A defiant President Biden on Sunday stood by his decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan — though acknowledged during a bumbling press briefing that terror groups like ISIS could now be poised to strike.
“Let me be clear, the evacuation of thousands of people from Kabul is going to be hard and painful no matter when it started, when we began,” said Biden, who stumbled over his words at several points while speaking from the White House.
“There is no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss and heartbreaking images you see on television,” he continued. “It’s just a fact.
“We have a long way to go and a lot could still go wrong.”
At one point, he also doubled down on his withdrawal decision, saying “My job is to make judgments.
“My job is to make judgments no one else can or will make. I made them,” he continued. “I am convinced I am absolutely correct in not deciding to send more women and men to war for a war that in fact is no longer warranted.”
Biden also said the Taliban has been “cooperative” in expanding the US-held safety zone surrounding the Kabul airport, at one point calling the militants “a rag-tag force.”
He said that “the safe zone” has been extended but acknowledged that his Aug. 31 deadline to get US citizens and Afghan allies out could be extended.
Some 28,000 people have been evacuated since the country fell to the Taliban — including 11,000 in the past 36 hours — the president said, as he conceded that the situation remains dangerous.
“The security environment is changing rapidly,” he said. “We know that terrorists may seek to exploit the situation and target innocent Afghans or American troops.
“They’re maintaining constant vigilance — we’re maintaining constant vigilance,” he stumbled, “to monitor and disrupt threats from any source, including the likely source being ISIS, ISIS-K, the Afghan affiliate.
“We’re under no illusions about the threat,” he said.
Asked by a reporter if he trusted the Taliban, Biden seemed awkwardly amused, grinning while replying, “I don’t trust anybody, including you.”
“I love you, but, you know, there’s not a lot of people I trust,” he answered. “Look, the Taliban has to make a fundamental decision. Is the Taliban going to be able to attempt to be able to unite and provide for the well being of the people of Afghanistan, which no one group has ever done for hundreds of years?”
At another point while fielding questions from reporters, he laughed and appeared to consult a cue card.
Biden said evacuated refugees are being flown to transfer sites on US military bases and other places in third-party countries, where they are being processed and subjected to background checks.
Once they’re cleared they will be transported to the US or other countries by a “civil reserve fleet” of planes volunteered by major airlines — an operation he likened to the Berlin Airlift during the Cold War.
“I think that history is going to record this was the logical, rational and right decision to make,” he said of the decision to withdraw.
Biden has been under increasing pressure since ordering US troops to pull out of Afghanistan after a 20-year occupation, sparking a swift takeover by the Taliban and stranding thousands of American citizens and US allies at the airport in Kabul.
On Sunday morning, Biden met with national security officials for an update on the situation, the White House said in a statement.
“They discussed the security situation and counterterrorism operations, including ISIS-K,” it said. “The national security team discussed the ongoing and intensive diplomatic and military efforts to facilitate transit at third-country transit hubs, affirming the importance of the contributions that more than two dozen partner nations are making to this global effort.”
Administration officials said 7,800 people have been evacuated from the airport in the Afghan capital in the past day. Military officials said earlier that 17,000 had been evacuated in the past week, including 2,500 US citizens.
Nonetheless, thousands remain in Kabul desperate to flee the Taliban, including US citizens and Afghans who assisted during the two-decade military presence.
Earlier on Sunday, US Defense Secretary Loyd Austin said on ABC’s “This Week” that there had been “no good options” once the decision to withdraw was made.
Austin said estimates had been that US-trained Afghan forces would hold out as long as two years — but they collapsed in a matter of days.
Meanwhile, Biden is also due to address the impact of Tropical Storm Henri.
States of emergencies were declared in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island ahead of the storm, which smacked into the Northeast on Sunday.
Henri, which barrelled off the coast of Montauk as a Category 1 hurricane late Saturday, made landfall in Rhode Island as a tropical storm shortly after midday Sunday with sustained winds of 60 mph and gusts up to 70 mph, the National Hurricane Center said.
The storm is pummeling the region with heavy rains and storm surges.