Biden treads fine line between Afghan defeat and 'mission accomplished'

President Joe Biden says the US exit from Afghanistan is no Vietnam-style debacle -- but neither is he about to declare victory.

Biden walked a tightrope in a major speech Thursday explaining to the American people his decision to withdraw from the so-called "graveyard of empires" after a 20-year war sparked by the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

Haunted by US history that he, as one of Washington's most senior statesmen, knows only too well, Biden sought over and over to thread the needle.

Is the pullout -- symbolized by the quiet, nighttime departure last week from the once proud center of US power at Bagram Air Base -- a humiliating defeat?

Absolutely not, Biden said.

Referring to the traumatic evacuation from a besieged Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war in 1975, he said there were "zero" parallels.

"There's going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable."

Yet, Biden said, he was not trying to claim "mission accomplished."

That was the notoriously premature boast by president George W. Bush about Iraq in 2003, when the quagmire there was in fact only just developing.

"There's no 'mission accomplished,'" Biden said.

But then he hedged his bets again by insisting that in a certain sense yes, there had been victory.

"The mission was accomplished in that we got Osama bin Laden and terrorism is not emanating from that part of the world," he said.

- Biden's question to critics -

Biden's dance was equally nuanced on the Taliban.

After two decades of outlasting infinitely better armed international forces, the once ragtag insurgents are now rapidly advancing across Afghanistan, with their eyes on the capital Kabul.

Biden conceded that "the Taliban is at its strongest military (position) since 2001."

However, he slapped down widespread talk that it is inevitable the guerrillas will seize the entire country, toppling the Afghan government and the army built at huge cost by the United States.

"No, it is not," he said.

"I trust the capacity of the Afghan military."

Pressed by journalists after his speech, Biden admitted that the Taliban and the government could enter a civil war but "that's different to the Taliban succeeding."

And when asked whether the United States is in effect going to be responsible for the likely bloodshed after washing its hands of Afghanistan, Biden said, "No, no, no. It's up to the people of Afghanistan to decide what government they want."

The possibly ugly aftermath is something Biden will have little ability to control.

But he says the one area where he has no doubts is the question of whether or not to wind down the war in the first place. And to express this, he threw out his own question:

"Let me ask those who want to stay: how many more? How many thousands more American daughters and sons are you willing to risk? How long would you have them stay?"