President Biden defended his decision to complete the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this week and pledged to use diplomatic means to help evacuate up to 200 Americans who remain in the country.
“For those remaining Americans, there is no deadline,” Biden said in a speech at the White House on Tuesday. “We remain committed to getting them out.”
Biden’s address came one day after the last remaining U.S. military aircraft departed Kabul, ending nearly 20 years of war in Afghanistan and capping 17 days of chaotic evacuations in what amounted to the largest noncombatant airlift operation in U.S. military history. In all, more than 123,000 civilians — including more than 5,500 American citizens and more than 100,000 Afghans — were evacuated by U.S. forces and allies since late July,
“No country in history has done more to airlift out the residents of another country than we have done,” the president claimed. “We will continue to work to help more people leave the country who are at risk. And we’re far from done.”
Biden has received heavy criticism from across the political spectrum for his handling of the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and the seemingly last-minute race to evacuate people from the country. The evacuation effort faced an inflection point two weeks ago, when the Afghan government and military collapsed, allowing the Taliban to take control of the country once more.
Biden said on Tuesday that he’d initially set the Aug. 31 departure deadline for U.S. troops based on the belief that Afghan security forces, who had been trained and equipped by the U.S. military and its allies, would fight back against a Taliban insurgency.
“That assumption,” he acknowledged, “turned out not to be accurate.”
Still, the president insisted that the decision to proceed with the initial timeline for withdrawal, despite widespread calls to continue the military evacuation effort into September, was “not due to an arbitrary deadline” but to a desire “to save American lives.”
“The decision to end the military lift operations at Kabul airport was based on the unanimous recommendation of my military and civilian advisers,” who, Biden said, had argued that “the safest way to secure the passage of remaining Americans and others out of the country was not to continue with 6,000 troops on the ground in Kabul, but rather to get them out through nonmilitary means.”
By turns defensive and defiant, Biden dismissed those who criticized him for not starting mass evacuations sooner, as well as critics who have argued in favor of a permanent U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. He also repeatedly reminded his listeners that, before he took office, President Donald Trump had struck a deal with the Taliban in which U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan by May 1, giving Biden little choice.
“We were left with a simple decision: Follow through with the commitment made by the last administration, or say we weren't leaving and commit to another tens of thousands of troops to go back to war,” Biden said.
“I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit,” he added.
While saying that “the war in Afghanistan is now over,” Biden pledged to continue the fight against terrorists who seek to harm the U.S. and its allies, including members of ISIS-K, the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State. ISIS-K has claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing that killed 13 U.S. service members and as many as 170 Afghan civilians, and injured many more, outside the airport in Kabul last week. Biden pointed to the U.S. military drone strikes against ISIS-K targets over the weekend as proof of the U.S.’s ability to carry out a “tough, unforgiving, targeted, precise strategy that goes after terror where it is today, not where it was two decades ago.”
“We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries,” he said. "We just don't need to fight a ground war to do it.”
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