President Joe Biden on Monday addressed the nation about the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan, saying the United States should focus on today’s threat, not yesterday’s.
He said he would not “repeat the mistakes we’ve made in the past,” pointing to the three presidents who have preceded him who have dealt with the 20-year war. He defended his decision, though he said he was saddened by the developments, and said U.S. military personnel should not be expected to defend the country if Afghans will not.
“Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nationbuilding. It was never supposed to be creating a unified centralized democracy,” he said,
“Our only interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been, preventing a terrorist attack on America’s homeland. I have argued for many years that our mission should be narrowly focused on counterterrorism, not counterinsurgency or nationbuilding. That’s why I opposed the surge when it was proposed in 2009 when I was vice president. That’s why as president, I am adamant that we focus on the threats we face today in 2021, not yesterday’s threats.
“Today, the terrorist threat has metastasized well beyond Afghanistan.”
Biden pointed to the May 1 deadline of withdrawal imposed by the Trump adminstration and said U.S. forces had already drawn down during the Trump administration from roughly 15,500 to 2,500 troops.
“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’ve been no cease-fire after May 1. There was no agreement protecting our forces after May 1. There was no status quo of stability without American casualties after May 1,” the president argued. “There was only the cold reality that we are following through on an agreement to withdraw our forces or escalate into conflict in sending thousands more American troops back into combat in Afghanistan.
“Lurching into the third decade of conflict, I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden said, adding that “After 20 years I have learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces. That’s why we are still there.”
Biden said the events in Afghanistan did unfold more quickly than his administration had anticipated.
“So what has happened?” he asked. “Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed. Some of them without trying to fight. If anything come of the developments of the past week reinforced that any U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.”
Biden addressed critics who have questioned why Afghan interpreters who have aided U.S. troops weren’t helped to leave earlier. Some of those Afghan nationals preferred to stay, hoping the situation would improve, he said, and also, the Afghan government requested the process be slowed to avoid a crisis in confidence, he said.
The speech comes amid scenes of chaos in Kabul, the Afghan capital, as desperate Afghan nationals attempt to board U.S. military planes sent to ferry out Americans.
Senior U.S. military officials say the chaos at the airport left seven people dead Monday, including some who fell from a departing American military transport jet. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss ongoing operations.
Afghans rushed onto the tarmac of the capital’s airport as thousands tried to escape after the Taliban seized power. Some clung to the side of a U.S. military plane before takeoff, in a widely shared video that captured the desperation as America’s 20-year war comes to a chaotic end.
Another video showed the Afghans falling as the plane gained altitude over Kabul. U.S. troops resorted to firing warning shots and using helicopters to clear a path for transport aircraft.
The Pentagon confirmed Monday that U.S. forces shot and killed two individuals it said were armed, as Biden ordered another battalion of troops — about 1,000 troops — to secure the airfield, which was closed to arrivals and departures for hours Monday because of civilians on the runway.
The speed of the Afghan government’s collapse and the ensuing chaos posed the most serious test of Biden as commander in chief, and he came under withering criticism from Republicans who said that he had failed.
Biden campaigned as a seasoned expert in international relations and has spent months downplaying the prospect of an ascendant Taliban while arguing that Americans of all political persuasions have tired of a 20-year war, a conflict that demonstrated the limits of money and military might to force a Western-style democracy on a society not ready or willing to embrace it.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday that the “speed with which cities fell was much greater than anyone anticipated.” He blamed the government’s fall on the Afghans themselves, telling NBC’s “Today” show that the U.S. ultimately could not give Afghan security forces the “will” to fight to defend their fledgling democracy.
“Despite the fact that we spent 20 years and tens of billions of dollars to give the best equipment, the best training and the best capacity to the Afghan security forces, we could not give them the will and they ultimately decided that they would not fight for Kabul and they would not fight for the country,” Sullivan said.
The turmoil in Afghanistan resets the focus in an unwelcome way for a president who has largely focused on a domestic agenda that includes emerging from the pandemic, winning congressional approval for trillions of dollars in infrastructure spending and protecting voting rights.
Biden remained at Camp David over the weekend, receiving regular briefings on Afghanistan and holding secure video conference calls with members of his national security team, according to senior White House officials. His administration released a single photo of the president on Sunday alone in a conference room meeting virtually with military, diplomatic and intelligence experts.
He was briefed again by his national security team on Monday before returning to Washington.
Biden is the fourth U.S. president to confront challenges in Afghanistan and has insisted he wouldn’t hand America’s longest war to his successor. But he and others in the administration had insisted the Taliban would not be able to take over the country so quickly.
“The jury is still out, but the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely,” Biden said on July 8.
Just last week, though, administration officials warned privately that the military was crumbling, prompting Biden on Thursday to order thousands of American troops into the region to speed up evacuation plans.
Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump also yearned to leave Afghanistan, but ultimately stood down in the face of resistance from military leaders and other political concerns. Biden, on the other hand, has been steadfast in his refusal to change the Aug. 31 deadline, in part because of his belief that the American public is on his side.
A late July ABC News/Ipsos poll, for instance, showed 55% of Americans approving of Biden’s handling of the troop withdrawal.
Most Republicans have not pushed Biden to keep troops in Afghanistan over the long term and they also supported Trump’s own push to exit the country. Still, some in the GOP stepped up their critique of Biden’s withdrawal strategy and said images from Sunday of American helicopters circling the U.S. Embassy in Kabul evoked the humiliating departure of U.S. personnel from Vietnam.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell deemed the scenes of withdrawal as “the embarrassment of a superpower laid low.”
Senior administration officials believe the U.S. will be able to maintain security at the Kabul airport long enough to extricate Americans and their allies, but the fate of those unable to get to the airport was far from certain.
In the upper ranks of Biden’s staff, the rapid collapse in Afghanistan only confirmed the decision to leave: If the meltdown of the Afghan forces would come so quickly after nearly two decades of American presence, another six months or a year or two or more would not have changed anything.
Biden has argued for more than a decade that Afghanistan was a kind of purgatory for the United States. He found it to be corrupt, addicted to America’s largesse and an unreliable partner that should be made to fend for itself. His goal was to protect Americans from terrorist attacks, not building a country.
In July he said he made the decision to withdraw with “clear eyes.” His judgment was that Afghanistan would be divided in a peace agreement with the Taliban, rather than falling all at once.
“There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy in the — of the United States from Afghanistan,” he said in July. “The likelihood there’s going to be one unified government in Afghanistan controlling the whole country is highly unlikely.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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