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President Joe Biden on Monday said he remained resolute in his decision to pull US troops from Afghanistan, arguing there was never a good time to end America's longest war and blaming Afghan power brokers for failing to step up and form a sustainable government that could outlive western support.
Mr Biden faces a brutal political reckoning after the Taliban seized Kabul over the weekend and former president Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan, leaving the hardliners once again firmly in charge of the country, 20 years after they were toppled in a US-led invasion.
"I stand squarely behind my decision,” Mr Biden said in a televised address from the White House. “After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces.”
Mr Biden's public address came as critics assailed his taciturn response to events in Kabul, where Taliban forces strolled into the capital as Afghan national security forces collapsed completely.
In his speech, Mr Biden conceded that the utter rout and speed of the implosion of Mr Ghani's government had come as a surprise.
"The truth is this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated," he said.
"Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed sometimes without trying to fight."
But he added such "gut-wrenching" events only reinforced his decision to get out of Afghanistan.
"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.
Having spent the first months of his presidency building an image of calm competence after the unpredictability of his predecessor Donald Trump, Mr Biden is under fire for his handling of the Afghan crisis.
As the world watched the Taliban take Kabul and saw chaotic scenes play out at the airport as thousands of desperate Afghans tried to leave, Mr Biden was cloistered in his Camp David presidential retreat.
His only real public communication was a statement reiterating his position and blaming Mr Trump for signing off on a withdrawal deal with the Taliban in 2020.
But in bitterly partisan America, it matters little that Mr Biden was following through on a plan put in place by the Trump administration.
Even as the Republican National Committee quietly deleted a 2020 web page praising Mr Trump's "historic peace agreement", Republican figures sought to capitalise on the president’s new-found vulnerability.
“It did not have to happen this way,” Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, said in a statement.
“Everyone saw this coming except the president, who publicly and confidently dismissed these threats just a few weeks ago.”
“The strategic, humanitarian and moral consequences of this self-inflicted wound will hurt our country and distract from other challenges for years to come.”
Mr Trump issued a statement saying Mr Biden's handling of Afghanistan was "legendary".
"It will go down as one of the greatest defeats in American history,” the former president said.
Paraphrasing a sign former president Harry Truman famously kept on his desk in the White House, Mr Biden on Monday said "the buck stops with me" as he defended his decision to leave Afghanistan.
He said he would rather take political heat now than "pass this decision on to another president".
"It's the right decision for our people, it's the right one for America," Mr Biden insisted.
Mr Biden has often boasted of having more foreign policy experience than any new president in decades and in recent months sought to reassure US allies and Nato that America will be more dependable after the years of upsets and unpredictability under Mr Trump.
But the Wall Street Journal said Mr Biden’s hand-wringing of Afghanistan “deserves to go down as one of the most shameful in history by a commander in chief at such a moment of American retreat”.
“The president has spent seven months ostentatiously overturning one Trump policy after another on foreign and domestic policy. Yet he now claims Afghanistan policy is the one he could do nothing about,” the paper’s editorial board said.
The New York Times also criticised Mr Biden’s handling of the crisis.
“The Biden administration was right to bring the war to a close,” the paper’s editorial board wrote.
“Yet there was no need for it to end in such chaos, with so little forethought for all those who sacrificed so much in the hopes of a better Afghanistan.”
While most members of Mr Biden’s Democratic Party have remained quiet, Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, issued a statement urging the Biden administration to take every step to protect all US citizens, Afghan partners and other vulnerable civilians.
Their “lives are in danger, due in part to the precipitous withdrawal of US and Nato forces,” Ms Shaheen wrote. “We know what will happen if we abandon them – we cannot leave them to die.”