United States President Joe Biden said on the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 16, that he stood behind his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of American military involvement in the country. He also acknowledged the Taliban takeover unfolded more quickly than anticipated.
Amid escalating calls for him to address the chaos in Afghanistan, Biden took a brief break from his family trip to Camp David and returned to the White House Monday to address the press.
The United States originally went to Afghanistan with clear goals, Biden told reporters: Get those who attacked the country on Sept. 11, 2001, and make sure al Qaeda couldn’t use the country as a base to launch further attacks on the US.
“We did that,” Biden said. “We never gave up the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and we got him. That was a decade ago.”
The mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to be about nation-building or creating a unified democracy, Biden said, only about preventing terror attacks on American soil.
“I will not repeat the mistakes we’ve made in the past,” Biden said, “the mistake of staying and fighting indefinitely in a conflict that is not in the national interest of the United States.”
The president did address some of the most prolific questions surrounding Afghanistan’s rapid collapse, which saw frantic efforts to destroy documents in Kabul’s American Embassy and to evacuate Americans as Taliban fighters advanced, a frenzied scene that many have compared to the Fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. While Biden eschewed that comparison, he did admit the result of withdrawing troops had become “hard and messy,” and he pinned much of the blame on leaders in Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight,” Biden said, noting the US had spent more than a trillion dollars training and equipping Afghan security forces over the past two decades.
“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,” Biden said.
The president reiterated the US military’s commitment to expanding its presence in Afghanistan to 6,000 troops in the coming days with the mission of securing the Hamid Karzai International Airport. Troops will help evacuate Americans, Afghans employed at the embassy and their families, Afghans eligible for US Special Immigrant Visas, and other “vulnerable” Afghan nationals.
Videos shared widely on social media have shown chaotic scenes at the airport, with crowds of people surging toward military and civilian airplanes. Several videos appear to show people plunging to their deaths after clinging to a C-17 cargo plane during takeoff, a stark representation of many Afghans’ desperation to escape the country.
Biden addressed the concerns over why American forces didn’t begin evacuating allies and Afghan civilians sooner, claiming “some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country.”
Tens of thousands of interpreters and other locals who assisted American forces and now fear reprisal from the Taliban have been trying to secure passage to America through the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for months, even years, but have been plagued with red tape and bureaucratic backlogs. According to an April 2021 report, the average processing time for SIVs was found to be close to two years.
Biden also blamed part of the evacuation lag on the Afghan government, saying it discouraged the US from “organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering … a crisis of confidence.”
As the evacuation continues, the president said his administration had made it clear to the Taliban that, if they attacked American personnel, the “response will be swift and forceful.”
Reporters shouted out questions as Biden left the podium following his speech, but he did not answer. CNN reported the president returned to Camp David immediately after his remarks.