President Joe Biden on Monday afternoon defended his decision to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, his first remarks since the Taliban ousted the Afghan national government on Sunday.
“I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces,” Biden said in a memorable speech delivered from the East Room of the White House.
“I am president of the United States of America. The buck stops with me,” he added.
The president’s remarks came amid mounting criticism of his administration’s handling of the situation, as chaos engulfed parts of Kabul and the civilian government collapsed.
“The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we anticipated,” Biden said of the lighting offensive by the Taliban, which captured the entire country in less than two weeks.
Still, Biden said his resolve had not wavered, and the past week has effectively proven that 20 years of war have not produced an Afghan army that can defend the government, or a government willing to remain in the country as the Taliban approached.
“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 said. “We gave them every chance to determine their own future. We could not provide them with the will to fight for that future,” he added.
“I know my decision will be criticized, but I would rather take all that criticism than pass this decision on to a future president,” Biden said.
The president also spoke directly to the American veterans and diplomats who feel the withdrawal has rendered their sacrifices pointless.
“I want to acknowledge how painful this is to so many of us. The scenes we’re seeing in Afghanistan, they’re gut-wrenching, particularly for our veterans, our diplomats, humanitarian workers, anyone who has spent time on the ground working to support the Afghan people,” he said.
At one point, Biden invoked the military service of his own son — Beau Biden, who deployed to Iraq for a year and later died of cancer in 2015.
“For those who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan, and for Americans who have fought and served in the country, serve our country in Afghanistan. This is deeply, deeply personal. It is for me as well,” he said.
Despite being vastly outnumbered by the Afghan military, which has long been assisted by U.S. and NATO coalition forces, the Taliban carried out a succession of shocking battlefield gains in recent weeks.
As the Taliban moved closer to the capital over the weekend, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and Western nations rushed to evacuate embassies amid a deteriorating security situation.
Biden ordered the deployment of approximately 5,000 U.S. troops to Kabul to evacuate U.S. Embassy staff throughout the weekend.
The State Department confirmed Sunday evening that all U.S. diplomatic staff at the embassy had been safely transported to Kabul’s international airport.
Thousands of Afghans swarmed the tarmac at the airport, desperate to escape a country now completely overrun by the Taliban.
Elsewhere in Washington on Monday, U.S. officials began to paint the outlines of future American engagement with the new Taliban government.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the decision whether to formally recognize the Taliban leadership as the legitimate government of Afghanistan will be informed by events in the coming weeks and months.
“It will depend upon the actions of the Taliban,” said Price. “We are watching closely … the world is watching closely.”
“A future Afghan government that upholds the basic rights of its people, that doesn’t harbor terrorists and that protects the basic rights of its people, including the basic, fundamental rights of half its population, its women and girls, that is a government that we would be able to work with,” he said.
A Defense Department spokesman said U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie met with Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar.
“The message was very clearly put to the Taliban, that these operations and our people will not be attacked or there would be a response,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said. “As you and I speak there has been no attack on our operation or on our people at the airport,” Kirby said
The Taliban seized Bagram Air Base on Sunday, a development that comes less than two months after the U.S. military handed over the once-stalwart airbase to the Afghan National Security and Defense Force.
The Taliban began emptying out Parwan prison there, which has an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 prisoners, including hardened Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters, according to the officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In 2012, at its peak, Bagram saw more than 100,000 U.S. troops pass through. It was the largest U.S. military installation in Afghanistan.