By Steve Holland and Idrees Ali
President Joe Biden will stick to a Pentagon recommendation to remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Aug. 31 so long as the Taliban enables the United States to complete its evacuations, three U.S. officials told Reuters on Tuesday.
Biden sent thousands of U.S. troops to the Kabul airport after the Taliban militant group took over the city and much of the country less than two weeks ago.
The nearly 6,000 U.S. troops are helping to evacuate American citizens and at-risk Afghans and to protect the airport so other countries can evacuate their citizens as well.
The Pentagon made the recommendation that Biden stick to his Aug. 31 target date on Monday, the officials said.
Biden accepted the recommendation but asked the Pentagon to make contingency plans to stay longer if necessary, one official said.
The date was dependent on completing the mission and the Taliban’s cooperation, the official said.
The official said the United States has been in regular contact with the Taliban and officials are telling the group that the timeline is contingent on Taliban cooperation.
Biden sent CIA Director William Burns to meet Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar in Kabul on Monday in the highest level official encounter since the militant group took over the Afghan capital, a U.S. official and a source familiar with government activity told Reuters on Tuesday.
A congressional source said Burns and Baradar had discussed the Aug. 31 date.
The Pentagon recommendation reflects increasing security concerns at the Kabul airport, where American citizens and at-risk Afghans are being evacuated.
Two U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that there was increasing concern about suicide bombings by Islamic State militants at the airport.
One official said it was no longer a question of if, but when, militants would attack and the priority was to get out before it happened.
The Pentagon earlier said that it was confident the military can evacuate all Americans who want to leave. Whether thousands of at-risk Afghans would all be evacuated was unclear.
“We’re absolutely still aiming towards the end of the month,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said, while adding that the Pentagon may need additional bases to house evacuees from Afghanistan.
Kirby said “several thousand” Americans have been evacuated from Afghanistan but declined to give a more specific figure. He also said he was unable to provide the percentage of Americans in Afghanistan who have now been evacuated.
Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers said on Tuesday they wanted all foreign evacuations from the country completed by Aug. 31 and they would not agree to an extension as Group of Seven leaders met to discuss the crisis.
Western troops have been working frantically to get foreigners and Afghans onto planes and out of the country and Biden has faced growing pressure from allies to negotiate more time for the airlift.