WASHINGTON (AP) – President Joe Biden said Thursday that the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan will end on Aug. 31, making a passionate argument for exiting the nearly 20-year war without sacrificing more American lives, even as he acknowledged without detours that there will be no “mission accomplished” time to celebrate.
Biden rejected the idea that the US mission has failed, but also noted that the government remains unlikely to control all of Afghanistan after the US leaves. He urged the Afghan government and the Taliban, which he said is still as formidable as it was before the war began, to reach a peace agreement.
“We did not go to Afghanistan to build a nation,” Biden said in a speech from the East Room of the White House. “Afghan leaders have to come together and push for the future.”
In recent days, the administration has tried to frame the end of the conflict as a decision Biden made after concluding that it is an “unwinnable war” and that it “does not have a military solution.” On Thursday he expanded the justification for his decision even as the Taliban are advancing rapidly in significant areas of the country.
“How many more, how many thousands more American daughters and sons are you willing to risk?” Biden told those calling on the United States to expand the military operation. He added: “I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan without a reasonable expectation of achieving a different result.”
The new withdrawal date comes after the administration of former President Donald Trump negotiated a deal with the Taliban to end the US military mission by May 1. Biden, after taking office, announced that US troops would be leaving for the 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001. The attack, which al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden conspired from Afghanistan, where the Taliban had given him refuge.
With allied US forces and NATO declining rapidly over the past week, there was growing speculation that US combat operations had already ended. But by setting August 31 as the cut-off date, the administration nodded to the reality that the long war is in its final phase, while providing a cushion to grapple with unfinished business.
The administration has yet to complete talks with Turkey on an agreement to maintain security at the Kabul airport and is still working out details for the possible evacuation of thousands of Afghans who assisted in the US military operation.
Biden said that prolonging the US military engagement, considering that Trump had already agreed to withdraw US troops, would have led to an escalation of attacks against US troops and NATO allies.
“The Taliban would have started attacking our forces again,” Biden said. “The status quo was not an option. Staying meant American troops suffered casualties. American men and women. Back in the middle of a civil war. And we would risk having to send more troops to Afghanistan to defend our remaining troops. “
The president added that there is no “mission accomplished” moment when America’s war comes to an end.
“The mission was accomplished because we got Osama bin Laden and terrorism does not emanate from that part of the world,” he said. American forces killed Bin Laden in 2011.
This week, US forces vacated Bagram Airfield, the US epicenter of the conflict to overthrow the Taliban and hunt down the al-Qaida perpetrators of the 2001 terrorist attacks that sparked the war.
The remaining US troops are now concentrated in Kabul, the capital. The Pentagon said the top US commander in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller, is expected to end his tour of duty this month as final arrangements are made for a scaled-down US military mission.
Biden, responding to journalists’ questions after his comments on Thursday, said that Kabul’s fall to the Taliban would not be an acceptable outcome. The president also rejected the idea that such a scenario was true.
“Do I trust the Taliban? No, “said Biden.” But I am confident in the capabilities of the Afghan army, which is better trained, better equipped and more competent in terms of conducting the war. “
To be sure, the West hopes that the Taliban’s achievements will be confined primarily to rural areas, and that the Afghan government and its allies will retain control of the cities where much of Afghanistan’s population resides. And while the Taliban remain a major power in Afghanistan, government supporters hope that Afghans will resolve the role of the Taliban in the post-US power structure in Afghanistan more through political means than military means, in part through the incentives from international legitimacy, aid and other support. .
When asked by a journalist whether rampant corruption within the Afghan government contributed to the failure to achieve the kind of stability his predecessors and US military commanders envisioned, Biden did not exactly rule out the idea. “The mission has not failed, yet.”
Biden continues to face pressure from legislators in Congress to provide more details on how he intends to help thousands of Afghans who have helped the US military as translators, drivers and in other jobs. Many fear being targeted by the Taliban once the US withdrawal is complete.
The White House says the administration has identified US facilities outside the continental United States, as well as third countries, where evacuated Afghans could remain while their visa applications are processed. Biden added that 2,500 Afghans have been granted special immigrant visas since he took office in January.
Still, the president faced Republican criticism after his speech.
“The Taliban are gaining more ground every day, and there are goals behind the backs of our people and our partners,” said Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “But instead of seizing the opportunity to assure the American people that there are enough plans to keep American diplomats and our Afghan partners safe, President Biden only offered more empty promises and no detailed plan of action.”
John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said Thursday that the US military is considering various overseas bases around the world as possible temporary locations for Afghans waiting for a visa. So far, he said, the number of those who have decided to leave Afghanistan is not so high that they cannot be handled with a variety of facilities.
“Our message to these women and men is clear,” Biden said. “There is a home for you in the United States if you choose. We will be with you, as you were with us. “
Biden noted that, as a senator, he was skeptical about how much the United States could accomplish in Afghanistan and had advocated for a narrower mission. He was somewhat opaque in answering whether the cost of the war was worth it, but he argued that America’s objectives were completed a long time ago.
“We went for two reasons: one, to bring Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell, as I said at the time,” Biden said. “The second reason was to eliminate al-Qaida’s ability to deal with more attacks against the United States.” States of that territory. We achieve both goals. Period.
“That is why I think this is the correct decision and frankly defeated.”
Associated Press editors Ellen Knickmeyer in Oklahoma City and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.