President Joe Biden blamed Afghanistan’s exiled president and military on Monday for the “gut-wrenching” fallout of the US's withdrawal from the country as the Taliban retakes power after two decades of war.
“The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated. So what's happened? Afghanistan's political leaders gave up and fled the country,” Biden said in an address from the White House.
“The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending US military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision. American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight themselves.”
Afghanistan's president “insisted that Afghan forces would fight," Biden said. "Obviously he was wrong."
Biden’s speech came during a torrent of criticism about his administration’s handling of the troop withdrawal in the hours since the Taliban took control of the capital city of Kabul. But in his speech, he stood behind his decision to end the US war in Afghanistan, adding that he did not want to draw another generation of Americans into a seemingly endless conflict.
"So I am left again to ask of those who argue we should stay: How many more generations of America's daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghanistan's civil war when Afghan troops will not?" he said.
While he acknowledged that the situation escalated faster than he had expected, he stopped short of offering an explanation for how the Taliban was so easily able to take control and destabilize the Afghan forces that the US has poured billions of dollars and two decades into training, except to say that they were “not willing to fight for themselves.”
The administration has not explained how they so vastly overestimated the Afghan forces’ readiness to hold off the Taliban and maintain stability in the country, leaving thousands of US allies vulnerable, only repeating that the Afghan forces were unable or unwilling to fight.
Biden insisted in his speech he would not repeat "mistakes" made by past presidents. “The mistake of staying and fighting indefinitely in a conflict that is not in the national interest of the United States," he said, referencing former president Barack Obama’s decision to stay and send additional troops to the country, a move Biden said he disagreed with at the time.
Biden reiterated his position that the war was never meant to be about nation-building or establishing a stable democracy in the country.
“I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I've learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces,” he said.
The US is leaving many in Afghanistan in a precarious position, dealing with the fallout of two decades of a war in which more than 47,000 Afghan civilians died, according to data compiled by Brown University's Costs of War Project. That’s in addition to the deaths of 2,442 US troops since 2001.
An entire generation of Afghan children have grown up only knowing the reality of their country with a US military presence, and free from fundamentalist Taliban rule. Women in Afghanistan are left in a particularly dangerous position, having regained several key freedoms like the right to work and education in the absence of overt Taliban control in the past two decades.
Biden said in his address on Monday that the US will “continue to speak out for the basic rights of the Afghan people, of women and girls,” using diplomacy and “economic tools.”
Now, as the Taliban establishes control over the country and the US evacuates the last of its citizens and troops, thousands of Afghans who helped the US at their own peril are scrambling to get themselves and their families out of the country out of fear of being persecuted by the Taliban.
Biden has authorized 6,000 US troops to deploy back to Afghanistan to help US personnel and Afghan allies evacuate. He added that the US did not move to evacuate people sooner because Afghan authorities didn't want to trigger a "crisis of confidence.”
On Sunday, Taliban forces took control of the Afghan capital, Kabul, while the president, Ashraf Ghani, fled the country. The city was the last stronghold for the Afghan government, after days of steady Taliban advances across the country. Biden was at Camp David at the time. He had been planning to stay there through Wednesday before changing his schedule to address the spiraling situation.
Biden as recently as July had been adamant that what has happened would not happen. He told reporters last month that a Taliban takeover of the country was not “inevitable,” and that the Afghan army was “as well equipped as any army in the world.”
“Do I trust the Taliban? No,” Biden said at the White House on July 8 after a speech about his plans to end the two-decade US military operation in the country at the end of August. “But I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more competent in terms of conducting war.” He emphasized then, as he has for months, that the responsibility would be on Afghan leaders to “come together” to “sustain” the country’s government.
In the 24 hours since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken briefed senators and did the rounds of Sunday news shows over images of chaos unfolding in Kabul.
“What we're focused on now is making sure that we can get our people to a safe and secure place, that we can do right by the people who stood with us in Afghanistan all these years, including Afghans who worked for the embassy, worked for our military. We have a massive effort underway to bring Afghans at risk out of the country if that's what they so desire,” Blinken said on NBC News’ Meet the Press on Sunday.
Asked how the Biden administration’s assessment of the Afghan army’s capabilities was so wrong, Blinken simply repeated that the US and allies invested heavily on their training.
“The fact is, we invested — the international community invested — over 20 years, billions of dollars in these forces, 300,000 of them, with an air force, something the Taliban didn't have, with the most modern, sophisticated equipment,” Blinken said. “And unfortunately, tragically, they have not been able to defend the country. And I think that explains why this has moved as quickly as it's moved.”
The US’s 20-year war in Afghanistan has spanned three presidents before Biden, each of whom struggled to define what victory there would look like, to say nothing of how to attain it. Former president George W. Bush began the conflict, part of his “war on terror.” Obama “surged” US forces into the country, before a stalled attempt to withdraw. Former president Donald Trump, who is now decrying Biden’s actions, had himself tried to meet with the Taliban as president, and in April took credit for the planned troop withdrawal.
On Monday, Kabul’s airport descended into violence as news cameras caught footage that appeared to show Afghans trying desperately to cling to American evacuation flights.
Asked in July about comparisons to the 1975 American withdrawal from Vietnam, Biden said, “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan.”
Republicans in the last 24 hours have intensely criticized Biden’s handling of Afghanistan, warning of potential risks to US security with the Taliban again in control. Some Democrats have joined, like Rep. Seth Moulton, who on Sunday said it was a “moral and operational failure” that the US had so far struggled to evacuate allies from the country.