Defiant Biden defends Afghan withdrawal, says country’s military ‘refused to fight’

GOP senator questions president’s mental state, floats 25th Amendment removal

President Joe Biden delivers remarks about the situation in Afghanistan in the East Room of the White House on Monday. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden delivers remarks about the situation in Afghanistan in the East Room of the White House on Monday. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted August 16, 2021 at 5:58pm

President Joe Biden refused to bow Monday to criticism over the chaos in Afghanistan after the Taliban sacked its capital city and returned to power, blaming the country’s leaders and security forces for refusing to fight.

He said during a 4 p.m. address that he has sent troops to help with evacuations and the United States would remain focused on thwarting terrorism.

“We gave them every chance to determine their own future,” he said of the beleaguered country’s fallen former government and defeated security forces. “What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.”

The U.S. commander in chief delivered his first public remarks amid bipartisan and international criticism after the stunningly swift takeover of Kabul and other major cities by the hard-line group. After spending the weekend at Camp David, the embattled Biden broke his silence, admitting his administration miscalculated Afghan forces’ will to fight and the Taliban’s ability to so rapidly seize control of the entire country.

Biden’s message, delivered in an often stern tone, was one part strategic and one part defiant, as he stood by his decision to end America’s longest armed conflict while also taking jabs at political foes and trying to pin blame on Afghan troops and leaders after many top government officials fled Kabul once a Taliban takeover became a certainty.

“I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces,” Biden said, reiterating his long-held contention that the American objectives there became overly ambitious — and unachievable.

“We never gave up the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and we got him. That was a decade ago,” he said of the raid inside Pakistan that he advised against as vice president to Barack Obama. “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to be nation-building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified centralized democracy,” but one focused on preventing al-Qaida or another group to use the country to plan an attack on the “American homeland.”

Amid harsh words from GOP lawmakers and his presidential predecessor, Donald Trump, that he had no withdrawal plan and allowed the Taliban to win, Biden said he accepts such criticism.

“This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated. … I am president of the United States of America, and the buck stops with me,” he said. “I am deeply saddened by the facts we now face.”

But he also had his own harsh words — for leaders like Ashraf Ghani, the former president who fled Afghanistan on Sunday, as well as the country’s American-trained security forces.

“Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed,” he said before describing the dramatic scenes in Kabul over the past two days as evidence that he made the correct strategic call.

“If anything, the developments in the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision. 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,” he said.

“I will not mislead the American people by saying just a little more time in Afghanistan will make all the difference,” Biden said, calling the southwest Asian country “the graveyard of empires.”

‘Get our people out’

Biden said the U.S. military over the next few days will move “thousands” of American citizens and Afghan citizens who qualify for special visas after assisting Washington’s efforts there. He said he has approved a Pentagon request to send thousands of U.S. troops back to Afghanistan to secure the Kabul airport and its single runway, where frightened Afghans were going so far as clinging to C-130 aircraft as they were taking off.

The aim of that operation is to “get our people and our allies to safety.” Once that is done, he said, the U.S. operation will formally end.

A handful of protesters calling for the United States to help the people in Afghanistan hold flags on Monday outside the White House in Lafayette Square as President Joe Biden speaks on the crisis in Afghanistan. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The fall of Kabul on Sunday marked the end of the nearly 20-year American and NATO operation there, which began weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The U.S. military suffered more than 22,000 casualties, including 2,400 deaths, while Washington delivered $144 billion worth of aid and military equipment to the troubled country, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The president, as he has for months, insisted he could order military strikes on any terrorist groups operating inside the country without a single American base there.

“We conduct effective counterterrorism missions against terrorist groups in multiple countries where we don’t have permanent military presence, if necessary,” Biden said. “We’ll do the same in Afghanistan. We’ve developed a counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on the direct threats to the United States in the region and act quickly and decisively, if needed.”

Biden spoke hours after his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, made the rounds on morning talk shows defending his boss’s withdrawal plan.

