Biden Stands ‘Squarely Behind’ Afghanistan Decision
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said Monday that he stands “squarely behind” his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan and that the government’s collapse was quicker than anticipated.
Speaking about the chaotic situation in Afghanistan, Biden said that he faced a choice between an agreement brokered by the Trump administration to withdraw U.S. forces or send thousands more U.S. troops back in for a “third decade” of war.
“The choice I had, as your president, was to follow through on that agreement, brokered just three months before I took office, or to be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the spring fighting season when there would have been no ceasefire and no agreement protecting our forces after May 1,” he said.
“There would be no status quo, no stability, without American casualties,” Biden continued.
The president then went on to say that while he and his administration were “clear eyed about the risks,” he was determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
“Over [the past] 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there is never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces,” he said. “That’s why we’re still there. …. But I always promised the American people I would be straight with them and the truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.
“So what happened? Afghanistan’s political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed …. Some without even trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced my decision that ending any U.S. involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.”
The president spoke after the planned withdrawal of American forces turned deadly at Kabul’s airport as thousands tried to flee following the Taliban’s swift takeover of the government.
In remarks from the East Room that lasted roughly 20 minutes, Biden said “Americans cannot and should not be fighting and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.
“We spent over a trillion dollars. We trained and equipped an Afghan military force that was some 300,000 strong and incredibly well-equipped — a force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies,” he said. “We gave them every tool, we paid their salaries, provided for the maintenance of their Air Force — something the Taliban doesn’t have, by the way. We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them with was the will to fight for that future.”
Biden also reminded his listeners of the original American mission in Afghanistan — “to get those who attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001 … and make sure al Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as the base from which to attack us again.”
“We did that,” the president said. “We severely degraded al Qaeda in Afghanistan. We never gave up the hunt for Osama bin Laden and we got him. That was a decade ago.”
America’s mission in Afghanistan, Biden said, was never to engage in nation building or create a “centralized democracy.”
“I’ve argued for many years that our mission should be narrowly focused on counterterrorism, not counter insurgency or nation building,” he said. “That’s why I opposed the surge when it was proposed in 2009, when I was vice president. And that’s why as president, I’m adamant. We must focus on the threats we face today, in 2021, not yesterday’s threat.
“Today, the terrorist threat has metastasized well beyond Afghanistan: al Shabaab in Somalia, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Nusra in Syria, ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq and establishing affiliates in multiple countries in Africa and Asia. These threats warrant our attention and our resources,” he said.
“These threats warrant our attention and our resources. We conduct effective counterterrorism missions against terrorist groups in multiple countries where we don’t have permanent military presence,” the president continued. “If necessary, we’ll do the same in Afghanistan. We’ve developed counterterrorism ‘over the rise of capability’ that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on the direct threats to the United States in the region. And will act, quickly and decisively if needed.”
Biden said during a series of “frank” discussions with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani since June, the two discussed the need for Afghans to be prepared to fight their own civil wars, the need to clean up corruption in the government, and the need for the nation’s leaders to unite politically.
“I also urged them to engage in diplomacy to seek a political settlement [with the Taliban]. This advice was flatly refused,” Biden said.
The president also revealed that he suggested an evacuation of U.S. personnel and Afghans in danger from the Taliban be started weeks ago, but here too, Ghani also flatly refused, fearing it would set off a panic and erode confidence in the country’s future.
The president acknowledged that for those who served in Afghanistan or lost a loved one there, the events of the past several days are “deeply, deeply personal.”
“But I will not repeat the mistakes we’ve made in the past … of fighting indefinitely in a conflict that is not in the national interest of the United States … of doubling down on a civil war in a foreign country, attempting to remake the country through an endless series of military deployments of U.S. forces.”
Biden said going forward, the U.S. will continue to push for regional diplomatic engagement to prevent violence and instability, and that the U.S. will continue to speak out for the basic rights of the Afghan people, “just as we speak out all over the world.”
“I have been clear: human rights must be the center of our foreign policy, not the periphery,” the president said. “The way to do it is not with endless military deployments, but with our diplomacy, our economic tools, and rallying our partners in the world to join us.”
Biden also warned the Taliban not to attack U.S. personnel or disrupt their operations as they work to evacuate the airport in Kabul.
“If they attack our personnel or disrupt our operation, the U.S. response will be swift and will include devastating force, if necessary,” he said. “Once we have completed this mission, we will conclude our military withdrawal, and America’s longest war will be over.
“Afghanistan has been known throughout history as the graveyard of empires. What’s happening now could just as easily have happened five years ago or 15 years in the future,” the president said. “To be honest, our mission in Afghanistan has made many missteps over the past two decades. I am now the fourth American president to preside over the war in Afghanistan, two were Democrats and two were Republicans. I will not pass this responsibility down to a fifth president. I will not mislead the American people by telling them that spending just a little more time in Afghanistan would make all the difference. Nor will I shrink from my share of responsibility for where we are today, and how we move forward from here. I am president of the United States of America. And the buck stops with me.”
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