WASHINGTON — The day after the US military concluded a messy and at times violent withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden staunchly defended his administration’s handling of the exit and his decision to end the war after two decades.
“I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit,” Biden said in a speech from the White House, adding that his decision to end the military airlift at Kabul’s airport was “based on a unanimous recommendation of my civilian and military advisers.”
“This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan,” Biden said, but that he saw the withdrawal as a marker of the “ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”
At the same time, Biden signaled that US drone strikes will likely continue in Afghanistan.
“We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries. We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it,” he said, referring to recent strikes.
On Monday, the last American evacuation flights left Kabul. Hamid Karzai International Airport was at the center of a chaotic and sometimes violent evacuation process after the Taliban took over the country two weeks ago. Large crowds of Afghan families waited outside the airport to leave the country on some of the last flights before the US withdrawal deadline of Aug. 31.
Last Thursday, after a suicide bombing outside the airport that ISIS-K claimed responsibility for, Marine Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. of the US Central Command told reporters that the threat from ISIS is “extremely real,” but despite the bombings, the US would continue its evacuations until the withdrawal deadline.
Biden has faced criticism from both Democrats and Republicans, as well as some international leaders, for the turmoil and instability the withdrawal caused on the ground, and for not extending the Aug. 31 deadline.
Leaving by Aug. 31 “was designed to save American lives,” Biden said on Tuesday. Last Thursday’s suicide attack killed and dozens of Afghan civilians and 13 US military personnel. Some 2,455 US troops were killed in Afghanistan since 2001.
“I respectfully disagree that this could have been done in a more orderly manner,” Biden said at the White House. “Imagine if we had begun evacuations in June or July, bringing in thousands of American troops and evacuating more than 120,000 people in the middle of a civil war. There still would have been a rush to the airport, a breakdown of confidence and control of the government. And it still would have been a very difficult and dangerous mission. The bottom line is there is no evacuation from the end of a war that you can run without the kinds of complexities, challenges, threats we faced.”
Throughout the withdrawal, Biden consistently brushed aside criticism of how his administration handled the Kabul evacuation and focused instead on his decision to end the war in the country after two decades. “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,” Biden said last Monday.
America’s military presence in Afghanistan lasted 20 years, under four presidents including Biden. Through that time, the US military deployed drone strikes targeting terrorists largely in rural provinces, which also killed many Afghan civilians. In total, more than 47,000 Afghan civilians died as a result of the US war in the country, according to data compiled by Brown University's Costs of War Project.
On Tuesday, Biden indicated that military involvement in Afghanistan is not entirely over.
“We can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground, or very few if needed. We’ve shown that capacity just in the last week. We struck ISIS-K remotely. Days after they murdered 13 of our service members and dozens of innocent Afghans,” he said.
“To ISIS-K: We are not done with you yet. As commander in chief, I firmly believe the best path to guard our safety and our security lies in a tough, unforgiving, targeted, precise strategy that goes after terror where it is today, not where it was two decades ago.”
According to the White House, 123,000 US citizens and Afghan allies were evacuated between July and Aug. 30. Afghans are now in a drastically unstable position. Former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fled the country and the Taliban, a fundamentalist organization geared toward combat and insurgency, has taken control of the country. Women, having regained several key freedoms like the right to work and education in the absence of overt Taliban control in the past two decades, also now have an uncertain future in the country.
In the days after the Taliban takeover, Biden blamed Afghan leaders and troops for not being “willing to fight” to keep the Taliban at bay as the American soldiers began their withdrawal. In the months before the withdrawal, he had insisted that Afghan troops were ready to defend the country against the Taliban. Kabul fell to the Taliban within days of the US military withdrawal beginning.
In Tuesday’s speech, Biden repeatedly referred to former president Donald Trump’s agreement with the Taliban to withdraw US troops by May 1.
He said that when he took office in January, he faced a deadline with two choices: “Follow the agreement of the previous administration, and extend it to have more time for people to get out, or send in thousands of more troops and escalate the war.”
“To those asking for a third decade of war in Afghanistan, I ask: What is the vital national interest?” he said.
Every president who presided over the war in Afghanistan before Biden had to contend with what a victory in Afghanistan would actually look like — as more American soldiers and funds went toward the conflict. The war was started by former president George W. Bush, as part of his post-9/11 “war on terror.” The next president, Barack Obama, first sent increased numbers of troops into the country and then oversaw a stalled withdrawal before deciding to keep troops in the country. Trump tried to meet with the Taliban as president and said in April that he was responsible for planning the troop withdrawal. He’s now heavily criticizing Biden’s withdrawal.