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For Biden, The Pressure Is On As The Deadline To Withdraw From Afghanistan Nears

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

U.S. troops are in their final days in Kabul. The deadline for their departure - August 31. And today President Biden gave an update on how the withdrawal is going.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We are currently on a pace to finish by August the 31. The sooner we can finish, the better. Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops.

KELLY: Well, so far, about 4,000 American passport holders and their families have been evacuated from Kabul. In total, President Biden said about 70,000 people have been pulled out of Afghanistan. That is since August 14, according to the Pentagon. Well, joining me now with the latest, NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow.

Hey, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

KELLY: So this deadline has become really controversial. What else did President Biden say about it?

DETROW: The White House seems to be walking a really fine line here. President Biden is indicating he wants to be done by August 31. The Taliban has made it clear it wants the U.S. out by August 31. But right now Biden is not fully committing to hitting that date just yet. At a virtual G-7 meeting today, Biden told other world leaders the U.S. is, quote, "on pace to finish its withdrawal by then." But the White House says Biden has also asked the Pentagon for contingency plans in case there are more people to evacuate by this time next week. And as you heard, Biden said a lot of this depends on how the Taliban continues to cooperate. He's also warning the longer U.S. troops are there at the airport, the more of a risk there is of a possible terror attack against them.

KELLY: Stay with that point you just made, Scott, about that so much of this hinges on whether the Taliban is cooperating because today a Taliban spokesman said they would block Afghans from reaching the airport in Kabul. What does that mean for all these people who helped U.S. troops and other vulnerable people?

DETROW: Yeah. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that should not be read as no more Afghans will be able to leave on planes or get to the airport. You know, tens of thousands have been flown out over the past 10 days. She says the White House expects people to be able to keep getting to the airport. But we have seen ongoing reporting of how difficult and dangerous that is. Psaki also acknowledged that some people eligible to leave may not be able to get out by August 31. So she says the White House is trying to figure out ways - plans here operational to get those people out into September. She did not offer any details about what that looks like and what sort of commitment would be needed to evacuate people from the country after U.S. troops are withdrawn, though. That's a big question going forward.

KELLY: Yeah. And the people who have been able to get to the airport, who have been able to get on planes - where are they being moved to?

DETROW: They're going to countries in the Middle East and Europe, where they can be vetted and given health checks, including a base near Doha. President Biden emphasized again just now that everyone who eventually makes it to the U.S. will be vetted and screened. You know, there has been reporting that one of these sites has become overcrowded. The conditions are squalid. The White House is not denying that but insists that these are problems being addressed and fixed. Overall, there are currently four U.S. military installations where people will come once they've been vetted. And a senior administration official says that there are more places potentially under consideration.

And I think all of that is going to lead to more political debate down the line. Already you are seeing a split among some Republican members of Congress. You know, while you have some saying the U.S. needs to do everything it can to resettle Afghan allies, you're starting to hear voices among House Republicans, among some Senate Republicans as well, saying the U.S. should not be bringing thousands of people in from Afghanistan.

KELLY: And just briefly, Scott, the president also had something to say about his domestic agenda. What's the headline there?

DETROW: He did. There was a big vote in the House moving these twin bills carrying most of his domestic priorities forward. There was a ton of Democratic, you know, wish list items, including climate change and expanding the social safety net. That is something Biden is staking his presidency on.

KELLY: All right, Scott Detrow at the White House.

Thank you, Scott.

DETROW: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.