Biden defends Afghanistan troop withdrawal while leaving some Americans behind

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(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden addressed the nation Tuesday and continued to defend his self-imposed deadline to withdraw the U.S. military from Afghanistan — a day after the last troops left the country, bringing America’s longest war to a close — but only after a chaotic and deadly exit.

“Last night in Kabul, the United States ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history,” Biden began, going on to tout the historic evacuation numbers. “No nation, no nation has ever done anything like it in all of history. Only the United States had the capacity and will and ability to do it.”

“The real choice was between leaving or escalating,” he claimed.

The president’s prepared remarks from the State Dining Room of the White House come 24 hours after the last military plane cleared airspace above Afghanistan but without more than 100 Americans on board who still wanted to get out of the country.

“There is no deadline” for Americans who want to leave, he said, at the same time saying “90% of Americans who wanted to leave were able to leave,” adding the U.S. would continue efforts to help those who wanted to get out.

Biden said that when he made the decision in April to end the war and set the Aug. 31 deadline, “The assumption was that more than 300,000 Afghan national security forces that we had trained over the past two decades and equipped would be a strong adversary in their civil wars with the Taliban.”

“That assumption, that the Afghan government would be able to hold on for a period of time beyond military drawdown, turned out not to be accurate,” Biden said.

His speech did not focus on the operational miscues that have marred the past week in Afghanistan but instead homed in on why the U.S. entered the war 20 years and why he didn’t want to pass the war on to another president.

“I was not going to extend this Forever War,” he said.

As Americans still remain in the country, Biden repeated an administration line that “there is no deadline” on getting Americans out, but did not offer operational details for retrieving remaining Americans with the airport under Taliban control.

On Monday, it was not Biden, who has long opposed the war, who marked its conclusion after 20 years on Monday, but Pentagon and State Department officials.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki offered a preview of Biden’s remarks earlier, saying that he would express his thanks to the service members who executed the “dangerous mission” as well as the veterans and volunteers who offered support.

“He will lay out his decision to end the war in Afghanistan after 20 years, including the tough decisions he made over the last seven months since he took office to bring the war to a close,” her statement said. “He will make clear that as President, he will approach our foreign policy through the prism of what is in our national interests, including how best to continue to keep the American people safe.”

Biden on Monday did release a written statement thanking commanders and service members for completing the withdrawal on schedule “with no further loss of American lives,” praising the evacuation effort as “the largest airlift in US history,” and teasing his defense not to stay beyond Aug. 31.

“For now, I will report that it was the unanimous recommendation of the Joint Chiefs and of all of our commanders on the ground to end our airlift mission as planned,” he said in the statement, although military leaders had lobbied Biden earlier this year to leave a residual U.S. force in Afghanistan to support the Afghan army and government.

With the U.S. military and diplomatic withdrawal now complete as the U.S. approaches 20 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Taliban has again taken over the country, including the Kabul airport, the site of an often-desperate evacuation effort the past two weeks. Shots were fired into the air to celebrate the withdrawal in Kabul on Monday night.

The Pentagon said Monday that 2,461 troops were lost in the war, which started as it began: under Taliban rule. Since the evacuation mission began, 6,000 citizens and more than 123,000 people — Afghans “friends and allies” — were airlifted out by the U.S. and partners, but alarms are being raised over those left behind.

Biden told ABC News’ George Stephanopolous in an exclusive interview on Aug. 18, “If there’s American citizens left, we’re gonna stay to get them all out.”

His poll numbers, too, showed uncommon cross-partisan agreement among Americans that withdrawing all U.S. troops by Biden’s deadline could be a grave mistake, according to an ABC/Ipsos poll conducted after Thursday’s suicide attack in Kabul which killed 13 service members and wounded 20. The survey found the percentage of Americans who think U.S. troops should stay until all Americans are out of Afghanistan is 86% among Democrats, 87% among Republicans and 86% among Independents.

Tuesday’s speech comes amid outrage expressed by some family members of those service members killed in last week’s airport attack over his handling of the withdrawal.

Some have criticized the president following Sunday’s dignified transfer ceremony at Dover Air Force Base, where he met with families. White House press secretary Jen Psaki wouldn’t respond directly to criticism from one family but said that the president feels responsible for their loss at a briefing on Monday.

Republican lawmakers have also blasted Biden for his handling of the withdrawal, with Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., calling the withdrawal a “national disgrace” and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., claiming Biden has armed the Taliban by leaving behind equipment.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, in an exclusive interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” defended the withdrawal and contended that only the president, as commander in chief, knows what it is to make these hard decisions.

“Those criticizing are not the ones who have to sit in the Situation Room and make the hard calls about the threats that we face and the objectives we’re trying to obtain and President Biden made that hard call and it is a call he believes will ultimately serve the interests of our people, all of our citizens and our country,” he said on Tuesday.

Perhaps foreshadowing Biden’s remarks, Sullivan also claimed the U.S. and the international community have “enormous leverage” on the Taliban to ensure those Americans and Afghans who want to get out can do so.

But the administration hasn’t provided a clear plan for those evacuations beyond saying it’s relying on a Taliban commitment to provide “safe passage.”

The 100 to 200 Americans that Secretary of State Antony Blinken said still wanted to be evacuated weren’t able to reach the airport in Kabul on Monday before the last U.S. plane left. Of the five final flights, no American civilians made it on board.

Thousands of Afghans who worked with the U.S., who fear reprisal from the Taliban, also did not make it out and are forced to rely on Afghanistan’s new rulers for departure — of which there is no guarantee.

It’s unclear what the evacuation picture will look like now that the U.S. military is gone.

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