Biden Commits to Evacuating Afghan Interpreters But Says Americans Are Top PriorityAugust 20, 2021
President Biden delivered remarks about the ongoing crisis and evacuation in Afghanistan caused by a Taliban takeover and the swift collapse of the American-backed government following the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
“This is one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history,” Biden said in a speech from the White House on Friday. More than 5,200 members of the U.S. military are now back on the ground, helping to airlift people out of the country. So far, Biden said, they have evacuated approximately 13,000 people since August 14th.
“Any American who wants to come home, we will get you home,” Biden promised. But, he added, “I cannot promise what the final outcome will be, or that it will be without the risk of loss.”
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Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that the military is capable of airlifting between 5,000 and 9,000 people per day, the AP reported, but fewer than that are making it to the Kabul airport, as the Taliban have been blocking people from reaching it and firing guns at those waiting in line to get inside. That is counter to what National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the Taliban agreed to on Tuesday.
“The Taliban have informed us that they are prepared to provide the safe passage of civilians to the airport, and we intend to hold them to that commitment,” Sullivan said. On Thursday, the U.S. Embassy announced that it can no longer “ensure safe passage” to the airport.
Justifying the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden asked, “Does anybody truly believe that I would not have had to put in significantly more American forces? Send your sons, your daughters, like my son was sent to Iraq, to maybe die?”
As the evacuation continues, as many as 20,000 Afghan interpreters, who assisted the U.S. with translation during the war, face threats of violence from the Taliban. Biden said Friday that he is committed to helping the interpreters, but Americans are his top priority.
“We’re making the same commitment [to the interpreters]. There’s nothing more important than getting citizens out, I acknowledge that. But equally important is all those… who, in fact, helped us. They were translators, they went into battle for us, they were part of the operation,” he said.
According to the non-profit No One Left Behind, 300 Afghan interpreters and members of their families have been killed since 2001 because they assisted U.S. troops. Interpreters and their families have access to special U.S. visas, but there is currently a backlog in processing them at the State Department. When Biden first took office, nearly 17,000 cases were waiting to be processed. In the meantime, they are in a very precarious position.
“Since these insurgents have arrived, I cannot sleep for a minute. I can’t sleep for a single minute,” an Afghan national who went by Reggie told NPR. “I’m standing out in front of my house, but I’m not feeling safe. There isn’t a single moment that I can be feeling relaxed.”
Many Afghan people are also gathering outside Kabul airport, hoping to get on a plane out. Some Afghan mothers are so desperate to get their children to safety, they are lifting their babies over barbed wire to hand them to U.S. troops inside the airport. The U.K.’s Secretary of State for Defense, Ben Wallace, said that the U.S. and allies are making sure the children are reunited with their families before leaving the country. “If you see in the footage, the child is taken, that will be because the family will be taken as well,” Wallace said on Sky News.
“It will be the challenge of trying to make it through the crowd,” he added. “We are finding other ways of dealing with that, but that is what is happening.”
The administration has been criticized for a lack of planning for the evacuation, and Biden admitted that the collapse “did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.” Even so, activists say he could have done more to prevent this chaos.
“There are tens of thousands of Americans and Afghans literally at the gate,” Sunil Varghese, policy director for the International Refugee Assistance Project, told the New York Times. “This could have been completely avoided if evacuation was part of the military withdrawal.”
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