“President Biden was not prepared to usher in a third decade of war and put U.S. troops in harm’s way, fighting and dying, to try to hold Afghanistan together when its own armed forces would not fight to hold it together,” Sullivan told CBS News.

Doing so would have required Biden sending “thousands and thousands more U.S. troops in the face of a Taliban onslaught, taking casualties and, frankly, having to step up and fight for an Afghan army that was not prepared to fight for itself,” Sullivan said.

That unwillingness to fight was on display as the Taliban over the past few weeks gobbled up territory from the country’s rural areas to its major cities. The group’s advance was met, according to multiple reports, by poorly fed and resupplied Afghan security forces who saw little use in fighting for a central government they felt had abandoned them.

Sullivan was blunt in describing Biden’s decision-making metric, even as some Republicans say the Afghanistan debacle shows the 78-year-old president is not mentally sound enough for his job.

“So this is about hard choices, and the choice that he made he believes was in the national security interest of the United States,” Sullivan said.

But GOP lawmakers and Trump, who Biden administration officials say forced their collective hand through his 2020 deal with the Taliban calling for a complete U.S. withdrawal, are using the volatile situation to hammer the Democratic chief executive.

In a series of statements emailed out Monday morning, Trump contended his successor “surrendered to the Taliban” and claimed his administration would have carried out a more orderly withdrawal — although the 45th president offered few specifics of his alleged approach.

“Can anyone even imagine taking out our Military before evacuating civilians and others who have been good to our Country and who should be allowed to seek refuge?” Trump said. “In addition, these people left topflight and highly sophisticated equipment. Who can believe such incompetence? Under my Administration, all civilians and equipment would have been removed.”

But Biden offered a rebuttal hours later.

“I know there were concerns about why we did not begin evacuating Afghan civilians sooner. Part of the answer: Some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier,” he said. “And part of it is because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, a crisis of confidence.”

In the Monday statements and ones he released over the weekend, Trump failed to mention his overtures to the Taliban, including his eventually scuttled invitation to host the group’s leaders and Afghan government officials at Camp David.

‘It didn’t have to be this way!’

Neither did Republican lawmakers, who instead pinned all blame on the current Oval Office occupant.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott of Florida used the Kabul chaos to push the right-wing theory that Biden’s mental state is beneath the rigors of his office, tweeting: “After the disastrous events in Afghanistan, we must confront a serious question: Is Joe Biden capable of discharging the duties of his office or has time come to exercise the provisions of the 25th Amendment?”

Republicans have made clear that the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan likely will be a bludgeon with which the GOP hammers Biden and vulnerable Democratic congressional candidates in the 2022 and 2024 election cycles.

“Afghanistan is the most embarrassing military outcome in the history of the United States,” Trump contended. “It didn’t have to be that way!”

The Republican National Committee fired off a blast email slamming Biden for his “botched” withdrawal, adding: “Biden’s advisors have no answers for the horrific consequences of his policies, and it is long overdue for Biden to own up to his failures.”

But some national security experts offered a more nuanced assessment, saying four presidents and their administrations all failed to craft any coherent strategy for Afghanistan, including how to leave.

“[The] fall of Kabul was 20 yrs in the making,” retired Army officer and combat veteran Daniel Davis, now with the Defense Priorities think tank, wrote in a social media post. “This is the bitter fruit of 1) US unwillingness to acknowledge reality, 2) our unwillingness to tell the truth, and 3) corrupt AFG ldrs in gov & mil.”

Biden, too, cast the situation and his decision in pure strategic terms. He said the terrorism threat had “metastasized” beyond Afghanistan’s borders, adding he determined it was time to devote more “resources” to those violent groups — and some more familiar adversaries.

“China and Russia,” he said, “would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilizing Afghanistan indefinitely.”

As he mulls and teases a 2024 run for a White House return, Trump appeared to be watching Biden’s remarks from his New Jersey golf club. “It’s not that we left Afghanistan,” he said in another statement. “It’s the grossly incompetent way we left!”