Biden defends departure from Afghanistan, ending 'forever war'
WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden addressed the nation on Tuesday following the departure of the last remaining troops from the Kabul airport, marking the United States’ complete withdrawal from Afghanistan and ending America’s longest war.
Biden is under heavy criticism, particularly from Republicans, for his handling of the final evacuation, which successfully airlifted thousands of people from Kabul airport but left more than 100 Americans behind.
In his remarks from the White House about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Biden said Tuesday that 120,000 people were evacuated from the country, concluding America's longest war almost two decades after it began.
"We completed one of the biggest airlifts in history with more than 120,000 people evacuated to safety," he said. "That number is more than double what most experts thought were possible. No nation, no nation has ever done anything like it in all of history."
"I was not going to extend this forever war," Biden said in an address from the White House State Dining Room. "And I was not going to extend a forever exit."
Around 100 to 200 Americans remain in Afghanistan. Most are dual citizens who decided to stay, possibly because of family connections, he said. His administration will work to grant safe passage to Americans who want to leave, he said.
"We remain committed to get them out if they want to come out," he said.
The assumption that Afghan forces would be able to hold up to the country amid threats from the Taliban turned out to not be accurate.
More than 5,500 Americans were airlifted out of Afghanistan, as well as thousands of Afghan translators and interpreters, Biden said in his address in which he praised the evacuation effort.
"Since March, we reached out 19 times to Americans in Afghanistan, with multiple warnings and offers to help them leave Afghanistan, all the way back as far as March," Biden said.
But the president still faces many questions — about extracting the Americans and thousands of Afghans left behind, resettling tens of thousands of refugees who were able to flee and dealing with congressional criticism that the administration was caught flat-footed by the rapid collapse of the Afghan government.
Biden is also adjusting to a new relationship with the Taliban, the Islamist militant group that it toppled nearly 20 years ago that is now once again in power in Afghanistan.
Hours ahead of Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline for shutting down a final airlift, Air Force transport planes carried a remaining contingent of troops from the airport.
Thousands of troops had spent a harrowing two weeks protecting the evacuation of tens of thousands of Afghans, Americans and others seeking to escape the country following the Taliban’s takeover. The frantic final exit cost the lives of more than 180 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members.
In announcing the completion of the evacuation and war effort, Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said the last planes took off from Kabul airport at 3:29 p.m. Washington time, or one minute before midnight in Kabul. He said a number of American citizens, likely numbering in "the very low hundreds," were left behind, and that he believes they will still be able to leave the country.
Biden, in a statement following the final departure of U.S. troops, thanked commanders and the men and women serving under them for their service. He said he would address the nation on his decision not to extend the country’s presence in Afghanistan beyond Tuesday in remarks at 2:45 p.m. ET from the White House.
"For now, I will report that it was the unanimous recommendation of the Joint Chiefs and of all of our commanders on the ground to end our airlift mission as planned. Their view was that ending our military mission was the best way to protect the lives of our troops, and secure the prospects of civilian departures for those who want to leave Afghanistan in the weeks and months ahead," the statement reads.
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 24: U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the situation in Afghanistan in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Aug. 24, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Secretary of State Antony Blinken estimated the number of Americans left behind to be under 200, "likely closer to 100," and said the State Department would keep working to get them out. He praised the military-led evacuation as heroic and historic and said the U.S. diplomatic presence would shift to Doha, Qatar.
The closing hours of the evacuation were marked by extraordinary drama. Kabul’s international airport had become a U.S.-controlled island, the last stand in a 20-year war that claimed more than 2,400 American lives.
U.S. troops faced the daunting task of getting final evacuees onto planes while also getting themselves and some of their equipment out, even as they monitored repeated threats — and at least two actual attacks — by the Islamic State group's Afghanistan affiliate. The suicide bombing on Aug. 26 killed 13 American service members and some 169 Afghans. More died in various incidents during the airport evacuation.
By the evacuation's conclusion, well over 100,000 people, mostly Afghans, had been flown to safety.
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Biden had pledged to end what he called a "forever war" that began in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and rural Pennsylvania.
The president’s decision, announced in April, reflected a national weariness of the Afghanistan conflict. Now he faces criticism at home and abroad, not so much for ending the war as for his handling of a final evacuation that unfolded in chaos and raised doubts about U.S. credibility.
The U.S. war effort at times seemed to grind on with no endgame in mind, little hope for victory and minimal care by Congress for the way tens of billions of dollars were spent for two decades. The human cost piled up — tens of thousands of Americans injured in addition to the dead.
More than 1,100 troops from coalition countries and more than 100,000 Afghan forces and civilians also died, according to Brown University’s Costs of War project.
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 Afghanistan. Al-Qaida has been vastly diminished, preventing it thus far from again attacking the United States.
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.
Speaking shortly after the Kabul airport suicide bombing, Biden stuck to his view that ending the war was the right move. He said it was past time for the U.S. to focus on threats emanating from elsewhere in the world.
"Ladies and gentlemen, it was time to end a 20-year war," he said.
The war's start began with former President George W. Bush, who made a promise while standing atop of the rubble in New York City three days after hijacked airliners slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
"The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!" Bush declared through a bullhorn.
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Less than a month later, on Oct. 7, Bush launched the war. The Taliban's forces were overwhelmed and Kabul fell in a matter of weeks. A U.S.-installed government led by Hamid Karzai took over and bin Laden and his al-Qaida cohort escaped across the border into Pakistan.
The initial plan was to extinguish bin Laden’s al-Qaida, which had used Afghanistan as a staging base for its attack on the United States. The grander ambition was to fight a "Global War on Terrorism" based on the belief that military force could somehow defeat Islamic extremism. Afghanistan was but the first round of that fight. Bush chose to make Iraq the next, invading in 2003 and getting mired in an even deadlier conflict that made Afghanistan a secondary priority until Barack Obama assumed the White House in 2009 and later that year decided to escalate in Afghanistan.
Obama pushed U.S. troop levels to 100,000, and the war dragged on even though bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in 2011.
When Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017 he wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan but was persuaded not only to stay but to add several thousand U.S. troops and escalate attacks on the Taliban. Two years later his administration was looking for a deal with the Taliban, and in February 2020 the two sides signed an agreement that called for a complete U.S. withdrawal by May 2021. In exchange, the Taliban made a number of promises including a pledge not to attack U.S. troops.
Biden weighed advice from members of his national security team who argued for retaining the 2,500 troops who were in Afghanistan by the time he took office in January. But in mid-April, he announced his decision to fully withdraw.
The Taliban pushed an offensive that by early August toppled key cities, including provincial capitals. The Afghan army largely collapsed, sometimes surrendering rather than taking a final stand, and shortly after President Ashraf Ghani fled the capital, the Taliban rolled into Kabul and assumed control on Aug. 15.
In Biden’s statement, he said the world would hold the Taliban to its commitments — including a safe passage for any Americans, Afghan partners and foreign nationals who want to leave Afghanistan.
He concluded the statement by recognizing the 13 service members killed last week in the attack outside Kabul’s airport. He and first lady Jill Biden met with families of the fallen and witnesses a dignified transfer of their remains at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
RELATED: 13 US service members killed in Kabul airport attack identified
The Associated Press and FOX Newsncontributed to this report. It was reported from Cincinnati.