President Joe Biden said Wednesday that US troops won't leave any Americans behind in Afghanistan, even if it means staying in Taliban-controlled Kabul for longer than agreed.
In his first interview since the Taliban seized the Afghan capital, sparking a panicked exodus by foreigners and Afghan allies, Biden told ABC News that "chaos" had been unavoidable.
US leaders have said they are sticking to an August 31 deadline for removing the last troops and handing over the country to the victorious Taliban.
However, Biden said for the first time that US soldiers could stay longer if any Americans were still trying to flee. "If there are American citizens left, we're going to stay to get them all out," Biden said.
The US president did not explain how an extension would work.
The Taliban are currently standing aside as US troops fly in to secure Kabul's airport and organize evacuations.
But the militants have full control of the rest of the city and are essentially able to decide who gets through and who doesn't, while foreign forces are highly limited in their ability to maneuver safely beyond the confines of the airport.
Speaking as the small US force ramped up the frantic evacuations, Biden told ABC News there was never going to be an easy exit.
"The idea that somehow, there's a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing — I don't know how that happens," Biden said.
He added that the Taliban were currently assisting the US forces they'd spent so many years battling — at least in helping foreign nationals to escape.
"They're cooperating, letting American citizens get out, American personnel get out, embassies get out, etcetera," Biden said.
However, "we're having some more difficulty having those who helped us when we were in there" leave, he said, apparently referring to local Afghans who used to work alongside US and foreign forces and who now fear retribution.
In the interview, the president rejected criticisms that his administration had suffered a huge intelligence failure.
"It was a simple choice," Biden said.
Referring to the near overnight collapse of the Western-backed Afghan government and army in the face of the advancing Taliban, Biden said he was convinced the already planned US exit had to proceed.
"The threshold question was, do we commit to leave within the timeframe we set… or do we put significantly more troops in?"
Asked what he'd thought when images emerged of panicked Afghans swarming airplanes and stowaways falling out of the aircraft after take-off, Biden said his reaction was: "We have to gain control of this, we have to move this more quickly. We have to move in a way in which we can take control of that airport. And we did."