Table of Contents
- 1 Biden Defends U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan
- 2 ‘Biden, You Betrayed Us’: Afghan Americans Protest in D.C.
WASHINGTON — President Biden offered a defiant defense on Monday of his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, blaming the swift collapse of the Afghan government and chaotic scenes at the Kabul airport on the refusal of the country’s military to stand and fight in the face of the Taliban advance.
Speaking to the American people from the East Room after returning briefly to the White House from Camp David, Mr. Biden said he had no regrets about his decision to end the longest war in United States history. But he lamented that two decades of support failed to turn the Afghan military into a force capable of securing its own country.
“We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries. Provided for the maintenance of their airplanes,” Mr. Biden said. “We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide was the will to fight for that future.”
Mr. Biden acknowledged that the Taliban victory had come much faster than the United States had expected and that the withdrawal was “hard and messy.” As the fourth president to preside over the war in Afghanistan, though, he said that “the buck stops with me.”
“I stand squarely behind my decision,” he said, adding that he would not “shrink from my share of responsibility for where we are today.”
He directed a question to critics of the withdrawal, asking, “How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghans — Afghanistan’s civil war, when Afghan troops will not?”
Mr. Biden spoke after dramatic images showed a frantic scramble to evacuate the American Embassy in Kabul as Taliban fighters advanced, drawing grim comparisons to America’s retreat from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. Footage of people clinging to a hulking U.S. military transport, even as it left the ground, quickly circulated around the world.
But in his speech, Mr. Biden spent far more time defending his decision to depart from Afghanistan than the chaotic way it was carried out.
The Taliban cemented their control of Afghanistan on Monday, with scenes of handoffs to insurgent fighters playing out across the country and reports that the Taliban were searching for people they considered collaborators of the Americans and the fallen government.
In Washington, the Pentagon said troops had secured the airport in Kabul, where flights resumed after an earlier pause. Officials said there would be 6,000 American troops conducting security at the airport and helping the evacuation by later this week. State Department officials said Monday that the administration had evacuated 3,600 people since mid-July, including about 2,000 Afghans who qualified for special immigrant visas.
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Mr. Biden rejected criticism from allies and adversaries, insisting that his administration had planned for the possibility of a rapid Taliban takeover and expressing pride that diplomats and other Americans had been evacuated to relative safety at the airport.
“Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country,” he said, accusing the military of laying down its 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 reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.”
Mr. Biden said President Ashraf Ghani, who escaped the country over the weekend as the Taliban advanced, failed to live up to his promise that the Afghan military was prepared to defend the country after the last American forces departed.
“Mr. Ghani insisted the Afghan forces would fight, but obviously he was wrong,” Mr. Biden said.
The political effects of the collapse of the Afghan government caught the White House off guard, even as criticism poured in from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, Afghan activists, foreign policy experts and officials from previous administrations.
On Capitol Hill, Mr. Biden’s speech stemmed some of the fallout. Democrats who had criticized the president over the weekend praised him for laying out the costs of America’s lengthy involvement in the war.
“President Biden understands history when it comes to Afghanistan,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, a member of Democratic leadership. “He made the difficult decision to not hand over this longest of American wars to a fifth president, and had he walked away from the withdraw agreement originally negotiated by President Trump, Taliban attacks on U.S. forces would have restarted and required yet another surge in U.S. troops.”
But Republicans placed the blame squarely on Mr. Biden.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the top Republican in the Senate, called it a “monumental collapse.” Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, said Mr. Biden failed to acknowledge the “disastrous withdrawal.”
With thousands of Afghans desperate to escape the Taliban’s takeover, other countries are bracing for a flood of refugees. Five Mediterranean countries on the forefront of mass migration to Europe — Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain — have requested European Union-level talks on Wednesday about how to respond, according to Greece’s migration ministry.
There are also concerns about refugees flowing to Iran, Pakistan and Turkey.
Canada said last week that it would resettle more than 20,000 Afghans from groups it considers likely targets of the Taliban, including leading women, rights workers and L.G.B.T.Q. people.
The publishers of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post called on Mr. Biden to help evacuate Afghan journalists who had contributed to the papers’ coverage of the region. In a joint letter on Monday, the publishers asked Mr. Biden to “move urgently” to protect the safety of journalists and their families who “are trapped in Kabul, their lives in peril.”
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 president acknowledged criticism that the administration did not move quickly enough to evacuate Afghans who served as American translators and other aides. But he said the Afghan government had discouraged a mass evacuation, saying it would cause a “crisis of confidence” in the country’s ability to fight the Taliban.
