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Afghanistan turmoil

Biden defends Afghanistan pullout as Taliban gain ground

President says he trusts Afghan military's capacity to fight

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the administration's continuing drawdown efforts in Afghanistan in a speech from the East Room of the White House.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday defended his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan as the Taliban make rapid gains against the Central Asian country's faltering military, which the U.S. spent heavily to recruit, train and arm.

"The United States cannot afford to remain tethered to policies created in response to a world as it was 20 years ago," Biden told a news conference in the White House, doubling down on his decision to end America's longest war. "We need to meet the threats where they are today. Today, the terrorist threat has metastasized beyond Afghanistan."

"We also need to focus on shoring up America's core strengths" to meet the strategic competition with China and other nations that will determine the U.S.'s future, said Biden, explaining his administration's decision to concentrate on Beijing and the Indo-Pacific region.

"We will be more formidable to our adversaries and competitors over the long run if we fight the battles of the next 20 years, not the last 20 years," he said, after imploring America to focus on fighting COVID-19, preparing better for the next pandemic, tackling the "existential threats of climate change," and establishing "international norms for cyberspace" and the use of emerging technologies.

"Speed is safety," Biden said of the withdrawal, after announcing that the U.S. mission will conclude even earlier than expected, by Aug. 31.

Biden had previously set a symbolic deadline of Sept. 11 to withdraw all American military personnel from the country.

No members of the U.S. forces have been lost in the withdrawal so far, Biden said.

"There was never any doubt" that the military would withdraw efficiently and professionally, he noted.

But the U.S. president has faced questions about the future of Afghanistan, which members of the American military and intelligence communities have warned is headed into imminent civil war.

Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, center, arrives with other members of the Taliban delegation for an international peace conference in Moscow, Russia in March.    © AP

The mission in Afghanistan was "to deliver justice to Osama bin Laden and to degrade the terrorist threat," Biden said.

"We achieved those objectives," he said. "That's why we went. We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build."

"We went for two reasons. One, to bring Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell, as I said at the time," Biden explained. "The second reason was to eliminate al-Qaida's capacity to deal with more attacks on the United States from that territory. We accomplished both of those objectives, period. ... That job had been over for some time."

"No nation has ever unified Afghanistan -- no nation," the president said. "Empires have gone there and not done it."

"The only way there's ultimately going to be peace and security in Afghanistan is that they [the government] work out a modus vivendi with the Taliban," Biden said, hinting at his administration's preference for a power-sharing arrangement.

"And the likelihood there's going to be one, unified government in Afghanistan controlling the whole country is highly unlikely."

"There's no 'mission accomplished,'" Biden said in reference to then-President George W. Bush's infamously premature declaration of victory in Iraq in 2003.

"It's the right and the responsibility of Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country," he said, placing the onus on the Afghan security forces during much of the remarks.

The U.S. has provided nearly 300,000 current serving members of the Afghan military, the national security force and others past and present with "all the tools, training and equipment of any modern military," Biden said.

"They clearly have the capacity to sustain the government in place," he said. "The question is, will they generate the kind of cohesion to do it?"

Biden told a questioner that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is "not inevitable," after deeming the Afghan military "as well equipped as any army in the world, and an air force, against something like 75,000 Taliban."

He also reacted angrily to a question about trusting the Taliban.

"It's a silly question. Do I trust the Taliban? No. But I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped and ... more competent in terms of conducting war."

"Afghan leaders have to come together and drive toward a future that the Afghan people want and they deserve," Biden reiterated in his speech, pledging civilian and humanitarian assistance and saying his administration would continue speaking for women and girls.

Biden also pledged to pursue a course of "determined diplomacy" to "end this senseless violence."

"To be clear, countries in the region have an essential role to play in supporting a peaceful settlement," said Biden, referring to neighboring countries like Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia, all of which have been part of the ongoing peace process that has been faltering with the U.S. withdrawal. "We'll work with them, and they should help step up their efforts as well."

Biden also pledged to protect the thousands of translators and interpreters who have helped the U.S. military, saying 2,500 special immigrant visas have been approved for them since his inauguration. Relocation flights will begin this month, and American facilities outside the continental U.S. have been identified, he said.

"There is a home for you in the United States, if you so choose, and we will stand with you, just as you stood with us," Biden said.

Biden said that he made the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan "with clear eyes."

"Nearly 20 years of experience has shown us ... that just one more year of fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution but a recipe for being there indefinitely," he said.

"We are repositioning our resources and adapting our counterterrorism posture to meet the threats where they are now: significantly higher in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa," said Biden, who then offered reassurance that any threat emanating from Afghanistan will be dealt with.

"We are developing a counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed [on] any direct threats to the United States in the region, and act quickly and decisively if needed," he said.

Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted that Biden's address was meant to counter the growing perception that the Taliban are gaining ground and the collapse of the Afghan government is imminent, especially given his emphasis that the U.S. intelligence community has not concluded that Afghanistan's government will collapse.

"Those comments from Biden were a clear pushback on the growing perception, given the losses of the last few days, that the Afghan security forces will not be able to put up any significant fight against the Taliban, and that the Taliban will take over militarily sooner rather than later," she said.

"He also sought to reassure his audience that the U.S. had done all it could do -- including training the Afghan security forces -- and it could do nothing else militarily that would ensure a different outcome."

Michael Kugelman, director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center in Washington, said Biden's address displayed a clear shift in priorities for the U.S.

"Biden sought to provide reassurance, mainly to an Afghan audience, about continued U.S. support to Afghanistan," Kugelman said.

"But let's be clear: Biden believes the U.S.'s biggest priorities lie elsewhere. For many Afghans -- and many Americans -- his pledges of continued assistance to Afghanistan, especially against the backdrop of an intensifying withdrawal, will ring hollow."

Biden's references to the faltering negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government remained a central theme of his news conference.

"The mission hasn't failed -- yet," Biden said.

"So the question now is, where do they go from here?" he asked. "That, the jury is still out. The likelihood there's going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely."

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