President Joe Biden on Tuesday called the evacuation from Afghanistan an extraordinary success in his first public remarks since the United States withdrew its military from the country on Monday, ending a 20-year war.
In a televised address from the White House State Dining Room, Biden criticised the ousted Afghan government’s inability to fight back against swift Taliban advances, which forced the United States and its Nato allies into a hasty and humiliating exit, and highlighted the role played by former US president Donald Trump.
The deal brokered by Trump authorised “the release of 5,000 prisoners last year, including some of the Taliban’s top war commanders, among those who just took control,” Biden said.
“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,” he said.
US officials believe 100 to 200 Americans remain in Afghanistan “with some intention to leave,” Biden said. He said most of those who remained were dual citizens and long-time residents who earlier had decided to stay, adding the United States was determined to get them out.
“We completed one of the biggest airlifts in history,” Biden said while defending Afghanistan exit as “best decision” for America.
US will “remain committed” to getting last Americans from Afghanistan, he added.
Biden also warned Afghanistan’s IS-K militants saying “we are not done with you”.
Many lawmakers had called on Biden to extend the Aug 31 deadline to allow more Americans and Afghans to escape, but Biden said it was “not an arbitrary deadline,” but one “designed to save lives”.
“I take responsibility for the decision. Now some say we should have started mass evacuations sooner and couldn’t this have been done in a more orderly manner. I respectfully disagree,” said Biden.
Even if evacuations had begun in June or July, he said, “there still would have been a rush to the airport” by people wanting to leave.
The departure of the last US troops from Afghanistan this week as the Taliban took over caps two decades of military involvement that Biden was determined to end.
While most Americans agreed with him, that end has not come smoothly. Biden’s presidency, which had been focused on fighting the coronavirus pandemic and rebuilding the economy, now faces political probes over the handling of the withdrawal as well as the logistical challenge of finding new homes for thousands of Afghans being moved to US military bases.
Republicans and some Democrats have expressed frustration and anger at the rapid fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, the former leaders who were ousted by the United States after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks, and what they say has been a botched withdrawal.
Biden said more troops would have had to go to Afghanistan and into harm’s way if the exit had not occurred.
Less than 40% of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the withdrawal, and three quarters wanted US forces to remain in the country until all American civilians could get out, according to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll released on Monday.