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Fact-checking Biden’s speech on the end of the Afghan war

President Biden delivers remarks regarding the ending of the war in Afghanistan at the White House on Aug. 31. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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We will leave it to the political pundits to critique President Biden’s speech on the Afghanistan withdrawal. The president tried to rebut a number of complaints about his handling of the evacuation. There are reasonable arguments for either side — and in any case, the judgment will be up to history.

But there were a number of factual claims that are worthy of scrutiny.

“The assumption was that more than 300,000 Afghan National Security Forces that we had trained over the past two decades and equipped would be a strong adversary in their civil wars with the Taliban.”

By our count, this is now the sixth time Biden has used this Three-Pinocchio figure. It’s an inflated number, combining the military with the national police.

In a 2021 report, the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) found that Afghanistan had an active military force of 178,800; of these, 171,500 were in the army and 7,300 in the air force.

“Reports suggested that already high losses and high levels of desertion further increased in 2020,” the report said. “There was reported 22% personnel shortage in mid-2019, and there are problems in retaining key specialists including pilots and special-operations troops.”

IISS also noted that Afghanistan had 99,000 “paramilitary” forces, or members of the Afghan National Police. The police report to the Interior Ministry, not the Defense Ministry. They guard the border, staff security checkpoints and try to hold territory that the army has cleared of insurgents.

“Roughly 40% of the total [300,000 security forces] consisted of Afghan National Police (ANP) whose forces varied sharply in quality, were largely conventional police, and could not play an effective paramilitary role or properly hold even supposed secure areas,” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) wrote in a report. He added, “Some fought bravely in the period before U.S. force cuts began, but most collapsed or deserted in the face of any serious Taliban action, and significant numbers deserted or changed sides when the Taliban took control over a given District.”

In its final report, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found that the national police routinely engaged in torture and abuse, which further “alienated local Afghans and undermined the U.S. government’s overarching security goals for the country.”

By repeatedly using the 300,000 figure, the president is misleading Americans about the capabilities of the Afghan military — which were shown to be pretty poor in the end.

“The bottom line: 90 percent of Americans in Afghanistan who wanted to leave were able to leave.”

Biden undercut himself here with a percentage that does not make sense in light of other numbers he provided. Earlier in the speech, he had said “our Operation Allied Rescue ended up getting more than 5,500 Americans out.” Then he noted that “we believe that about 100 to 200 Americans remain in Afghanistan with some intention to leave.”

Those numbers would suggest the administration removed 96 to 98 percent of the Americans who wanted to leave, a far better figure than 90 percent (which would suggest there were actually 600 Americans left).

It turns out that Biden bungled the line. The White House amended the transcript to read: “Ninety-eight percent of Americans in Afghanistan who wanted to leave were able to leave.”

Biden has come under fire because, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, he firmly replied “yes” when he was asked whether he was “committed to making sure that the troops stay until every American who wants to be out is out.” He failed to keep that promise, presumably because the risk of harm to U.S. troops would increase significantly if they stayed beyond the Aug. 31 departure date.

Biden suggested that many of the remaining Americans were late to decide to leave, in part because they had extended family in Afghanistan. “Most of those who remain are dual citizens, longtime residents who had earlier decided to stay because of their family roots in Afghanistan,” he said. That claim cannot be vetted until we get a full accounting of the remaining Americans and what prevented them from joining the thousands of other Americans who were able to get on flights.

“After more than $2 trillion spent in Afghanistan, costs that researchers at Brown University estimated would be over $300 million a day for 20 years in Afghanistan — for two decades — yes, the American people should hear this — $300 million a day for two decades.”

Biden accurately cites an estimate from Brown’s Costs of War project; former president Donald Trump often used their numbers in a misleading fashion. The Brown team calculated the total U.S. cost of fighting in Afghanistan as $2.3 trillion, though that includes $532 billion in interest on the debt borrowed to fund the war. It also includes $233 billion to care for wounded veterans.

The cost of the actual war was just over $1 trillion, according to Brown’s calculation. To his credit, Biden acknowledged: “You could take the number of $1 trillion, as many say. That’s still $150 million a day for two decades.”

“Eighteen veterans on average who die by suicide every single day in America, not in a far-off place, but right here in America.”

This figure comes from the 2020 National Suicide Prevention Report, issued by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In the 2018, the report said, 6,435 veterans committed suicide, an average of 17.6 a day.

In the overall U.S. population, there were an average of 127.4 suicides by adults every day. Indeed, from 2005 through 2018, the proportion of suicide deaths in the U.S. attributable to the veteran population decreased steadily. The number of suicides of veterans has increased 6.3 percent since 2005, compared to an increase of 47.1 percent among all adult Americans.

But the suicide rate among veterans still remains higher than for adult Americans.

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