WASHINGTON: With thousands of desperate Afghans and foreigners crowding into Kabul airport in the hope of fleeing Afghanistan's new Taliban rulers, US officials said on Monday (Aug 23) they were scrambling to figure out how to extend a looming Aug 31 deadline to airlift Americans and their allies to safety.
Biden warned on Sunday that the evacuation was going to be "hard and painful" and a lot could still go wrong. US troops might stay beyond their Aug 31 deadline to oversee the evacuation, he said.
Two US officials said the expectation was that the United States would continue evacuations past Aug 31. A senior State Department official told reporters the country's commitment to at-risk Afghans "doesn't end on Aug 31".
A Taliban official said foreign forces had not sought an extension and it would not be granted if they had. US officials said negotiations were continuing.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the United States was in daily talks with the Taliban and making "enormous progress" in evacuating Americans and others.
Asked if Biden would extend his deadline, Sullivan said the president was "taking this day by day, and will make his determinations as we go".
Despite Sullivan's optimistic comments, US officials told Reuters that almost everything would have to go perfectly to extricate every American citizen by Aug 31. The officials said there was concern about US citizens reaching the airport, terrorist attacks and complicated processing times.
Additionally, US officials said that because it would take several days to remove the nearly 6,000 troops at the airport, Biden would have to make a decision soon on whether to observe the deadline, potentially in the next 24 hours.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Monday that the United States had discussed future control of the airport with the Taliban, as well as with US partners and allies.
'DOES IT STILL HURT? YES'
The chaos has roiled US politics, with opposition Republicans piling criticism on Biden for the withdrawal, which was initiated by his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump. Biden's opinion poll numbers have slipped.
For its part, the powerful US military has been grappling with how to handle the collapse of US-trained and backed Afghan forces after 20 years of war. "Was it worth it? Yes. Does it still hurt? Yes," General David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, wrote in a memo to Marines.
The difficulties at the airport were underlined on Monday morning when a firefight erupted between Afghan guards and unidentified gunmen. German and US forces were also involved, the Germany military said.
Canadian special forces are operating outside the airport in an effort to bring as many eligible people as possible through security gates amid an increasingly dangerous security situation, a senior Canadian government official said.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's office said he and Biden agreed to work together to ensure all those eligible to leave Afghanistan were able to do so, even after the initial evacuation phase ended.
A local Taliban militant, speaking to a large crowd in Kabul, urged Afghans to remain.
"Where has our honour gone to? Where has our dignity gone to?" the unidentified militant said. "We will not let the Americans continue to be here. They will have to leave this place. Whether it is a gun or a pen, we will fight to our last breath." The Taliban seized power last week as the United States and its allies withdrew troops after a 20-year war launched in the weeks after the Sep 11, 2001, attacks.
WORKING WITH ALLIES
Panicked Afghans and foreigners have thronged the airport since, clamouring to catch any flight out. Many fear reprisals and a return to a harsh version of Islamic law that the Taliban enforced while in power from 1996 to 2001.
Twenty people have been killed in the chaos, most in shootings and stampedes, as US and international forces try to bring order. One member of the Afghan forces was killed and several wounded in Monday's clash, the US military said.
While thousands of people have been airlifted out of Afghanistan, a British government spokesperson said British evacuations could not continue once US troops leave.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also said more time was needed. "We are concerned about the Aug 31 deadline set by the United States," he said.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said a virtual summit of the Group of Seven wealthy nations on Tuesday must agree on whether to extend the deadline and how to improve access to the airport.
The airport chaos also disrupted aid shipments.
The World Health Organization said tons of medical supplies were stuck because Kabul airport was closed to commercial flights.
Leaders of the Taliban, who have sought to show a more moderate face since capturing Kabul, have begun talks on forming a government, while their forces focus on the last pockets of opposition.
Taliban fighters had retaken three districts in the northern province of Baghlan and surrounded opposition forces in the Panjshir valley, a spokesman for the group said, but there were no signs of fighting on Monday.