President Joe Biden on Tuesday made a forceful defense of his decision to follow through on withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan even as some American citizens and Afghan allies were left behind.
“I firmly believe the best path to guard our safety and our security lies in a tough, unforgiving, targeted, precise strategy that goes after terror where it is today, not where it was two decades ago,” Biden said at the White House, a day after the last American troops left the country.
Biden also said the United States did not have a choice to safely maintain a small footprint in Afghanistan past Aug. 31.
The options, the president said in his speech from the State Dining Room, were withdrawal or recommitting perhaps tens of thousands of U.S. troops.
“That was the choice, the real choice,” Biden said.
“I was not going to extend this forever war,” he added. “And I was not extending a forever exit.”
Biden rebutted arguments for an ongoing military presence in Afghanistan, saying, “To those asking for a third decade of war in Afghanistan, I ask: What is the vital national interest?”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been among the Republican voices arguing for an ongoing presence. During remarks earlier Tuesday in Ashland, Ky., McConnell called the Biden administration’s withdrawal “an unforced error, a foreign policy blunder of gargantuan proportions.”
The president’s remarks Tuesday seemed designed to blunt such criticism.
“The fact is, everything had changed. My predecessor had made a deal with the Taliban, and when I came into office, we faced a deadline May 1,” Biden said, referring to the agreement the Trump administration struck last year not with the Afghan government, but with the Taliban, who now control the country.
The president said there could be 100 to 200 Americans remaining on Afghan soil who may want to leave, and he said Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken would be leading the diplomatic effort to ensure that the Taliban follow through on allowing Americans and U.S. partners the freedom to leave the country.
McConnell sounded skeptical.
“According to the secretary of State, the Taliban is going to be cooperative in facilitating their departure. What we do know that the Taliban is expert in is taking hostages and shooting people they don’t like,” the Kentucky Republican said. “I hope the secretary of State and the president are correct that this will be a Taliban 2.0. So, some kind of improved version, but that’s what we’re left with.”
Biden argued that the airlift and evacuation of Americans, Afghan allies and others over the past weeks since it became clear that the Taliban would quickly overtake the country was something the administration had prepared for.
“The assumption was that more than 300,000 Afghan national security forces that we had trained over the past two decades and equipped would be a strong adversary in their civil wars with the Taliban. That assumption that the Afghan government would be able to hold on for a period of time beyond military drawdown turned out not to be accurate,” the president said. “But I still instructed our national security to prepare for every eventuality, even that one, and that’s what we did.”