President Joe Biden speaks about Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House, Aug. 16, 2021, in Washington.

President Joe Biden speaks about Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House, Aug. 16, 2021, in Washington. AP / Evan Vucci

Biden: ‘I Stand Squarely Behind My Decision’ on Afghanistan

The president acknowledged that Kabul fell to Taliban control faster than he expected.

President Joe Biden said Monday that he did not regret withdrawing all American forces from Afghanistan despite “gut-wrenching” scenes of the Taliban taking control of the country as locals desperately try to flee.

“I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden said at the White House. “After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces. That’s why we’re still there.”

Biden returned to the White House from Camp David to address the American public for the first time since Kabul fell into Taliban control over the weekend. He returned to the presidential retreat in Maryland shortly after his remarks, which lasted about 20 minutes.

In April, the president announced that he had directed all American troops to leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11. That withdrawal plan offered a slightly longer timeline than the deal former President Donald Trump reached with the Taliban last year, which required all U.S. forces to leave as soon as May 1. 

As American forces began to leave, the Taliban started quickly capturing provincial capitals. The intelligence community initially predicted they could control the entire country within six months of the American departure. As the terrorist group made rapid gains last week, that timeline was revised on Wednesday to 90 days. Just four days later, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and Taliban fighters took control of the presidential palace. 

“We were clear-eyed about the risk. We planned for every contingency, but I always promised the American people that I would be straight with you. The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we anticipated,” Biden said. 

As the Taliban advanced, the White House ordered hundreds, then eventually 6,000 U.S. troops to deploy to Afghanistan to secure the airport, which has been overrun by Afghans desperate to escape the violence and human rights abuses the Taliban is expected to impose. But Biden was clear that this plus-up will be temporary and that all American military personnel will leave the country once Americans and the Afghan allies who supported the war have been evacuated. 

The U.S. embassy in Kabul is closed, with a small diplomatic footprint operating out of the airport. It’s unclear what America’s future diplomatic presence in the country will look like, but Biden stressed that he will continue to push for improved human rights in Afghanistan, especially for women and girls who were subject to rules under previous Taliban leadership such as not being able to be in public without a man. 

“I’ve been clear [that] human rights must be the center of our foreign policy…but the way to do it is not through endless military deployments, it’s with our diplomacy, our economic tools and rallying the world to join us,” Biden said. 

Republicans and some former military officials have previously called for Biden to reverse the withdrawal decision as it became obvious that the Afghan forces would not be able to beat back the Taliban. But the president said the United States had given the Afghan military training, money and “every chance to determine their own future,” yet they had still quickly collapsed in the face of the terrorist offensive. 

If 20 years had not prepared the Afghan troops to defend their own country, nothing would, Biden argued.

“How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghanistan’s civil war, when Afghan troops will not? How many more lives, American lives, is it worth? How many endless rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery?” Biden asked. “I’m clear on my answer. I will not repeat mistakes we made in the past.”