Biden gives robust defence of his handling of Afghanistan exit in national address: ‘It was time to end this war’

President battles criticism of Kabul evacuations’ management

John Bowden
Tuesday 31 August 2021 23:31 BST
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Biden defends ending 'forever war' in Afghanistan
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Louise Thomas

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President Joe Biden offered his strongest defence yet of his administration’s management of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, despite coming under international criticism, about 24 hours after the last American planes left the country.

In a national address from the White House on Tuesday, marking the end of the US occupation of Afghanistan, Mr Biden explained that he was not ready to let a “forever war” turn into a “forever exit”. He argued that the US managed to extract most Americans from the country before the final flights departed.

“I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit,” the president declared.

“The bottom line, 90 per cent of Americans who were in Afghanistan who wanted to leave were able to leave,” Mr Biden continued, adding of those still there: “We remain committed to getting them out if they want to get out.”

It was Mr Biden’s most direct response yet to criticism from some in his own party, as well as many in the media and throughout the GOP, over the handling of the evacuations; right-wing devotees of former President Donald Trump have called for Mr Biden’s resignation or impeachment, while others have questioned why evacuations did not begin sooner, before Kabul fell to the Taliban.

Mr Biden and his allies have attempted to combat that criticism for weeks by explaining that the US did not begin evacuations while the former Afghan government was still in power due to a desire not to further weaken confidence in the now-ousted regime. Top officials have also contended that some of the chaos that erupted in Kabul was inevitable, a claim that the president echoed on Tuesday.

“Leaving by 31 August was not an arbitrary deadline. It was designed to save American lives,” he argued. “There is no evacuation from the end of a war that you can run without the kind of complexities, challenges and threats we faced. None.”

The president revealed in his address that a couple of hundred Americans remain in the country, many of whom the administration has insisted carry dual citizenships and had not been in contact with US officials regarding extraction. More than 100 Americans who do want to leave are still in Afghanistan, according to Mr Biden, who promised on Tuesday that the US would work to get them out.

“We remain committed to getting them out if they want to get out,” he added.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked by reporters at Tuesday’s briefing whether the Biden administration was “blaming” those Americans for not reporting to the airport sooner, a charge Ms Psaki denied while stating that the US commitment to helping those Americans remained.

“We are going to get every American citizen out. That has not changed,” she said.

Despite Mr Biden’s promises on Tuesday to continue aiding Americans and vulnerable Afghans in Kabul, the outpouring of criticism saw no signs of slowing from any direction.

In a statement shortly following the address, international human rights group Amnesty International slammed Mr Biden for adhering to an “arbitrary” deadline for leaving the country while vulnerable Afghan citizens remained.

“Adhering to his arbitrarily determined deadline, President Biden failed to put in place a successful plan for the evacuation of all Afghans at greatest risk. His plan fails those most at risk in Afghanistan and abdicates the US government’s obligations to the Afghan people, obligations made heavy by the weight of a two-decade military presence. At this very moment at-risk journalists, interpreters, and women’s rights activists left behind in Afghanistan desperately phone their contacts abroad, asking for help. Their fears are real,” said the group’s executive director, Paul O’Brien.

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