WASHINGTON — One hundred and thirty-nine days after promising to leave Afghanistan “responsibly, deliberately and safely,” President Joe Biden declared success Tuesday despite an evacuation that wound up being none of those.
“We’ve been a nation too long at war. If you’re 20 years old today, you’ve never known an America at peace,” Biden said in a 26-minute speech from the White House’s State Dining Room.
The stagecraft reflected the significance he and his team placed on the end of America’s longest war: Photographers and camera crews were arranged so they would record Biden walking down the long, red-carpeted hallway that runs the length of the White House residence, which then served as the backdrop during his remarks.
“Brave and honorable service. After 20,744 American servicemen and women injured, and the loss of 2,461 American personnel, including 13 lives lost just this week, I refuse to open another decade of warfare in Afghanistan,” Biden said. “When I was running for president, I made a commitment to the American people that I would end this war. Today, I’ve honored that commitment.”
In an April 14 speech announcing that he would pull the remaining few thousand troops out of Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that sparked the U.S. invasion of the country, Biden promised an orderly departure.
“We will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit. We’ll do it — we’ll do it responsibly, deliberately, and safely,” he said then, from the very room that former President George W. Bush had announced the start of airstrikes to remove the Taliban from power.
On July 8, in response to a reporter’s question comparing Afghanistan to the fall of Saigon in 1975, Biden asserted: “The Taliban is not … the North Vietnamese army. They’re not — they’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy … from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”
While the first weeks of the drawdown went smoothly, chaos ensued after the Taliban finished a final offensive retaking the capital city of Kabul on Aug. 14. Biden was forced to deploy 6,000 U.S. troops to take control of and defend the city’s airport, while thousands of Americans and more than 100,000 Afghan interpreters, translators, embassy staff and their families suddenly faced deadly peril in making their way to the airport gates.
Last week, an ISIS-K terrorist made it past Taliban checkpoints and detonated an explosive vest, murdering 13 U.S. service members and nearly 200 Afghans crowded together at an entry point.
On Tuesday, while acknowledging that attack and vowing to ISIS-K that “we are not done with you yet,” Biden focused on the success of the operation. “We completed one of the biggest airlifts in history with more than 120,000 people evacuated to safety. That number is more than double what most experts thought was possible,” he said.
While the latter half of Biden’s remarks expressed a somber appreciation for the service members who died in the country over two decades and a big-picture explanation about his views on international terrorism, the first portion, delivered in a defiant, almost angry tone, appeared designed to rebut every criticism his handling of the crisis has received, both from anti-war Democrats who wondered why the evacuation wasn’t started earlier as well as “neo-con” Republicans who believe the United States should not have left at all.
Biden argued that if the U.S. had started ferrying its diplomats, other citizens and Afghan allies of the war effort earlier, that action would have triggered the collapse of the Afghan government earlier. “The bottom line is there is no evacuation from the end of a war that you can run without the kinds of complexities, challenges, and threats we faced. None,” he said.
He was more forceful in his argument against continuing a low-grade military mission advising the Afghans in their civil war. “There’s nothing low-grade or low-risk or low-cost about any war,” he said, pointing out the thousands of veterans who live with wounds they suffered, and the many who take their own lives. “Eighteen veterans on average who die by suicide every single day in America ― not in a far-off place, but right here in America.”
While saying that he took responsibility for the decision to leave Afghanistan, Biden expressly blamed the last leader of the U.S.-backed Afghan government, Ashraf Ghani. “The people of Afghanistan watched their own government collapse and the president flee amid the corruption and malfeasance, handing over the country to their enemy, the Taliban,” he said.
He also suggested that American citizens and others wanting to leave the country had ignored months of guidance to do so in advance of the Aug. 14 Taliban takeover. “Since March, we reached out 19 times to Americans in Afghanistan with multiple warnings and offers to help them leave Afghanistan, all the way back, as far as March,” he said.
As he has since he first announced the withdrawal in April, Biden again pointed out the circumstances he inherited when he took office: a “peace” agreement negotiated by former President Donald Trump that effectively handed the country back to the Taliban with a complete withdrawal by May 1, 2021, in return for a promise not to attack U.S. troops in the interim.
Biden pointed out on Tuesday, for the first time, that Trump’s deal also directly led to the strengthening of the Taliban in its fight against the Afghan government.
“It did authorize the release of 5,000 prisoners last year, including some of the Taliban’s top war commanders, among those who just took control of Afghanistan,” Biden said. “By the time I came to office, the Taliban was in its strongest military position since 2001, controlling or contesting nearly half of the country.”
Biden closed with an emphasis on the fact of the departure, rather than the messy and, ultimately, deadly circumstances at the exit: “I believe this is the right decision, a wise decision, and the best decision for America.”