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Biden says U.S. forces could stay in Afghanistan past August 31

▶ Watch Video: Austin says “we’re not close” yet on pace of evacuations from Afghanistan

President Biden on Wednesday said U.S. troops could stay in Afghanistan past August 31 to get all Americans out, if all Americans who wish to leave the country have not been able to do so by then. The president made the comments in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, in his first interview since the Taliban took over Afghanistan this week. 

Stephanopoulos asked Mr. Biden if he’s committed to making sure the troops stay until every American who wants to be out is out, noting that 10,000 to 15,000 Americans are still in the country now. 

“Yes, yes,” Biden responded, although he emphasized his focus is on completing the mission in Afghanistan by the end of August 31. 

Pentagon officials have emphasized their mission runs through August 31, and any extension is up to the president. The president recognized the U.S. will need to ramp up the number of people it’s evacuating to 5,000 to 7,000 a day. 

STEPHANOPOULOS: “So Americans should understand that troops might have to be there beyond August 31st?”

BIDEN: “No, Americans should understand that we’re going to try to get it done before August 31.”

STEPHANOPOULOS: “But if we don’t, the troops will stay?”

BIDEN: “If we don’t, we’ll determine at the time who’s left.”

STEPHANOPOULOS: “And?”

BIDEN: “And if there are American forces, if there are American citizens left, we’re going to stay to get them all out.”

The president has defended his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and the timing, even amid the spectacle of chaos at Kabul’s airport, where thousands of Americans and Afghans who helped the U.S. are stuck and desperately trying to leave. 

Mr. Biden told Stephanopoulos the Taliban is “cooperating, letting American citizens get out,” but added that the U.S. is having “some more difficulty having those who helped us when we were in there.” Pentagon officials acknowledged Wednesday they’re working with the Taliban to allow for safe passage of Americans to the airport. 

The U.S. embassy has told Americans it cannot guarantee their safe passage to the airport in Kabul, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters Wednesday the U.S. military does not have “the capability to go out and collect large numbers of people.” 

In the same interview, the president declined an opportunity to say he would have done anything in Afghanistan differently, insisting he doesn’t know how the U.S. could withdraw from Afghanistan without “chaos ensuing.” 

“So you don’t think this could have been handled — this exit could have been handled better in any way, no mistakes?” Stephanopoulos asked Biden in a clip of the interview posted Wednesday.

“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,” the president responded. “I don’t know how that happened.”

Stephanopoulos asked if that was “always priced into the decision.”

“Yes,” the president responded, adding, “Now exactly what happened, I’ve not priced in.” 

So far, the U.S. military has taken more than 3,000 people out of the country, and relocated nearly 2,000 Afghan special immigrants, according to State Department spokesperson Ned Price. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday there are roughly 11,000 self-identified Americans in the country. The U.S. is relying on assurances from the Taliban to allow the safe passage of Americans trying to reach the airport, since the U.S. has not been providing transportation to the airport. CBS News has learned the State Department is optimizing its outreach to American citizens in Afghanistan and others, based on the experience of the past several days.

Democratic lawmakers are vowing to investigate what went wrong with U.S. intelligence and decision-making that led to the scenes unfolding on television. Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said earlier this week he will work with other committees to ask “tough but necessary questions” about why the U.S. wasn’t better prepared. 

On Monday, the last time the president addressed Afghanistan publicly and the first time he addressed Afghanistan since Kabul fell to the Taliban, conceded the departure from Afghanistan has been “hard and messy,” but stood by his decision. National security adviser Jake Sullivan said Tuesday the president takes responsibility for every decision made regarding Afghanistan. 

“I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way — that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces,” Mr. Biden said Monday.


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