A day after the last US soldier left Afghanistan after 20 years of war, the effort to evacuate American citizens has “shifted from a military mission to a diplomatic mission”, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Tuesday.
At least 100 US citizens are believed to remain in Kabul, from where the last US flight left on Monday. Afghan allies of the US and other nations were also left in a country controlled by Taliban Islamic militants.
Sullivan was answering fierce criticism over the evacuation, including from Republicans who have seized on the admission that not all Americans were airlifted out as well as the deaths of 13 US troops, and as many as 170 Afghans, in a suicide attack at Kabul airport last week.
The hawkish Arkansas senator Tom Cotton, for one example, slammed “a disgraceful lack of leadership from an incompetent president”.
Speaking to ABC’s Good Morning America, Sullivan said: “Leadership means taking a look at the situation and asking the hard question, ‘What is going to be in the best interest of the United States of America, those American citizens still in Afghanistan and those Afghan allies.
“And [Joe Biden] got a unanimous recommendation from his secretary of state, his secretary of defense, all of his civilian advisors, all of his commanders on the ground, and all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the best way to protect our forces and the best way to help those Americans was to transition this mission.”
The US flew around 122,000 people out of Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul two weeks ago.
Sullivan said: “On 14 August when this evacuation mission began, we believe that there were between 5,500 and 6,000 Americans in Afghanistan … we got out 97% or 98% of those on the ground, and a small number remain.
“We contacted [them] repeatedly over the course of two weeks to come to the airport: 5,500 or more did that. The small number who remain we are committed to getting out, and we will work through every available diplomatic means with the enormous leverage that we have and that the international community has.”
Such leverage with the Taliban, he said, included “humanitarian assistance that should go directly to the people of Afghanistan, they need help with respect to health and food aid and other forms of subsistence and we do intend to continue that.
“Secondly, when it comes to our economic and development assistance relationship with the Taliban, that will be about the Taliban’s actions.
“It will be about whether they follow through on their commitments to safe passage for Americans and Afghan allies, their commitment to not allow Afghanistan to be a base from which terrorists can attack the United States or any other country, their commitments with respect to upholding their international obligations.
“It’s going to be up to them.”