President Biden returned to Washington to answer questions on the state of affairs in Afghanistan, days after the capital fell to the Taliban and thrust the region into the same violent uncertainty that the United States had sought to stabilize.
“The idea that somehow, there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens,” Biden said in an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos airing Wednesday.
The president, on an apparent defensive, said it was “a simple choice” to withdraw U.S. forces, and faulted the Afghan government and its military for not more forcibly defending the capital.
“Look, it was a simple choice,” Biden said. “When you had the government of Afghanistan, the leader of that government, get in a plane and taking off and going to another country; when you saw the significant collapse of the Afghan troops we had trained, up to 300,000 of them, just leaving their equipment and taking off — that was, you know, I’m not, that’s what happened.”
“That’s simply what happened. And so the question was, in the beginning, the threshold question was, do we commit to leave within the timeframe we set, do we extend it to Sept. 1, or do we put significantly more troops in?”
Biden had made an early promise to withdraw U.S. troops from the country by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the attacks that prompted the initial U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
By last week Thursday, when it became apparent the speed with which the Taliban was advancing its takeover, Biden authorized sending several thousand troops back to Afghanistan on a temporary mission to help evacuate most of the American embassy in Kabul and Afghan civilians who had supported the United States.
“I had a simple choice. If I said, ‘we’re gonna stay,’ then we’d better be prepared to put a whole lot hell of a lot more troops in,” Biden told ABC News.
Biden defends the decision to withdraw U.S. forces
The remarks are Biden’s second since the Taliban seized Kabul — Afghanistan’s capital — on Sunday. The president had been vacationing at Camp David when conditions in Afghanistan took a stunning turn and the national government and military were overrun by Taliban forces.
On Monday, Biden made a brief return to the White House and delivered remarks that were widely criticized for seeming to lack empathy and passing off the responsibility for the chaos that was left in the wake of America’s hasty exit.
The president defended his decision to withdraw U.S. forces, faulting the Afghan military — which the United States had trained and armed — for lacking the will to defend themselves and their national sovereignty against a Taliban takeover.
“I am deeply saddened by the facts we now face, but I do not regret my decision,” Biden said at the time.
“American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves,” he said, noting the $1 trillion and nearly 20 years the U.S. has spent there since the 9/11 attacks.
While both Biden and his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, had vowed a full exit of American troops and an end to the deeply unpopular “forever war” that has come to define U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century, Biden faced the brunt of criticism for how quickly the situation on the ground deteriorated.
“It’s not that we left Afghanistan. It’s the grossly incompetent way we left!” Trump said in a Monday statement.
Many on the right compared the scene to the fall of Saigon, a national embarrassment which saw Vietnam’s capital city besieged by U.S. opposition following the speedy evacuation of American forces from the area.
As the Taliban cements its position as the leading authority in Afghanistan, U.S. citizens, special immigrant visa applicants and other vulnerable populations have sought to evacuate the country.
Earlier this week, graphic footage from the airport in Kabul showed people clinging to the wings of a plane in an attempt to flee. Several of their deaths were broadcast to a stunned global audience as they plunged to the ground from the ascending aircraft.
Gen. Milley pushes back on reports that intelligence warned of a rapid collapse
Biden and his advisers admitted their surprise at the rapid collapse of the Afghan government. Intelligence had previously suggested that the government could fall six months after U.S. troops had withdrawn.
Instead, it took just 11 days.
Despite those reports, the White House has pushed back on criticisms that officials had previous insight to suggest that the capital city would fall to the Taliban so quickly.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pushed back on reports that U.S. intelligence warned of a rapid collapse with the exit of U.S. troops.
Appearing alongside Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Milley, in a prepared opening statement, said: “I am very familiar with the intelligence, and in war nothing is ever certain, but I can tell you that there are not reports that I am aware of that predicted a security force of 300,000 would evaporate in 11 days … with the capture of 34 provinces and the capital city of Kabul.”
Milley went on to say that intelligence clearly indicated multiple scenarios, but that the rapid collapse scenario ranged from “weeks, months and even years following our departure.”
He said Central Command submitted a number of plans to meet those possible scenarios, including “what we are executing now.”
There are 4,500 U.S. troops on the ground to date in Afghanistan focused on the evacuation operation, Milley said, and that the security situation at the Kabul airport is stable.
He also said that, through the State Department, the Taliban are guaranteeing safe passage to the airport for American citizens. In addition, Milley said there were other capabilities on the ground, including U.S. special operations forces.