Biden stands behind Afghan withdrawal, despite ‘hard and messy’ final days

Date:

Washington

Michael D. Shear and David E. Sanger | Contributed

President Biden offered a defiant defense on Monday of his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, blaming the swift collapse of the Afghan government and chaotic scenes at the Kabul airport on the refusal of the country’s military to stand and fight in the face of the Taliban advance.

Speaking to the American people from the East Room after returning briefly to the White House from Camp David, Mr. Biden said he had no regrets about his decision to end the longest war in United States history. But he lamented that two decades of support failed to turn the Afghan military into a force capable of securing its own country.

“We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries. Provided for the maintenance of their airplanes,” Mr. Biden said. “We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide was the will to fight for that future.”

Mr. Biden acknowledged that the Taliban victory had come much faster than the United States had expected and that the withdrawal was “hard and messy.” As the fourth president to preside over the war in Afghanistan, though, he said that “the buck stops with me.”

“I stand squarely behind my decision,” he said, adding that he would not “shrink from my share of responsibility for where we are today.”

AIRPORT: Women and children sitting on the tarmac at Kabul’s international airport on Monday. The airport was overrun with people seeking to leave the country. |Photo credit: Wakil Kohsar/Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.

He directed a question to critics of the withdrawal, asking, “How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghans — Afghanistan’s civil war, when Afghan troops will not?”

Mr. Biden spoke after dramatic images showed a frantic scramble to evacuate the American Embassy in Kabul as Taliban fighters advanced, drawing grim comparisons to America’s retreat from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. Footage of people clinging to a hulking U.S. military transport, even as it left the ground, quickly circulated around the world.

But in his speech, Mr. Biden spent far more time defending his decision to depart from Afghanistan than the chaotic way it was carried out.

The Taliban cemented their control of Afghanistan on Monday, with scenes of handoffs to insurgent fighters playing out across the country and reports that the Taliban were searching for people they considered collaborators of the Americans and the fallen government.

In Washington, the Pentagon said troops had secured the airport in Kabul, where flights resumed after an earlier pause. Officials said there would be 6,000 American troops conducting security at the airport and helping the evacuation by later this week. State Department officials said Monday that the administration had evacuated 3,600 people since mid-July, including about 2,000 Afghans who qualified for special immigrant visas.

How the Taliban Captured Afghanistan

The brutal campaign by the Taliban to recapture Afghanistan gained ground earlier this year, when officers in rural outposts began to surrender. It picked up steam almost immediately after American troops began to withdraw on May 1 and on Sunday, the Taliban swiftly captured Kabul, seizing control over the country.

(INSERT MAP)

Mr. Biden rejected criticism from allies and adversaries, insisting that his administration had planned for the possibility of a rapid Taliban takeover and expressing pride that diplomats and other Americans had been evacuated to relative safety at the airport.

“Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country,” he said, accusing the military of laying down its arms after two decades of U.S. training and hundreds of billions of dollars in equipment and resources. “If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.”

Mr. Biden said President Ashraf Ghani, who escaped the country over the weekend as the Taliban advanced, failed to live up to his promise that the Afghan military was prepared to defend the country after the last American forces departed.

“Mr. Ghani insisted the Afghan forces would fight, but obviously he was wrong,” Mr. Biden said.

The political effects of the collapse of the Afghan government caught the White House off guard, even as criticism poured in from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, Afghan activists, foreign policy experts and officials from previous administrations.

On Capitol Hill, Mr. Biden’s speech stemmed some of the fallout. Democrats who had criticized the president over the weekend praised him for laying out the costs of America’s lengthy involvement in the war.

“President Biden understands history when it comes to Afghanistan,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, a member of Democratic leadership. “He made the difficult decision to not hand over this longest of American wars to a fifth president, and had he walked away from the withdraw agreement originally negotiated by President Trump, Taliban attacks on U.S. forces would have restarted and required yet another surge in U.S. troops.”

But Republicans placed the blame squarely on Mr. Biden.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the top Republican in the Senate, called it a “monumental collapse.” Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, said Mr. Biden failed to acknowledge the “disastrous withdrawal.”

