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G7: Europe's leaders fail to convince Biden to extend Afghanistan troop withdrawals

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By Alasdair Sandford  with AP, AFP
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In this image provided by the US Marine Corps, families begin to board a US Air Force plane during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, August 23, 2021.
In this image provided by the US Marine Corps, families begin to board a US Air Force plane during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, August 23, 2021.   -   Copyright  Sgt. Samuel Ruiz/U.S. Marine Corps via AP

Europe's leaders called on Tuesday for access to the Kabul airport to be extended past the end-of-the-month deadline during a meeting of G7 leaders as Washington reaffirmed its commitment to pull out by August 31.

Leaders from G7 nations — France, Germany, Italy, the UK, the US, Canada and Japan — as well as the heads of NATO, the UN and the EU executive — convened on Tuesday to discuss the situation in Afghanistan but statements made after the meeting suggest they remain sharply divided over how to handle the matter.

In a joint statement they said that the "immediate priority is to ensure the safe evacuation of our citizens and those Afghans who have partnered with us and assisted our efforts over the past twenty years, and to ensure continuing safe passage out of Afghanistan."

They also said that going forward they would "judge the Afghan parties by their actions, not words,” echoing previous warnings to the Taliban not to revert to the strict Islamic form of government that they ran when they last held power from 1996 until the U.S.-led invasion that ousted them in 2001.

“In particular, we reaffirm that the Taliban will be held accountable for their actions on preventing terrorism, on human rights in particular those of women, girls and minorities and on pursuing an inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan,” the leaders said. “The legitimacy of any future government depends on the approach it now takes to uphold its international obligations and commitments to ensure a stable Afghanistan.”

Their statement, however, did not address precisely how they would guarantee continuing safe passage without any military presence.

European Council President Charles Michel told reporters after the summit that the EU executive raised several issues during the meeting, including the need to secure the airport, as long as necessary, to complete the operations; and second, a fair and equitable access to the airport, for all nationals entitled to evacuations"

Several European leaders had openly lobbied Joe Biden to extend the August 31 deadline that the US president imposed for the total withdrawal of American forces, including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who acknowledged after the summit that he wasn't able to sway his American counterpart.

“We will go on right up until the last moment that we can,” he said after the summit. "But you’ve heard what the president of the United States has had to say, you’ve heard what the Taliban have said."

Earlier in the day, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace warned that "we’re not going to get everybody out of the country" in time. There have been similar statements from German and Spanish ministers.

But the Taliban have insisted that Western forces must complete evacuations by the end of the month.

A senior French official, speaking anonymously in accordance with the French presidency’s customary practices, said President Emmanual Macron had pushed for extending the Aug. 31 deadline but would “adapt” to the American sovereign decision. “That’s in the hands of the Americans,” he said.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Monday he was "concerned (about) the cutoff date. An extension is necessary to see through the operations that are underway".

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at a press conference after the virtual meeting that "of course the United States of America has the leadership here"

"Without the United States of America, for example, we — the others — cannot continue the evacuation mission," she added.

Her foreign minister, Heiko Maas, had said on Monday that Berlin was in talks with the US, Turkey and other allies to keep Kabul airport open for evacuations beyond the deadline.

A US administration official said that President Joe Biden has decided to stick with his deadline next week for completing the U.S.-led evacuation from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the US State Department says it is boosting its vetting and evacuation efforts.

The White House announced that 21,600 people were evacuated from Kabul in a 24-hour period from Monday morning to Tuesday morning. These were flown out on 37 US military flights — which carried about 12,700 people — and 57 coalition flights carrying 8,900 people.

During the previous 24-hour period, about 16, 300 people had been evacuated.

G7 leaders also said in their joint statement that they will support the people of Afghanistan through "renewed humanitarian effort".

"As part of that, we will cooperate together and with neighbouring and other counties in the region on supporting Afghan refugees and host communities as part of a coordinated long-term regional response," they wrote. This will include "a coordinated approach to safe and legal routes for resettlement."

Canada and the UK have so far pledged to take in up to 21,000 and 20,000 Afghan refugees respectively over the next few years.

The EU has meanwhile said that it will quadruple its humanitarian aid to Afghanistan this year from €50 million to €200 million.

"This will help meet the urgent needs of Afghans both in Afghanistan but also of course in the neighbouring host countries," EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.