Only President Joe Biden decides when Unites States troops will leave Afghanistan, his top national security adviser Jake Sullivan said, after the Taliban threatened the White House with “consequences” if American forces remain in the country beyond August 31.
“Ultimately, it will be the president’s decision how this proceeds; no one else’s,” Jake Sullivan said on Monday at a news briefing.
He confirmed that the US is “engaging” and “consulting” with the Taliban on “every aspect of what’s happening in Kabul right now”.
The Taliban captured Kabul earlier this month amid Biden’s decision to pull troops out of the country after a 20-year war.
American forces remain in control of Hamid Karzai International Airport, where the Pentagon has deployed thousands of troops to evacuate American citizens and Afghans who worked with the US during the conflict.
Biden had set August 31 as the deadline for all US troops to leave the country but said US forces would stay until all American citizens are evacuated, even if it means staying beyond the end of the month.
“If the US or UK were to seek additional time to continue evacuations – the answer is no. Or there would be consequences,” said Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban delegation in Doha, told Sky News earlier on Monday.
For his part, Sullivan said the operation at the airport is making “substantial progress” with 37,000 people evacuated since August 14.
“We have established a network of transit centers in multiple countries in the Gulf and Europe, where we are getting US citizens on flights home, and we are running biometric and biographic background checks on Afghan evacuees before bringing them to the United States or having them relocated to a third country.
“All told, 26 countries on four continents are contributing to this effort, one of the largest airlifts in history – a massive military, diplomatic, security, humanitarian undertaking.”
Still, the airport has been a scene of deadly chaos and desperation with thousands waiting in dire conditions.
White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said the president stands by his decision to withdraw US troops from the country, lauding the evacuations.
“His focus right now is on taking the steps and making the decisions that he feels are in the interest of our national security and the American people,” she said of Biden.
“And that may mean that there are chaotic scenes; that may mean that there are people disapproving of his decisions. He understands that and accepts that.”
Later on Monday, the State Department clarified that the US is communicating with the Taliban with the narrow focus of securing the evacuations, not to recognise a government led by the group.
“This is not about asking permission; this is not about establishing any sort of formal relations,” Ned Price, the State Department’s spokesperson, said. “This is about doing all we can to facilitate safe passage to ensure that the Taliban know that any effort to impede the evacuation of American citizens, to impede our operations … would be met with a very swift and severe response.”
He added that the United States is not involved in talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Price said the US is “in discussion” with the Taliban over maintaining a functioning commercial airport in Kabul after the American troops withdraw.
Price said a Taliban-led government must have an airport that would allow people to leave the country if it wants to have ties with the rest of the world.
“A government that has some semblance of a relationship with the rest of the world needs a functioning commercial airport,” Price said.
“We are in discussions with the Taliban on this very front. They have indicated to us in no uncertain terms that they seek to have a functioning commercial airport.”