Biden digs in with fervent defense of Afghanistan withdrawal

President BidenJoe BidenOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by American Clean Power — Methane fee faces negotiations White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege The No Surprises Act:  a bill long overdue MORE on Tuesday offered a full-throated defense of his decision to withdraw the U.S. military from Afghanistan, saying the 20-year war was no longer serving the national interest of the United States.

Biden said it was the “unanimous recommendation” of his national security team and military commanders to leave Afghanistan by the Aug. 31 deadline. He rejected assertions that the withdrawal date was arbitrary. 

“Let me be clear: Leaving Aug. 31 is not due to an arbitrary deadline. It was designed to save American lives,” Biden said in lengthy prepared remarks from the State Dining Room of the White House. “I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit.”

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Biden characterized the chaotic evacuation effort as an “extraordinary success,” noting that the U.S. military and coalition forces evacuated more than 120,000 civilians from Afghanistan. He acknowledged that between 100 and 200 American citizens remain in Afghanistan and said the U.S. would work to help Americans and at-risk Afghans who still want to leave get out of the country as part of the diplomatic mission. 

“We no longer had a clear purpose in an open-ended mission in Afghanistan,” Biden said, his voice rising as he delivered his speech. “After 20 years of war in Afghanistan, I refused to send another generation of America’s sons and daughters to fight a war that should have ended long ago.”

Biden’s remarks came about 24 hours after the last U.S. troops departed Afghanistan, bringing an end to America’s longest war and capping weeks of harsh criticism of his administration’s execution of the withdrawal.

Biden has endured attacks from Republicans after saying earlier this month that the U.S. military would evacuate every American citizen who wanted to leave, even if that meant staying beyond the Aug. 31 deadline.

Asked if making that pledge was a mistake, White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiDemocrats ready to put a wrap on dragged-out talks 'Saturday Night Live' flashes back to the 'ghost of Biden past' Unanswered questions remain for Buttigieg, Biden on supply chain catastrophe MORE later told reporters, “We are going to get every American citizen out. That has not changed.”

The president said Tuesday that the U.S. evacuated more than 5,500 Americans and that U.S. and coalition forces evacuated 100,000 Afghans from the war-torn country, which is now controlled by the Taliban.

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“For those who remain, we will make arrangements for them to get out if they so choose,” Biden said. “We will continue to work to help more people leave the country who are at risk. We are far from done.”

Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenIsraeli official says plans to reopen US mission for Palestinians maybe shelved Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Biden backtracks on Taiwan Nearly 200 Americans want to leave Afghanistan, State Department tells Congress MORE on Monday evening said that the diplomatic presence in Afghanistan would be moved from Kabul to Doha, Qatar, and that officials would engage with the Taliban from there.

Biden administration officials have insisted they have leverage over the Taliban and have pointed to a United Nations Security Council resolution requiring the Taliban to abide by commitments to ensure safe passage of Americans and Afghans. 

Psaki told reporters that the U.S. has “enormous leverage over the Taliban, including access to the global marketplace.”

While Biden said he takes responsibility for the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, he also sought to rebut arguments that the evacuation could have started earlier in order to avoid the chaos and violence witnessed at Kabul’s international airport as troops rushed to get Americans and Afghans out as the Taliban consolidated control.

“Could this have been done in a more orderly manner? I respectfully disagree,” Biden said.

“There still would have been a rush to the airport, a breakdown in confidence in the control of the government,” he added. “There is no evacuation from the end of a war that you can run without the kinds of complexities, challenges and threats we faced.”

At the same time, he acknowledged that officials’ assessment that the Afghan government would hold beyond the military drawdown “turned out not to be accurate.” Officials such as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyFormer envoy: U.S. 'did not succeed' in building democratic Afghanistan Poll: New Hampshire Senate race tight Republicans would need a promotion to be 'paper tigers' MORE have said they did not anticipate the speed of the Taliban takeover.

Biden also rejected the idea that the U.S. could have stayed “indefinitely” in Afghanistan, arguing that the war no longer served the national interest and that the U.S. could fight a metastasized terrorist threat without boots on the ground with its “over-the-horizon” capability.

The president reiterated his threats toward ISIS-K, ISIS's affiliate in Afghanistan, following the deadly bombing last week that killed 13 U.S. service members. The terror group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

“We’re not done with you,” he said, referring to ISIS-K.

“Let me say it clearly to those who wish America harm, to those who engage in terrorism against us or our allies. Know this: The United States will never rest. We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down to the ends of the Earth, and you will pay the ultimate price,” he added.

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Biden touted the strike the U.S. conducted against an ISIS-K planner late Friday, which was the first known military action against the group since Thursday’s deadly bombing.

The president’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops has support from a majority of Americans, something the White House is counting on even as Biden endures criticism from Republicans and Democrats over how the withdrawal was handled.

A Pew Research Center survey released on Tuesday found that 54 percent of U.S. adults say it was the right decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, while 42 percent say it was the wrong decision.

However, the same survey found that 42 percent say the Biden administration did a poor job handling the situation in Afghanistan, compared with 29 percent who said the administration did a fair job and 27 percent who said it did a good or excellent job.

Biden’s remarks on Tuesday appeared designed to remind Americans of the rationale behind his decision to withdraw, which was set in motion by former President TrumpDonald TrumpYoungkin ad features mother who pushed to have 'Beloved' banned from son's curriculum White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege Democrats say GOP lawmakers implicated in Jan. 6 should be expelled MORE. Biden said he faced a dilemma of either withdrawing troops along the timeline set by the Trump administration or sending “tens of thousands” more U.S. troops into Afghanistan.

“I’m the fourth president that has faced the issue of whether and when to end this war,” Biden said, adding that while campaigning he vowed to pull out of Afghanistan. “Today I’ve honored that commitment. It was time to be honest with the American people again. We no longer had a clear purpose in an open-ended mission in Afghanistan.”

“I believe this is the right decision, a wise decision and the best decision for America,” Biden said to conclude his remarks, leaving the room without taking any questions from reporters.

Updated at 4:51 p.m.