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'There was never a good time to withdraw US forces'

Defiant Biden blames Afghan debacle on leaders who fled, army that didn’t fight

Amid chaos following Taliban sweep to victory, US president says he ‘stands squarely behind’ pull-out decision, lamenting that Afghans lacked will to determine their own future

US President Joe Biden speaks about Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House, August 16, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US President Joe Biden speaks about Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House, August 16, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON — Striking an unrepentant tone, US President Joe Biden said Monday that he stood “squarely behind” his decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan but acknowledged that the Afghan government’s collapse was quicker than anticipated.

Biden said he was faced with a choice between sticking to a previously negotiated agreement to withdraw US troops this year or sending thousands more service members back into Afghanistan for a “third decade” of war.

Biden said he would not repeat mistakes of the past and did not regret his decision to proceed with the withdrawal.

“I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden said in a televised address to the nation from the White House East Room. “After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces.”

Biden said he’d rather take the criticism over the fallout in Afghanistan than pass the decision to a fifth president. He said the decision to leave Afghanistan is “the right one for America.” He said keeping a US presence in Afghanistan was no longer a US national security interest.

Biden described the images coming out of Afghanistan — especially at the airport in Kabul, where Afghans descended in hopes of fleeing the country — as “gut-wrenching.” Video of Afghans clinging to a US Air Force plane as it prepared to take off had circulated widely on the internet.

Taliban fighters stand guard on the back of vehicle with a machine gun in front of the main gate leading to the Afghan presidential palace, in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

But he did not admit any US fault in how the drawdown was executed. He conceded that the Taliban takeover unfolded faster than had been anticipated, but suggested that only vindicated his decision to leave.

The president blamed Afghanistan’s political leaders and its military for the rapid Taliban takeover. “Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country,” he said, while the military, trained by the US for 20 years and provided with equipment worth billions, laid down its arms. “The Afghan military collapsed,” he said.

US President Joe Biden leaves after speaking about the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, from the East Room of the White House August 16, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

“American troops cannot and should not be fighting the war, and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves,” Biden added. “We gave them every chance to determine their own future. We could not provide them with the will to fight for that future.”

“If anything, the developments of the past week reinforce that ending US military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision,” he said.

Taliban fighters stand guard in a vehicle along the roadside in Kabul on August 16, 2021 (AFP)

Biden promised Monday to prioritize the treatment of women and girls under the Taliban in Afghanistan. “We’ll continue to speak out on the basic rights of the Afghan people, of women and girls,” he said.

And he warned the Taliban not to disrupt or threaten the evacuation of thousands of American diplomats and Afghan translators at Kabul’s airport. The response to any attack would be “swift and forceful,” he vowed. “We will defend our people with devastating force if necessary.”

About a month ago, Biden batted away the notion of a rapid Taliban takeover.

In those July 8 comments to reporters, Biden insisted that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was not “inevitable.”

“I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more—more competent in terms of conducting war,” Biden said then.

In this photo provided by the UK Ministry of Defence on August 15, 2021, members of Britain’s 16 Air Assault Brigade arrive in Kabul as part of a 600-strong UK force sent to assist with Operation PITTING to rescue British nationals in Afghanistan amidst the worsening security situation there. (Leading Hand Ben Shread/Ministry of Defence via AP)

On Monday, Biden said the US will continue to support the Afghan people, push for regional diplomacy and speak out for the rights of Afghans.

Senior US military officials said the chaos at the airport in Kabul 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 as thousands tried to escape after the Taliban seized power. Some clung to the side of a US military plane before takeoff, in a widely shared video that captured the desperation as America’s 20-year war comes to a chaotic end.

Afghan people climb up on a plane and sit by the door as they wait at the Kabul airport in Kabul on August 16, 2021 (Wakil Kohsar / AFP)

Another video showed the Afghans falling as the plane gained altitude over Kabul. US troops resorted to firing warning shots and using helicopters to clear a path for transport aircraft.

The Pentagon confirmed Monday that US forces shot and killed two individuals it said were armed, as Biden ordered another battalion of troops — about 1,000 — to secure the airfield, which was closed to arrivals and departures for hours Monday because of civilians on the runway.

US soldiers take up positions as they secure the airport in Kabul on August 16, 2021. (Shakib Rahmani/AFP)

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 he had failed.

Biden expressed confidence in his decision to proceed with the withdrawal and said he was prepared to take the heat.

He said he was “deeply saddened by the facts we now face, but I do not regret my decision.”

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.

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