President Joe Biden on Thursday defended the American military withdrawal from Afghanistan, which faces mounting criticism it has endangered Afghan nationals who worked with the U.S. military and allowed the Taliban to regain control of large swaths of the country.
Biden, speaking from the White House, said he would work with Congress to speed the evacuation of those Afghans who helped during the two-decade long war, as pressure mounts to evacuate them and their families amid the withdrawal.
“There is a home for you in the U.S. if you so choose, and we will stand with you as you stood with us,” Biden said.
The House passed a bill last month to streamline one part of the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa application process, but it’s unclear what Congress could do with approximately 18,000 people in line and only a few weeks remaining.
Florida Republican Rep. Michael Waltz, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said Thursday it was encouraging to see the Biden administration focus on those visas.
“But I fear time has run out,” Waltz said in a news release.
Biden said the U.S. mission in Afghanistan now will conclude on Aug. 31, and American forces are on track to be out of the country by September. He said the United States did not go to Afghanistan “to nation-build.”
“The U.S. did what we went do to in Afghanistan — to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and to deliver justice to Osama bin Laden, and to degrade the terrorist threat to keep Afghanistan from becoming a base for attacks against the United States,” Biden said.
Concerns about fallout
But questions have grown over whether the U.S.-backed Afghan government, and its security force, can withstand the Taliban’s advances. Over the past two months, the Taliban have seized 150 of Afghanistan’s 421 districts.
“The Afghan government and leadership has to come together — they have the capacity to sustain the government in place,” Biden said. “The question is, will they generate the cohesion to do it?”
Biden acknowledged that a single unified government in Afghanistan is “highly unlikely.”
Biden’s remarks come just days after The Associated Press reported that the final U.S. troops secretly left Bagram Airfield in the middle of the night and cut the electricity without notifying their Afghan partners, opening the base — long the war’s center of operations — to looters.
Pentagon officials have disputed those reports, however, and Biden seemed to contest the reports in his remarks, saying that U.S. commanders told him the military needed to move quickly during its withdrawal.
“Speed is safety, in this context,” Biden said. “And no U.S. forces have been lost during the drawdown.”
Working with Congress
Biden also said his administration is working with Congress on the visa application process, which allows Afghans who helped the U.S. military to seek visas to immigrate to the United States. He said evacuation flights will begin this month.
According to Biden, some 2,500 visas have been approved since his inauguration, but only half of those Afghans who have gotten approval have made the move to the United States.
For Afghans who are still waiting for their visa to be processed, Biden said they would be allowed to wait outside of Afghanistan until they are let in to the United States, but did not specify where. Wait times for visas can take up to three years.
During a separate press briefing Thursday at the State Department, spokesman Ned Price clarified that only a select group of SIV applicants — who have been deemed “at risk” — will be eligible to wait in a third country while their applications are processed.
Price declined to specify how many applicants were in that select group.
Biden’s remarks come after weeks of mounting pressure from lawmakers to speed up the visa process, which critics say is burdensome and puts the lives of Afghans at risk as the Taliban advances.
On June 29, the House passed a bill that would expedite the process by postponing a required medical exam for applicants.
“We cannot allow a slow bureaucracy to cost the lives of Afghans who served alongside our men and women,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., said during a debate of the bill on the House floor.
That same day, the House Appropriations Committee released its fiscal 2022 defense funding bill, which would provide $25 million for the “transport and safe passage to Afghans who have provided faithful and valuable service to the United States and who are under serious threat.”
That money, allocated for fiscal 2022 if the spending bill passes, wouldn’t be available until October.