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Biden defends Afghanistan pullout despite mounting criticism

U.S. President Joe Biden said Monday that he stands "squarely behind" his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan and that the Afghan government's collapse was quicker than anticipated. 

He called the decision 'the right one for America'

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House on Monday in Washington, D.C. '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,' he said. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

U.S. President Joe Biden said Monday that he stands "squarely behind" his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan and that the Afghan government's collapse was quicker than anticipated. 

"After 20 years, I've learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces," he said. 

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 U.S. presence in Afghanistan was no longer a U.S. national security interest. 

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

But he did not admit any U.S. fault in how the drawdown was executed. The president acknowledged that the Taliban takeover unfolded faster than had been anticipated. About a month ago, Biden batted away the notion of a rapid Taliban takeover. 

See the scene at Kabul's airport: 

The speed of the Afghan government's collapse and the ensuing chaos posed the most serious test yet of Biden as commander in chief, and he came under intense criticism from Republicans who said he had failed. 

Yet the president said the rapid end of the Afghan government only vindicated his decision, noting how the Afghan army surrendered to the Taliban. 

"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 said.

Biden criticizes Afghan leaders, Trump

Biden singled out for criticism the two main Afghan leaders, President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country Sunday, and Abdullah Abdullah, head of the country's High Council for National Reconciliation, saying they had "flatly refused" his advice to seek a political settlement with the Taliban.

"How many more generations of America's daughters and sons would you have me send to fight ... Afghanistan's civil war, when Afghan troops will not?" Biden asked. "How many more lives — American lives — is it worth? How many endless rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery?"

He also doled out criticism to his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, whose administration negotiated a deal with the Taliban that Biden said left the group "in the strongest position militarily since 2001."

The president acknowledged there were concerns about why Afghans had not been evacuated earlier, but said his administration had been discouraged to do so by the Afghan government at the time.

"Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country," Biden said.

'We could have done a lot more'

But five U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that weeks before the Washington-backed Afghan government collapsed, the U.S. military wanted a bigger role in helping to evacuate Afghans at risk because they worked for the United States. The officials believe that a more orderly withdrawal would have been likely.

"We could have done a lot more to help. The administration waited too long," a military official said.

In response, a senior administration official cited comments on Monday by national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who said Biden's team has been "engaged for months of extensive scenario planning and was ready for this challenge."

Despite the government's rapid collapse, Sullivan said the embassy was closed "safely and swiftly" and that "we are now laser-focused on getting people out safely and swiftly."

There were also issues with the intelligence, with one assessment last week saying Kabul would not be isolated for the next 30 days at least.

'Every decision has come too late'

A person familiar with the situation said the Biden administration was behind the curve as things deteriorated in Afghanistan. "Every decision has come too late and in reaction to events that make the subsequent decision obsolete," the source said.

Local embassy employees who have been at home for weeks were left to make their own way to the airport, the source said.

Emails were sent to them on Sunday after sporadic gunfire to remain in their houses or some other safe location, according to the source.

The pandemonium hampering the evacuations prompted some embassy officials to raise concerns that there was an insufficient number of U.S. troops to secure the airport, reflecting poor planning and intelligence failures, said the source.

The source and another U.S. official told Reuters that the administration so badly misjudged the situation that the State Department flew a regular rotation of diplomats into Kabul last Tuesday even as the Taliban advanced toward the capital.

WATCH | Chaos unfolds as thousands crowd Kabul airport: 

Afghans chase U.S. air force plane in desperate attempt to escape country

4 months ago
0:38
Thousands of people are trying to flee Afghanistan as the Taliban strengthens its grip on the country. Some people chased a U.S. air force plane down the tarmac, while others tried to force their way onto planes at the Kabul airport. 0:38

Republican and Democratic lawmakers also weighed in with criticism.
 
"The withdrawal of U.S. troops should have been carefully planned to prevent violence and instability, and to ensure that the hard-fought progress gained over the past two decades particularly when it comes to Afghan women and girls would not be lost," said Tom Carper, a U.S. senator from Biden's home state of Delaware and fellow Democrat.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, an opponent of Biden's withdrawal decision, said it was unlikely that American personnel and at-risk Afghans could be evacuated by Aug. 31, Biden's deadline for a full withdrawal. Graham said that "artificial deadline" will likely result in thousands of Afghans who have helped America being left behind for slaughter.

Biden announced in April that he would be withdrawing the remaining 2,500 troops from Afghanistan as part of a 2020 deal made with the Taliban under former president Donald Trump.

Military officials recommended against it, but some officials said they felt their views had been heard and the American public was ready to end America's longest war.

Taliban seize U.S.-supplied guns, aircraft

Built and trained at a two-decade cost of $83 billion US, Afghan security forces collapsed so quickly and completely — in some cases without a shot fired — that the ultimate beneficiary of the American investment turned out to be the Taliban. They grabbed not only political power but also U.S.-supplied firepower — guns, ammunition, helicopters and more.

Taliban fighters stand guard in front of main gate leading to the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul on Monday. The Taliban took hold of the capital city over the weekend. (Rahmat Gul/The Associated Press)
Taliban fighters guard the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul on Monday. One U.S. intelligence assessment had predicted the city would not be isolated for at least 30 days. (Rahmat Gul/The Associated Press)

The Taliban captured an array of modern military equipment when they overran Afghan forces who failed to defend district centres. Bigger gains followed, including combat aircraft, when the Taliban rolled up provincial capitals and military bases with stunning speed, topped by capturing the biggest prize, Kabul, over the weekend.

A U.S. defence official on Monday confirmed the Taliban's sudden accumulation of U.S.-supplied Afghan equipment is enormous. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and so spoke on condition of anonymity. The reversal is an embarrassing consequence of misjudging the viability of Afghan government forces — by the U.S. military as well as intelligence agencies — which in some cases chose to surrender their vehicles and weapons rather than
fight.

Biden walks from the podium after making a televised address about the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan at the White House Monday. The president did not take questions. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

With files from Reuters

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