WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Monday defended his administration's decision to continue with the U.S. military drawdown in Afghanistan, blaming the U.S.-backed Afghan government and military for allowing the Taliban to take over.
"Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country; the Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight," Biden said. "If anything, the developments of the past week reinforce that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision."
Speaking to the American public from the White House, Biden said he stood firmly by his decision and argued that he was faced with a choice to either follow through with the drawdown or escalate the conflict into its third decade and ultimately sacrifice more American lives.
"I stand squarely behind my decision," Biden said. "After 20 years, I've learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces. That's why we're still there."
The Taliban seized control of Afghanistan’s capital Sunday following President Ashraf Ghani's departure from the country, bringing an abrupt end to the 20-year U.S. effort to restructure the Afghan government and its military.
Within hours of the Taliban takeover, chaos erupted at Kabul’s international airport as desperate Afghans raced to flee the country. A harrowing video captured Monday showed Afghans storming the military side of the airport and clinging to a U.S. Air Force plane as it attempted to move down the tarmac. In the video, some people appear to fall to their death as the aircraft takes off.
The White House appeared to be caught off guard by the Taliban's rapid advance. Within the past few days, the U.S. was forced to send additional troops to Afghanistan to help with evacuations. The U.S. Embassy, which the State Department had insisted Thursday would remain open, was fully evacuated by Sunday evening. Over the weekend, Biden chose to stay at Camp David, the presidential retreat, as criticism mounted.
"The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated," Biden said Monday, insisting that his administration was prepared for all scenarios but that the Afghan government and military were unwilling to defend their own country.
"American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves," he said, arguing that if their military was unable to mount any real resistance to the Taliban now, a few more years of U.S. troops on the ground would not have made any difference.
As the Taliban took hold of the country, Democrats on Capitol Hill and former Obama administration officials joined Republicans in publicly criticizing Biden’s handling of the situation. While most agreed with the decision to remove troops, they attacked Biden’s failure to help the thousands of Afghans who assisted U.S. forces over the 20-year war effort exit the country before the Taliban took over, and the scramble to evacuate Americans from the country.
"This is a crisis of untold proportions," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who had urged Biden to make an address to the nation. "This is an intelligence failure."
Ryan Crocker, who was ambassador to Afghanistan in the Obama administration, said the Biden administration had "a total lack of coordinated, post-withdrawal planning," and that the predicament was a "self-inflicted wound."
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement Monday evening that he supported the administration's withdrawal but has urged the White House to protect "brave Afghans that have worked alongside our country and who are in immediate danger."
"I’ve been on the phone with the White House and other senior administration officials to ensure the United States is doing everything we can to get these people out quickly and safely," Schumer said.
Schumer also joined a bipartisan group of 45 senators, who signed a letter urging the administration to prioritize protecting Afghan women and girls by streamlining the visa process following reports of rape, torture and kidnappings by the Taliban.
Responding to criticism from some that the administration should have started to evacuate Afghans and U.S. personnel sooner, Biden said that some Afghans did not want to leave earlier in hope that it would not be necessary. The Afghan government also discouraged the U.S. from organizing a mass exodus out of concern that it would trigger a "crisis of confidence," Biden said.
Biden said that the U.S. was taking over air traffic control in Afghanistan to ensure that civilian and military flights could continue. He committed to continuing to help evacuate Afghan allies and vulnerable Afghans and said the U.S. would engage in regional diplomacy and speak out about human rights, especially for women and girls.
Biden also issued a memo Monday evening directing Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to use $500 million — authorized through the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1962 — to assist in "meeting unexpected urgent refugee and migration needs of refugees, victims of conflict, and other persons at risk as a result of the situation in Afghanistan."
While in office, former President Donald Trump negotiated a deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. military personnel by May 1 of this year. After he was inaugurated, Biden said the withdrawal would be completed by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks.
In July, Biden insisted that a Taliban takeover was not inevitable and that the Afghan military was well-equipped and trained to keep the Taliban at bay. "I trust the capacity of the Afghan military," Biden said at the time.
"The events we are seeing now are sadly proof that no amount of military force would have ever delivered a stable, united, secure Afghanistan," Biden said Monday. "I will not mislead the American people by claiming that just a little more time in Afghanistan will make all the difference."