WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday defended the rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan as the country appeared increasingly at risk of spiraling into civil war.
He said that the U.S. military mission there will conclude Aug. 31, earlier than initially announced.
"We did not go to Afghanistan to nation build," Biden said in a speech at the White House. "It's the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country."
Biden said that the drawdown was proceeding in a "secure and orderly way" and that his military commanders had advised him to move swiftly once it began. Any other plan, he said, would have come with increased risk to the military personnel.
He committed to swiftly evacuating thousands of Afghan translators and their families who worked alongside the United States, saying that the timeline for processing special immigrant visas had been "dramatically accelerated." And he said the U.S. would continue to provide civilian and humanitarian assistance, including speaking out for the rights of women and girls.
Biden acknowledged that a continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would not alter the course of the country, and stressed that it was up to the Afghan government to chart its own path. He argued that the U.S. accomplished its initial goal of weeding out al Qaeda and killing its leader Osama bin Laden, and there was no justification for keeping troops there.
"Nearly 20 years of experience has shown us — and the current security situation only confirms — that just one more year of fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution, but a recipe for being there indefinitely," he said. "It's up to the Afghans to make the decision about the future of their country."
The Taliban has been making significant territorial gains in northern Afghanistan in recent days and are inching closer to the capital, Kabul. While Biden said in April that the U.S. would leave the country by Sept. 11, the vast majority of U.S. troops have already left and the U.S. has faced accusations from the Afghan troops that they were taken by surprise by the stealthy American departure in recent days.
Biden has faced criticism from Republicans on Capitol Hill as intense fighting has broken out between the Taliban and Afghan security forces amid the rapid exit of U.S. troops.
Questions from reporters Thursday about the Taliban drew a sharp response from the president. When asked whether he trusted the Taliban, Biden responded: "Is that a serious question?"
"It’s a silly question. Do I trust the Taliban? No. But I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped and more competent in terms of conducting war," Biden continued.
Former President Donald Trump had said he would have withdrawn all troops by May 1 under a deal reached with the Taliban. Biden has said that timeline was too hasty.
“It is not in America's national security interest for the Taliban to take over Afghanistan,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C, said Tuesday. “If the Taliban take over part of Afghanistan, I fear that al Qaeda and ISIS will re-emerge and we’ll be paving the way for another 9/11.”
Biden had declined to comment Wednesday on whether he was concerned Kabul could be taken by the Taliban, saying he would address the issue in his Thursday remarks.
The Department of Defense said it had already drawn down 90 percent of its operations and handed over seven facilities to the Afghan Ministry of Defense two months ahead of the Sept. 11 deadline set by Biden this year, according to a U.S. Central Command statement Tuesday.
In announcing plans in April to leave the country, Biden said that as the fourth president to preside over the war he was not willing to pass the conflict off to a fifth. He said at the time that the U.S. “cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, and expecting a different result.”
Earlier this week, Taliban commanders showed off scores of weapons they seized from the Sultan Khil military base in Wardak province, close to Kabul. The seized weaponry and hardware included 900 guns, 30 light tactical vehicles and 20 army pickup trucks, according to NBC News’ U.K. partner Sky News, which was granted access to the base.
Many military outposts have been surrendered without a fight, according to Afghan military and government sources. Afghan security forces are vowing to reclaim the lost territories from the Taliban and turn the tide.