The day after Taliban swiftly overran Afghanistan’s capital, President Joe Biden answered ferocious criticism of his administration’s role in the country, confessing the collapse of the government in Kabul “did unfold more quickly than we anticipated.” The end of America’s longest war has been so chaotic that at least three Afghans were seen clinging to a U.S. military aircraft as it lifted off — then tumbling to their death from the sky in a horrid parallel to the terrorist attack that spurred the invasion.
Despite the havoc, Biden defended his decision to continue the withdrawal of American forces from the country, saying the choice was to either honor the terms of a peace deal the U.S. struck with the Taliban under Donald Trump (Biden had extended a May withdrawal deadline to the end of August) or to “escalate” and return to fighting for a third decade in Afghanistan. That, Biden said, was unacceptable.
“We gave them every chance to determine their own future,” Biden said of Afghanistan’s government. “What we could not provide them was the will to fight for their own future.” The president laced into the fallen U.S. ally, saying bluntly that Afghan forces “collapsed sometimes without trying to fight” and that “Americans should not die” in a war Afghans “are not willing to” wage.
The Taliban overran Afghan forces in a remarkably short time, capturing over a dozen provincial capitals in the past week as military and government leaders surrendered and reportedly accepted cash offers in exchange for their weapons. Biden specifically targeted Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s last president who fled as the Taliban closed in on Kabul on Sunday, saying he encouraged him to make a deal and spare the capital.
The U.S. mission now is to first evacuate civilian personnel and Afghan allies who are eligible for special immigrant visas, Biden said, adding that he has authorized the deployment of 7,000 U.S. troops to Hamid Karzai International Airport to secure a safe exit. Biden added that the State Department would be expanding access for SIV applicants “in the coming days.” While this current mission is “short in time, limited in scope, and focused in its objective,” the president added that if the Taliban interferes or attacks evacuating personnel, U.S. troops will “defend our people with devastating force if necessary.” Shortly before Biden’s address, a Taliban spokesman told MSNBC they “will not punish” anyone trying to evacuate and that they “will not pose arrest to them, their property, or their life.”
Since the U.S. invasion in the weeks after 9/11, Biden has approached the conflict from several different positions. Not long after, the then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said, “History will judge us harshly if we allow the hope of a liberated Afghanistan to evaporate because we failed to stay the course.” As vice-president, he argued against the troop surge under Barack Obama, wanting instead a “counterterrorism plus” strategy involving increased use of special forces and drone strikes to attack Al Qaeda, which had used Afghanistan as a platform from which to launch 9/11.
“Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to be nation-building,” Biden said Monday, adding that the U.S. has accomplished its original goals to “degrade” Al Qaeda and kill Osama bin Laden. Biden also emphasized his past support of a withdrawal, including his opposition to the 2009 surge as vice-president, stating that he is now the fourth president to manage a war in Afghanistan. “I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth president,” he added.