President Joe Biden said Sunday that the U.S. was considering extending evacuation efforts beyond his Aug. 31 deadline to leave Afghanistan as he defended the administration’s handling of the war’s final days.
Speaking to reporters at the White House, Biden said there were discussions “among us and the military about extending.”
“Our hope is that we will not have to extend,” he said.
Biden pointed to new numbers of evacuees as a contrast to the chaotic scenes at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, where thousands of people remain to be airlifted out of the country after the Taliban seized control of vast parts of territory this month.
Biden said the U.S. evacuated about 11,000 people in 30 hours over the weekend. He said about 28,000 U.S. citizens, allies and Afghans have been secured since the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul on Aug. 15, adding that 33,000 people have been transported since July.
“We see no reason why this tempo will not be kept up,” he said, referring to the pace of evacuations over the weekend.
But as his handling of the withdrawal has come under criticism from foreign allies and officials in both parties, Biden claimed that there was no way it could have gone any more smoothly.
“Let me be clear: The evacuation of thousands of people from Kabul is going to be hard and painful no matter when it started or when we began,” he said. “Would’ve been true if we started a month ago or a month from now. There is no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss and heartbreaking images you see on television. It’s just a fact. My heart aches for those people you see. We are proving, though, that we can move thousands of people per day out of Kabul.”
Many of Biden’s critics have questioned why evacuations, particularly for Afghan helpers, were not stepped up sooner.
The administration announced earlier Sunday that the U.S. will use commercial aircraft to transport people once they have been evacuated from Afghanistan to speed the process. In addition, Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken pointed to new agreements with about two dozen countries to assist in transporting evacuees.
Earlier Sunday, a State Department diplomatic cable obtained by NBC News detailed the “brutal experience” local staff members at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul faced when they headed to the airport. The cable, which was sent Saturday, said staffers reported being jostled, hit, spat on and cursed at by Taliban fighters at checkpoints near the airport, adding that criminals were taking advantage of the chaos while the U.S. military tried to maintain order “in an extremely physical situation.”
An NBC News poll released Sunday found that just 25 percent of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of Afghanistan. The same poll showed that 61 percent of Americans believe the 20-year war was not worth it. In addition, a CBS News poll released Sunday found that 47 percent of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the final days of the war an that 63 percent approve of removing U.S. troops from the country.
In response to question about the CBS News survey results, Biden said the choice was to either stay, sending more Americans into battle, or end the 20-year conflict.
“And I decided to end the war,” he said.
“When this is over, the American people will have a clear understanding of what I did, why we did it, but look, that’s the job,” he said. “My job is to make judgments no one else can or will make. I made them. I’m convinced I’m absolutely correct in not deciding to send more young men and women to war for a war that is in fact no longer warranted.”
Biden suggested that U.S. adversaries are sad to see the U.S. leave.
“You’re sitting in Beijing or you’re sitting in Moscow. Are you happy we left?” Biden said, chuckling. “They’d love nothing better than for us to continue to be bogged down there, totally occupied with what’s going on. So the idea, I think, that history is going to record [is] this was the logical, rational and right decision to make.”