President Biden said on Sunday that the U.S. has evacuated nearly 28,000 people from Afghanistan since Aug. 14, including around 11,000 people in about 36 hours over the weekend.
In a televised address from the White House, Biden said the administration's first priority in Kabul is getting American citizens out as soon as possible. They've used phones, emails, and other forms of communication to locate Americans and try to move them to the American compound, he said.
"It's an incredible operation," Biden said. But, he added, "the evacuation of thousands of people from Kabul is going to be hard and painful" no matter when it began. "There is no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss," Biden said.
Thousands of Afghans have been crowded outside of Kabul's airport, hoping to get onto a flight out of the country. The airport is controlled by the U.S. military but the Taliban have control of the rest of the city and nearly all of the country.
Earlier on Sunday, the White House said 23 U.S. military flights had evacuated around 3,900 people from the country, and 35 coalition aircrafts had evacuated another 3,900, from Saturday to Sunday.
The U.S. has extended the safe zone around the Kabul airport
The U.S. has extended the "safe zone" around the airport to expand access to people trying to get out of the country, Biden said. "We are working diligently to make sure we have increased the ability to get them out," including changing the gate operations, which is why they have been able to increase number of people getting out, he said.
In discussions with the Taliban, "they have been cooperative in extending some of the perimeter," Biden said. But, responding to a reporter asking whether Biden can trust Taliban promises, "I don't trust anybody, including you," he said.
"The Taliban has to make a fundamental decision," he added. "Is the Taliban going to attempt to be able to unite and provide for the wellbeing of the people of Afghanistan, which no one group has ever done since before — for hundreds of years?"
If the Taliban wants to help the Afghan people, Biden said, it will need additional help including economic assistance and trade. "The Taliban has said — we'll see whether they mean it or not — they're seeking legitimacy," he said. For instance, the Taliban doesn't want the U.S. to completely remove its diplomatic presence. But at the moment, Biden said, it's "all just talk."
So far, Taliban has not taken action against U.S. forces, and "by and large" have followed through on what they said in terms of allowing Americans to pass through, Biden said. "And so we'll see. We'll see whether or not what they say turns out to be true."
Biden also repeatedly emphasized the danger American troops and innocent civilians still face. "We have a long way to go, and a lot could still go wrong." Terrorists, including ISIS and the Afghan affiliate known as ISIS-K, may "seek to exploit the situation — including trying to strike from a distance," he said.
Planes are not coming directly to America
Planes are not flying directly to the U.S., but to processing stations in two dozen countries across four continents, Biden said. That lets the U.S. sort and process the evacuees, and provide a safe place for Special Immigrant Visa applicants and others to complete their paperwork while the U.S. completes security and background checks, he said.
They've also activated the first stage of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet program, which was designed after the Berlin airlift in World War II, and relies on the voluntary efforts of commercial aircrafts to fly people from staging centers to the U.S. or to a third country.
Planes taking off from Kabul are landing in military bases and transit centers around the world, where the U.S. is conducting security screening for anyone who is not a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident, Biden said. "Once screened and cleared, we will welcome these Afghans who helped us in the war effort over the last twenty years, to their new home in the United States of America. Because that's who we are. That's who America is."
Biden said he still hopes to meet the Aug. 31 evacuation deadline out of Kabul.