WASHINGTON – A defiant President Joe Biden capped the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by aggressively defending on Tuesday both his decision to end military operations and his handling of the evacuation that left some Americans behind.
“I was not going to extend this forever war and I was not extending a forever exit,” Biden said during remarks at the White House, a day after the U.S.’s chaotic withdrawal ended. “My fellow Americans, the war in Afghanistan is now over.”
He blamed his predecessor for making a deal with the Taliban that Biden said made the militants the strongest they’ve been since the U.S. invaded 20 years ago. He said that agreement between former President Donald Trump and the Taliban enabled them to control or contest nearly half the country by the time Biden took office.
Biden said that left his administration with the choice of either following through on the commitment Trump made to leave the country or sending in tens of thousands of more troops.
Afghanistan news:Biden defends US exit, says could not extend ‘forever war’
To critics who say the evacuation could’ve happened earlier and more orderly, Biden said, “I respectfully disagree.”
“Everything had changed. My predecessor had made a deal with the Taliban,” he said. “The Taliban onslaught was coming.”
He also praised an evacuation effort that he called unprecedented in history, and promised to continue helping the Afghan people while writing a new chapter in American military diplomacy.
“This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan,” Biden said. “It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”
Saying the nation must learn from its mistakes, Biden said his top takeaways from Afghanistan are that missions must have clear, achievable goals and must focus squarely on national security interests.
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Moving on from a nation building mindset and large-scale troop deployments, Biden said, “will make us stronger and more effective and safer at home.”
“I refused to continue a war that was no longer in the service of the vital national interest of our people,” he said.
Biden had hoped to spend August preparing for crunch time on his legislative agenda. Congressional Democrats must stay unified to pass more than $4 trillion in new spending on infrastructure, social safety net programs and addressing climate change.
Instead, the administration scrambled to complete the Afghanistan withdrawal under a barrage of criticism from both Republicans and Democrats.
Still, Biden began his remarks touting the “extraordinary success” of the airlift.
“No nation has done anything like it in all of history,” Biden said of the tens of thousands of Americans, Afghans and others removed in the past few weeks.
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The United States military withdrew from Afghanistan at 3:29 p.m. EDT Monday, one minute before midnight in Kabul and before Biden’s Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline.
The United States’ war with Afghanistan was the country’s longest, lasting roughly 20 years at a cost of $2 trillion by some estimates.
More than 2,400 troops were killed, including the 13 who died last week as they helped Afghans and Americans flee the Taliban, which swiftly took control of the nation in mid-August, sparking weeks of chaos and violence in Kabul.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki has said the loss of the 13 service members was “one of the worst things, if not the worst thing,” of Biden’s presidency.
“We owe them and their families a debt of gratitude we can never repay but we should never, ever, ever forget,” Biden said in the remarks delivered from the State Dining Room.
After evacuating about 6,000 Americans since Aug. 14, an estimated 100 to 200 U.S. citizens remained when the last military flight departed.
“The president made the morally indefensible decision to leave Americans behind,” said Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “May history never forget this cowardice.”
With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaching, Americans are stuck in Afghanistan and the Taliban have more weaponry than they did before the U.S. invaded, charged House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
“I believe there should be accountability for what I see is probably the biggest failure in American government on a military stage in my lifetime,” he said.
Biden said Americans in Afghanistan were contacted 19 times since spring about leaving. Ninety percent of those wanting to get out did.
“For those remaining Americans, there is no deadline,” Biden said. “We remain committed to get them out if they want to come out.”
Local diplomatic efforts will be led from Doha, Qatar, as the U.S. no longer has a presence in Afghanistan.
“The military mission is over,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday. “A new diplomatic mission has begun.”
The U.S. has said it and international allies will continue to pressure the Taliban to make good on their promises, such as allowing Afghans to travel freely.
Hours after the last U.S. military plane departed Afghanistan, the Taliban declared victory and walked across the sole runway at Kabul’s airport as a symbolic gesture.
“The world should have learned their lesson, and this is the enjoyable moment of victory,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a livestream, according to The Associated Press.
With the military withdrawal complete, focus will likely turn to what went wrong with either the intelligence assessment of how quickly the Taliban would take control or how the withdrawal was conducted.
“In order to move forward, we need answers and accountability regarding the cascading failures that led us to this moment,” Rep. Susan Wild, a Pennsylvania Democrat, tweeted last week about what she called the “egregiously mishandled” evacuation process. “Our troops deserve nothing less than a complete and unvarnished truth.”
Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said the blame rests not with the Pentagon but with Biden, Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
“This is not a military failure,” Rogers said. “This was not a military operation. The chain of command in Afghanistan was led by the State Department.”
The administration will also have to contend with the politically sensitive and logistically challenging task of resettling thousands of Afghans while addressing what international officials say is a looming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
The tricky aftermath takes place as the administration is also contending with catastrophic damage to communities and power systems from Hurricane Ida and with the still raging coronavirus pandemic.
A narrow majority of U.S. adults back Biden’s decision to end military involvement in Afghanistan, according to a Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday. But only about a quarter rate the administration’s handling of the withdrawal as good or excellent. Most said it was only fair or poor.
A substantial majority also said the United States mostly failed in achieving its goals in Afghanistan.
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Reach Rebecca Morin at Twitter @RebeccaMorin_