A defensive President Biden on Tuesday insisted that his self-imposed deadline for a complete U.S. troop pullout from Afghanistan was the right call despite weeks of chaos and hundreds of Americans left stranded in the Taliban-controlled country.
He fired back at critics, making a case for leaving Afghanistan by his Tuesday deadline and blaming former President Donald Trump for setting the stage for the deadly and chaotic exit from the 20-year war, which cost the lives of roughly 2,500 U.S. troops.
“That was the choice — the real choice was between leaving or escalating,” he said. “I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit.”
He hailed the outcome as an “extraordinary success.”
The last U.S. troops left Afghanistan on Monday, one day ahead of Mr. Biden’s deadline. The president repeatedly insisted on sticking to the deadline despite pressure from Democrats and Republicans to extend it to evacuate more American civilians and allies.
Mr. Biden has advocated for the end of the war in Afghanistan since he was vice president under President Obama. Finally achieving that goal, however, has racked his presidency.
“As we turn the page on the foreign policy that has guided our nation for the last two decades, we have got to learn from our mistakes,” he said. “To me, there are two that are paramount: first, we set missions with clear, achievable goals, not ones we will never reach, and, second, we will stay clearly focused on the fundamental national security interest of the United States of America.”
At the same time, he blamed Mr. Trump for negotiating with the Taliban last year and setting a deadline of May 1 for a U.S. pullout.
Mr. Biden extended the withdrawal deadline to Sept. 11 in April and set the Aug. 31 deadline in early July.
He said Mr. Trump left him with few options.
“By the time I came to office, the Taliban was in its strongest military position since 2001, controlling or contesting nearly half of the country,” Mr. Biden said.
Mr. Trump, who often called for an end to America’s “endless wars,” said he wouldn’t have allowed the Taliban to overrun the country.
He said Mr. Biden “humiliated” the U.S. military and handed the Taliban “a country on a silver platter.”
“I think the best thing he can do is apologize to the American people and apologize to the world,” Mr. Trump told Fox Business’ Stuart Varney earlier Tuesday. “He ought to apologize and stop trying to, excuse the language, bull—— everybody into thinking that what he did was good.”
The rancor over the fast-paced troop pullout included stinging criticism from former military leaders. Nearly 90 retired generals and other high-ranking military figures demanding in a letter that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley resign for “negligence in performing their duties.”
“If they did not do everything within their authority to stop the hasty withdrawal, they should resign,” the letter said. “If they did do everything within their ability to persuade [Mr. Biden] to not hastily exit the country without ensuring the safety of our citizens and Afghans loyal to America, then they should have resigned in protest as a matter of conscience and public statement.”
In the speech, Mr. Biden said his military advisers unanimously supported the decision to press ahead with the pullout.
He also said the exit would be messy no matter what the date.
“The bottom line is there is no evacuation from the end of the war that you can run without the complexities, challenges and threats we faced,” he said.
Mr. Biden made the remarks just hours after the Taliban took control of the international airport in Kabul, unleashing celebratory gunfire into the air and raising questions about whether they will turn Afghanistan into a haven for terrorists again.
By leaving Americans in Afghanistan, Mr. Biden broke his pledge on Aug. 18 to bring home all Americans and Afghans who aided the war effort.
“We’re going to stay until we get them all out,” the president said at the time.
Although the administration acknowledges that Americans remain in Afghanistan, it won’t say how many.
Mr. Biden said 100 to 200 Americans who wanted to leave remain in Afghanistan. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday that the number is fewer than 200. Marine Corps Gen. Frank F. McKenzie Jr., head of U.S. Central Command, placed the number in the “very low hundreds.”
“The bottom line is 90% of Americans in Afghanistan who wanted leave were able to leave,” Mr. Biden said. “For those remaining Americans, there is no deadline. We remain committed to getting them out.”
He emphasized that the administration is committed to rescuing stranded Americans through diplomatic means. He said the Taliban, who took control of Afghanistan, assured the administration that people with travel documents can leave the country.
More than 122,000 people were airlifted from Hamid Karzai International Airport. Mr. Biden said Tuesday that 5,500 Americans were evacuated.
The president acknowledged the 13 service members killed in a suicide bombing last week outside of the airport. The attack was the deadliest incident in Afghanistan involving U.S. troops in years.
“We owe them and their families a debt of gratitude we can never repay, but we should, never, ever forget,” he said.
Mr. Biden met with families of the fallen troops Sunday during a dignified transfer of their remains at Dover Air Force Base.
The U.S. carried out an airstrike Sunday that targeted the suspected planners of the attack. The strike also killed nine members of a family, including six children, a relative of the family told media outlets.
• Tom Howell Jr., Joseph Clark and S.A. Miller contributed to this report.