Joe Biden defends Afghanistan withdrawal in defiant speech

'We've got to learn from our mistakes,' Mr Biden says as he seeks to recast the narrative after three chaotic weeks in Kabul

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A defiant President Joe Biden on Tuesday defended his decision to end the war in Afghanistan, saying America needed to focus on developing threats and calling on US policymakers to “learn from our mistakes” in a gruelling conflict that killed about 2,400 US troops, cost trillions of dollars and resulted in a Taliban victory.

Speaking more forcefully than at any time in recent weeks, Mr Biden sought to strike back at those who have criticised his administration's handling of the final chapter of America's longest war, calling the airlift operation from Hamid Karzai International Airport that rescued more than 120,000 people an “extraordinary success".

The final US plane left Afghanistan on Monday and Taliban fighters entered Kabul's airport immediately after, firing tracer rounds into the night skies in celebration.

Mr Biden said that a Taliban takeover would always have resulted in a rush of thousands of Afghans to the airport and he said he did not regret ending the evacuation mission.

“I was not going to extend this forever war and I was not extending a forever exit,” Mr Biden said in a televised address from the White House.

“It was time to end this war,” he later added as he pounded his fist on the lectern.

Thousands of Afghans who had worked with US forces over the years as well about 200 Americans, most dual citizens, are still in Afghanistan. It is not clear how many are choosing to stay or were unable to reach the airport by the evacuation deadline.

“For those remaining Americans, there is no deadline. We remain committed to get them out if they want to come out,” he said.

Mr Biden said in a statement that he asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken to co-ordinate with international partners to hold the Taliban to their promise of safe passage for Americans and others who want to leave in the days ahead.

The US will also maintain a diplomatic presence in Doha to help those who choose to leave at a later date — Americans or any other foreign national.

"This will include work to build on the UN Security Council Resolution passed just yesterday that sent the clear message of what the international community expects the Taliban to deliver on moving forward, notably freedom of travel," Mr Biden continued.

Mr Biden's 30-minute speech was in turns angry, exasperated and resolute. He did not acknowledge the suffering that millions of Afghans have endured over the two decades since the US-led invasion and his message was squarely aimed at American viewers.

“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,” he said.

As he has done previously, Mr Biden took responsibility for the events of recent weeks but again pointed to the retreat deal the Donald Trump administration brokered with the Taliban last year.

“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.

“We were left with a simple decision. Follow through on the commitment made by the last administration and leave Afghanistan, or say we weren't leaving and commit … tens of thousands more troops going back to war. That was the choice, the real choice.”

Mr Biden also lashed out at exiled Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who fled his country on August 15 as the Taliban rolled into Kabul.

“The people of Afghanistan watched their country collapse and the president fled, handing over the country to their enemy, the Taliban, and significantly increasing the risk to US personnel and our allies,” he said.

Though the majority of Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, agree that it was time leave Afghanistan, a large number, about 60 per cent, disapprove of his handling of the exit. Mr Biden's overall approval rating took a tumble, dropping seven points.

As he sought to reshape the narrative surrounding America's biggest military defeat since the Vietnam War, Mr Biden said it is time for America to re-examine its foreign policy.

“As we turn the page on the foreign policy that's guided our nation the last two decades, we've got to learn from our mistakes,” he said.

“This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It's about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”

Pointing to Russia and China, Mr Biden said the US must “meet the new challenges and the competition for the 21st century".

“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 added.

He also emphasised the price of the war to US taxpayers, which is as much as $2 trillion by some estimates.

“After more than $2tn spent in Afghanistan, the costs estimated would be over $300 million a day for 20 years,” he said.

“The American people should hear this: $300m a day …. And what have we lost as a consequence in terms of opportunities? I refuse to continue a war that was no longer in the service of the vital national interest of our people.”

Even though Mr Biden was following through on plans put in place by Mr Trump, Republicans are pouncing on his handling of the Afghan crisis.

They describe the past few weeks as a humiliating failure that shows the US has ceded its place at the top of the global order.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Americans had been abandoned behind enemy lines after the Kabul airlift ended.

“This was a disgraceful and disastrous departure that will allow the Taliban and Al Qaeda to celebrate the 20th anniversary of 9/11 by having complete control of Afghanistan,” he said.

“We are less safe as a result of this self-inflicted wound.”

Assuming the Republicans regain control of at least on chamber in the US Congress after the midterm elections next year — which is what usually happens in a president's first term — they will probably open multiple hearings and probes on Afghanistan and try to make it a defining issue if Mr Biden runs for office in 2024.

Still, the Afghanistan conflict was deeply loathed across America, with many seeing it as another unwinnable, expensive and pointless conflict in a distant land.

If Mr Biden's message on Tuesday resonated, he may yet be able to reshape the narrative around the ignoble end to America's war in Afghanistan.

Updated: September 1st 2021, 7:20 AM
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