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Biden Cites Risk Posed By Islamic State Splinter Group In Keeping Afghan Withdrawal Deadline

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid during a press conference in Kabul on August 24.

President Joe Biden says the U.S.-led airlift from Kabul must finish by the August 31 deadline he set because of an increasing threat from a branch of the Islamic State terrorist group.

There is an "acute and growing risk of an attack by a terrorist group known as ISIS-K," or Islamic State-Khorasan, the longer U.S. forces stay in the country, Biden said.

"Every day we're on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and allied forces," he said.

Biden also said that the United States was "on pace” to remove its forces from Afghanistan by the end of the month as planned.

The Taliban has said it wants all foreign evacuations from the country completed by August 31 and that it would not agree to an extension.

With Biden facing mounting pressure from allies to negotiate more time for the airlift, leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) major industrialized economies on August 24 discussed how to complete the chaotic withdrawal and deal with the Taliban now that it has seized power.

In a statement, White House spokesman Jen Psaki quoted Biden as telling the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan that "completion of the mission by August 31 depends on continued coordination with the Taliban, including continued access for evacuees" to the Kabul airport.

Psaki added that the U.S. president had asked the Pentagon and the State Department for "contingency plans to adjust the timeline should that become necessary."

In a joint statement issued after their meeting, G7 leaders pledged their "steadfast commitment" to the people of Afghanistan. The group also said they back the United Nations in coordinating immediate humanitarian help in the region, which faces a new influx of refugees.

The leaders also agreed on the need to press the Taliban to allow people to leave Afghanistan after August 31, according to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The G7 agreed not only to a joint approach to dealing with the evacuation but also a road map for the way in which it will engage with the Taliban, Johnson said after the meeting.

"The No. 1 condition we're setting as G7 is that they've got to guarantee right the way through -- through August 31 and beyond -- safe passage for those who want to come out," he added.

Johnson said the G7 wields economic, diplomatic, and political leverage over the Taliban, including the ability to withhold substantial funds.

Just over a week since the Taliban captured Kabul, the hard-line Islamist group sought to assure the Afghans crowded outside Kabul's airport in the hope of boarding flights that they had nothing to fear and should instead remain home.

But UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said she had received credible reports of serious violations committed by the militants, including summary executions of civilians and restrictions on women. She warned that the group's treatment of women and girls will be the international community's own "a fundamental red line."

About 21,600 people were flown safely out of Taliban-held Afghanistan in the 24-hour period that ended early on August 24, the White House said, compared with about 16,000 the previous day.

In all, 37 U.S. military flights -- 32 C-17s and 5 C-130s -- carried about 12,700 evacuees. An additional 8,900 people flew out aboard 57 flights by U.S. allies.

The Kabul airport has been engulfed in chaos, with sporadic violence, and Western troops and Afghan security guards have had to push back desperate crowds.

The United States is the only country with the military capabilities to defend Kabul's airport and carry out the massive airlift to evacuate people.

British Defense Minister Ben Wallace said on August 23 that if U.S. troops exit by the deadline, then other countries will be forced to do so as well.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the faster pace of the evacuations was due in part to coordination with Taliban commanders on getting evacuees into the airport.

Still, U.S. Representative Adam Schiff (Democrat-California), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters after a briefing by intelligence officials that he did not believe the evacuation could be completed in the remaining time.

Western media on August 24 reported that CIA Director William Burns had met Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar in Kabul the previous day. The meeting would be the highest-level Western diplomatic encounter since the militant group took over Kabul.

Neither the CIA nor the White House has commented on the report. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said he was not aware if Baradar had met Burns.

Earlier, European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen announced that the EU would more than quadruple its humanitarian aid to more than 200 million euros ($234 million).

"This humanitarian aid will come on top of member states' contributions to help the people of Afghanistan," von der Leyen said on Twitter.

Speaking at a press conference in Kabul, which Taliban fighters seized on August 15, Mujahid said the Islamist group would not agree to a deadline extension and told the United States to stop evacuating skilled Afghans.

Mujahid called on Afghan nationals to head back to their homes, jobs, and normal life, saying their security was guaranteed, while also urging foreign embassies not to close or stop work.

The group has pledged to rule differently than during its brutal regime of the 1990s, but its promises are being treated with skepticism amid reports that militants have been going door-to-door in recent days searching for opponents.

Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said the Taliban was imposing "very severe constraints" on the media in an effort to gain control over information.

The Taliban is "increasing threats, pressures, and sometimes violence" against journalists, while the list of obligations for them "grows longer every day," the Paris-based media-freedom watchdog said in a statement.

At least 10 journalists have been threatened or assaulted while carrying out their work in the streets of Kabul and Jalalabad in the space of a week, RSF said, adding that about 100 private local media organizations across the country had ceased their activity as soon as the Taliban arrived.

In Tokyo, at the opening of the Paralympic Games, Afghanistan's flag was carried into the opening ceremony by a volunteer as an act of solidarity with the country's two Paralympic athletes who were forced to withdraw due to the chaos.

With reporting by AFP, AP, Reuters, and the BBC
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