President Biden offered a defiant defence on Monday of his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, returning to the White House from a weekend at Camp David amid chaotic scenes at the Kabul airport following the collapse of the Afghanistan government to the Taliban.
Speaking to the American people from the ornate East Room, Mr Biden stood by his decision to end the longest war in United States history and rejected criticism from allies and adversaries about the events of the weekend that left hundreds of Afghans desperately running after military planes as they ferried Americans to safety out of the country’s capital.
“The choice I had to make as your president was either to follow through on the agreement to drawdown our forces,” Mr Biden said, “or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back into combat and lurching into the third decade of conflict.”
He added: “I stand squarely behind my decision.”
Mr Biden acknowledged the truth told by dramatic images over the past 72 hours: a frantic scramble to evacuate the American embassy in Kabul in the face of advancing Taliban fighters, which has drawn grim comparisons to the country’s defeated retreat from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.
But he rejected the analogy, insisting that the administration had planned for the possibility of a rapid Taliban takeover and expressed pride that diplomats and other Americans had been evacuated to relative safety at the Kabul airport, which aides said was in the process of being secured by several thousand American troops. And he blamed the fall of the Afghan regime on the failure of the country’s military and political leaders to stand up for themselves.
“Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country,” he said, accusing the military of laying down their arms after two decades of U.S. training and hundreds of billions of dollars in equipment and resources. “If anything, the developments of the past week reinforce that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.”
He directed his ire at Afghanistan’s political leaders, saying he urged them to engage in real diplomacy.
“This advice was flatly refused,” he said.
Mr Biden vowed again to rescue thousands of Afghans who had helped Americans during the two-decade conflict, but the fate of many who remained in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan was uncertain Monday. And thousands of Afghans with dual American citizenship remained unaccounted for amid reports of revenge attacks by the Taliban as they seized control.
The political impact of the weekend’s dramatic collapse of the Afghan government caught the White House off guard throughout the fast-moving events, even as howls of criticism poured in from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, Afghan activists, former President Donald Trump, foreign policy experts and officials from previous administrations.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the top Republican in the Senate, called it a “monumental collapse” in Afghanistan and said responsibility rests squarely with Mr Biden. Seth Moulton, a Democratic lawmaker and former Marine captain said the administration had made “not just a national security mistake, but a political mistake too.” The American Civil Liberties Union said the president is “failing at the fundamentally important task of humanitarian protection.”
Mr Trump, who himself sought a withdraw of American troops from Afghanistan with an even earlier deadline of May 2021, issued repeated denunciations of his successor.
“The outcome in Afghanistan, including the withdrawal, would have been different if the Trump administration had been in charge,” Mr Trump said Monday morning. “Who or what will Joe Biden surrender to next? Someone should ask him if they can find him.”
Mr Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted out a hashtag: #WheresBiden?
Mr Biden had been scheduled to remain on vacation through the week, including heading to Wilmington for several days. Previous presidents have chosen to cut vacations short to be seen as dealing with developing crises at the White House.