WASHINGTON - Pentagon officials announced plans to settle 22,000 refugees seeking asylum after fleeing Afghanistan once the Taliban took control over the weekend.
"As we prepare for even more arrivals, [U.S. Northern Command] and the U.S. Army are working to create additional capacity to support refugee relocation in the U.S., including temporary sights under assessment at Fort Bliss, Texas and Camp McCoy, Wisconsin," said Department of Defense official Gary Reed, in charge of relocation for Afghan refugees.
Reed said other sites will be designated if needed. He added the U.S. is working on transporting American citizens and its allies out of the capital city of Kabul.
Reed acknowledged reporters that many Afghans are at risk, especially those who fought against the Taliban but said getting Americans out of Afghanistan is an immediate priority.
The Taliban swept into Afghanistan’s capital Sunday after the government collapsed and the embattled president joined an exodus of his fellow citizens and foreigners, signaling the end of a costly two-decade U.S. campaign to remake the country. Heavily armed Taliban fighters fanned out across the capital, and several entered Kabul’s abandoned presidential palace.
Striking a defiant tone, President Joe Biden said Monday that he stands "squarely behind" his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan as he acknowledged the "gut-wrenching" images coming out of the country after the swift Taliban takeover of the government.
Biden said he had to choose between sticking to a previously negotiated agreement to withdraw U.S. troops this year or sending thousands more service members back into Afghanistan to fight a "third decade" of war.
"I stand squarely behind my decision," the president told the nation in a televised address from the White House East Room after he flew back from the Camp David presidential retreat. "After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces."
Biden described the images coming out of Afghanistan — especially at the airport in Kabul, where Afghans descended in hopes of fleeing the country — as "gut-wrenching." Video of Afghans clinging to a U.S. Air Force plane and running alongside it as prepared to take off had circulated widely on the internet.
Senior U.S. military officials said the chaos at the airport in Kabul left seven people dead Monday, including some who fell from a departing American military transport jet. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss ongoing operations.
Afghans rushed onto the tarmac as thousands tried to escape after the Taliban seized power. Some clung to the side of a U.S. military plane before takeoff, in a widely shared video that captured the desperation as America’s 20-year war comes to a chaotic end.
Another video showed the Afghans falling as the plane gained altitude over Kabul. U.S. troops resorted to firing warning shots and using helicopters to clear a path for transport aircraft.
The Pentagon confirmed Monday that U.S. forces shot and killed two individuals it said were armed, as Biden ordered another battalion of troops — about 1,000 — to secure the airfield, which was closed to arrivals and departures for hours Monday because of civilians on the runway.
Biden is the fourth U.S. president to confront challenges in Afghanistan and had insisted he wouldn’t hand America’s longest war to his successor. But he is under pressure to explain how security in Afghanistan unraveled so quickly, especially since he and others in the administration had insisted it wouldn’t happen.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.