Kabul, Blinken said.

— CNBC’s Leslie Josephs and Brian Schwartz contributed reporting

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