White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that the Biden administration expects Special Immigrant Visa applicants and other Afghans seeking to evacuate the country to safely reach Kabul’s airport, despite the Taliban’s warning that it would no longer allow Afghans to leave.
In a news conference on Tuesday, Psaki said U.S. officials have been in “direct contact” with SIV applicants about how and when to reach Kabul’s airport. When asked if the Taliban’s declaration meant that the applicants attempting to flee were effectively cut off from evacuation efforts, Psaki told reporters that was “not how you should read it,” adding the White House has “conveyed to the Taliban” that evacuees “should be able to get to the airport.”
“Our expectation and what we will continue to convey directly through a range of channels we have is that the individuals, the Special Immigrant Visa applicants, those who are eligible, those who we are facilitating their departure, will be able to reach the airport,” Psaki said.
An administration official confirmed earlier Tuesday that President Biden had decided against extending evacuation operations and the planned U.S. troop withdrawal beyond his original Aug. 31 deadline. However, in a statement before her briefing, Psaki said Biden “asked the Pentagon and the State Department for contingency plans to adjust the timeline should that become necessary.”
Psaki noted that the evacuation effort was “on pace to finish by August 31st,” but she added that completion of the U.S. mission was contingent on cooperation from the Taliban.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the group will accept “no extensions” – a declaration that followed a meeting between CIA Director and Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Kabul.
The Taliban representative also said the group would no longer allow Afghans to leave the country.
“We are not in favor of allowing Afghans to leave,” the spokesman said, according to media reports.
Biden’s initial decision not to extend the deadline prompted bipartisan criticism from lawmakers who expressed concern that American citizens and at-risk Afghan allies could be left behind. Thousands of Afghans have sought Special Immigrant Visas amid fears the Taliban could seek retribution against those who aided U.S. forces over the last two decades.
The White House has pushed back on criticism of its handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal. During a heated exchange with Fox News’ Peter Doocy at her press briefing on Monday, Psaki said it was “irresponsible” to suggest Americans were “stranded” in the country amid the chaotic evacuation.
“I’m just calling you out for saying we are stranding Americans in Afghanistan when we have been very clear that we are not leaving Americans who want to return home,” Psaki said at the time. “We are going to bring them home and I think that’s important for the American public to hear and understand.”
Approximately 58,700 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan since Aug. 14 and approximately 63,900 people have been evacuated since the end of July, according to the latest numbers from the White House.
Biden is slated to address the situation in Afghanistan in remarks later Tuesday afternoon.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.