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US president Joe Biden is sticking by his plan to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan by the end of the month defying international pressure, including from key European allies, to allow more time for evacuations.
Biden’s decision caps days of uncertainty about the fate of the August 31 deadline for the final pullout of the US military from Afghanistan. It comes despite growing concerns about the security situation around Kabul airport and the chaotic effort to evacuate thousands of foreign nationals and Afghans out of the country.
The US president was following the Pentagon’s recommendations to respect the self-imposed timeline for withdrawal, a White House official said. However, Biden had asked for top officials to develop contingency plans in case the deadline did need to be extended.
Biden had come under pressure from Britain, France and Germany in particular to extend the US mission in Afghanistan beyond August 31, including during a virtual G7 meeting held on Tuesday.
Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister who chaired the meeting, said the G7 leaders had agreed a joint approach to put pressure on the Taliban to allow safe passage out of the country for Afghans even after August 31.
“The number one condition that we are setting as the G7 is that they have got to guarantee right the way through, through August 31 and beyond, safe passage for those who want to come out,” he said.
Johnson insisted the “immediate phase of evacuation is actually being a very considerable success by the military” but — along with French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel — he wanted more time to get people out of Kabul.
Charles Michel, the European Council president, said several G7 leaders expressed concerns about the August 31 deadline during the meeting.
The G7 meeting came as the Taliban blocked the road to Kabul airport for Afghans, a move that threatens to strand those vulnerable to reprisals from the Islamist movement.
Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said the group would allow foreigners to leave through the airport but ordered Afghans not to go to the airport because of the chaotic crowds and the risk of stampedes, urging them to return to their jobs and homes.
He reiterated that all foreign evacuations had to be completed by August 31. “We don’t allow it any more and call on them to evacuate by that date,” he said. “They [western states] have the possibilities, they have the planes, the airfield is with them and they can evacuate people by that date.”
The move by the Taliban came after it emerged that CIA director William Burns had this week met the Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar — the highest person-to-person meeting since the Islamist group returned to power — according to a person familiar with the encounter. The CIA declined to comment.
Washington has come under mounting criticism about the manner of its withdrawal and the mayhem around the evacuation process. The Taliban seized power 10 days ago after a lightning blitz across the country following the drawdown of US troops.
The fear for many Afghans is that the Taliban will persecute those who have worked for western militaries, such as translators and drivers, as well as journalists and critics of the Islamist group.
Mujahid rejected suggestions that the Taliban was searching for individuals associated with the old regime, saying the group had announced a general amnesty. He said hospitals and schools had reopened, and banks were due to reopen on Wednesday.
Afghans at the airport had nothing to fear, Mujahid added. “We guarantee their security.”
Many of those scrambling to board flights are among the most-educated members of the population, who are needed to keep the economy and public services running.
Western officials have expressed concerns that the security situation is in danger of deteriorating as the August 31 deadline looms.
“As we get closer to the deadline, I think it’s correct to say the security risk goes up,” Ben Wallace, UK defence secretary, told Sky News. “It just gets more and more dangerous as add-on groups and other terrorist groups such as Isis would like to be seen taking credit, or would like to be seen to chase the west out of the airport.”
The US military reported its biggest day of airlifts out of Afghanistan on Tuesday, with 37 US flights taking 12,700 people out of the country in 24 hours. Including coalition flights, 21,600 people were evacuated in the same period, the White House said.
Additional reporting by Aime Williams and Katrina Manson in Washington