'I stand squarely behind my decision': Biden defends handling of Afghanistan as Taliban forces seize Kabul
WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden said Monday he made the right call to pull American troops out of Afghanistan even though he said the Taliban's swift seizure of Kabul unfolded faster than expected.
"I stand squarely behind my decision," Biden said during a speech at the White House.
Biden said Afghan officials – including former President Ashraf Ghani – had assured him Afghan forces would fight the insurgents.
“The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” Biden said.
Without specifying any particular mistakes that were made, Biden said the withdrawal process has been "hard and messy – and yes, far from perfect."
But Biden emphasized he is honoring the commitment he made when he ran for president to bring the military involvement to an end.
The president interrupted a working vacation at Camp David to make his first public comments about the Taliban's takeover of the country, a foreign policy debacle – particularly for a president who came to the office with decades of foreign policy experience.
He took no questions and quickly went back to the presidential retreat.
His full address: A transcript of what President Joe Biden said
More: Visual story: Kabul's airport chaos and the Taliban advance, explained with maps and graphics
David Axelrod, who was a top aide in the Obama administration, said Biden made a compelling case for why the U.S. is leaving Afghanistan that will resonate with many Americans.
"He didn’t do as well taking responsibility for HOW we got out, and the obvious failure to anticipate events," Axelrod tweeted.
Experts had warned that the Afghan military might not be able to hold on after the the U.S. left.
Taliban fighters completed their sweep of the country by seizing control of Afghanistan’s capital Sunday as American troops scrambled to evacuate thousands of U.S. diplomats and Afghans from the U.S. Embassy.
Biden said there have been "gut-wrenching" scenes in Afghanistan. He defended efforts to close the embassy and secure the airport to fly people to safety.
Addressing criticism about why the evacuation of Afghanis didn't happen sooner, Biden said some didn't want to leave because they were still hopeful about the outcome. He said the administration didn't want to trigger a crisis of confidence.
He said he followed through on a troop withdrawal plan developed during the administration of President Donald Trump.
"I know my decision will be criticized," he said.
Claiming "my share of responsibly" for what happened, Biden said he did not want to pass along an unsolvable problem to yet another president.
“I cannot and will not ask our troops to fight on endlessly in another country's civil war,” he said
Biden said there "was never a good time to withdraw US forces."
Afghan security forces dissolved as the Taliban raced to Kabul in days. Protesters blocked access to the airport.
Dozens of people jogged beside and in front of a military transport plane, trying to prevent it from taking off. Some clung to the plane and fell to their deaths as it ascended.
Before Biden's speech, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban "an embarrassment for our country and a victory for terrorists around the world."
McConnell said the United States "abandoned the women and children of Afghanistan to these barbarians" and left behind thousands of Afghan allies. "We turned our backs on our friends and left the country in chaos," said the Senate's top Republican.
Republicans and other critics said Biden did too much finger-pointing and not enough accepting responsibility for the mess in Afghanistan.
"Biden’s surrender strengthens our terrorist enemies, hands them a massive new caliphate, abandons our allies & ensures a longer, costlier war for years to come," tweeted Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo.
In a brief statement, Trump said, "It's not that we left Afghanistan. It's the grossly incompetent way we left!"
Democrats generally stood behind Biden, but said little about the problems with the withdrawal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., cited the president's warnings to the Taliban about their behavior, saying, "The world is watching its actions. We are concerned about reports regarding the Taliban’s brutal treatment of all Afghans, especially women and girls."
Others said there's plenty of blame to go around.
"I blame both Trump for this moment coming, and Biden for this botched ending," tweeted Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill. "I’m not picking sides, because both sides have failed you. It’s the truth about #Afghanistan."
Before Biden made his brief return from Camp David , national security adviser Jake Sullivan made the rounds of the news shows to defend the administration.
“The president had to make the best possible choice he could, and he stands by that decision,” Sullivan said on NBC’s “Today" show.
But the Biden comments that much of the media highlight are the president’s previous optimistic statements that it was “highly unlikely” that the Taliban would overrun the entire country after the U.S. withdrew from its 20-year involvement.
Republicans called for Biden to – as Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., put it – “come out of hiding, and take charge of the mess he created.”
“President Biden needs to man up,” Sasse tweeted.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was equally blunt.
“Mr. President,” McCarthy tweeted, along with video of Afghans climbing aboard a taxiing U.S. Air Force jet, “do your job and address the nation.”
Biden, who left Washington on Thursday, had been scheduled to be in Camp David in Maryland through Wednesday. He had been out of sight save for an image of him participating in a videoconference that was released Sunday by the White House.
Biden's speech in the East Room on Monday afternoon came about five weeks after he got defensive on whether it was inevitable that the Afghan government would collapse.
Biden said Afghan troops were "as well-equipped as any army in the world."
"The likelihood there's going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely," he said.
On ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Sullivan defended Biden’s assertion.
“He thought the Afghan national security forces could step up and fight,” Sullivan said.
On NBC's "Today," Sullivan acknowledged how much that assessment was off.
“The speed with which cities fell," he said, "was much greater than anyone anticipated."
On CBS’s “This Morning,” Sullivan said Biden “was not prepared to usher in a third decade of war and put U.S. troops in harm’s way, fighting and dying to try to hold Afghanistan together when its own armed forces would not fight to hold it together.”
“This is about hard choices,” Sullivan said, “and the choice he made he believes was in the national security interest of the United States.”
Contributing: Courtney Subramanian
Is Kabul 'Biden's Saigon? Images of chaotic exit evoke comparisons to retreat from Vietnam
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden says he stands by decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan