President Joe Biden has defended his decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan despite the Taliban’s swift takeover of the country, saying the United States mission “was never supposed to be about nation-building”.
In his first comments since the Taliban took control of the Afghan capital, Kabul, Biden said on Monday that the collapse of the Afghan government amid the Taliban’s rapid advance “did unfold more quickly than we anticipated”.
“I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden said in the televised address, however.
“If anything, the developments of the past week reinforce that ending US military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision. 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.”
Biden’s comments come after chaotic scenes at Kabul airport, where thousands of Afghans have gathered in a desperate attempt to leave the country amid the Taliban’s rapid advance.
The group on Sunday took over the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul, as well as districts across the city, just hours after President Ashraf Ghani fled, a move he later said aimed to prevent further bloodshed but was slammed by Afghans as “unpatriotic and sad“.
Desperate attempts to flee
Videos shared on social media on Monday showed groups of people running alongside a US military jet as it prepared to depart from the airport in the capital. Another clip appeared to show at least two people falling from the sky after the plane had taken off.
US officials have said they remain committed to evacuating Afghans, including those who aided the country’s military during its years-long mission in the country and have been approved for a special immigration visa.
But refugee advocates have urged the Biden administration to act quickly as concerns are rising that Afghans who worked with the US could be targeted for violence under a Taliban-led government.
The group’s rapid advance across Afghanistan in recent weeks saw it capture 26 of the country’s 34 provincial capitals before it entered Kabul.
The US and other foreign countries had been rushing to fly diplomatic personnel out of the capital, but a US defence official told the Reuters news agency that the US had temporarily halted all evacuation flights to clear people from the airfield.
The Biden administration has faced criticism for a “hasty withdrawal” of troops, with some – including Republican lawmakers, in particular – drawing parallels to the US exit from Saigon in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War.
“President Biden’s decisions have us hurtling toward an even worse sequel to the humiliating fall of Saigon in 1975,” top Republican Senator Mitch McConnell said in a statement last week.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected that comparison, insisting that the US mission in Afghanistan was a success. “Remember, this is not Saigon,” Blinken told CNN on Sunday. “We went to Afghanistan 20 years ago with one mission, and that mission was to deal with the folks who attacked us on 9/11 – and we have succeeded in that mission.”
Biden in July moved forward the deadline to withdraw US troops from the country, pledging that all forces would be out of Afghanistan by the end of August. But the US has been forced to bolster its troop deployment for the withdrawal effort, with about 6,000 soldiers now guarding the evacuation.
Al Jazeera’s Patty Culhane, reporting from the Pentagon in Washington, DC on Monday, said the US military has taken over command of Afghan airspace.
“But they can’t get any planes in or out until they get the people off the runways and the tarmac,” she reported, adding that the US is trying to get another 500 soldiers in to help with the evacuation, but that cannot happen unless the airfield is clear.
The US has said it plans to evacuate 22,000 Afghans with special immigrant visas and their family members – a process that is expected to take several days, with about 5,000 people evacuated daily – but that has yet to begin, Culhane said.
“There’s another big concern; the embassy is telling the people who worked with the US that are now being hunted by the Taliban to shelter in place … But if they can’t get through the Taliban checkpoints, it’s unlikely they’re going to be able to get to the airport.”
‘Never about nation-building’
In his speech, Biden stressed that withdrawing from Afghanistan was one of his presidential campaign promises and said he opposed the Pentagon’s recommendation for a surge in US troops to the country in 2009, when he served as President Barack Obama’s deputy.
“This is not in our national security interest,” he said of endless US involvement in what he called an Afghan civil war.
“Our mission Afghanistan was never supposed to be about nation-building. It was never supposed to be to create a unified, centralised democracy. Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been – preventing a terrorist attack on [the] American homeland.”
But criticism continues in the US capital. John Brennan, who acted as CIA director under Obama, said while he did not know what intelligence assessments were sent to the White House in terms of how quickly things could unravel, “clearly they have”.
“And it’s because of the tremendous dependency that the Afghans had on the US system of support,” Brennan said in an interview with MSNBC on Monday. “And clearly, that was underestimated on the part of the administration.”
Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, associate professor and director of the Center for Governance and Markets at the University of Pittsburgh, told Al Jazeera that “a disaster [is] being played out” in Afghanistan.
“President Biden promised the American people and promised the Afghan people a competent withdrawal, and we’re not seeing that at all right now,” she said in an interview before Biden’s speech.
“We’re seeing a disaster being played out, and many people and many Afghans feel absolutely betrayed by what they’re seeing. The optics are bad for the people of Afghanistan, for the credibility of the United States, and I think a lot of Americans are very disappointed in what they’re seeing.”