The US has said it will go ahead with its plan to conclude its Afghanistan mission by August 31, even as the evacuation effort, which is now in its "retrograde period", is facing an "ongoing and acute threat" from ISIS-K.
"August 31 is the deadline set by both the US and the Taliban for America's pullout from war-torn Afghanistan. The threat is ongoing and it is active. Our troops are still in danger. That continues to be the case every day that they are there. This is the most dangerous part of the mission," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at her daily news conference on Friday.
"This is the retrograde period of the mission. What that means is that this is the period of time when the military commanders on the ground and forces begin to move not just troops home, but also equipment home. And that is often a very dangerous part of any mission, but in this case, they're also doing that while there is an ongoing and acute threat from ISIS-K. So that is what they are facing," she said.
Two suicide bombers and gunmen attacked crowds of Afghans flocking to the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul airport on Thursday, killing more than 100 people, including 13 US troops. The Islamic State's Afghanistan affiliate, dubbed Islamic State Khorasan or ISIS-K, has claimed responsibility for the attack.
The military, Psaki said, made clear to President Joe Biden that they are committed to continuing this mission, to saving lives, to evacuating more people from the country over the coming days, and completing their mission by August 31. What it will also mean, as they move to this retrograde phase, is that there will be a reduction of numbers over the next couple of days…Those numbers will go down in the next couple of days…That is a result of the retrograde process that needs to take place, but also, force protection is front and centre and is vital to the mission, she said.
Responding to a question, Psaki said the president has directed the Secretary of State to continue diplomatic efforts with international partners to secure means for third-country nationals and Afghans with visas to leave the country, even after the US military presence ends. A part of that would certainly be having a coordinated approach and engagement with the Taliban, because in order to continue to evacuate any American citizen who was not yet prepared to leave, who wants to leave, third-country nationals and Afghans with visas — we will need to coordinate with the Taliban, she said.
That does not mean or translate into a presence on the ground. As we've noted, we are pulling our presence out by the 31st, and that has not changed, Psaki asserted. Psaki said the US does not trust the Taliban, but it has no other option but to work with it.
The Taliban control large swaths of Afghanistan, including the area surrounding the perimeter of the airport. So, by necessity, that is our option to coordinate with them to get American citizens out; to get our Afghan partners out; to get individuals, who are eligible for the range of programmes the US has, out, she said.
The US has now evacuated more than 105,000 people as a result of those coordinated efforts, Psaki said.The Taliban, she said, are going to want a functioning airport; so does the US. "There's an enormous amount of economic leverage that the global community has. That's something we need to work with our international partners on," Psaki said.