By Steve Holland and Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Facing stiff criticism of his handling of the chaotic U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden promised Americans there that “we will get you home,” but warned the evacuation mission would be risky and dangerous.
Biden, in a speech and answering questions from reporters at the White House, sought to answer critics who say his administration misjudged the speed with which the Taliban would take over, and poorly planned the evacuations of Americans and Afghan allies after the 20-year long U.S. presence there.
“There’ll be plenty of time to criticize and second guess when this operation is over,” Biden said, adding that “the buck stops with me.”
Biden called the airlift one of the largest, most difficult of its kind, and said an attack in Kabul is one concern following the Islamist group’s release from prisons of fellow militants.
The United States is “keeping a close watch on any potential terrorist threat at or around the airport,” Biden said.
“I cannot promise what the final outcome will be or that it will be without risk of loss. But as commander in chief, I can assure you that I will mobilize every resource necessary,” he said.
The United States is desperately trying to evacuate thousands by an Aug. 31 deadline, although Biden said this week that U.S. troops at Kabul airport providing security for the evacuation could stay longer if necessary.
About 13,000 people have been evacuated on U.S. military aircraft since Aug. 14 and 18,000 people since the end of July, he said; 5,700 were evacuated on Thursday alone.
Biden is counting on cooperation from the Taliban, which the United States fought and which ousted the U.S.-backed Afghan government a week ago. “To the best of our knowledge, the Taliban checkpoints, they are letting through people showing American passports,” Biden said.
U.S. officials are in constant contact with the Taliban, Biden said, adding “any attack on our forces or disruption of our operations at the airport will be met with a swift and forceful response.”
One major obstacle in getting Afghan citizens who helped the U.S. effort out of the country has been Taliban checkpoints at the airport. Biden also suggested it was hard to sort out who was an American ally and who simply wanted to flee Afghanistan.
“There’s a whole lot of Afghanis who would just as soon come to America, whether they [had] any involvement with the United States in the past at all rather than stay under Taliban rule or any rule,” he said.
He said “we’re making the same commitment” to evacuate Afghan allies as Americans.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers say Biden did not act swiftly enough to withdraw vulnerable people from Afghanistan in the face of the rapid Taliban advances.
Bolstering the critics’ case was disclosure of an internal “dissent” memo dated July 13 from some diplomats at the U.S. embassy in Kabul. They warned of swift gains by the Taliban coupled with a collapse of Afghan security forces, according to a source familiar with the situation who confirmed an account of the document published by the Wall Street Journal.
Less than a week earlier on July 8 https://www.reuters.com/world/biden-says-afghans-must-decide-own-future-us-leave-aug-31-2021-07-08, Biden had said a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was “not inevitable.”
Asked about the cable, Biden said it was an outlier opinion.
“I took the consensus opinion. The consensus opinion was, that in fact, it would not occur, if it occurred, until later in the year,” he said.
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Heather Timmons, Daniel Wallis and Grant McCool)