Biden defends exit, blames Afghanistan leaders for chaos
President Biden on Monday stood by his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan, while also acknowledging the situation descended into chaos faster than he expected and accepting some responsibility.
“I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden said in remarks from the East Room of the White House, adding that his administration planned for every contingency. “After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.”
“I always promised the American people I will be straight with you. The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we anticipated,” Biden said.
The speech marked Biden’s first public comments since the Taliban completed a stunningly swift takeover of Afghanistan on Sunday after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and militants took over the presidential palace in the capital city.
In just over a week, the Taliban went from winning control of its first provincial capital to taking over Kabul.
On Monday, scenes of chaos unfolding at the Kabul airport as desperate Afghans clamored to board U.S. military evacuation flights blanketed U.S. airwaves and social media. The pandemonium forced the United States to temporarily halt flights evacuating U.S. citizens and at-risk Afghans until the military regains control of the airport.
The U.S. military deployed 6,000 troops to help secure the airport and conduct evacuations — roughly double the number that was in Afghanistan before Biden ordered the withdrawal.
Biden has been criticized by Republicans, Democrats and other allies over the chaotic withdrawal and collapse of the Afghan government to the Taliban.
During his speech, Biden attributed the swift collapse of Afghanistan to the Taliban to the decision by Afghan political leaders to flee the country and a failure by the Afghan military to fight for the country. He argued that the developments reinforced the decision to exit Afghanistan.
Biden also later accepted responsibility for the current deteriorating security situation, while acknowledging criticism of his decision.
“I will not mislead the American people by claiming that just a little more time in Afghanistan will make all the difference. Nor will I shrink from my share of responsibility for where we are today and how we must move forward from here,” Biden said. “I am the president of the United States of America and the buck stops with me.”
Biden also echoed other senior administration officials by insisting he was boxed into a corner by the decision by his predecessor, former President Trump, who inked a deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. forces by this past May.
“The choice I had to make as your president was either to follow through on that agreement or be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the spring fighting season,” Biden said. “There would be no ceasefire after May 1.”
Biden has long been in favor of shrinking the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan and announced earlier this year that he would withdraw U.S. forces by the Sept. 11 anniversary. He later moved up his deadline to Aug. 31.
Biden said Monday that the mission in Afghanistan to defeat the Sept. 11 attackers and ensure al Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base to hit the U.S. had been completed. Biden said he had honored his commitment to end U.S. involvement in the war in Afghanistan even though it had been “hard,” “messy” and “far from perfect.”
“I’m left again to ask of those who argue that we should stay: How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghanistan’s civil war when Afghan troops will not?” Biden asked. “I will not repeat the mistakes we’ve made in the past, the mistake of staying and fighting indefinitely in a conflict that is not in the national interest of the United States.”
But Biden also sought to deflect criticism of his failure to evacuate more Afghans before Kabul fell. Lawmakers in both parties have been pushing for months to provide assistance to Afghans who helped the U.S. military, but prior to Sunday, the administration had only flown out about 2,000 people out of tens of thousands who have applied for visas.
“I know there are concerns about why we did not begin evacuating Afghan civilians sooner,” Biden said. “Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country. Part of it was because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, a crisis of confidence.”
The speech is unlikely to quell Biden’s harshest critics. After he was done speaking, House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said the address “did not match the reality of what’s occurring in Afghanistan.”
“Biden did a lot of finger-pointing but it was his indefensible decisions and failure to prepare that have created the security and humanitarian crisis currently unfolding,” Rogers said in a statement. “Why was there never a plan? Why is there still not a plan?”
Updated at 5 p.m.
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