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Biden Defends Afghanistan Withdrawal Decision

President Joe Biden speaks about Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House, Aug. 16, 2021.
President Joe Biden speaks about Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House, Aug. 16, 2021.

U.S. President Joe Biden is defending his decision to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan despite the quickly unfolding calamity there, vowing not to pass on the problem to a fifth U.S. president.

"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," the president said in a 20-minute nationally televised speech Monday afternoon from the White House East Room.

Biden's speech – his first on-camera remarks in six days – came after he briefly interrupted his summer holiday, returning from Camp David, in the state of Maryland. Immediately after the address, taking no questions from reporters, he returned to the wooded presidential retreat.

During his remarks, Biden said the U.S. mission in Afghanistan "was never supposed to be a nation-building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy. Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what has always been, preventing a terrorist attack on (the) American homeland."

The president added that "our true strategic competitors, China and Russia, would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars into" Afghanistan indefinitely.

In the speech, Biden said Afghanistan's president, Ashraf Ghani — who fled the country as the Taliban moved into Kabul with no resistance — ignored his advice on how to prepare for the civil war, including tackling corruption and uniting politically.

"They failed to do any of that. I also urged them to engage in diplomacy to seek a political settlement with the Taliban. This advice was flatly refused. Mr. Ghani insisted that the Afghan forces would fight. And obviously he was wrong," Biden said.

US reaction to speech

There is bipartisan criticism from members of Congress that the Biden administration has fumbled the withdrawal and was caught unaware by the timing of the Taliban's advance into Kabul and how the Afghan military folded without resistance — something Biden acknowledged in his speech.

"I disagreed with President Biden's decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan, concerned that this administration, like the last, had not fully considered the consequences. It was my hope, however, that in exercising his right as commander-in-chief, the president would present Congress and the American people with a plan," said Senator Richard Burr, a Republican member of the intelligence committee. "It is now abundantly clear there was no plan."

Biden's Afghanistan Speech Garners Mixed Reviews
VOA compiles a roundup of reaction from U.S. lawmakers and analysts to President Joe Biden’s speech on Afghanistan

The chairman of that committee, Democrat Mark Warner, said he hopes "to work with the other committees of jurisdiction to ask tough but necessary questions about why we weren't better prepared for a worst-case scenario involving such a swift and total collapse of the Afghan government and security forces."

Representative Seth Moulton, a Democrat who is a member of the armed services committee in the House, declared what happened in Kabul on Sunday a disaster.

"The time to debate whether we stay in Afghanistan has passed, but there is still time to debate how we manage our retreat," said Moulton, a combat veteran who is among lawmakers in both parties calling for more expedited special immigrant visas for Afghans who worked for the U.S. military, intelligence agencies or at the embassy during the past 20 years.

Another Democratic congressman, Ted Lieu, said Biden made the right decision but that "does not ease the pain of watching Afghanistan — a country in which we have invested so much over the last two decades — deteriorate in a matter of days."

Lieu, who sits on the oversights and investigations subcommittee of the House foreign affairs committee, is calling for an investigation into why "the Afghan military and police forces collapsed within a matter of days despite over $80 billion of our taxpayer funds spent by both Democratic and Republican administrations to build up the Afghan military and police forces."

Before Biden's midafternoon address, his predecessor, Donald Trump, issued two brief statements contending none of this would have happened if he were still president.

The Trump administration negotiated a deal with the Taliban in February 2020, setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in return for the insurgents ending attacks on Americans and entering into talks with the Afghan government.

Taliban offensive

Intensified attacks by the Taliban began in May, when U.S. and NATO allies began pulling their last remaining troops from Afghanistan. A Taliban offensive saw them capture provincial capitals and sweep through most of the country in a little more than a week, culminating with Sunday's sudden collapse of the Afghan government.

The United States has retained control of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, but chaos has ensued as thousands try to flee the country.

"We were clear-eyed about the risks," Biden said Monday. "We planned for every contingency. But I always promised the American people that I will be straight with you. The truth is: This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated."

Biden, responding to reporters' questions on July 8, had expressed confidence that the 300,000 troops of the Afghan military would be able to stand up to a Taliban offensive, describing them "as well-equipped as any army in the world."