President Joe Biden once again stood by his decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan in a speech Friday and said he is committed to helping Afghans who have worked with the US government evacuate the country.
“Those Afghans who have worked alongside us, served alongside of us, gone into combat with us, and provided invaluable assistance to us, such as translators and interpreters — the United States stands by its commitment that we made to these people, and it includes other vulnerable Afghans, such as women leaders and journalists,” he said at the White House.
Though Biden reiterated that the US’s top priority is to help Americans leave Afghanistan if they want to, “equally as important, almost,” he said, were Afghans who have worked with the US government who are in grave danger of being targeted by the Taliban.
“They went into battle with us; they were part of the operation,” Biden said, adding that his administration is also helping nongovernmental organizations, journalists, and women leaders who want to evacuate.
The president this week has intensely defended his decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan. In a speech on Monday, he said he did not want to pass the 20-year war onto a fifth US president and effectively blamed Afghanistan’s leaders for folding so quickly to the Taliban.
Biden said again on Friday that it would have been “difficult” to withdraw US troops from the country at any point during the last 20 years.
“There’s no way in which you’d be able to leave Afghanistan without there being some of what you’re seeing now,” he said.
But Biden and his administration have skated around questions on why evacuations from the country have been so chaotic, and why the US was seemingly unprepared for a fast Taliban takeover that would put thousands of Afghans who have worked with Americans at extreme risk.
As recently as July, Biden had insisted that a Taliban takeover of the country was not inevitable after a US withdrawal and that the Afghan army was “as well equipped as any army in the world.” But there were direct warnings that same month that the US-backed government could quickly fall. An internal State Department memo that month suggesting that possibility was reviewed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the Wall Street Journal reported this week.
“I know that there are concerns about why we did not begin evacuating Afghans — civilians — sooner,” Biden said from the White House on Monday. “Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country.”
He did not offer any examples, against a backdrop of thousands of Afghans crowding, and in some instances dying, at Kabul’s airport.
In his speech Friday, Biden suggested that his withdrawal plan did not account for “the total demise of the Afghan National Force.”
“Let’s assume that the Afghan National Force had continued to fight and they were surrounding Kabul. It would be a very different story,” he said. “But the overwhelming consensus was that they were not going to collapse, the Afghan forces. They were not going to leave, they were not going to just abandon, put down their arms, and take off.”
The US has evacuated approximately 18,000 people since July and roughly 13,000 people since the US military lift began on Aug. 14, Biden said. Another few thousand people have been evacuated on private charter flights, including US citizens, permanent residents, Special Immigrant Visa applicants, and their families. On Thursday alone, the US had moved out 5,700 evacuees.