A defiant Joe Biden has insisted that he stands “squarely behind” his decision to pull US forces rapidly out of Afghanistan while attempting to shift blame for events unfolding there to his predecessor, Donald Trump, and the unwillingness of Afghan forces to fight the Taliban.
Biden is facing the biggest crisis of his presidency after the stunning fall of Afghanistan to the extremist insurgent force caught his administration flat-footed and raised fears of a humanitarian catastrophe.
With recriminations flying in Washington over the chaotic retreat, Biden made an unscheduled trip on Monday from the presidential country retreat, Camp David, to address reporters in the ornate east room of the White House, under greater pressure than at any point in his seven-month presidency.
The mission, he said, had never been about nation building but counter-terrorism, a threat that has now “metastasised” well beyond Afghanistan.
Biden had inherited a deal from Trump to withdraw forces by 1 May, he added, leaving him with a choice to either follow through belatedly on the agreement or escalate the conflict by sending thousands of troops into combat.
“I stand squarely behind my decision,” the president said, maintaining a calm demeanour at the lectern. “After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces. That’s why we’re still there. We were clear-eyed about the risk.
“We planned for every contingency but I always promised the American people that I would be straight with you. The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated. So, what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed sometimes without trying to fight.”
The Taliban swept into Kabul on Sunday after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, ending two decades of a failed experiment to import western-style liberal democracy.
As harrowing scenes played out on television – including desperate Afghans clinging to a US transport plane before takeoff – the White House has scrambled to explain how the government there collapsed so quickly.
Biden acknowledged that the scenes unfolding in Afghanistan are “gut-wrenching”, particularly for veterans and anyone who has spent time on the ground there.
But far from admitting error, he claimed the events of the past few days vindicated his decision because US troops, he said, should not fight a war that Afghan solders are not willing to fight themselves.
“We gave them every chance to determine their own future. We could not provide them with the will to fight for that future,” Biden said.
Such a tone in recent days from Biden, who ran for election promising unrivalled foreign policy credentials after 36 years in the Senate and eight as Barack Obama’s vice-president, has been jarring to many. A headline in the Washington Post read: “Defiant and defensive, a president known for empathy takes a cold-eyed approach to Afghanistan debacle.”
On Monday the president promised the US was working to evacuate thousands of Afghan interpreters, drivers and others who supported the American military, nongovernment organisations and media. He said the process had not begun sooner because some did not want to leave, “still hopeful for their country”, and the Afghan government had discouraged a preemptive mass exodus.
He offered little practical hope for women and girls who now fear for their safety as well as their education and greater freedoms afforded them since the Taliban were driven from Afghanistan following the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, by al-Qaida terrorists masterminded from the country.
Biden said: “We’ll continue to speak out for the basic rights of the Afghan people, of women and girls, just as we speak out all over the world.”
Adamant that his course was the right one, and amid the finger-pointing at others, Biden added: “I am president of the United States of America and the buck stops with me. I’m deeply saddened by the facts we now face. But I do not regret my decision to end America’s war fighting in Afghanistan.
“I know my decision will be criticised but I would rather take all that criticism than pass the decision on to another president of the United States… After 20 long years of bloodshed, what we’re seeing now is sadly proof that no amount of military force would ever deliver a stable and secure Afghanistan.”
He walked away without taking press questions and returned to Camp David.
Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, responded: “The speech was a pathetic attempt to shift blame and an unnerving analysis of the situation he – and he alone – created. Contrary to what he may say or think, President Biden has not ended the war in Afghanistan. He is simply creating a new chapter – one that will be filled by Taliban thugs and al-Qaida murderers.”
Republicans drew comparisons to the humiliating departure of US forces from Saigon in Vietnam in 1975.
Trump said: “What Joe Biden has done with Afghanistan is legendary. It will go down as one of the greatest defeats in American history!”
Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, described it as “a shameful failure of American leadership” and warned that “the likelihood that al-Qaida will return to plot attacks from Afghanistan is growing”.
He added: “Terrorists and major competitors like China are watching the embarrassment of a superpower laid low.”
Trump’s deal with the Taliban last year sought to pull forces out even earlier and even to invite the militants to Camp David while snubbing the Afghan government.
Polls have long shown strong public support for ending America’s longest war.
Gil Barndollar, a senior fellow at Defense Priorities and a veteran who deployed to Afghanistan twice, told reporters: “I hate to be a cynic here but I suspect that for most Americans, with maybe the partial exception of those of us who served there, it is going to be forgotten pretty quickly.
We never cared that much in the first place.”