Biden defends Afghan withdrawal as Taliban surges: 'Status quo was not an option'

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President Biden on Thursday offered a strong defense of his decision to withdraw all U.S. military forces from Afghanistan and said the “status quo” of a continued, indefinite American presence in the country after 20 years of war simply isn’t a viable option.

Speaking at the White House after a briefing with top security and military officials, the president said that major territorial gains by the Taliban in recent weeks haven’t changed his view that it is time to bring U.S. forces home. The official U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, he said, will formally end Aug. 31, bringing to a close the longest war in U.S. history and one that has claimed nearly 2,500 American lives.

“I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome,” the president said, arguing that no nation in history has been able to unify the historically chaotic nation.

While critics — including some at the highest levels of the Pentagon — argued that the decision to leave Afghanistan will put the U.S. and its allies directly in harm’s way, Mr. Biden said keeping U.S. forces there won’t radically change the situation on the ground. He took sharp aim at critics whose fears that the pullout will lead directly to the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul — and in a worst-case scenario to the resurgence of al Qaeda — have only grown with the Taliban‘s battlefield victories in recent days.

“For those who have argued we should stay just six more months, or just one more year, I ask them to consider the lessons of recent history,” Mr. Biden said. “Nearly 20 years of experience has shown us … that just one more year of fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution, but a recipe for being there indefinitely. It’s up to the Afghans to make the decision about the future of their country.

“The status quo was not an option,” the president said. “Staying would have meant U.S. troops taking casualties, American men and women back in the middle of a civil war. And we would run the risk of having to send more troops back to Afghanistan to defend our remaining troops.”

But Mr. Biden‘s remarks come against the backdrop of a rapidly deteriorating situation inside the country. The Taliban have made major gains in provinces in recent days as Afghan government forces in many cases have retreated without a fight. Another major border crossing point, this time with Iran, fell to Taliban fighters just hours before Mr. Biden spoke, The Associated Press reported.

Recent Pentagon and U.N. assessments have concluded that the Taliban maintains close ties with terrorist groups such as al Qaeda, raising the real possibility that Afghanistan could once again become a safe haven for extremist groups.

For the Taliban, critics say it’s become increasingly clear that violence is effective as a means to an end of gaining more governing power. Some analysts point to the fighting in Qala-e-Naw, the capital of Afghanistan‘s northwest Badghis province, which fell briefly to the Taliban but was recaptured Thursday by government forces.

The battle there proves that the Taliban is fully capable of taking major urban centers, a strategy it almost surely will continue in the coming months, said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who closely tracks the war in Afghanistan.

“The Taliban incursion will have lasting effects,” Mr. Roggio wrote in an analysis Thursday. “The city is surrounded and residents and government officials will have to decide whether to fight to defend the city or acquiesce to the Taliban, as has happened elsewhere in numerous districts throughout the country since President Biden announced U.S. forces would leave the country” by September.

For his part, Mr. Biden admitted Thursday he has no faith in the Taliban to live up to the promises it made in the deal it struck with former President Donald Trump last year, saying he relied on the Kabul government with U.S. backing to be able to hold its own after the withdrawal.

Specifically, the insurgent group promised to reduce attacks across the country, but its violent campaign has only increased over the past year. The Taliban also vowed to cut ties with terrorist groups but has failed to honor that commitment as well.

Looking to the future 

In the face of growing pressure to reconsider his decisions, Mr. Biden stressed that the U.S. has spent two decades and billions of dollars advising, training and equipping the Afghan security forces. Some specialists say that if the Afghan troops aren’t ready to fend off the Taliban on their own, there’s little Washington can do.

“The evident weakness of the Afghan military in the face of recent Taliban advances is a tragedy for Afghans, but not a reason for U.S. troops to stay there. It is rather an indictment of the mission that kept U.S. troops there so long,” said Benjamin Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, a Washington-based think tank that advocates for a more restrained U.S. foreign policy and supported the Afghan exit.

“We should be outraged not by the Afghan military’s failure, but by all the myths we were told about its capability,” he said. “The fact that the mission failed cannot be a reason to prolong it endlessly.”

After all combat troops leave, the U.S. will maintain an embassy in Kabul guarded by hundreds of Marines, as well as a contingent helping protect Kabul‘s international airport. Mr. Biden stressed that the diplomatic mission will continue, and he also said the U.S. will continue to provide civilian and humanitarian assistance.

The president said that the White House this month will begin evacuation flights for Afghan translators and others who helped the U.S. over the past 20 years but now will almost surely be targeted for execution by the Taliban. Many of those individuals, he said, will qualify for special immigrant visas (SIV) to come to the U.S.

In the meantime, they will be evacuated to safe locations outside Afghanistan.

“The operation has identified U.S. facilities outside the continental United States as well as third countries to host our Afghan allies if they so choose,” Mr. Biden said. “Starting this month, we’re going to begin relocation flights for Afghan SIV applicants and their families who choose to leave.”

“There is a home for you in the United States, if you so choose,” he said.

Mr. Biden announced in April that all U.S. forces would leave Afghanistan by September. Since then, roughly 3,500 American service members and thousands more NATO troops have packed up and left the country.

As part of the withdrawal, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday that all of his country’s troops will soon be gone from Afghanistan

“All British troops assigned to NATO’s mission in Afghanistan are now returning home,” he said.

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