US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on Afghanistan during a speech at the White House in Washington, the US, August 31 2021. Picture: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA
US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on Afghanistan during a speech at the White House in Washington, the US, August 31 2021. Picture: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA

President Joe Biden defended his handling of the US exit from Afghanistan, praising as historic a weeks-long evacuation of more than 110,000 people and rejecting criticism that the withdrawal was mishandled.

“I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit,” he said. “It was time to end this war,” he added later in his speech, pounding his fist on the lectern. 

Republicans have said Biden should have extended an August 31 deadline to withdraw until every American was removed from the country. About 200 Americans remain in Afghanistan, according to the state department, and the president said his decision was not “arbitrary”.

The deadline “was designed to save American lives”, he said. The US would have risked additional casualties in renewed combat with the Taliban had its forces remained, he said.

He described the US airlift from Kabul’s airport over the past month as unprecedented. More than 117,000 people were removed, including about 6,000 Americans.

“No nation, no nation has ever done anything like it in all the history,” he said.

Biden’s political opponents have criticised the president’s withdrawal strategy, saying the US should have begun removing people from the country earlier and should have operated more forcefully within Kabul — actions the president maintains would have risked combat with Taliban forces and further American casualties.

“I believe there should be accountability for what I see as the biggest failure in American government on a military stage in my lifetime,” said House minority leader Kevin McCarthy.

The president’s critics have also argued that by leaving, Biden has increased the likelihood the country would once again become a breeding ground for international terrorism as the Taliban struggle to unify disparate factions and keep the economy afloat.

But Biden again described himself as bound by an agreement his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, struck with the Taliban in 2020 to withdraw from the country. While some critics have said Biden could have abandoned or substantially renegotiated the deal, and Trump and his allies have tried to recast the agreement as conditional, the president insisted any major change would have led to fresh violence.

“We were left with a simple decision: either follow through on the commitment made by the last administration and leave Afghanistan or say we weren’t leaving and commit another tens of thousands more troops going back to war,” he said. “That was the choice, the real choice, between leaving or escalating.”

Biden promised during his campaign that he would withdraw the US from Afghanistan, a position broadly supported among the American public before the evacuation effort, polls showed. Though Republicans have criticised the execution of the withdrawal, Trump sought to leave even faster, striking a deal with the Taliban in his final year in office to exit the country by May 1 of this year.

But a Reuters/Ipsos poll published on Monday showed that less than 40% approved of Biden’s handling of the withdrawal and that three-quarters of Americans wanted US forces to remain until every American civilian was evacuated.

For years, US politicians and military leaders have described the Afghanistan government and army as more stable and capable than they proved during the Taliban takeover. In his speech, Biden suggested that Americans had been misled.

“It was time to be honest with the American people again,” Biden said. “We no longer had a clear purpose in an open-ended mission in Afghanistan.”

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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