NATO ministers float Kabul extension for Afghanistan evacuations – POLITICO
Multiple NATO members on Friday raised the question of prolonging the military alliance’s presence at Kabul airport in Afghanistan, as governments continue to scramble to evacuate people as the Taliban seizes control.
Speaking following a virtual NATO foreign ministers’ meeting, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters that “the U.S. has stated that the timeline ends on the 31st of August, but several of our allies raised during the discussion today the need to potentially extend that to be able to get more people out.”
The Taliban militants’ swift takeover of the country has complicated western allies’ efforts to evacuate their own citizens, as well as allied Afghans, ahead of the end-of-August deadline to withdraw troops.
With increasingly chaotic images emerging from Kabul airport — the last airfield controlled by the U.S. and NATO — and reports of near-empty evacuation planes as the Taliban blocks airport access, the issue of maintaining a presence on the ground longer than planned has come to the fore.
“Our focus is to get, of course, our own staff — people working for NATO, for NATO-allied countries, for partner countries — but also Afghans,” Stoltenberg said. “We have been able to get some out, but we are working hard to get more Afghans out of Afghanistan.”
The issue spilled into Friday’s gathering of NATO foreign ministers.
“We need to get people out of Afghanistan, not only our allied nations but also Afghans,” said one senior diplomat. “We need to have as much time as necessary to help these people, so it is a natural request.”
After their meeting, NATO foreign ministers pledged to continue working together on the ground but did not formally take a position on a deadline for leaving Kabul airport.
In a joint statement, the ministers called on the Taliban “to respect and facilitate” the “safe and orderly departure” of those looking to leave the country.
“As long as evacuation operations continue, we will maintain our close operational coordination through Allied military means at Hamid Karzai International Airport,” they added.
In his comments to reporters, Stoltenberg acknowledged that the alliance’s evacuation efforts face significant obstacles.
“The limiting factor is not the lack of planes,” the secretary-general said. “The limiting factor now is actually the ability to get people into the airport process, and on the planes,” he said, noting that allies discussed the “need to work harder on how can we get more people who are now outside the airport, into the airport, then processed, and then onto the planes.”
Also on Friday, top EU leaders announced they would travel to Madrid on Saturday to visit a reception center for Afghan employees of EU institutions who were evacuated from Kabul — underscoring concerns in Brussels about the impact of the Afghan crisis and a possible new migration wave.
Over the past days, Washington has sent mixed messages about its intentions.
“The commitment holds to get everyone out that, in fact, we can get out and everyone that should come out,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in an interview this week with ABC News.
“That’s what we’re doing now, that’s the path we’re on. And I think we’ll get there,” he predicted, adding that “Americans should understand that we’re gonna try to get it done before August 31st.”
But, he added, “if there’s American citizens left, we’re gonna stay to get them all out.”
Nevertheless, the Pentagon on Thursday indicated that continuing evacuations past August 31 would require conversations with the Taliban and that no decision has been made to change the deadline.
During a press conference Friday, Biden reiterated his hope that a September extension would not be necessary.
“I think we can get it done by then, but we’re going to make that judgement as we go,” he said.