A defiant President Biden on Monday defended his handling of the Afghanistan crisis, saying he stands by his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the embattled South Asian nation.
In remarks from the White House, Mr. Biden pointed a direct finger at the Afghan government and its army for folding to the Taliban insurgents.
Despite their superior weaponry and training, many Afghan soldiers stood down or retreated as the Islamist militia waged a lightning offensive and took control of the country by Sunday night.
“Americans cannot and should not be fighting in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves,” Mr. Biden said.
Mr. Biden stood firm in the face of sharp criticism from Democrats and Republicans as the Taliban restored their Islamist government and social media and TV news showed shocking scenes of panic and desperation.
Mr. Biden said the rapid collapse of Afghanistan’s government and security forces proved that his decision to move U.S. troops out of the country was correct.
“The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” he said. “So, what happened? Afghanistan’s political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, some … without trying to fight.”
“If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision,” he said.
Mr. Biden had been expected to stay at Camp David through Wednesday. He scrapped those plans as criticism mounted over the evacuation effort in Afghanistan, underscoring the pressure he felt to address the Taliban takeover.
He made the speech one day after the Taliban completed their swift and stunning sweep of Afghan cities.
U.S. troops are scrambling to evacuate thousands of American diplomats and Afghans from the U.S Embassy.
Mr. Biden initially had no public events on his schedule Monday. That changed after Democrats and Republicans lashed out and called for the president to address the American people.
After his speech, Mr. Biden boarded the Marine One helicopter to return to Camp David. Accompanying him were several military and national security advisers.
Mr. Biden laid plenty of the blame for the political and humanitarian catastrophe at the feet of former President Donald Trump, who had planned to move U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by May.
Mr. Biden noted that the Trump administration had drawn down U.S. troops in the country to about 2,500.
He said Mr. Trump left the Taliban at its strongest since before the U.S. invasion in 2001 and that the deal he negotiated with the insurgents included no agreement to protect American forces. It likely would have led to another conflict, he said.
“There was only a cold reality of either following through on the [Trump] agreement to withdraw our forces or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back into combat in Afghanistan,” he said. “Lurching into the third decade of conflict, I stand squarely behind my decision.”
Still, Mr. Biden‘s defense of the pullout fell short of answering critics on both sides of the aisle who questioned the execution of the drawdown policy.
Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat, said the U.S. pullout “should have been carefully planned to prevent violence and instability.”
“We cannot abandon those who fought by our side who now face mortal danger from the Taliban‘s takeover. We have a moral obligation to act immediately to protect their lives and a national security imperative to ensure that Afghan soil does not again become a source of terrorist attacks on our allies and our homeland,” said Mr. Carper, who served alongside Mr. Biden when he was a senator from Delaware.
Mr. Biden was out of public view and away from top advisers all weekend. The only public image of the president was a photo released by the White House showing him seated in an empty conference room holding a teleconference with his national security team.
He issued only one public statement, which made a similar case to the speech he delivered Monday at the White House.
Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Mr. Biden’s failure in Afghanistan was the latest in a career of foreign policy mistakes.
“President Biden claims to stand squarely behind his decision, but then blames others for a situation he inherited. Once again, President Biden is the root cause of this debacle. This didn’t just happen, President Biden and his team created this disaster,” he said.
“It is shocking to witness the stunning collapse and growing chaos, and the predictable public executions, subjugation of women, and flourishing of terrorist groups in Afghanistan will likely soon follow. Scenes of desperation at the Kabul airport are heartbreaking, especially for those who served and sacrificed to prevent this from happening.”
Mr. Biden pledged earlier this year that all American military personnel would leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11. He repeatedly rejected the idea that the country would fall to the Taliban without American support of the government and its military.
“The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese army,” he said last month. “They’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstances where you see people lifted off the roof of an embassy … of the United States from Afghanistan. It’s not at all comparable.”
But images of helicopters transporting officials from the former U.S. Embassy complex to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul have drawn comparisons to the frantic evacuation from Saigon in 1975.
“It does feel like the fall of Saigon today, I’m not going to lie,” Rep. Debbie Dingell, Michigan Democrat, said Sunday.
At least seven people were killed at the airport as panicked crowds fled the Taliban, The Associated Press reported.
Crowds swarmed the tarmac, and a video showed desperate Afghans holding to the side of a departing U.S. military plane. Some of those people plunged to their deaths, AP said.
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan made the rounds on political talk shows Monday, though he was forced to acknowledge that the administration was caught flat-footed.
Mr. Biden “thought the Afghan national security forces could stop and fight,” he said during an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”