The Pentagon conceded Thursday that continuing evacuations out of Kabul after Aug. 31 “would require additional conversations” with the Taliban to ensure the safety of Americans and Afghan allies seeking to flee the country.
The acknowledgment comes after President Joe Biden said Wednesday he would maintain the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan beyond the end of the month — his self-imposed withdrawal deadline — if evacuation operations were not yet completed.
But Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Thursday there “has been no decision to change the deadline” and indicated that an extension of the timetable for evacuations would need tacit approval from the Taliban in the form of a new agreement between U.S. officials and commanders of the militant group.
Until then, “we are focused on doing everything we can inside that deadline to move as many people out as possible,” Kirby told reporters at a news briefing, describing the evacuation effort as “head down, shoulder to the wheel.”
“I think it is just a fundamental fact of the reality of where we are that communications and a certain measure of agreement with the Taliban on what we’re trying to accomplish has to continue to occur,” Kirby said. “And again, I’m not going to speculate past Aug. 31.”
At the news briefing Thursday, Army Maj. Gen. William Taylor also revealed the U.S. military over the last 24 hours had flown a group of F-18 fighter jets from the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group over Kabul “to ensure enhanced security” of the capital city, which is now under Taliban control.
“The ability to provide close air support is something that needs to be immediate if the condition on the ground ever required that,” Taylor said. “So as prudent military operations, we ensure there are always assets available so that the commander, if required, can ensure the time and space of reaction is as little as possible.”
Kirby said the aircraft were not the first U.S. armed flights over Kabul since noncombatant evacuations began at the Hamid Karzai International Airport.
“Force protection is a high priority, and we’re going to have at our disposal all the assets and resources necessary to make sure we can accomplish this mission safely and efficiently, just like we were accomplishing the previous mission of drawdown safely and efficiently,” Kirby said. “So this is a continuum. It’s not something new.”
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