President Biden said he stands “squarely behind” his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, speaking from the White House Monday as he drew bipartisan criticism over the swift collapse of the government and the ensuing chaos.
He acknowledged that the Taliban took control of the country more quickly than he expected and that the U.S. exit has been “far from perfect,” although he took little responsibility for that. He called the images of desperate Afghans at Kabul’s international airport trying to flee their country gut-wrenching.
While pledging to get Americans and U.S. allies out of the country safely, Mr. Biden cast much of the blame for the fall of the Afghan government on its American-trained military for failing to take up the fight with the Taliban.
“If anything, the developments in the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision,” he said. “American troops 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’s remarks and the chaotic U.S. exit from Afghanistan will become the closing chapters in America’s longest war, one that began 20 years ago after Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, as a hunt to bring justice to those who committed those acts.
Mr. Biden has long said that Washington had accomplished its mission in the region by killing Osama bin Laden in 2011 and depriving al Qaeda of its sanctuary in Afghanistan, and had nothing to gain by prolonging its military deployments in the country.
Mr. Biden’s speech focused on his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, but he mostly skirted criticism from members of both parties that his administration executed the exit in a sloppy and haphazard way. At least eight Afghans were killed during a chaotic scene at the Kabul airport Monday as locals tried to board jets and flee the country.
“There is plenty that lawmakers disagree on with respect to withdrawal from Afghanistan, but we all agree that the United States must evacuate vulnerable Afghans immediately,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.) said in a statement. “The President reaffirmed this today and I urge his administration to do everything possible to evacuate them and their families and deal with the bureaucracy later. Lives are on the line.”
On Monday night, Mr. Biden directed Secretary of State Antony Blinken to use up to $500 million from the Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund to help meet the “unexpected urgent refugee and migration needs of refugees, victims of conflict, and other persons at risk as a result of the situation in Afghanistan, including applicants for Special Immigrant Visas.’’
Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D, N.Y.) said in a statement that he had spoken with White House and senior administration officials about evacuating Americans, Afghans and others who worked with the U.S. “to ensure the United States is doing everything we can to get these people out quickly and safely.’’
Other lawmakers emphasized the need to evacuate Americans. Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) said on Twitter ahead of Mr. Biden’s remarks that the withdrawal “has been recklessly negligent. We must do more to save stranded American citizens.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D., Md.) said he wasn’t “going to second-guess right now because we want to get people out as quickly as we can as safely as we can.” He said that it was possible Congress would be called back into session for a classified briefing on which outside countries could accept Afghans while their applications for entry to the U.S. are processed.
Republican Sen. Bill Hagerty of Tennessee called the speech “dishonest,” tweeting that the president was “avoiding all responsibility for having no plan for the chaos.”
Some of Mr. Biden’s supporters echoed his message. “Exactly right,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D., Va.) in response to the president’s statement that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to involve nation-building.
“Things will continue to get worse, which is why we have to move quickly,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D., N.J.), a former State Department official who has been working the phones pressure the Biden administration to develop an evacuation plan that accounts for both Afghans and Americans.
Sen. Tom Carper (D., Del.), Mr. Biden’s home-state colleague, said in a statement before the speech that the withdrawal 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.”
The president said that he inherited a drawdown agreement from former President Donald Trump and that the U.S. had done everything possible to get the Afghan military ready. But Mr. Biden said the U.S. couldn’t give them the “will to fight for that future.”
He also rejected criticism that the U.S. should have moved faster with evacuations, saying that the Afghan government discouraged a mass exodus to avoid “triggering a crisis of confidence.”
After the address, Rep. Dean Phillips (D., Minn.) said, “I prefer to give an American president the benefit of the doubt—and what he says is likely true—but it doesn’t change the fact that the exit strategy was ours and its execution reflects poorly on the United States of America.”
Many lawmakers have spent months pushing the Biden administration to do more to evacuate the tens of thousands of at-risk Afghans before beginning to withdraw all troops. Mr. Biden’s Democratic allies on Capitol Hill were also growing angry that the deteriorating conditions were putting lives and gains for Afghan women at risk, according to one Senate aide.