Joe Biden Defends Afghanistan Withdrawal: ‘There Was Never A Good Time’

The president’s speech captured the futility of prolonging the U.S. mission but offered little reflection on how America created the conditions for the Taliban to repress millions of Afghans.

President Joe Biden said Monday that the stunning collapse of the 20-year American project in Afghanistan proved he was correct to end the U.S. mission, arguing that the Taliban’s takeover of the country vindicated his decision to bring home the U.S. troops stationed there.

“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.”

The president conceded that the success of the militants “did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” over a two-week blitz of Taliban offensives. That will not sway his plans, however: After the 6,000 troops Biden recently deployed to Afghanistan evacuate Americans and U.S. allies in the coming days, “we will conclude our military withdrawal and we will end America’s longest war,” he said.

Biden’s gamble that his defense of his policy will resonate with Americans reflects how war-weariness and skepticism of U.S. foreign policy have gained ground nationally ― a big change from the years after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, which prompted then-U.S. leaders to invade Afghanistan, dislodge the Taliban regime, and aggressively, often illegally, pursue other perceived national security threats.

Earlier this year, Biden set an Aug. 31 deadline for pulling American forces out of Afghanistan, under the terms of a deal that former President Donald Trump signed with the Taliban in 2020. Anti-war lawmakers and organizers see Biden’s decision to follow through on Trump’s plan as a major bipartisan victory in their bid to restrain America’s propensity for costly, brutal foreign military interventions.

“Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it’s always been: preventing a terrorist attack on America’s homeland,” Biden said, adding that he opposed the idea of “nation-building” to establish a Western-style democracy in Afghanistan. He noted that he was the fourth president to oversee a U.S. deployment there: “I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth president.”

Joe Biden speaks about the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House on Aug. 16, 2021.
Joe Biden speaks about the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House on Aug. 16, 2021.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI via Getty Images

He said simply continuing the existing mission was not an option, a view many experts share: His realistic choice was to either pull out or double down, given the Taliban’s strength and willingness to attack Americans if the Trump-era deal fell apart.

But the president’s speech offered little reflection on how America had misstepped and created the conditions for repressive Taliban forces to reestablish their control over millions of Afghans. And Biden did not address broad, bipartisan criticism of how his team has handled the withdrawal amid the surprisingly fast Taliban advance ― an approach that has caused many Afghans to panic and fueled scenes of desperation at Kabul airport, currently the last American stronghold in the country.

“Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country,” the president said. “The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight ... what we could not provide them was the will to fight for their future.”

National security analysts say U.S. officials should have realized far sooner that they were pumping American taxpayer dollars into a deeply corrupt system that many Afghans had little interest in defending and that they designed the Afghan military to operate along American lines ― a critical vulnerability once the U.S. drawdown began.

Washington also overlooked how its military operations and lack of accountability for excesses drove some Afghans into the Taliban’s arms. In Biden’s telling, the U.S. sent troops to “fight Afghanistan’s civil war” — an absurd depiction given that American choices shaped the war.

Members of Congress and humanitarian groups say that Biden must now focus intensely on Afghans who could be targeted by the Taliban, such as people who worked with the U.S., women in public life and human rights activists.

Biden said his team will work to remove the vulnerable Afghans but blamed others for their plight.

“Some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier,” he claimed, adding that Afghan officials “discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus.”

In fact, thousands of Afghans remain trapped in a bureaucratic backlog as the U.S. has been slow to process their applications for visas despite the Taliban onslaught. The State Department opened up a new visa category for Afghan refugees this month ― but that status is only available to people who have already managed to leave Afghanistan and was announced with little time for most eligible Afghans to apply.

Focusing on what he described as the most important considerations to the U.S., including other terror threats and competition with China, Biden offered few words to the Afghans and others afraid of a newly empowered Taliban ― even, as he said, “human rights must be at the center of our foreign policy.”

“I’m deeply saddened by the facts we now face,” Biden said. “But I do not regret my decision.”