The US military withdrawal from Afghanistan will be completed by August 31, President Joe Biden said on Thursday as he announced plans to begin relocating the thousands of Afghans who have helped American forces over the past two decades.
“I want to be clear: the US military mission in Afghanistan continues through the end of August,” Mr Biden said in a speech at the White House.
The fate of Afghanistan hangs in the balance as the Taliban make rapid gains across the battered nation.
The August 31 withdrawal date is a few days before the September 11 deadline Mr Biden originally set.
Washington will begin flights this month to relocate Afghan interpreters and other personnel who aided the US military — as well as their families — to third-party countries while they await expedited visa processing to move to the US, Mr Biden said.
“There is a home for you in the United States if you so choose, and we will stand with you just as you stood with us,” he said.
In a passionate address and response to reporters' questions, Mr Biden defended his decision to stick to former president Donald Trump's deal with the Taliban and leave Afghanistan.
He reflected on America’s longest war, ending right before its 20-year anniversary, and the deaths of 2,448 US service members, about 21,000 wounded and trillions of dollars spent on war-fighting and nation-building.
The president said the US-led invasion had succeeded at bringing to justice Osama bin Laden, the perpetrator of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but that “there’s no mission accomplished” — referring to former president George W Bush's infamously premature declaration of victory in the Iraq War.
“I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome,” Mr Biden said.
“The United States cannot afford to remain tethered to policies created in response to the world as it was 20 years ago.”
The issue of what will happen to Afghan locals who helped US forces has been a source of much political debate in recent months and Congress and veterans’ groups have pressured the White House to enact an evacuation plan amid concerns the Taliban could retaliate against anyone who helped the Americans.
The US has already approved 2,500 special immigrant visas (SIVs) for Afghans who assisted the US military, but Mr Biden said that “up until now, fewer than half have exercised their right to do that".
An estimated 18,000 Afghans qualify for an SIV.
“If they choose, they can wait safely outside of Afghanistan while their US visas are being processed,” Mr Biden said. “The operation has identified US facilities outside the continental United States as well as third countries to host our Afghan allies.”
Congress began the process of expediting the visas last month when the House of Representatives passed a bill to waive a requirement for Afghan advisers to undergo a medical examination before receiving a visa.
However, the Senate has yet to take action on the bill and Congress has several more legislative options to further fast-track the visa process for the Afghans.
“We are working closely with Congress to change the authorisation legislation so we can streamline the process for approving those visas,” Mr Biden said.
While taking questions from reporters, Mr Biden rebutted a news report last month indicating the US intelligence community assesses that the Kabul-based government could collapse in as little as six months following the American military withdrawal.
“That is not true,” said Mr Biden, who had received an intelligence briefing on Afghanistan with Vice President Kamala Harris before his remarks. “There is not a conclusion; in fact, they cannot defeat the Taliban.
“This is now Joe Biden, not the intelligence: the only way there’s only going to be peace and security is if they work out a political dialogue with the Taliban and they make a judgment as to how they can make peace. And the likelihood there’s going to be a unified government in Afghanistan is highly unlikely.”
The US withdrawal comes as the Taliban make sweeping territorial gains in northern Afghanistan, prompting hundreds of Afghan soldiers to flee into neighbouring Tajikistan at the weekend.
Still, Mr Biden also said that “the possibility of the Taliban overrunning the whole country is highly unlikely”.
The Pentagon has also come under scrutiny after the departure of US forces from Bagram airbase. The US slipped away without fanfare and local commanders said they were not informed when they left.
The president reiterated his message to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during his visit to the White House last month that the US would continue providing humanitarian and military aid to the Kabul-based government while conducting so-called over-the-horizon counter-terrorism operations from third-party countries or aircraft carriers.
“You have the Afghan troops at 300,000, as well as equipped as any army in the world — and an air force — against something like 75,000 Taliban,” Mr Biden said.
“We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build, and it’s the right and responsibility of Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.”