Biden Fends Off Criticism of Evacuation in His First Post-Afghanistan Speech

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President Joe Biden speaks about the end of the war in Afghanistan
President Joe Biden speaks about the end of the war in Afghanistan from the State Dining Room of the White House, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

After facing weeks of criticism over his actions in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden took the podium in the White House's State Dining Room to defend America's rapid, frequently chaotic and deadly withdrawal from the 20-year conflict.

Although he began by calling the evacuation an "extraordinary success," Biden acknowledged what many reports and critics have been saying for weeks: The Taliban captured the country faster than many expected.

"That assumption that the Afghan government would be able to hold on for a period of time beyond military drawdown turned out not to be accurate," he said.

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Referring to complaints that "we should have started mass evacuation sooner" or "couldn't this be done and been done in a more orderly manner," Biden replied: "There is no evacuation from the end of a war that you can run without the kinds of complexities, challenges and threats we faced -- none."

In addition to the suicide attack that left 13 U.S. service members dead last week, the massive effort to evacuate people from Afghanistan stressed many parts of the military as it tried to handle the surge of refugees.

The news of the Taliban's rapid advance and images of fleeing refugees also prompted some veterans to slam the administration's actions.

Biden said the peace deal the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban tied his hands and limited his options.

He could "follow the agreement of the previous administration ... or extend and have more time for people to get out, or send in thousands more troops and escalate the war," he explained.

Ultimately, Biden chose to take the middle option -- an effort that ended in the early hours of Aug. 31, local time in Kabul. He noted that the choice to end on that deadline "was based on unanimous recommendation of my civilian and military advisers."

"I was not going to extend this 'Forever War,' and I was not extending a forever exit," Biden said.

Looking ahead, he said that the several hundred Americans who are still in Afghanistan have "no deadline" to evacuate.

"We remain committed to get them out if they want to come out," Biden added.

The international community, including the United Nations, has put pressure on the Taliban to allow free travel and the ability for people to leave the country. Biden said the group has promised to allow free movement, adding that the U.S. has "leverage to make sure those commitments are met."

Looking past Afghanistan, the president said the U.S. "must set missions with clear achievable goals, not ones that we will never reach." "We must stay clearly focused on the fundamental national security interests of the United States of America," he added.

Biden struck a poignant tone at one point when he noted the sacrifices service members made during the two-decade-long struggle.

"Most of our veterans and their families have gone through hell -- deployment after deployment, months and years away from their families," he said. "That should give pause to anyone who thinks war can ever be low-grade, low-risk or low-cost.

"As we close 20 years of war and strife and pain and sacrifice, it's time to look at the future not the past," Biden said.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: The Last US Soldier Out of Afghanistan

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