“We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries, we just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it,” said the President on Tuesday, 24 hours after U.S. Army, Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue became the last American service member to exit the South Asian nation.
Piling onto the Delta variant surging around the U.S., Biden’s speech also comes as the blast radius of Hurricane Ida continues to see widespread destruction around the Gulf Coast, leaving New Orleans almost totally without power.
“The real choice between leaving or escalating,” Biden explained, citing national interest and the changing world in his remarks this afternoon. “I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit.”
“I take responsibility for the decision,” Biden proclaimed of the way the U.S. left Afghanistan with fatalities and heartbreak. “Now, some say we should have started mass evacuations sooner and couldn’t this have been done in a more orderly manner. I respectfully disagree,” he said.
As with previous Afghanistan remarks by Biden in the past few weeks, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News Channel and BBC World all covered the distinctly not primetime speech live from the White House. The speech seemed to leave many pundits a bit shell-shocked by Biden’s defiant resolve to move on. Broadcasters CBS, ABC and NBC also cut into regularly scheduled programming as the nation is less than two weeks away from the 20th anniversary of the fatal attacks of 9/11.
As America stumbled through an exit strategy that often seemed to put the cart before the real politick horse, 13 U.S. service members were killed in a terror attack at Kabul International Airport last week, which Biden himself had warned about two days earlier. On Tuesday, the President praised the unprecedented evacuation of what eventually became more than 120,000 people from Afghanistan over the past few weeks.
“No nation, no nation has ever done anything like it in all of history,” Biden said Tuesday in his nearly hourlong speech. “Only the United States had the capacity and the will and the ability to do it and we did it today. The extraordinary success of his mission was due to the incredible skill, bravery and selfless courage of the United States military and our diplomas and intelligence professionals.”
“It was time to end this war,” a stern and clearly sometime frustrated Biden said in words we have heard before from the White House, adding that his policy was not an invitation for enemies to presume the superpower’s resolve had weakened. “This is a new world where the terror threat has metastasized across the world well beyond Afghanistan,” he added, declaring a Biden Doctrine of sorts where America only fights battles with clear objectives.
“My fellow Americans, the war in Afghanistan is now over.”
Amidst all the shallow Vietnam comparisons, the much-criticized retreat had the added black eye of scenes Monday of the once nearly vanquished Taliban celebrating its victory and return to power with a cache of billions of dollars of abandoned American hardware and helicopters now also under their control.
Picking up on the 2020 deal struck with the Taliban by Donald Trump, Biden proclaimed in April of this year that all U.S. forces would be out of Afghanistan by August 31. “I know my decision will be criticized, but I would rather take all that criticism than pass this decision on another President of the United States, yet another one,” POTUS 46 said on August 16, echoing language from a previous speech on withdrawing from the so-called “forever war.”
“Let me be clear, leaving August the 31st was not due to an arbitrary deadline,” Biden asserted today in words focused as much on overseas policy as it was on the domestic sacrifice and toil of the war. “It was designed to save American lives,” he added of his self-proclaimed “wise decision” that in many ways was straight out of Ronald Reagan’s tendency to blame Jimmy Carter for almost anything.
“My predecessor, the former President, signed an agreement with the Taliban to remove U.S. troops by May the 1st, just months after I was inaugurated,” Biden added forcefully about critics; some Republicans already are using words like impeachment. “It included no requirement that the Taliban worked out a cooperative governing arrangement with the Afghan government. But it did authorize the release of 5,000 prisoners last year, including some of the Taliban’s top war commanders among those who just took control of Afghanistan. By the time I came to office the Taliban was in the strongest military position since 2001.”
First invaded by George W. Bush in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 to hunt down Al Qaeda leaders and operatives, Afghanistan saw more than 800,000 members of the U.S. military in country over the last 20 years. Approximately 2,500 U.S. military were killed over the 20 years of the war, which also saw the death of almost 4,000 U.S. contractors. Over 20,000 U.S. troops were injured over the 20-year span.
Along with the war in Iraq, the intervention in Afghanistan cost U.S. taxpayer over $2 trillion, with almost the same amount being spent for medical coverage and more for veterans of the conflicts. Up until the past week, about 100,100 Afghan security forces and citizens have died in the war, with 1,200 NATO troops losing their lives. Biden made little mention of the trauma inflicted on Afghanistan and the Afghan people today in a speech aimed squarely at his domestic audience.
In the hours and days following the killing of American troops and likely hundreds of Afghans by ISIS-K, the administration launched a series of targeted strikes in retaliation, as promised when Biden said last week: “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”
A case of odd bedfellows ensued to some degree, with the harsh Taliban assisting the U.S. in going after the even more fundamentalist ISIS-K.
Now America will find itself again having to rely on Afghanistan’s past and present theocratic rulers. With only State Department diplomacy operating out of Qatar as a direct wedge, the administration has to hope that Taliban stay true to their pledges to not allow their country to become a haven for terrorists, as it was back in 2001. Additionally, even with Biden’s expressed “leverage,” the Taliban have to be depended upon to permit the 100 or so remaining Americans and the many Afghans who worked with the U.S. the ability to leave, or the war that was never officially declared may start up anew.
“The bottom line, 90% of Americans in Afghanistan who wanted to leave were able to leave,” Biden said today. “For those remaining Americans, there is no deadline.”