By Steve Holland
President Joe Biden on Thursday strongly defended his decision to pull U.S. military forces out of Afghanistan, saying the Afghan people must decide their own future, rather than sacrificing another generation of Americans in an unwinnable war.
Speaking in the White House East Room, Biden said the Afghan military has the ability to repel the Taliban, whose major advances in recent weeks have raised fears the country will slide into civil war.
Biden set a target date of Aug. 31 for the final withdrawal of U.S. forces, minus about 650 troops to provide security for the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
A long-time skeptic of the 20-year military presence there, Biden said the United States had long ago achieved its original rationale for invading the country in 2001: to root out al-Qaeda militants and prevent another attack on the United States like the one launched on Sept.11, 2001. The mastermind of that attack, Osama bin Laden, was killed by a U.S. military team in 2011.
“We achieved those objectives, that’s why we went. We did not go to Afghanistan to nation build. And it’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country,” he said.
Biden called on countries in the region to help bring about an elusive political settlement between the warring parties. He said the Afghan government should seek a deal with the Taliban to allow them to coexist peacefully.
He said the “only way there’s going to be peace and security in Afghanistan is if they work out a modus vivendi with the Taliban…And the likelihood there’s going to be one unified government in Afghanistan controlling the whole country is highly unlikely.”
The speech represented Biden’s most extensive comments to date about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan under pressure from critics to give more explanation for his decision to withdraw.
Biden said U.S. plans to move thousands of Afghan interpreters out of the country in anticipation of the end of the U.S. military mission in the country.
They will be moved to third countries and can apply for U.S. visas to enter the United States, he said. Locations are still being worked out. Guam, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are possible locations, a senior administration official said.
The United States last weekend abandoned Bagram air base, the longtime staging ground for U.S. military operations in the country, effectively ending America’s longest war. The Pentagon says the withdrawal of U.S. forces is 90% complete.
Washington agreed to withdraw in a deal negotiated last year under Biden’s Republican predecessor, Donald Trump. Biden overruled military leaders who wanted to keep a larger presence to assist Afghan security forces and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a staging ground for extremist groups.
Biden’s order in April to pull out U.S. forces by Sept. 11 after 20 years of conflict has coincided with major gains by the Islamist militant Taliban movement against overwhelmed Afghan forces after peace talks sputtered.
Taliban fighters seized control on Thursday of a district in western Afghanistan that includes a major border crossing with Iran, Afghan security officials said, as the Islamist insurgents continued their rapid military advances around the country.
In the last week, the Taliban have overrun areas bordering five countries – Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, China and Pakistan.
The commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, General Austin Miller, warned last week that the country may be headed toward a civil war.
The U.S. intelligence community believes the Afghan military is weak and that the Kabul government’s prospects for survival in the short term are not good, U.S. government sources familiar with official assessments said.
Biden’s administration is also grappling with its plan for expedited visas for Afghan people most at risk of being attacked by the Taliban, including translators who worked with foreign forces. Rights groups are pushing to add up to 2,000 vulnerable women to the list.
Some Republicans are criticizing Biden for the pullout, although Trump had brokered an agreement with the Taliban to end American involvement in the war.