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WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden announced Thursday the rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan would conclude by Aug. 31, bringing America's longest war to a swift end weeks before the Sept. 11 deadline he set this year.
"We did not go to Afghanistan to nation build," Biden said in remarks at the White House. "It's the right and the responsibility of Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country."
Biden said he was advised by his military commanders to move swiftly once the drawdown began, declaring "speed is safety" as he outlined the end of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan.
The new deadline comes as the Taliban continue to gain new territory at an alarming pace, raising concerns the militant Islamic group could topple the Afghan government. Biden told reporters it was not inevitable the Taliban would seize control of the government and that he trusts the ability of the Afghan National and Defense Security Forces, who is "better trained, better equipped and more competent in terms of conducting war.”
He defended his decision to end the war and appeared to push back on criticism among some defense officials and Republicans who argue Afghanistan is on the verge of collapse.
"I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome," he said.
Biden and his national security advisers have repeatedly emphasized the U.S. will continue to provide humanitarian and economic assistance to Afghanistan, but the security situation has rapidly deteriorated as Taliban fighters continue to overtake Afghan security forces across the country.
The president announced in April the U.S. would withdraw all troops by Sept. 11, the 20-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks that triggered the "forever war," but the majority of U.S. troops and its NATO allies have already left the country.
The U.S. has withdrawn more than 90% of its troops and equipment and handed over seven facilities to Afghan military, the Pentagon's Central Command announced this week. British Prime Minster Boris Johnson confirmed earlier Thursday that most British troops had also left Afghanistan.
Afghan evacuations to begin in July
Thousands of Afghans who worked with the U.S. military, as translators and in other roles, have been seeking to leave their homeland before the U.S. completes its military withdrawal. These Afghans fear that once U.S. forces are gone, the Taliban will sweep back into power and target them as traitors.
The president said this month the U.S. began relocation flights to third-party countries for Afghans applying for a special immigrant visa and that his administration was working with Congress to change the law to accelerate the application process.
"Our message to those women and men is clear: There is a home for you in the United States, if you so choose. And we will stand with you, just as you stood with us," he said.
Ned Price, the State Department’s chief spokesman, said the administration was in talks with a number of countries about hosting the Afghan applicants on a temporary basis, but he declined to identify possible locations.
He said the administration had identified an initial number of at-risk Afghans who are eligible for relocation now and could be moved in the coming weeks but did not rule out evacuating additional applicants at a future date.
“We’re preparing for any number of contingencies,” Price said.
Biden's advisers have also not said how many Afghans will be included in the evacuation plans. But the State Department has said about 18,000 Afghans have expressed interest in the U.S. special visa program – created to help Afghans and Iraqis who worked with the U.S. military. About 9,000 of them have filled out the necessary paperwork and the other 9,000 are still at the beginning of the process.
Leaving Bagram Airfield
The dramatic acceleration of Biden's timeline comes after U.S. troops quietly departed Bagram Airfield, which served as the pivotal base of the American-led war against al-Qaida and the Taliban, effectively ending the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan after nearly two decades.
The White House has been steadfast in adhering to its plan to end military operations in the country by the end of August, despite criticism from some U.S. officials and Republicans who warn the Taliban's rapid advancement could soon overtake the capital of Kabul.
Biden told Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani at a White House meeting in June the U.S. will continue to support Afghanistan from U.S. bases outside the country. As many as 650 U.S. troops will stay in Afghanistan indefinitely to protect the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
The president declared there is no "mission accomplished" moment.
“The mission was accomplished in that we got Osama bin Laden and terrorism is not emanating from that part of the world,” he said.
Mark Jacobson, former deputy NATO senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, said while he doesn't agree with Biden's assessment on Afghanistan's ability to keep the threat of terror at bay, the president "took ownership of his decision."
"He made a very strong justification of what he did. There's going to be disagreement over whether he's much too optimistic on what happens in Afghanistan next, but it's very clear that he knows he owns this and he knows this is not going to end well for the people on the ground in Afghanistan," he said.
Following the speech, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the decision would be Biden's "biggest mistake yet."
"President Biden does not understand conditions are developing in Afghanistan for a reemergence of al-Qaeda and ISIS which will directly threaten the American homeland and our allies," he tweeted.
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was set in motion by former President Donald Trump. Under an agreement Trump's advisers brokered with the Taliban, the U.S. agreed to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban promised to sever its ties with al-Qaida and end its attacks on American forces.
At the war’s peak, the U.S. and NATO military numbers surpassed 150,000. The conflict has cost more than $2 trillion, according to a Brown University analysis released in April. More than 2,400 American service members were killed, along with scores of allied troops, humanitarian workers, journalists and tens of thousands of civilians.
Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden says US withdrawal from Afghanistan will conclude August 31