WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden on Friday pledged to evacuate any American currently in Afghanistan who wants to come home amid a chaotic evacuation following the Taliban’s takeover.
In an address from the White House, Biden provided an update on the tense situation in Afghanistan nearly a week after the Taliban took power over the country on Sunday and said the U.S. is also committed to evacuating all Afghans who assisted the war effort. Obstacles have ranged from armed Taliban checkpoints to paperwork problems, and the U.S. government has struggled to ramp up the massive evacuation effort clearing Americans and other foreigners and vulnerable Afghans through the Kabul airport.
Biden has faced criticism for a chaotic and often violent scene outside the airport as crowds struggle to reach safety inside.
"Let me be clear. Any American who wants to come home, we will get you home," Biden said.
Evacuation flights at the Kabul airport had stopped for several hours on Friday because of a backup at a transit point for the refugees, a U.S. airbase in Qatar, U.S. officials said. However, they said a resumption was ordered in the afternoon, Washington time.
As many as three flights out of Kabul were expected in the next few hours, going to Bahrain and carrying perhaps 1,500 evacuees in all, said an official, speaking to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss military.
In Washington, some veterans in Congress were calling on the Biden administration to extend a security perimeter beyond the Kabul airport so more Afghans can make it to the airport for evacuation. They also want Biden to make clear an Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops is not a firm one.
The deadline "is contributing to the chaos and the panic at the airport because you have Afghans who think that they have 10 days to get out of this country or that door is closing forever," said Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Mich., who served in Iraq and also worked in Afghanistan to help aid workers provide humanitarian relief.
In response, Biden said he believes the U.S. can meet its Aug. 31 deadline to evacuate people and withdraw its troops from the country — but said officials "will make that judgment as we go."
Tens of thousands of people remain to be evacuated ahead of that date, although the pace had picked up overnight. A defense official said about 5,700 people, including about 250 Americans, were flown out of Kabul aboard 16 C-17 transport planes. On each of the previous two days, about 2,000 people were airlifted.
With desperate crowds thronging Kabul's airport, and Taliban fighters surrounding its perimeter, the U.S. government renewed its advisory to Americans and others that it could not guarantee safe passage for any of those desperately seeking seats on the planes inside.
The advisory captured some of the pandemonium, and what many Afghans and foreigners see as their life-and-death struggle to get inside. It said: "We are processing people at multiple gates. Due to large crowds and security concerns, gates may open or close without notice. Please use your best judgment and attempt to enter the airport at any gate that is open."
Biden has said that the chaos that unfolded as part of the withdrawal was inevitable as the nearly 20-year war came to an end. He said he was following the advice of Afghanistan's U.S.-backed president, Ashraf Ghani, in not earlier expanding U.S. efforts to fly out translators and other Afghans in danger for the past work with Americans. Ghani fled the country last weekend as the Taliban seized the capital.
Biden also previously said that many at-risk Afghan allies had not wanted to leave the country. But refugee groups point to yearslong backlogs of applications from thousands of those Afghans for visas that would let them take refuge in the United States.
The administration has portrayed its contingency planning as successful after the Afghan government fell much faster than publicly anticipated by administration officials. Yet the White House received clear warnings that the situation was deteriorating rapidly before the current evacuation push.
Meanwhile, reports of targeted killings in areas overrun by the Taliban also mounted Friday, fueling fears that the militant group will return the country to the repressive rule it previously imposed. While many have raced to the airport and border crossing in desperate attempts to flee the Taliban, others have taken to the streets to protest the takeover — acts of defiance that Taliban fighters have violently suppressed.
The Taliban says it has become more moderate since the group last ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s and has pledged to restore security and forgive those who fought them in the 20 years since a U.S.-led invasion. Ahead of Friday prayers, leaders urged imams to use sermons to appeal for unity and urge people not to flee the country.
But many Afghans are skeptical, fearing that the Taliban will erase the gains, especially for women, achieved in the past two decades. An Amnesty International report provided more evidence Friday that undercut the Taliban's claims they have changed.
The rights group said that its researchers spoke to eyewitnesses in Ghazni province who recounted how the Taliban killed nine ethnic Hazara men in the village of Mundarakht on July 4-6. It said six of the men were shot, and three were tortured to death. Hazaras are Shiite Muslims who were previously persecuted by the Taliban and who made major gains in education and social status in recent years.
The brutality of the killings was "a reminder of the Taliban’s past record, and a horrifying indicator of what Taliban rule may bring," said Agnes Callamard, the head of Amnesty International.
The rights group warned that many more killings may have gone unreported because the Taliban cut cellphone services in many areas they’ve captured to prevent images from being published.
This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.