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U.S. Central to One of Largest, Most Difficult Airlifts in History, Biden Tells Nation

Aug. 20, 2021 | BY Terri Moon Cronk , DOD News

The civilian evacuations in Afghanistan involve one of the largest and most difficult airlifts in history, and the only country in the world capable of projecting that much power is the United States, President Joe Biden said in a televised address to the country today.

Since he addressed the nation Monday, the U.S. military has made significant progress, the president said. "We've secured the airport, enabling flights to resume — not just military flights, but civilian charters and others from other countries, and the [non-governmental organizations] taking out civilians and vulnerable Afghans."

There are nearly 6,000 U.S. troops on the ground, including the 82nd Airborne, providing airport runway security. The Army's 10th Mountain Division is standing guard around the airport and the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit is assisting the civilian departures, he said.

The U.S. military moved out 5,700 evacuees yesterday and Biden said the government is working to verify the number of Americans who are still in Afghanistan and how many U.S. citizens have been able to return to the United States.

Briefly closed this morning to process evacuees at the transit points, the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul has resumed flights this afternoon, Eastern Daylight Time, he noted.

"We've already evacuated more than 18,000 people since July and approximately 13,000 since our military airlift began Aug. 14," Biden said. "More have been evacuated on private charter flights facilitated by the U.S. government … [including] American citizens and permanent residents, as well as their families. It includes [special immigration visa applicants] and their families, the Afghans who have worked alongside the United States and its coalition forces, served alongside us, went into combat with us and provided invaluable assistance to us, such as translators and interpreters," he added.

The U.S. military is also arranging flights for U.S. allies and its partners and is working closely on operational coordination with NATO, Biden said. Troops also provided overwatch for the French convoy, bringing hundreds of their people from the French Embassy to the airport. 

"These operations are going to continue over the coming days before we complete our drawdown," the president said. "We're going to do everything we can to provide safe evacuation for our Afghan allies, partners and Afghans who might be targeted because of their association with the United States."

Biden said any American who wants to come back to the United States can return home. 

"Make no mistake: This evacuation mission is dangerous and involves risks to our armed forces, and it has been conducted under difficult circumstances," the president said. "I cannot promise what the final outcome will be … without risk or loss. But as commander-in-chief, I can assure you that I will mobilize every resource necessary. And as an American, I offer my gratitude to the brave men and women of the U.S. armed forces who are carrying out this mission."

As the United States continues to work on the logistics of evacuation, it's in constant contact with The Taliban, to ensure civilians have safe passage to the airport, he said. "We made clear to the Taliban that any attack on our forces or disruption of our operations at the airport will be met with swift and forceful response," he emphasized.

U.S. troops are also keeping a close watch on potential terrorist threats at or around the airport, including from ISIS affiliates in Afghanistan, Biden said, adding, "We're going to retain a laser focus on our counterterrorism mission, working in close coordination with our allies and our partners, and all those who have an interest in ensuring stability in the region."

The president said the G-7 Summit will convene next week, so the nations' heads of state can coordinate a mutual approach on Afghanistan. The United States has also discussed the need to work with the international community to provide humanitarian assistance, such as food, aid, medical care for refugees who have crossed into neighboring countries to escape the Taliban, and to bring international pressure on the Taliban with respect to the treatment of Afghan people overall, but particularly women and girls.

Marines stand in a line facing a woman carrying a child.
Evacuee Assistance
Marines guide an evacuee during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 18, 2021. U.S. Soldiers and Marines are assisting the Department of State with an orderly drawdown of designated personnel in Afghanistan.
Photo By: Marine Corps Sgt. Isaiah Campbell
VIRIN: 210818-M-TU241-1009

"This past week has been heartbreaking," Biden said. "We've seen gut-wrenching images of panic — people acting out of sheer desperation. They're frightened or sad, and uncertain of what happens next. I don't think any one of us can see these pictures and not feel that pain on a human level."

Biden said he talks to U.S. commanders on the ground every single day. "I make it clear to them we'll get them whatever they need to do the job. They're performing to the highest standard under extraordinarily difficult and dynamic circumstances. Our NATO allies are strongly standing with us and their troops are keeping sentry alongside ours in Kabul. Whenever I deploy our troops into harm's way, I take that responsibility seriously. I carry that burden every day," he said.

The evacuations comprise the United States' focus now, Biden said, adding, "and when this is finished, we will complete our military withdrawal and finally bring to an end the 20 years of American military action in Afghanistan."