Less than 24 hours after the last United States military flight left Kabul, President Joe Biden mounted a defiant defence of the withdrawal, saying it was “the right decision” to end the US’s 20-year military presence in Afghanistan.
Speaking in a firm tone from the White House on Tuesday, Biden said keeping US troops in control of the airport in the Afghan capital beyond an August 31 withdrawal deadline would have exposed them to heightened security risk.
“Let me be clear: leaving August 31 is not due to an arbitrary deadline. It was designed to save American lives,” he said.
Biden cited his predecessor Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban that ensured the withdrawal, but took responsibility for the final decision to pull all US troops out of the country.
“I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit,” he said. “The decision to end the military lift operations at Kabul airport was based on unanimous recommendation of my civilian and military advisers.”
Members of the US Congress and Washington’s European allies had urged the president to extend the evacuation operation at the airport past the end of the month. But Taliban officials had warned of “consequences” if the US military did not fully withdraw as scheduled.
After a virtual Group of Seven (G7) meeting last week, European Council President Charles Michel said the European Union stressed to Washington “the need to secure the airport as long as necessary to complete the operations” – a call echoed by many US lawmakers, including several from Biden’s own Democratic Party.
“I’m certainly of the view that we maintain a military presence as long as it’s necessary to get all US persons out and to meet our moral and ethical obligation to our Afghan partners,” Adam Schiff, a Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said earlier this month.
The Taliban took over Afghanistan in a blitz earlier this month, reaching Kabul on August 15 as President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and government forces collapsed.
Almost immediately after the Pentagon announced on Monday that the last US flight had left Afghanistan, Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy rallied GOP veterans in Congress to rebuke Biden.
Congressman Dan Crenshaw, a war veteran who fought in Afghanistan, accused the administration of surrendering the country to the Taliban against Washington’s national security interests.
“They love the slogan ‘no more endless wars,’” he said. “We made foreign policy based on an emotional slogan, and it has made America less safe, not more safe.”
On Tuesday, Biden argued that the Afghanistan exit was in Washington’s strategic interests as the US shifts its foreign policy to focus on global competition with China and Russia.
“There’s nothing China or Russia would rather have, would want more in this competition than the United States to be bogged down another decade in Afghanistan,” he said.
Biden also defended the way the withdrawal was carried out – despite scenes of chaos at the airport in Kabul. He called the evacuation mission an “extraordinary success”, saying the US has airlifted more than 120,000 people out of the country.
“We completed one of the biggest airlifts in history … That number is more than double what most experts thought were possible. No nation, no nation has ever done anything like it in all history,” Biden said
Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher, reporting from Washington, DC before Biden’s speech, said the images from Kabul over the past two weeks were “hugely damaging” for the US president.
“Here was a force which many politicians … would describe as the greatest military force ever assembled on the face of the earth, being humiliated by fighters who continued an insurgent war for 20 years,” Fisher said. “This is not a good day for the American psyche.”
But Fisher pointed to a new poll by Pew Research showing that 54 percent of respondents still favour the decision to pull US troops out of Afghanistan. “And it’s that figure that Joe Biden will be thinking about,” he said.
Earlier on Tuesday, Afghan-American activist Lida Azim warned that the US troop withdrawal does not necessarily mean the war has ended.
“If the United States is serious about ending a forever war, it must immediately end drone strikes and pay reparations and humanitarian aid to Afghan civil society that were left behind and betrayed by the United States,” Azim said during a virtual news conference.
Biden, however, made clear in his speech that the US military would continue to operate from the air in Afghanistan to act against “terror threats”.
“We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries,” the US president said. “We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it. We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground.”
On Sunday, a US air strike that the Pentagon said targeted militants from Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K), killed 10 Afghan civilians, including several children, according to family members.