Biden stands ‘squarely behind’ decision to withdraw from Afghanistan

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A defiant Joe Biden has insisted that he stands “squarely behind” his decision to pull US forces rapidly out of Afghanistan while attempting to shiftblameme 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.”

 

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