WASHINGTON — President Biden rushed back from Camp David on Monday to address the rapidly deteriorating situation in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, now under effective control of a resurgent Taliban. But even as he did so, in a televised afternoon address, Biden firmly rejected calls for continued military engagement.
“Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy,” he said. The president argued that the goal was to eliminate the threat of al-Qaida, the terrorist organization that had set up base there in the 1990s before launching a series of attacks against Western interests that culminated in the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
He noted that U.S. forces killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden when Biden was President Barack Obama’s vice president.
“That was a decade ago,” he emphasized.
It was a striking departure from the kind of aspirational approach promised by President George W. Bush, who launched Operation Enduring Freedom after the 9/11 attacks, which quickly dislodged the Taliban from power. He routinely promised that after al-Qaida was vanquished, a stable and democratic Afghanistan would emerge.
“A democratic Afghanistan will serve the interests and just aspirations of all of the Afghan people and help ensure that terror finds no further refuge in that proud land,” Bush said in 2004.
As Biden noted in his remarks on Monday, he was the fourth president to oversee a conflict whose length and intractability few policymakers seemed to anticipate. He vowed not to have a fifth confront the same conundrum.
“I know my decision will be criticized,” he said. “But I would rather take all that criticism than pass this responsibility on to yet another president.”
Criticism has indeed been intense, with accusations that Biden badly mismanaged the withdrawal of U.S. forces and failed to anticipate how quickly the Taliban would storm back across Afghanistan, which they now control once again, effacing 20 years of American military and diplomatic efforts.
Scenes of Afghan civilians trying to scramble onto American aircraft recalled images of the fall of Saigon 46 years ago, as the Vietnam War came to an ignominious end. Republicans seized on the disorder in Kabul to criticize Biden, who has largely proven immune to their attacks when it comes to domestic affairs.
“President Biden needs to man up, come out of hiding, and take charge of the mess he created. Secure the airfields and get as many souls out as possible,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., in a statement. “Time is short.”
A withdrawal of U.S. forces had been negotiated by Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, signaling that a conflict that began after the Sept. 11 attacks would finally end around the 20th anniversary of those attacks. On Sunday, Trump called on Biden to “resign in disgrace.”
Biden conceded on Monday that the collapse of Afghanistan’s government “did unfold more quickly than we anticipated.” Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, fled on Sunday as Taliban fighters entered Kabul. Those fighters easily overwhelmed the Afghan National Army, which the U.S. spent $88 billion to train and equip.
“American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight,” Biden said, a conviction that has guided his approach to Afghanistan for years.
At the same time, he warned that any Taliban targeting of Americans would not be tolerated. “We will defend our people with devastating force, if necessary,” the president warned.
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