The first US troops have started leaving Afghanistan on the same day President Joe Biden decided not to extend the August 31 evacuation deadline, two defense officials told CNN.
“So far, the reduction does not affect the mission,” one of the officials said, adding that the commander on the ground can decide what military personnel are in units that are no longer required. That decision can be based on a few factors, including the number of gates open at the airport, the number of people coming through and more.
“If you can have a smaller mission set and still conduct the mission, then you can reduce your footprint and reduce your risk,” the official said.
The Pentagon has been acutely aware of the threat posed by ISIS-K and other terror groups around the airport, developing alternate routes to the field for US citizens and Afghan evacuees. In addition, the Taliban have stated openly that they do not want a US military presence in Afghanistan beyond the end of August, warning that there will be “consequences” were the US to stay longer.
In remarks to an emergency meeting of the G7 on Tuesday, Biden said the threat to US troops in Kabul was one of the key reasons he was sticking to the end of the month as the final withdrawal date.
“The President conveyed that our mission in Kabul will end based on the achievement of our objectives,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement. “He confirmed we are currently on pace to finish by August 31st and provided an update on progress in evacuating Americans who want to come home, third-country nationals, and Afghans who were our allies during the war.”
Psaki said Biden noted that each day the risks are getting higher in a country now controlled by the Taliban and made a particular point of warning of the potential for terror attacks, which has become an acute concern inside his administration, she said.
“There has been no change to the timeline of the mission, which is to have this completed by the end of the month,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Tuesday morning.
“If the worst-case scenario were to happen, you don’t want more people there than you need,” the defense official said.
As the US nears the final date of withdrawal, the number of Afghan evacuees flown out is expected to gradually decrease, while the number of US troops flown out is expected to increase.
The White House said Tuesday morning that 12,700 people had been evacuated by 37 US military flights and 8,900 had been evacuated by coalition flights over the past 24 hours. The Pentagon added that the military has increased the pace of flights out of Kabul to one aircraft about every 45 minutes.
In total, the White House says US efforts have facilitated the evacuation of approximately 58,700 people since August 14, and 63,900 since the end of July. Approximately 1,000 Afghans have arrived at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, DC, in the last 24 hours, according to the Pentagon.
But even as the United States flies tens of thousands of people out of the country, the situation in Afghanistan remains desperate and many Afghans who assisted the war effort are still awaiting their turn to leave.
US officials have described in stark terms the real threat of terror attacks at Kabul airport as crowds gather outside the gates.
This story is breaking and will be updated.
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