Updated Aug 24, 2021 - World

Allies push Biden to extend Afghanistan airlift beyond August 31

People disembark from a Airbus A400M military transport aircraft at the French military air base 104 of Al Dhafra, near Abu Dhabi, on August 23, after being evacuated from Kabul
People disembark from an Airbus A400M military transport aircraft at the French military air base near Abu Dhabi on Aug. 23 after being evacuated from Kabul. Photo: Bertrand Guay/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden is attempting to navigate between calls from allies to extend the Kabul airlift operation beyond Aug. 31 and warnings from the Taliban that doing so would cross a red line.

Driving the news: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was expected to push Tuesday for an extension beyond the end of August at a virtual G7 meeting, which he's chairing.

  • French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Monday he's "concerned about the deadline set by the United States" as "additional time is needed to complete ongoing operations."
  • But national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden still believes all Americans can be evacuated before Aug. 31. The goal remains to conclude the evacuations by then, though Biden will consult with allies, Sullivan added.
  • It will likely be impossible to evacuate all Afghans who worked with NATO troops by Aug. 31, and dozens of other countries are still working to track down and extricate their citizens.

Of note: House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told reporters later Monday after a briefing by intelligence officials he believed the deadline was possible, but added: "It's very unlikely given the number of Americans who still need to be evacuated."

The big picture: As they conduct operations amid scenes of chaos that the Biden administration arguably precipitated, and failed to anticipate, NATO allies are grappling with their own reliance on American power.

What they're saying: "You look at the scenes at the Kabul airport, and what I see is the United States securing an airfield at the risk of several thousand U.S. troops to facilitate not just the evacuation of Americans but … third-country nationals from friends and foes alike," Sullivan said Monday.

  • Some critics of the chaotic withdrawal within NATO see instead a bungled retreat by a humbled superpower. But they likely agree with Sullivan’s next point: "There is no other country in the world that could pull this off, bar none."
  • One such critic, U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, has acknowledged that hopes of keeping the evacuation window open for a few additional days rest on the participation of American troops.
  • "When they withdraw, that will take away the framework," Wallace said, "and we will have to go as well."
A British evacuation flight. Photo: Ben Shread/MoD Crown Copyright via Getty

Coordination with the Taliban is vital to the U.S. airlift operation. The militants have pledged to give Americans safe passage to the airport and to also let eligible Afghans through, though some are still reportedly being turned back.

  • Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Monday that continuous efforts at "deconfliction" with the Taliban had helped the U.S. pick up the pace of its evacuations.
  • Kirby acknowledged that it would take time to evacuate the 5,800 U.S. troops at the airport, meaning civilian evacuations could be suspended before a deadline that's one week away.

The other side: Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said that it will "provoke reaction" and "consequences" if Biden reneges on his deadline.

  • The Taliban has not said what those consequences would be, but the militants control access to the airport perimeter.
  • It's unclear whether they'd risk conflict with the U.S. while on the precipice of total victory, or whether Biden would potentially jeopardize the security of the withdrawal operation by extending it beyond the deadline.

What to watch: The Taliban said it intends to keep the airport open beyond Aug. 31 and allow Afghans who want to leave the country to do so.

  • But allies including Germany have expressed concerns about the feasibility of continuing evacuations after control of the airport passes from the U.S. to the Taliban.
State of the airlift

U.S. officials seemed to speak with newfound confidence about evacuation efforts after announcing Monday morning that the U.S. had evacuated 10,400 people in the previous 24 hours, and 37,000 since the airlift began on Aug. 14.

Breaking it down: The vast majority of those are Afghan nationals. The White House and Pentagon said "several thousand" Americans had been evacuated without offering more precise numbers.

The evacuees are being housed temporarily on U.S. bases in Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, Italy, Germany and Spain — as well as New Jersey, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.

The evacuation operation has in some cases been extended beyond the airport. Sullivan said: "We have developed a method to safely and efficiently transfer groups of Americans onto the airfield."

  • Qatar's ambassador has transported small groups of Americans to the Kabul airport, per the Washington Post.
  • Kirby said the military was "going out as needed" to pick up Americans, but provided no details beyond the fact that one operation involved a helicopter while others did not.

Editor's note: This article has been updated with comment from Schiff.

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