US President Joe Biden has blamed the government and military of Afghanistan for the Taliban’s swift conquest of the country amid the withdrawal of all US forces.
Addressing Americans from the White House, Mr Biden said he was “deeply saddened” by the situation in Afghanistan but did not regret his decision to end America’s involvement.
“I stand squarely behind my decision,” he stressed.
“After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan.”
He issued a stark warning to the Taliban, saying the US was prepared to respond with “devastating force” if it interfered in the operation to evacuate people from Kabul.
“As we carry out this departure, we have made it clear to the Taliban that if they attack our personnel or disrupt our operation, the US presence will be swift and the response will be forceful. We will defend our people with devastating force if necessary,” he said.
Mostly, however, the speech was about justifying his decision to withdraw – and assigning blame to others for the chaos now unleashed upon Afghanistan.
The President placed some of that blame at the feet of his predecessor, Donald Trump, who negotiated a deal with the Taliban that would have seen US forces leave by May 1.
Mr Biden ultimately pushed back the deadline, saying it was unfeasible, but otherwise honoured the deal.
“The choice I had to make, as your President, was either to follow through on that agreement, or be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the Spring fighting season,” he said.
“There would have been no ceasefire after May 1. There was no agreement protecting our forces after May 1. There was no status quo of stability without American casualties after May 1. There was only a cold reality of either following through on the agreement or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more troops back into combat.”
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Mr Biden also blamed, at some length, the deposed Afghan leaders, accusing them of “giving up” and the Afghan military of not even trying to fight.
“We were clear-eyed about the risk. We planned for every contingency. But, the truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we anticipated,” Mr Biden said of the Taliban’s advance.
“Afghanistan’s political leaders gave up and fled the country. The military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforce that ending US military involvement 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 for themselves.
“We spent over a trillion dollars. We trained and equipped an Afghan military force 300,000 strong. We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries, provided for the maintenance of their air force.
“We provided close air support. We gave them every chance to determine their own future. We could not provide them with the will to fight for that future.
“There are some very brave Afghan special forces units and soldiers. But if Afghanistan is unable to mount any real resistance to the Taliban now, there is no chance that one more year, five more years, or 20 more years of US military boots on the ground would have made any difference.”
The Afghan military relied heavily on its American allies for intelligence, air support, and maintenance, all of which ceased to operate as the US withdrew.
“Here is what I believe to my core: it is wrong for American troops to step up when Afghanistan’s own armed forces would not,” he continued.
“The political leaders of Afghanistan were unable to come together for the good of their people, unable to negotiate for the future of their country when the chips were down. They would never have done so when US forces were on the ground in Afghanistan, bearing the brunt of the fighting for them.”
Much of the criticism Mr Biden faces is focused on America’s failure to evacuate thousands of Afghans who helped it during the war before the Taliban took Kabul.
Here, too, the President blamed Afghanistan.
“I know there are concerns about why we did not begin evacuating Afghan civilians sooner. Part of the answer is that some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier. They were still hopeful for their country,” he said.
“But part of it’s because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organising a mass evacuation, to avoid triggering, as they said, a crisis of confidence.”
This answer will presumably be of little comfort to the Afghan civilians who have crowded the tarmac at Kabul International Airport, desperate to leave. Seven of them have died so far, including several who fell to their deaths after clasping on to departing US aircraft.
“Our troops are working to secure the airfield, and to ensure the continued operation of both military and civilian flights. We’re taking over air traffic control,” said Mr Biden.
“Over the coming days, we intend to transport out thousands of American citizens who have been living and working in Afghanistan. We will also continue to support the safe departure of civilian personnel of our allies.”
He promised some Afghan civilians would also be flown out.
What about human rights? One of the great concerns regarding the Taliban’s takeover is that women and girls in particular will have their rights curtailed. Across parts of the country, girls as young as 15 have already been taken as sex slaves.
Mr Biden said the US would continue to “speak out” about human rights.
“I’ve been clear that human rights must be at the centre of our foreign policy, not the periphery. But the way to do it is not through endless military deployments. It’s with our diplomacy, our economic tools, and rallying the world to join us,” he said.
The Taliban has shown no indication that diplomatic pressure will change its oppressive ways.
“The scenes we’re seeing are gut-wrenching, particularly for our veterans, our diplomats, humanitarian workers, anyone who has spent time on the ground supporting the Afghan people,” said Mr Biden.
“This is deeply, deeply personal. It is for me as well. I’ve worked on these issues as long as anyone. I’ve been throughout Afghanistan during this war, from Kabul to Kandahar. I’ve travelled there on four different occasions, I’ve met with the people, I’ve spoken to the leaders, I spent time with my troops.
“I came to understand, first-hand, what is and is not possible in Afghanistan.”
He argued the US had accomplished its original mission in Afghanistan a decade ago.
“We went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago, with clear goals: get those who attacked us on September 11, 2001, and make sure al Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again. We did that,” he said.
“Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralised democracy. Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains, today, what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on the American homeland.
“I’ve argued for many years that our mission should be narrowly focused on counter-terrorism, not counterinsurgency or nation building.
“That’s why, as President, I am adamant that we focus on the threats we face today. Not yesterday’s threats.”
He proceeded to list some of those threats, which span much of the globe.
“We conduct effective counter-terrorism missions in multiple countries where we don’t have a military presence. If necessary, we’ll do the same in Afghanistan,” said Mr Biden.
Finally, Mr Biden directly addressed critics who have slammed the decision to withdraw US forces at all.
“I am left again to ask of those who argue that 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 asked.
“I will not repeat the mistakes we’ve made in the past. The mistake of staying and fighting indefinitely when the fight is not in the interest of the United States.”
Mr Biden ordered the complete withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan back in April, setting a deadline of September 11.
In recent weeks, as that withdrawal neared its completion, the Taliban overran the Afghan military and swept across the country, conquering most major cities.
It now controls the capital, Kabul, and the deposed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has fled overseas. US forces are still evacuating personnel from Kabul airport.
Today the Pentagon announced that another 1000 soldiers would head to Kabul to help secure the airport, bringing the total US presence in Afghanistan to 7000. There were only 2500 there before the withdrawal started.
Through all of this chaos, Mr Biden had been on holiday at Camp David, though he had been getting updates from national security officials.
He returned to the White House for today’s address.
The previous deadline of May 1 for the US withdrawal was set under the terms of the Doha agreement, which the Trump administration had negotiated with the Taliban’s leadership.
Mr Biden could have walked away from it. Instead, he merely pushed the deadline back to September, saying the original timeline was unrealistic.
In July, he was asked whether the US leaving made the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan “inevitable”.
“No,” the President responded.
“The Afghan troops have 300,000 well equipped (soldiers), as well equipped as any army in the world, and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban. It is not inevitable.
“The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
Not exactly prophetic.
He also claimed there would be “no circumstance” comparable to the chaotic US withdrawal from Saigon in the Vietnam War.
“There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States in Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”
Last Tuesday, when was already apparent that the Taliban was closing in on victory, Mr Biden expressed no regret for his decision to go through with the withdrawal.
“I do not regret my decision,” he said.
“We spent over $US1 trillion over 20 years. We trained and equipped with modern equipment over 300,000 Afghan forces. We lost thousands to death and injury, thousands of American personnel. They’ve got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation.”