By Aamer Madhani and Kevin Freking
WASHINGTON (AP) — A defensive President Joe Biden called the U.S. airlift to extract more than 120,000 Americans, Afghans and other allies from Afghanistan to end a 20-year war an “extraordinary success,” though more than 100 Americans and thousands of others were left behind.
Twenty-four hours after the last American C-17 cargo plane roared off from Kabul, Biden spoke to the nation and vigorously defended his decision to end America’s longest war and withdraw all U.S. troops ahead of an Aug. 31 deadline.
“I was not going to extend this forever war,” Biden declared Tuesday from the White House. “And I was not going to extend a forever exit.”
Biden has faced tough questions about the way the U.S. went about leaving Afghanistan — a chaotic evacuation with spasms of violence, including a suicide bombing last week that killed 13 American service members and 169 Afghans.
He is under heavy criticism, particularly from Republicans, for his handling of the evacuation. But he said it was inevitable that the final departure from two decades of war, first negotiated with the Taliban for May 1 by former President Donald Trump, would have been difficult, with likely violence, no matter when it was planned and conducted.
“To those asking for a third decade of war in Afghanistan, I ask, ‘What is the vital national interest?’” Biden said. He added, “I simply do not believe that the safety and security of America is enhanced by continuing to deploy thousands of American troops and spending billions of dollars in Afghanistan.”
Asked after the speech about Biden sounding angry at some criticism, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president had simply offered his “forceful assessment.”
Biden scoffed at Republicans — and some Democrats — who contend the U.S. would have been better served maintaining a small military footprint in Afghanistan. Before Thursday’s attack, the U.S. military had not suffered a combat casualty since February 2020 — around the time the Trump administration brokered its deal with the Taliban to end the war by May of this year.
Biden said breaking the Trump deal would have restarted a shooting war. He said those who favor remaining at war also fail to recognize the weight of deployment, with a scourge of PTSD, financial struggles, divorce and other problems for U.S. troops.
“When I hear that we could’ve, should’ve continued the so-called low-grade effort in Afghanistan at low risk to our service members, at low cost, I don’t think enough people understand how much we’ve asked of the 1% of this country to put that uniform on,” Biden said.
Besides all the questions at home, Biden is also adjusting to a new relationship with the Taliban, the Islamist militant group the U.S. toppled after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in America, and that is now once again in power in Afghanistan.
Biden has tasked Secretary of State Antony Blinken to coordinate 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.
“We don’t take them by their word alone, but by their actions,” Biden said. “We have leverage to make sure those commitments are met.”
Biden also pushed back against criticism that he fell short of his pledge to get all Americans out of the country ahead of the U.S. military withdrawal. He said many of the Americans left behind are dual citizens, some with deep family roots that are complicating their ability to leave Afghanistan.
“The bottom line: 90% of Americans in Afghanistan who wanted to leave were able to leave,” Biden said. “For those remaining Americans, there is no deadline. We remain committed to get them out, if they want to come out.”
Biden repeated his argument that ending the Afghanistan war was a crucial step for recalibrating American foreign policy toward growing challenges posed by China and Russia — and counterterrorism concerns that pose a more potent threat to the U.S.
“There’s nothing China or Russia would rather have, want more in this competition, than the United States to be bogged down another decade in Afghanistan,” he said
In Biden’s view the war could have ended 10 years ago with the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden, whose al-Qaida extremist network planned and executed the 9/11 plot from an Afghanistan sanctuary. Al-Qaida has been vastly diminished, preventing it thus far from again attacking the United States. The president lamented an estimated $2 trillion of taxpayer money that was spent fighting the war.
“What have we lost as a consequence in terms of opportunities?” Biden asked.
Congressional committees, whose interest in the war waned over the years, are expected to hold public hearings on what went wrong in the final months of the U.S. withdrawal.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on Tuesday described the Biden administration’s handling of the evacuation as “probably the biggest failure in American government on a military stage in my lifetime” and promised that Republicans would press the White House for answers.
Meanwhile, the Senate met briefly Tuesday, with Vice President Kamala Harris presiding over the chamber, to pass by unanimous consent a bill that increases spending for temporary assistance to U.S. citizens and their dependents returning from another country because of illness, war or other crisis. Biden quickly signed the legislation, which raises funding for the program from $1 million to $10 million.
A group of Republican lawmakers gathered on the House floor Tuesday morning and participated in a moment of silence for the 13 service members who were killed in the suicide bomber attack.
They also sought a House vote on legislation from Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., which among other things would require the administration to submit a report on how many Americans remain in Afghanistan as well as the number of Afghans who had applied for a category of visas reserved for those employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government.
The GOP lawmakers objected as Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., gaveled the House into adjournment. They then gathered for a press conference to denounce the administration.
For many U.S. commanders and troops who served in Afghanistan, it was a day of mixed emotions.
“All of us are conflicted with feelings of pain and anger, sorrow and sadness, combined with pride and resilience,” said Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He commanded troops in Afghanistan earlier in his career. “But one thing I am certain of, for any soldier, sailor, airman or Marine and their families, your service mattered. It was not in vain.”
Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.