WASHINGTON | A defiant President Joe Biden rejected blame for chaotic scenes of Afghans clinging to U.S. military planes in Kabul in a desperate bid to flee their home country after the Taliban’s easy victory over an Afghan military that America and NATO allies had spent two decades trying to build.
At the White House, Biden on Monday called the anguish of trapped Afghan civilians “gut-wrenching” and conceded the Taliban had achieved a much faster takeover of the country than his administration had expected. The U.S. rushed in troops to protect its own evacuating diplomats and others at the Kabul airport.
But the president expressed no second thoughts about his decision to stick by the U.S. commitment, formulated during the Trump administration, to end America’s longest war, no matter what.
“I stand squarely behind my decision” to finally withdraw U.S. combat forces, Biden said, while acknowledging the Afghan collapse played out far more quickly than the most pessimistic public forecasts of his administration. “This did unfold more quickly than we anticipated,” he said.
Despite declaring “the buck stops with me,” Biden placed almost all blame on Afghans for the shockingly rapid Taliban conquest.
His grim comments were his first in person to the world since the biggest foreign policy crisis of his still-young presidency. Emboldened by the U.S. withdrawal, Taliban fighters swept across the country last week and captured the capital, Kabul, on Sunday, sending U.S.-backed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country.
Biden said he had warned Ghani — who was appointed Afghanistan’s president in a U.S.-negotiated agreement — to be prepared to fight a civil war with the Taliban after U.S. forces left. “They failed to do any of that,” he said.
AURORA DEMOCRATIC CONGRESSMAN JASON CROW: The message from several members of Congress who served in the military in Afghanistan, including Aurora Rep. Jason Crow, is focused: Keep Kabul airport open. “Send them the combat power and the troops that are necessary to secure that airport and keep it open as long as we possibly can. We have the means. We have the ability. We are the United States of America. We can do this,” Crow said via a livestream news conference Monday as a worsening humanitarian crisis continues to unfold in Afghanistan, where the Taliban has regained control. Former United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright joined Crow and a bipartisan slate of current and former law makers and experts to echo that the U.S. should move swiftly to save the lives of Afghans who stood with U.S. troops over the last two decades. “There will be plenty of time to assess how this happened and what went wrong. But our focus today and in the days ahead, needs to be squarely on saving lives. In the 20 years that the United States and our partners have been in Afghanistan, a new generation of Afghan leaders who step forward to help chart a better future for the country,” Albright said. “Their ranks include women’s rights activists, independent journalists, anti corruption crusaders, and democracy advocates. Most of these people did not work directly for the U.S. government or for our NATO allies, but their lives are now imperiled by the Taliban’s advance, and they need to be evacuated from the country before it’s too late.”
COLORADO GOP CHAIRWOMAN KRISTI BURTIN BROWN: “This was an absolutely pathetic speech. Biden owed the country and our allies an explanation on how his Administration completely botched this situation,” Burtin Brown said. “The inept planning and weak leadership will most certainly have hideous consequences for our national security, our respect around the globe, and for women, children and allies that will now be living under Taliban control in Afghanistan.”
COLORADO WESTERN SLOPE GOP CONGRESSWOMAN LAUREN BOEBERT: “Biden’s speech was a disingenuous, incoherent lie,” Boebert said in a tweet. “The American people are not arguing that we should have stayed in Afghanistan. We’re furious that you abandoned Americans on the ground and are the most incompetent President in American history.”
COLORADO GOP COLORADO SPRINGS CONGRESSMAN DOUG LAMBORN: “Joe Biden said we will not conduct a hasty withdrawal,” Lamborn said in a tweet. “He said the Taliban would not overrun Kabul or take over Afghanistan. He said we would not airlift people off the embassy roof. Joe Biden says he bears no responsibility. This is not Saigon. It’s worse.”
COLORADO DEMOCRATIC JEFFERSON COUNTY CONGRESSMAN ED PERLMUTTER: “This is a sad ending to a long war,” Perlmutter said in a tweet. “Right now, the focus for President Biden and his administration needs to be getting all U.S. military members, citizens and partners out of the region as safely and as quickly as possible.”
Internationally, the spectacle of the Taliban takeover and the chaos of the evacuation effort was raising doubts about America’s commitments to its allies.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was “bitter” to watch the complete collapse in a war that Germany and other NATO partners had followed the U.S. into after the Sept. 11 attacks, which were plotted from Afghanistan. The humiliating scenes seemed certain to give comfort to American foes.
At home, it all sparked sharp criticism, even from members of Biden’s own political party, who implored the White House to do more to rescue fleeing Afghans, especially those who had aided the two-decade American military effort.
“We didn’t need to be seeing the scenes that we’re seeing at Kabul airport with our Afghan friends climbing aboard C-17s,” said Rep. Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat and Iraq and Afghanistan military veteran.
He said that is why he and others called for the evacuations to start months ago. “It could have been done deliberately and methodically,” Crow said. “And we think that that was a missed opportunity.”
Besides the life-and-death situation in Kabul, the timing of the crisis was unfortunate for Biden’s domestic efforts at home. It could well weaken his political standing as he works to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and build congressional support for a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and an even larger expansion of the social safety net.
Still, the focus at home and abroad on Monday was on Kabul’s airport, where thousands of Afghans trapped by the sudden Taliban takeover rushed the tarmac and clung to U.S. military planes deployed to fly out staffers of the U.S. Embassy, which shut down Sunday, and others.
At least seven people died in the chaos, including two who clung to the wheels of a C-17 and plunged to the tarmac as it flew away, and two others shot by U.S. forces. Americans said the men were armed but there was no evidence that they were Taliban.
With tens of thousands of U.S. citizens and others as well as Afghans desperate to escape, Biden insisted the U.S. had done all it could to plan.
In fact, Afghan leaders had asked the U.S. not to publicly play up any advance efforts to evacuate former military translators, female activists and others most at risk from the Taliban, saying that in itself could trigger what the Afghans said could be “a crisis of confidence,” Biden said.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday during television interviews that plans were being made to house up to 22,000 evacuated Afghans and their families at three U.S. military installations in the continental United States. He did not name the locations.
Kirby added that the U.S. was in charge of air traffic at the Kabul airport, where military and some commercial flights had resumed after they were suspended for a period of time on Monday amid a stampede onto runways by frightened Afghans.
Kirby said U.S. forces plan to wrap up their oversight of the evacuation by Aug. 31, also the date Biden has set for officially ending the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan.
The U.S. hopes to fly out up to 5,000 people a day once the full deployment of 6,000 U.S. troops arrive to secure the evacuation, and once more transport planes can land, he said.
Biden pledged to work to also evacuate private U.S. citizens and citizens of foreign governments, as well as Afghans who formerly worked with Americans in the country, journalists, prominent women and other Afghans considered most at-risk of Taliban reprisal.
As of July, the U.S. had a visa application backlog of 18,000 former Afghan employees alone who were seeking a haven in the United States, and had been able to evacuate only a few thousand in what was meant to be a sped-up process over the last month.
Veterans groups and nonprofit groups that worked with Afghan women appealed to Biden on Monday to keep troops at the Kabul airport at least through the end of the month, to keep the escape route out of Taliban hands.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee, Eric Tucker and Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed to this report.