Over the weekend, Mr. Biden, who had been scheduled to remain on vacation through the week, stayed with his family at Camp David, in the Maryland mountains, rather than quickly return to the White House while the situation in Afghanistan worsened.
White House officials described several hours of meetings throughout the weekend and said the president was briefed numerous times by top intelligence, diplomatic and military aides as the administration raced to keep up with a reality in Afghanistan that was changing by the hour.
On Thursday evening, officials urged reporters not to call the activities in Kabul an “evacuation.” By the next day, that admonition was gone as the president ordered new military deployments to protect embassy workers as they fled.
White House officials said there were “active discussions” throughout the weekend about when Mr. Biden should publicly address the situation, and what he would say. Officials said they did not want the president to speak before the situation on the ground in Kabul was stable.
But by Monday, officials had settled on a message in which the president and his top aides would acknowledge that the Taliban takeover was more rapid than they expected, but say the situation was under control and in line with Mr. Biden’s goal of finally removing the United States from a never-ending war.
Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, said on NBC’s “Today” program on Monday that the administration was in the process of what he called a “successful drawdown of our embassy” even as he acknowledged that “the speed with which cities fell was much greater than anyone anticipated, including the Afghans.”
In July, in response to questions from reporters, Mr. Biden said he thought the fall of the Afghan government was not inevitable because the country’s army was 300,000 strong and as well equipped as any in the world.
On Sunday, the national Republican Party posted a link of Mr. Biden’s response on Twitter, adding, “This was just 38 days ago.”
After Mr. Biden spoke, White House officials described in more detail the tensions between Mr. Biden and Mr. Ghani when the now-deposed Afghan leader made his last visit to Washington, on June 25.
Mr. Ghani, they said, had pressed Mr. Biden to delay moving many of the former translators out of the country, and to keep other actions “low key,” for fear of undermining his government. Officials said they decided to proceed anyway — though only 2,000 of the applicants, less than 10 percent of the estimated total, had left the country before the Taliban rolled into Kabul.
Mr. Ghani also asked for American close-air support for Afghan security forces and for the United States to leave more than 100 technicians at the Kabul airport to help keep Afghan military craft flying — a number American military officials said would not keep enough aircraft operational. On Aug. 6, officials said, the Pentagon held a tabletop exercise to simulate a large-scale evacuation of civilians, exactly the operation now underway.
Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.
U.S. military planes resumed flying into Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Monday evening after a pause earlier in the day while troops worked to secure the airport.
John F. Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said earlier on Monday that a security breach on the civilian side of the airport had led the American Marines there — 2,500 as of Monday morning — to halt flights.
He said that by Tuesday morning the military expected around 3,000 Marines would be on the ground at the airport to aid the evacuation effort. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III is sending an additional 1,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne to Kabul, instead of to Kuwait, to help secure the area.
By later this week, there will be 6,000 American troops total conducting security at the airport and helping the evacuation.
Mr. Kirby also said that there was a preliminary report that one American soldier had been injured.
“All the images coming out are of concern and troubling,” Mr. Kirby said, in reference to a video of an American transport plane taking off from Kabul’s airport with desperate Afghans hanging onto the wings. Those people were later seen falling from the airborne plane.
Moderate Democrats are furious at the Biden administration for what they see as terrible planning for the evacuation of Americans and their allies from Afghanistan. Liberal Democrats who have long sought to end military engagements around the world grumble that the images out of Kabul are damaging their cause.
And Republicans who months ago cheered for former President Donald J. Trump’s even faster timetable to end U.S. military involvement in the nation’s longest war have shoved their previous encouragements aside to accuse President Biden of humiliating the nation.
If Mr. Biden hoped to find cover from politicians in both parties who had reached a broad consensus around withdrawal, he is finding little so far.
Confronted with images of panic-stricken Afghans mobbing Kabul’s airport and inundated with requests from Afghans seeking refuge, some Democrats by Monday were openly attacking their president’s performance.
“I’ve been asking the administration for a refugee evacuation plan for months,” said Representative Seth Moulton, Democrat of Massachusetts and a former captain in the Marine Corps. “I was very explicit: ‘We need a plan. We need someone in charge.’ Honestly, we still haven’t really seen the plan.”
Privately, liberal Democrats were appalled by the spiraling catastrophe facing Afghan refugees. And some fretted that the images of chaos in Kabul would serve as a bludgeon for hawkish Republicans such as Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, to wield against Democrats pressing to repeal authorizations for the use of military force passed in 1991 ahead of the Gulf War, in 2001 after the attacks of Sept. 11 and in 2002 ahead of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Mr. McConnell, who had been unsparing during Mr. Trump’s administration in his disdain for the former president’s desire to fulfill his campaign promise and pull troops out of Afghanistan, hammered Mr. Biden in a statement, saying that the nation’s enemies were “watching the embarrassment of a superpower laid low.”
