By Jeff Mason and Steve Holland
President Joe Biden on Tuesday rejected criticism of his decision to stick to a deadline to pull out of Afghanistan this week, a move that left 100 to 200 Americans in the country along with thousands of U.S.-aligned Afghan citizens.
In a televised address from the White House State Dining Room, Biden criticized the ousted Afghan government’s inability to fight back against swift Taliban advances, which forced the United States and its NATO allies into a hasty and humiliating exit, and highlighted the role played by former U.S. president Donald Trump.
The deal brokered by Trump authorized “the release of 5,000 prisoners last year, including some of the Taliban’s top war commanders, among those who just took control,” Biden said.
“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.
U.S. officials believe 100 to 200 Americans remain in Afghanistan “with some intention to leave,” Biden said. He said most of those who remained were dual citizens and long-time residents who earlier had decided to stay, adding the United States was determined to get them out.
Many lawmakers had called on Biden to extend the Aug. 31 deadline to allow more Americans and Afghans to escape, but Biden said it was “not an arbitrary deadline,” but one “designed to save lives.”
“I take responsibility for the decision. Now some say we should have started mass evacuations sooner and couldn’t this have been done in a more orderly manner. I respectfully disagree,” said Biden.
Even if evacuations had begun in June or July, he said, “there still would have been a rush to the airport” by people wanting to leave.
The departure of the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan this week as the Taliban took over caps two decades of military involvement that Biden was determined to end.
While most Americans agreed with him, that end has not come smoothly. Biden’s presidency, which had been focused on fighting the coronavirus pandemic and rebuilding the economy, now faces political probes over the handling of the withdrawal as well as the logistical challenge of finding new homes for thousands of Afghans being moved to U.S. military bases.
Biden also must contend with a surge in coronavirus infections, disasters like hurricanes and wildfires, and a series of difficult deadlines to get signature spending measures through Congress.
Republicans and some Democrats have expressed frustration and anger at the rapid fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, the former leaders who were ousted by the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and what they say has been a botched withdrawal.
Republicans are expected to use the crisis to try to derail Biden’s policy and legislative agenda and as a talking point in the 2022 midterm elections. Republicans hope to take control of the Senate and House of Representatives from Biden’s Democrats, which could hobble the second half of his presidency.
Biden said more troops would have had to go to Afghanistan and into harm’s way if the exit had not occurred.
Less than 40% of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the withdrawal, and three quarters wanted U.S. forces to remain in the country until all American civilians could get out, according to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll released on Monday.
Leading House Republicans, including the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, said they wrote on Monday to Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, requesting details of the plan to repatriate Americans and evacuate others left behind.
“Congress has a right to know how these evacuations will be facilitated and conducted,” McCaul said in a statement.