Biden Defends U.S. Exit From Afghanistan as Criticism Mounts
(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden offered a defiant defense of his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan as he addressed the nation on Monday, even as he acknowledged the “far from perfect” calamity that has become one of the biggest crises of his presidency.
“I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden said Monday as he addressed the nation from the East Room of the White House. “After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.”
Biden said the U.S. would continue to fight terrorism in Afghanistan even after the pullback, what he said was an effort to show he was honoring his commitment to military personnel to end the war in Afghanistan.
The president returned from Camp David in Maryland on Monday to a political firestorm, as he faced criticism from both Republicans and Democrats. Both allies and opponents suggested his stubborn determination to withdraw American forces and disregard concerns that the Taliban was quickly advancing across Afghanistan had created a humanitarian disaster.
Images of panic and despair as Afghans crowded the Kabul airport - even clinging to U.S. Air Force planes as they taxied down the runway - threatened to define Biden’s presidency and intensified pressure on the president to explain how his administration had misjudged conditions in the country.
Biden noted that former President Donald Trump had already drawn down the U.S. presence in the country to a fraction of its previous size after reaching a deal with the Taliban last year in Qatar.
“The choice I had to make as your president was to follow through with that agreement, or to go back to be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the spring fighting season,” Biden said.
Biden also argued that a continued presence in Afghanistan “is not in our national security interest. It is not what the American people want.”
Biden also shifted some of the blame to the Afghans, who received years of training and billions of dollars in equipment. Nevertheless, the U.S. could not provide Afghan security forces “the will to fight.”
“Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight,” Biden said. “If anything, the developments of the past week reinforce that ending US military involvement Afghanistan now was the right decision. We cannot and should not be fighting in a war, and dying in a war, that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.”
The president laid out steps his administration was taking to deal with the crisis, including taking over air traffic control, ensuring the operation of civilian and military flights to evacuate thousands of Americans in the coming days, as well as ramping up assistance to Afghan citizens who are applying for asylum in the U.S.
The developments prompted widespread criticism of his administration’s handling of the troop drawdown the president announced earlier this year. Flights leaving the Kabul airport were temporarily halted amid security breaches, as Afghans desperate to escape the Taliban swarmed U.S. military aircraft.
Biden had expressed confidence in those same security forces in recent weeks, predicting a calm and orderly withdrawal and dismissing questions about concerns within the intelligence community and military about the Taliban’s growing strength.
“Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to be nation-building,” Biden said.
Still, the president argued that the rapid deterioration of conditions in the country only underscored the futility of keeping American troops in a nation where an enduring military and civil society had failed to take root despite nearly two decades of U.S. intervention and hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars invested.
Administration officials are seeking to help Biden retain political support from voters who have proven wary of decades-long U.S. interventions in the Middle East. But Republicans have seized on the images from Kabul, calling them reminiscent of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya or the fall of Saigon at the conclusion of the Vietnam War and arguing the White House was responsible for the chaos.
Biden traveled back to Washington to deliver his address from a planned vacation at Camp David and in Delaware that was originally expected to extend throughout the week.
“I am the president of the United States of America,” Biden said. “The buck stops with me.”
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