But in a sign that lawmakers believed that withdrawing from Afghanistan was still supported by many American voters — at least for the moment — even some famously hawkish Republicans refrained from condemning the decision itself.
“There’s a difference between the decision to withdraw and how that decision was executed,” Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, said on “Fox and Friends.”
“Whatever you think of the first decision, the execution by Joe Biden has been recklessly negligent,” he said, adding that “all” Biden “had to do, perhaps, was wait a few more months” to begin the withdrawal.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Sunday that the defeat of Afghan security forces that has led to the Taliban’s takeover “happened more quickly than we anticipated,” although he maintained the Biden administration’s position that keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan was not in American interests.
“This is heart-wrenching stuff,” said Mr. Blinken, who looked shaken, in an interview on CNN after a night that saw members of the Taliban enter the Afghan capital, Kabul, and the shuttering of the U.S. Embassy as the last remaining American diplomats in Afghanistan were moved to a facility at the city’s airport for better protection.
Mr. Blinken stopped short of saying that all American diplomats would return to the United States, repeating an intent to maintain a small core of officials in Kabul.
But he forcefully defended the administration’s decision to withdraw the military from Afghanistan after 20 years of war, saying it could have been vulnerable to Taliban attacks had the United States reneged on an agreement brokered under President Donald J. Trump for all foreign forces to leave the country.
“We would have been back at war with the Taliban,” Mr. Blinken said, calling that “something the American people simply can’t support — that is the reality.”
He said it was not in American interests to devote more time, money and, potentially, casualties, to Afghanistan at a time that the United States was also facing long-term strategic challenges from China and Russia. But, Mr. Blinken said, American forces will remain in the region to confront any terrorist threat against the United States at home that might arise from Afghanistan.
He also appeared to demand more conditions for the prospect of recognizing the Taliban as a legitimate government or establishing a formal diplomatic relationship with them.
Earlier, the Biden administration had said the Taliban, in order to acquire international financial support, must never allow terrorists to use Afghanistan as a haven, must not take Kabul by force and must not attack Americans.
On Sunday, Mr. Blinken said the Taliban must also uphold basic rights of citizens, particularly women who gained new freedoms to go to work and school after the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001.
There will be no recognition of a Taliban government “if they’re not sustaining the basic rights of the Afghan people, and if they revert to supporting or harboring terrorists who might strike us,” the secretary of state said.
Mr. Blinken’s comments were swiftly criticized by the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, who said the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan “is going to be a stain on this president and his presidency.”
“They totally blew this one,” Mr. McCaul said. “They completely underestimated the strength of the Taliban.”
“I hate to say this: I hope we don’t have to go back there,” he said. “But it will be a threat to the homeland in a matter of time.”
As their homeland fell once again into the hands of the Taliban, more than 300 Afghan Americans went to the White House on Sunday to make their frustrations known.
Demonstrators, some with young children and babies in strollers, spilled into Lafayette Square, wielding signs that read “Help Afghan kids” and “America betrayed us.”
Some held up the flag of Afghanistan. Others draped it over their shoulders. They stood in a circle around organizers who used bullhorns to get their message out.
“We want justice,” they declared.
Among those attending the three-hour protest was Sohaila Samadyar, a 43-year-old banker in Washington, who was there with her 10-year-old son. Ms. Samadyar, who immigrated to America in 2000, said she wanted to raise awareness about Afghans still stuck in the country, like her brother and sister in Kabul.
Ms. Samadyar said that she had voted for President Biden in November, but that she now regretted that decision, “disappointed” in his handling of the war.
“He has basically disregarded the Afghan community,” she said. “It’s unbelievable how fast everything has changed.”
Yasameen Anwar, a 19-year-old sophomore in college, drove about three hours from Richmond, Va., with her friends and sister to attend the protest. Ms. Anwar said she was concerned about the future of women and children in Afghanistan.
“Before, when America was in Afghanistan, there was hope in that we were fighting the Taliban and that they could finally be defeated after 20 years,” Ms. Anwar said. “But by the Biden administration completely stepping out, it’s giving them no hope anymore.”
A first-generation Afghan American, Ms. Anwar said she had always dreamed of visiting her family’s home country. She now doubts that she will be able to go.
“It just seems like we’re never going to get peace,” Ms. Anwar said.