On Monday, President Joe Biden offered his first remarks to the press since the fall of the U.S.-backed Afghan government over the weekend. In his address, Biden admitted the Taliban took over Afghanistan fast than his administration anticipated, but he defended his overall decision to withdraw U.S. forces from the country.
Biden said “We were clear-eyed about the risks, we planned for every contingency, but I always promised the American people that I would be straight with you. The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.”
In the span of just over a week, the Taliban seized control of 26 of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals, including the seat of the Afghan government in Kabul. On Wednesday, Reuters reported one U.S. intelligence analysis projected Kabul wouldn’t fall to the Taliban for another 90 days. On Thursday, a day later, the New York Times reported expectations that Kabul would only hold out against the Taliban for 30 days. Within a day of arriving on Kabul’s outskirts, the Taliban had entered the presidential capital and declared their war with the Afghan government had ended.
The U.S. rapidly evacuated its embassy in Kabul and U.S. troops are currently controlling the Hamid Karzai International Airport only miles away, where they are overseeing evacuation efforts.
Biden later said, “I know my decision will be criticized, but I would rather take all that criticism than pass this decision onto another President of the United States.”
Biden also said the U.S. military is ready to respond if the Taliban attacks Americans as they evacuate the country.
“As we carry out this departure, we have made it clear to the Taliban if they attack our personnel or disrupt our operation, the U.S. presence will be swift, and the response will be swift and forceful,” Biden said. “We will defend our people with devastating force if necessary.”
The president was on vacation at the Presidential Retreat at Camp David, Maryland amid the fall of the Afghan capital city of Kabul. Biden paused his Camp David vacation to address the collapse of the Afghan government and the thousands of U.S. troops still working to evacuate people at the Kabul airport.
Biden began his remarks on Monday by stating the U.S. accomplished the two goals it set out for in Afghanistan, taking down the terrorist network behind the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and make sure Al-Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack the U.S. once again.
“We did that,” Biden said. “We severely degraded Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. We never gave up the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and we got him. That was a decade ago. Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to be nation-building.”
Biden went on to say the U.S. has the ability to effectively conduct counter-terrorism operations even in countries where there is no permanent U.S. troop presence. “If necessary, we’ll do the same in Afghanistan.”
“We’ve developed counter-terrorism, over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly focused on the direct threats to the United States in the region,” Biden added.
Biden also focused some of his attention on former President Donald Trump.
“When I came into office, I inherited a deal that President Trump negotiated with the Taliban,” Biden said. “Under his agreement, U.S. forces would be out of Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, just a little over three months after I took office.”
Biden noted under Trump, the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan was reduced from 15,500 troops to approximately 2,500.
Biden said that, under Trump, the Taliban was “at its strongest, militarily, since 2001.”
“The choice I had to make, as your president, was to either follow through on that agreement or be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the spring fighting season,” Biden said. “There would have been no cease-fire after May 1. There was no agreement protecting our forces after May 1. There was no status quo of stability without American casualties after May 1. There was only the cold reality of either following through on the agreement to withdraw our forces or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back into combat in Afghanistan, lurching into the third decade of conflict. I stand squarely behind my decision.”
Biden said the rapid collapse of the Afghan government only reinforced the message that the U.S. should leave the country. “We spent over a trillion dollars. We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of over 300,000 strong, incredibly well equipped, a force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies. We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries. We provided for the maintenance of their air force, something the Taliban does not have. We provided close air support. We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.”
Biden said with all the advantages the U.S. gave the Afghan government, no amount of additional time spent by U.S. forces in Afghanistan would have changed the outcome of the war.
“So I’m left again to ask of those who argue we should stay, how many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have be send to fight Afghanistan’s civil war when Afghan troops will not? How many more lives, American lives, is it worth? How many more rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery?” Biden asked. “I’m clear on my answer. I will not repeat the mistakes we’ve made in the past.”
Biden concluded his address without taking any questions from the media.
Following his remarks, the White House announced Biden would return to Camp David, where he had been vacationing during the fall of Kabul.