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Afghans own whatever comes next, Biden says

President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the White House, June 23, 2021. (YouTube screenshot)

The fate of Afghanistan is up to the Afghan people, President Joe Biden said repeatedly Thursday as American troops continued their withdrawal and Taliban forces swept through the country.

Biden announced that the 20-year U.S. war in Afghanistan, originally supposed to end by Sept. 11, will wrap up on Aug. 31. Defending his decision, Biden stressed that what happens next is up to Afghans, though he added that America will continue to fund and equip the government and help the Afghan military maintain its forces. Biden also said he does not believe America is responsible for civilian casualties that could happen if the Taliban rises to power after Western troops leave.

“It’s up to the people of Afghanistan to decide on what government they want, not us to impose the government on them,” he said during an address at the White House.

In that speech and a brief press conference following, Biden held firm to his decision to leave and parried reporters’ shouted questions about a long list of growing concerns about Afghanistan’s stability due to the American withdrawal. The president rejected calls that the U.S. military drawdown should slow or stop because security in Afghanistan is degrading so fast. The deal former President Donald Trump inked with the Taliban that required American troops to leave by May 1, 2021, meant, he said, “the status quo was not an option.” If U.S. forces stayed, Biden said, the Taliban would begin targeting them for violating the agreement. Then, the Pentagon would need to deploy more troops to protect those who were under attack.

“Once the agreement with the Taliban was made, staying with a bare minimum force was no longer possible,” Biden said.

Dozens of civilians were killed last week in Afghanistan as violence increased around the country, according to a United Nations report published July 1. The New York Times also reported that Taliban have been assassinating government workers in areas they take over.

Biden said America is also not responsible if women’s rights degrade under the Taliban, something already seen in areas seized by the Taliban where women can no longer work and girls can no longer go to school. The president recounted a “heartbreaking” visit to an Afghan school, where a teen girl begged American troops not to leave because a U.S. withdrawal would kill her dream of becoming a doctor.

“This is why we spent so much time and money training Afghan security forces, to do the work of defending that,” he said.

At a Pentagon press conference after Biden’s comments, press secretary John Kirby emphasized the ongoing military support the U.S. has agreed to provide.

“It’s not like we’re clapping our hands and walking away,” Kirby said. “We’re going to continue to work on improving their Air Force. The Secretary just recently agreed to help them to deliver two—this month— UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, with another 35 to come. We’re going to help manage an overhaul process for some of their MI-17 helicopters. And we are going to purchase another three Super Tucano … A-29 aircraft. So we’re committed in very tangible ways to improving their Air Force capabilities.”

Biden said it is “not inevitable” that Afghanistan will fall to the Taliban, citing the 300,000 trained members of the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces and their ability to defend against an estimated 75,000 Taliban fighters. But he also said it is “highly unlikely” that the country will have one unified government, and that it’s not America’s job to ensure that happens.

“The Afghan government, the leadership, has to come together. They clearly have the capacity to sustain the government in place. The question is will they generate the kind of cohesion to do it,” he said. “They have the capacity, they have the forces, they have the equipment. The question is will they do it.”

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani accepted this responsibility during a visit to Washington last month, saying his country is facing a moment akin to when a bitterly divided America launched the Civil War in 1861.

“This is a sovereign U.S. decision. We respect that decision. Our course is to manage the consequences and to ensure that the people of Afghanistan rise to the challenge,” Ghani said.

Though violence and human rights issues remain, Biden argued that the United States accomplished its mission in Afghanistan “some time” ago. Because American already killed Osama Bin Laden for his role organizing the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and prevented another terrorist attack launched against the U.S. homeland from Afghanistan, the departure of Western forces is “quite frankly overdue,” he said. Instead, Biden said the terrorist threat to America has shifted to other places where the military must focus instead of Afghanistan, including in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

Additional flights to evacuate Afghan interpreters and others who worked with U.S. troops will begin “this month.” Biden did not give further details about where the Afghans would go, but he said they would be able to wait out the visa process in a third country, if desired. “There is a home here in the United States if you choose. We will stand with you just as you stood with us,” said the president.

The Defense Department will provide options soon on what military facilities overseas can be used to house the fleeing interpreters and their families, Kirby said. “Some U.S. installations that we are looking at are ours, on U.S. territory,” Kirby said, while other candidate sites include U.S. overseas military bases located in host nations, with their permissions. A third option is to temporarily relocate interpreters to third countries. The New York Times reported last week that Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are potential sites.

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