Biden stands by decision to leave Afghanistan

Eli Stokols

President Biden, facing the biggest political crisis of his term, defended the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan amid the rapid collapse of the country’s government, taking responsibility for ending the 20-year war while asserting that the “hard and messy” events of recent days were inevitable.

“I am president of the United States of America, and the buck stops with me,” Biden said in a speech from the White House on Monday afternoon. “I’m deeply saddened by the facts we now face. But I do not regret my decision to end America’s war fighting in Afghanistan.”

While Biden acknowledged that the Taliban’s march into Kabul “did unfold more quickly than we anticipated,” he argued that it validated his decision to end America’s two-decade commitment to Afghanistan.

“American troops cannot — and should not — be fighting in a war, and dying in a war, that the Afghans are not willing to fight for themselves,” Biden said. “We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.”

Biden was far more forceful in explaining his rationale for bringing U.S. troops home than the poorly executed departure, blaming Afghanistan’s political leaders who “gave up and fled the country.” The president claimed the failure to expedite the tvisa process for the tens of thousands of former interpreters and contractors who aided U.S. forces was a response to the former Afghan government requesting they hold off so as not to trigger a panic.

Biden had returned from Camp David just hours before his appearance in the East Room, cutting short a week of scheduled vacation amid rising pressure to respond publicly to a diplomatic, humanitarian and political crisis after Afghanistan fell Sunday into Taliban hands.

Biden began his remarks by emphasizing his consistent view that the Afghanistan conflict had morphed from a counterterrorism mission in the aftermath of 9/11 into a nation building exercise that was draining U.S. resources. He implicitly rebuked the American generals who convinced his successors to expand the war effort, often with rosy and false promises.

“I am now the fourth American president to preside over a war in Afghanistan,” Biden said. “I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth president. I will not mislead the American people by claiming just a little more time in Afghanistan will make all the difference.”

Until stepping off Marine One in Washington, D.C., just after 10 a.m. (Pacific), Biden had remained out of public view, relying on top aides to appear on the network morning shows to defend what even political allies are describing as the administration’s disastrous pullout from the country.

Just a month after Biden told reporters it was “unlikely” the Taliban would overtake the country, national security advisor Jake Sullivan acknowledged it had done just that.

“The speed with which cities fell was much greater than anyone anticipated,” Sullivan said on NBC’s “Today” show, even as he put the onus on Afghans to defend their own country after 20 years of American involvement.

“Despite the fact that we spent 20 years and tens of billions of dollars to give the best equipment, the best training and the best capacity to the Afghan national security forces, we could not give them the will,” he continued. “And they ultimately decided they would not fight for Kabul and they would not fight for the country … that opened the door for the Taliban to come into Kabul very rapidly.”

On Biden’s return to Washington, the White House informed reporters that he’d been briefed by senior military and national security officials earlier in the day on the situation in Afghanistan.

Biden’s relative invisibility during a major crisis has drawn sharp criticism from Republicans and even many Democrats, who have called on the administration to do more to reassure the public and to follow through on Biden’s commitment to help the Afghans who aided the U.S. effort.

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), an Iraq combat veteran, said calling Afghanistan’s fall “anything short of a disaster would be dishonest” and urged the White House to expedite the evacuation of vulnerable Afghans. “I’ve have been calling on the administration to evacuate our allies immediately — not wait for paperwork, for shaky agreements with third countries, or for time to make it look more ‘orderly.’”

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said his panel would investigate why “why we weren’t better prepared for a worst-case scenario,” adding that the U.S. owes answers “to the American people and to all those who served and sacrificed so much.”

Several Republicans, while acknowledging the role the Trump administration played in signing an agreement with the Taliban last year to begin the process of withdrawing U.S. forces, seized on the opportunity to blister Biden, who has been relatively impervious to their partisan attacks.

“While President Joe Biden cowers at Camp David, the Taliban are humiliating America,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who disagreed with Biden’s decision to end the war. “The retreat from Afghanistan is our worst foreign-policy disaster in a generation.”

This disaster, whether lawmakers admit it or not, has many fathers. Three presidents continued, and at times, expanded the war, which cost the U.S. $2.6 trillion and the lives of more than 2,400 servicemen and women; hundreds of lawmakers voted to authorize it. Biden’s decision to end it, based on deep personal conviction and the public’s waning commitment to Afghanistan, also followed a timeline his predecessor put in place.

President Trump’s administration signed the 2020 agreement with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by May 2021. The agreement also allowed the release of 500 prisoners, many with ties to terror groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda. His decision not to involve the country’s leaders in negotiations demoralized and delegitimized the now-toppled Afghan government. .

But the former president, who criticized Biden earlier this year for not sticking to his earlier withdrawal timeline, issued a number of statements Tuesday attacking his successor’s “incompetence” and claiming that he would have done a better job of evacuating Afghan civilians to safety.

The 6,000 U.S. forces Biden deployed back to Kabul over the weekend for a rescue mission, according to the State Department and the Pentagon, were primarily concerned with the evacuation of American citizens and embassy personnel, stranding at least for the moment the tens of thousands of vulnerable Afghans who served alongside U.S. forces, those Biden promised would not be left behind. The chaos at the airport Monday led the Pentagon to deploy an additional 1,000 troops on Monday, bringing the total operation to 7,000.

On Sunday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, and the Taliban occupied the presidential palace, culminating its lightning takeover of the nation.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Monday that the U.S. would give refuge to 30,000 vulnerable Afghans, although airlifting them to safety — something advocates have been seeking for months — is only starting to ramp up.

In interviews over the weekend, senior administration officials said the swift collapse of Afghan forces — after two decades of intense support from the U.S. government — affirmed Biden’s belief that more time and resources would not have been well spent in Afghanistan.

But they struggled to explain what they acknowledged was a botched pullout, which has led to the kinds of chaotic, heart-wrenching scenes Americans remember well from Vietnam and that Biden himself said were unlikely.

“There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the U.S. in Afghanistan,” Biden told reporters last month. On Sunday, however, U.S. helicopters were photographed swooping into the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to rescue diplomats and ferry them to the city’s international airport for evacuation.

On Monday, while Biden remained out of view at Camp David, Americans awoke to stunning video images of desperate Afghans running alongside and clinging to a massive C-17 aircraft as it rumbled down the airport’s tarmac before taking off. The chaos at Kabul’s airport could jeopardize the rescue operation if U.S. forces are unable to better control the crowds.

Biden, who aides said would address the situation in the coming days, was seen Sunday only in a photo tweeted out by the White House that showed him sitting alone at a long conference table, participating in a teleconference with senior administration officials.

Biden was at Camp David over the weekend because he rearranged a week of planned vacation last week to return to the White House to take a victory lap after the Senate voted to pass his infrastructure plan.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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