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Biden defends Afghanistan withdrawal: 'Not extending a forever exit'

"I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit," the president said, in his first address since the war ended.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Tuesday gave a forceful defense of his decision to pull troops from Afghanistan as critics question the chaotic final chapter of the nation's longest war.

"I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit," he said at the White House in his first public speech since the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan.

It’s time, he said, to stop using American soldiers to remake other countries.

"I don't think enough people understand how much we've asked of the 1 percent of this country who put that uniform on," he said.

The last U.S. flight out of Kabul took off a minute before midnight local time Monday. It was met with fireworks and gunfire as the Taliban celebrated the withdrawal, 20 years after their regime was toppled by American forces.

Biden also credited his administration's evacuation efforts in Afghanistan as an "extraordinary success." Herejected criticism from some that his administration could have handled the evacuations better by either beginning to evacuate people earlier in the summer or by extending the timeline beyond the Aug. 31 deadline in an effort to get more Afghan allies and Americans out of the country.

No matter when the U.S. started evacuations, he said, there would have been a rush to the airport, and staying longer would have meant escalating conflict with the Taliban.

"Leaving Aug. 31st is not due to an arbitrary deadline. It was designed to save American lives," Biden said. "The bottom line is that there is no evacuation from the end of a war that you can run without the kind of complexities, challenges and threats that we faced. None."

The war in Afghanistan has been costly. More than 47,000 civilians and 2,400 U.S. service members have been killed in the 20-year conflict, according to Brown University's Costs of War project. The final years of the conflict were some of the bloodiest, with civilian casualties in Afghanistan reaching record levels in the first half of 2021, according to the United Nations.

Thirteen U.S. service members and more than 100 Afghan civilians were killed Thursday, just days before the final withdrawal, in a suicide bomb outside the Kabul airport.

The past month of chaos and bloodshed in Afghanistan has drawn focus during a stretch the White House had hoped would be devoted to Biden's domestic agenda, including efforts to steer more than $4 trillion in new spending on infrastructure, health care and education programs through a heavily divided Congress.

The majority of Americans said they disapproved of Biden's handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released Monday, but just 20 percent of respondents said he deserved the "most blame for the current state" of the conflict.

Since July, the U.S. has helped to airlift more than 120,000 people out of Afghanistan, including roughly 5,500 Americans. Biden said roughly 100 to 200 Americans still remained in Afghanistan who have “some intention to leave,” many of whom are dual citizens.

Biden said Tuesday there is no deadline to evacuate Americans who wish to leave.

Two sources familiar with the operation emphasized that Americans were given multiple opportunities over the course of more than two weeks to leave.

U.S. officials, working on the ground in Kabul, at the State Department in Washington and in other diplomatic facilities around the world operated what was described as a “rolling, 24/7 operation” to contact all Americans who communicated their interest in leaving the country and help facilitate their evacuation. Officials made 55,000 phone calls and sent 33,000 emails as part of a process that started with three simple questions — Where are you? Do you want to leave now? And do you need help getting to the airport? — the people familiar with the process said.

Officials emphasized that those 100 to 200 Americans who were not evacuated by Monday’s deadline were among the most nuanced and complicated cases: individuals with dual citizenship and deep roots in Afghanistan; those with large extended families including noncitizens they hoped to bring with them; or those who waited until very late in the process to express their interest in leaving.

Efforts now to evacuate those remaining Americans will depend on a diplomatic pressure campaign that will test the administration’s belief that it holds significant leverage over the Taliban to ensure their continued cooperation.

Reflecting on the past 20 years, Biden said it was important to learn from what he viewed as two key mistakes made in Afghanistan: the lack of a mission with "clear, achievable goals" and the absence of a focus on "the fundamental national security interest of the United States of America."

"This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan," he continued. "It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries."

CORRECTION (Aug. 31, 2021, 7:02 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the date of the recent suicide bombing outside Kabul’s airport. The bombing happened Thursday, not Wednesday.