Kabul evacuation: Why is August 31 deadline so vital?

Emergency G7 talks will address a potential extension to military operations in Afghanistan

UK forces in Kabul during the evacuation involving British nationals and Afghan civilian personnel. Photo: Ministry of Defence
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G7 leaders were set to hold emergency talks on Afghanistan on Tuesday and discuss a potential extension to the August 31 deadline for ending military operations in Kabul.

What is the August 31 deadline?

August 31 is the date by which US President Joe Biden plans to remove all American forces from Afghanistan.

Although the date was set before the fall of Kabul, Mr Biden has not changed the deadline since the Taliban captured the city.

If no extension is agreed, the 6,000 US troops who are leading evacuation efforts at Kabul airport will be removed by the end of August.

It would effectively call a halt to the wider Nato deployment. Britain and France have signalled that there is no prospect of them staying behind without the US.

“When they withdraw, that will take away the framework… and we will have to go as well,” said UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.

Why are there calls to extend the deadline?

Nato countries are scrambling to get their troops, civilian personnel and Afghan employees out of Kabul. But officials in Europe say they cannot get everyone out by August 31.

The rescue mission has been complicated by Taliban checkpoints in the city and the crowds that have continued to mass at the airport.

France said on Monday that it needed more time. Spain said it would not be able to rescue everyone. Germany says it wants civilian evacuations to continue once military operations end.

A further problem is that if the withdrawal was to be completed by August 31, rescue efforts would need to be scaled down before then.

“In order to be able to do that, it really needs to wind up pretty soon,” said Patricia Lewis, a security expert at the Chatham House think tank.

“That deadline – that’s the real deadline, if you like – is looming. It’s much closer than August 31 would suggest, which is only a week away.”

US President Joe Biden committed before the fall of Kabul to ending US military operations in Afghanistan by August 31. EPA

Why is moving the date so difficult?

First, the Taliban. The militants signalled on Monday that they will no longer tolerate the Nato presence after the agreed deadline.

Spokesman Suhail Shaheen said that any foreign presence after August 31 would be regarded as “extending the occupation” of Afghanistan.

“If the US or UK were to seek additional time to continue evacuations – the answer is no... there would be consequences,” he said.

Ms Lewis said Nato countries could be subjected to demands by the Taliban in exchange for allowing an extension.

“It’s not something that the G7 can decide. It can decide to approach the Taliban and see if they can extend it,” she said.

A second reason it is so difficult to move the date is the US. Although Mr Biden has not ruled out an extension, US officials say that their aim is to avoid one by completing the rescue effort this month.

The August 31 deadline is a long-standing commitment by Mr Biden, designed to end the US mission before the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

“Biden’s in a very difficult position politically,” said Leslie Vinjamuri, a Chatham House expert on the US.

“The calculation I imagine that he will be making is – what will the Taliban do if the US doesn’t get out on August 31? How many lives will be lost?”

Nato solidarity is at a low point after the US troop withdrawal left Europe with its hands tied and preparing for a potential refugee crisis.

Mr Wallace said Britain was holding out little hope that Mr Biden would approve an extension.

“I think it is unlikely – not only because of what the Taliban have said but also if you look at the public statements of President Biden,” he said.

“It is definitely worth us all trying, and we will. For every hour we can squash the military evacuation is an hour we can add on to help the civilian evacuation.”

Updated: August 24, 2021, 1:10 PM