With thousands of Afghans desperate to escape the Taliban’s takeover, other countries are bracing for a flood of refugees. Five Mediterranean countries on the forefront of mass migration to Europe — Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain — have requested European Union-level talks on Wednesday about how to respond, according to Greece’s migration ministry.

There are also concerns about refugees flowing to Iran, Pakistan and Turkey

Canada said last week that it would resettle more than 20,000 Afghans from groups it considers likely targets of the Taliban, including leading women, rights workers and L.G.B.T.Q. people.

FDD’s Long War Journal (control areas as of Aug. 16) | Scott Reinhard and Taylor Johnston.

The publishers of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post called on Mr. Biden to help evacuate Afghan journalists who had contributed to the papers’ coverage of the region. In a joint letter on Monday, the publishers asked Mr. Biden to “move urgently” to protect the safety of journalists and their families who “are trapped in Kabul, their lives in peril.”

Mr. Biden vowed again to rescue thousands of Afghans who had helped Americans during the two-decade conflict, but the fate of many who remained in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan was uncertain Monday. And thousands of Afghans with dual American citizenship remained unaccounted for amid reports of revenge attacks by the Taliban as they seized control.

The president acknowledged criticism that the administration did not move quickly enough to evacuate Afghans who served as American translators and other aides. But he said the Afghan government had discouraged a mass evacuation, saying it would cause a “crisis of confidence” in the country’s ability to fight the Taliban.

Over the weekend, Mr. Biden, who had been scheduled to remain on vacation through the week, stayed with his family at Camp David, in the Maryland mountains, rather than quickly return to the White House while the situation in Afghanistan worsened.

White House officials described several hours of meetings throughout the weekend and said the president was briefed numerous times by top intelligence, diplomatic and military aides as the administration raced to keep up with a reality in Afghanistan that was changing by the hour.

On Thursday evening, officials urged reporters not to call the activities in Kabul an “evacuation.” By the next day, that admonition was gone as the president ordered new military deployments to protect embassy workers as they fled.

White House officials said there were “active discussions” throughout the weekend about when Mr. Biden should publicly address the situation, and what he would say. Officials said they did not want the president to speak before the situation on the ground in Kabul was stable.

But by Monday, officials had settled on a message in which the president and his top aides would acknowledge that the Taliban takeover was more rapid than they expected, but say the situation was under control and in line with Mr. Biden’s goal of finally removing the United States from a never-ending war.

Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, said on NBC’s “Today” program on Monday that the administration was in the process of what he called a “successful drawdown of our embassy” even as he acknowledged that “the speed with which cities fell was much greater than anyone anticipated, including the Afghans.”

In July, in response to questions from reporters, Mr. Biden said he thought the fall of the Afghan government was not inevitable because the country’s army was 300,000 strong and as well equipped as any in the world.

On Sunday, the national Republican Party posted a link of Mr. Biden’s response on Twitter, adding, “This was just 38 days ago.”

After Mr. Biden spoke, White House officials described in more detail the tensions between Mr. Biden and Mr. Ghani when the now-deposed Afghan leader made his last visit to Washington, on June 25.

Mr. Ghani, they said, had pressed Mr. Biden to delay moving many of the former translators out of the country, and to keep other actions “low key,” for fear of undermining his government. Officials said they decided to proceed anyway — though only 2,000 of the applicants, less than 10 percent of the estimated total, had left the country before the Taliban rolled into Kabul.

Mr. Ghani also asked for American close-air support for Afghan security forces and for the United States to leave more than 100 technicians at the Kabul airport to help keep Afghan military craft flying — a number American military officials said would not keep enough aircraft operational. On Aug. 6, officials said, the Pentagon held a tabletop exercise to simulate a large-scale evacuation of civilians, exactly the operation now underway.


Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.

Michael D. Shear is a veteran White House correspondent and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who was a member of team that won the Public Service Medal for Covid coverage in 2020. He is the co-author of “Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration.”

David E. Sanger is a White House and national security correspondent. In a 38-year reporting career for The Times, he has been on three teams that have won Pulitzer Prizes, most recently in 2017 for international reporting. His newest book is “The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age.”

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