Biden defends Afghanistan withdrawal as an ‘extraordinary success,’ and says war ‘should have ended long ago’

Joe biden
U.S. President Joe Biden pauses while giving remarks on the worsening crisis in Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House August 16, 2021. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
  • President Joe Biden on Tuesday delivered a speech on the completion of the Afghanistan withdrawal.
  • The last US military planes left Afghanistan on Monday, with the Taliban back in control of the country.
  • But there are many signs the US will continue to be active in Afghanistan, even without troops there.
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President Joe Biden on Tuesday delivered a speech on Afghanistan from the White House to mark the completion of the US withdrawal from the country.

Biden once again issued a forceful defense of his decision to withdraw US forces, while largely sidestepping the widespread criticism of how the pullout was handled.

“My fellow Americans: The war in Afghanistan is now over. I’m the 4th president who has faced the issue of whether and when to end this war,” Biden said. “I refused to send another generation of America’s sons and daughters to fight a war that should have ended long ago.”

“That was the choice, the real choice between leaving or escalating,” he said. “I was not going to extend this forever war.”

The president said he believed the move to withdraw was a “wise decision” and the “best decision for America.”

Biden framed the choice as not solely about Afghanistan, but also “ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”

‘Extraordinary success’

As Republicans excoriate Biden for pulling all troops before all Americans were evacuated, the president said that upholding an August 31 deadline “was designed to save American lives.”

Biden called the mission to evacuate over 120,000 people in recent weeks an “extraordinary success.”

The president said the mission to help Americans remaining in Afghanistan has “no deadline.”

The war in Afghanistan was a 20-year debacle for the US, and the longest violent conflict in its history. Four administrations – two Republican and two Democratic – mismanaged the war while consistently misleading the public about the situation on the ground.

Though Biden’s critics – primarily Republicans – have sought to blame the chaos surrounding the withdrawal entirely on him, it’s difficult to divorce the recent mayhem from the pandemonium that has typified the war.

“I refuse to open another decade of warfare in Afghanistan. We’ve been a nation too long at war. If you’re 20 years old today, you’ve never known an America at peace,” Biden said on Tuesday. “I don’t think we understand what we’ve asked of the 1% of Americans who serve.”

The plan to pull US troops was orchestrated under the Trump administration, which signed a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 that demoralized Afghan forces and emboldened the militants. By the time that deal was signed, the Taliban already controlled roughly half of the country’s districts.

Biden continued to point the finger at Trump on Tuesday, stating, “By the time I came to office, the Taliban was in its strongest military position since 2001, controlling or contesting nearly half of the country.”

The Biden administration has acknowledged that it miscalculated the blistering pace at which the Taliban would seize control of the country as US troops pulled out, despite prior warnings from the US intelligence community and others.

But Biden has also defended the withdrawal by contending that the war was a lost cause, and pushed back against criticism of his approach to the pullout by making the case that it was never going to be a smooth process.

“I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces,” the president said in mid-August.

A costly war

The conflict was exorbitantly costly in terms of human lives, US tax-dollars, and US credibility.

It resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, including 2,448 US service members, roughly 66,000 Afghan national military and police officers, and more than 47,000 Afghan civilians, per estimates from Brown University’s Costs of War project.

The US spent $US2.26 ($AU3) trillion in Afghanistan, leaving the country with potentially amounts to billions of dollars worth of US military equipment in the hands of the Taliban.

The 2001 invasion was carried out with the purpose of taking out Al Qaeda, the group behind the 9/11 terror attacks. Though Al Qaeda’s leadership has taken major blows over the years, including the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, the terror organization is still in operation today. The US also leaves Afghanistan with the Taliban – its enemy for two decades – back in control for the first time since 2001.

After Biden announced the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in April, there was initially broad support from American voters for the move. More recent polling, however, has shown that most Americans disapprove of the way the Biden administration has handled the withdrawal.

Congressional lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been especially critical of the administration’s approach to helping Afghans who assisted the US during the war – a group expected to face violent reprisals from the Taliban.

The US left thousands of Afghan allies behind when the last military plane took off from Hamid Karzai International Airport on Monday. A country of 38 million people now faces an extremely uncertain future with the militant Islamist group back in control.

The Taliban, which celebrated the US departure with gunfire, has sought to present a more moderate image since marching into the capital in mid-August. But the group has terrorized Afghanistan for years, and even a cursory review of its brutal history makes it clear why thousands of Afghans desperately sought to leave the country in recent days.

‘To ISIS-K: we are not done with you yet’

Afghans view aftermath of a US drone strike
Relatives and neighbors of the Ahmadi family gathered around the incinerated husk of a vehicle targeted and hit earlier Sunday afternoon by an American drone strike, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. Marcus Yam/Getty Images

Though US troops are no longer on the ground in Afghanistan, events over the past week suggest it is far from done with the country. There are signs that it will continue to use drones and other assets to target suspected terrorists operating out of Afghanistan.

“To ISIS K: we are not done with you yet,” Biden said during his Tuesday speech.

ISIS-K, the Islamic State’s Afghanistan affiliate, carried out an attack in Kabul last week that left scores dead – including dozens of Afghans and 13 US service members. It was the deadliest day for the US military in a decade.

Biden during his speech called the US service members who were killed “heroes.”

“We owe them and their families a debt of gratitude we can never repay, but we should never, ever, ever forget,” he said.

The US responded with separate drone strikes. The first strike was on Friday in the Nangarhar province – east of the capital – that officials said killed two ISIS-K fighters.

The second was in Kabul on Sunday, targeting a vehicle that the US military said was filled with explosives poised to be used in an ISIS-K attack. At least 10 Afghan civilians, including seven children, were killed as a result of the strike, according to what family members and witnesses told The New York Times.

Leon Panetta, who served as both the CIA director and defense secretary under the Obama administration, told CNN last Thursday that the “bottom line is that our work is not done in Afghanistan.”

“We can leave a battlefield but we can’t leave the war on terrorism which still is a threat to our security,” Panetta said.