WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden said the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan will end by August 31, and he called on the country’s leaders to “come together” to prevent civil war.
“We did not go to Afghanistan to nation build,” Biden said Thursday in remarks at the White House.
After 20 years of war, he said, the ideal conditions that the U.S. had once hoped to bring about before it withdrew troops had never materialized.
“How many more, how many more thousands of America’s daughters and sons are you willing to risk?” said Biden, who first announced the planned departure of U.S. forces in April. “How long would you have them stay?”
“It’s up to the Afghans to make decisions about the future of their country,” said the president.
Biden told reporters he is confident the Afghan military can hold the country from the advancing Taliban, citing the 300,000 Afghan troops the U.S. has trained and equipped in the past two decades.
“They clearly have the capacity to keep the government in place, the question is will they come together, and will they do it,” he said.
Many outside observers do not share Biden’s optimism, however.
The ongoing U.S. and NATO military withdrawal has stoked serious concerns that Afghanistan could devolve into further bloodshed.
The top American general in the country, Scott Miller, has warned that a civil war could happen as the Taliban strengthens its grip.
In recent weeks, the Taliban has made stunning battlefield advances, capturing troves of U.S. military-supplied weapons and vehicles from Afghan forces who have either fled or surrendered.
But Biden said the timing of the withdrawal was largely out of his control, because his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, had agreed to remove all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by May 1 as part of a diplomatic agreement reached between the central government and the Taliban.
“The Taliban is at its strongest, militarily, since 2001,” Biden acknowledged. “The number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan has been reduced to a bare minimum, and the United States in the last administration made an agreement with the Taliban to remove all our forces by May 1 of this year,” he said.
“That’s what I inherited. That [diplomatic] agreement was why the Taliban had ceased major attacks against U.S. forces,” in recent months.
“If in April I’d instead announced the United States was going back on that agreement made by the last administration, and the U.S. and allied forces would remain in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, then the Taliban would have again begun to target our forces,” he said. “So the status quo was not an option.”
“Staying would have meant U.S. troops taking casualties. American men and women back in the middle of aa civil war. And we would run the risk of having to send more troops back into Afghanistan to defend our remaining troops,” he said.
Yet Biden insisted that America was not abandoning its commitment to helping create a stable and secure Afghanistan, citing the humanitarian and security assistance the U.S. government will continue to provide.
He also strongly rejected the idea that the United States would bear responsibility going forward for the death of Afghans killed in civil war.
“No, no, no, no,” he said, “It is up to the people of Afghanistan to decide what government they want.”
And while Biden pushed back on the idea that a Taliban takeover of the country was inevitable, he acknowledged that Afghanistan is not likely to be governed by one central government in the near future.
This dovetails with the views of top U.S. officials, who believe a power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and the central government in Kabul is the likely the best outcome that could emerge in coming months.
Biden has long made no secret of the fact that he sees no military solution to the massive challenges facing Afghanistan.
Scarred by centuries of foreign invasions and beset by ethnic divisions, things like basic security, human rights and good governance continue to elude Afghanistan’s civilians to this day.
But Biden believes the original U.S. mission in Afghanistan — to prevent terrorists from using the country as a base from which to launch attacks on the United States — has been accomplished.
“With the terror threat now in many places, keeping thousands of troops grounded and concentrated in just one country at a cost of billions each year makes little sense to me and to our leaders,” Biden said on April 14.
That same month, the White House confirmed that U.S. troops had begun the herculean withdrawal process from Afghanistan.
The removal of approximately 3,000 U.S. service members coincides with the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which spurred America’s entry into lengthy wars in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Last week, the U.S. military quietly departed Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, a historic milestone following Biden’s order to withdraw U.S. forces from the country.
Two U.S. officials told NBC News, on the condition of anonymity because the decision has not yet been officially announced, that the U.S. handed over the airbase to the Afghan National Security and Defense Force.
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.
Afghanistan’s district administrator for Bagram told The Associated Press that the U.S. departure happened overnight and without coordination with local officials. As a result, dozens of looters stormed through the unprotected gates.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid described the U.S. departure from Bagram “a positive step” and told NBC News that “for now” the Taliban does not plan on seizing the sprawling airbase, which is located some 40 miles north of Kabul.
Still, it had become clear to American defense officials and diplomats in recent years that the chief argument for keeping troops in Afghanistan — that Afghanistan’s central government needs U.S. troops on the ground in order to secure and maintain a diplomatic truce with the Taliban — did not amount to a viable long-term plan.
“We gave that argument a decade,” Biden said in April. “It’s never proved effective — not when we had 98,000 troops in Afghanistan, and not when we were down to a few thousand.”
“Rather than return to war with the Taliban, we have to focus on the challenges that are in front of us,” Biden said. “We have to track and disrupt terrorist networks and operations that spread far beyond Afghanistan since 9/11.”
On Tuesday, the Pentagon said it had completed more than 90% of the entire withdrawal process from Afghanistan.
The update from U.S. Central Command, which oversees America’s military footprint spanning from Northeast Africa to South Asia, comes about two months ahead of the deadline Biden had set earlier this year.