He suggested it was folly to think that the United States could turn Afghanistan into a functioning democracy, given its centuries of history as a country that has defied other invaders and even defied understanding. He questioned those who said the United States should stay, perhaps indefinitely, with a few thousand troops deployed to help provide stability.
He argued that even a low-grade war, as he called the most recent phase of America’s commitment there, is still war, with human and humanitarian consequences. “There’s nothing low-grade or low-risk or low-cost about any war,” he said. He was not prepared to continue in Afghanistan, and by implication challenged his critics to show a better way.
Biden’s speech will not quiet the critics. Far from it. His claim that the withdrawal was a success will strike many as questionable at best, and plain wrong to his most severe critics. His acknowledgment that Americans were left behind, contrary to an earlier pledge, will leave a sour taste for many, even those who support the decision to withdraw all forces.
Biden said the administration thinks there are 100 to 200 Americans who would like to leave and that he would work to get them out, “if they so choose.” There are also thousands of Afghans who have helped the United States in the war effort still there and in jeopardy. What will become of them, and what is Biden prepared to do for them?
Beyond that, the decision to withdraw leaves the Taliban freer to target those who supported or helped the United States or to deny women and girls rights and opportunities they were afforded during America’s involvement. Biden said his administration will continue to fight for human rights everywhere. The decision to withdraw has rattled some of America’s allies, raising questions about the real meaning of Biden’s “America is back” rhetoric.
Biden’s tone Tuesday was more hot than somber after 20 years of war in Afghanistan, though he included a passage of tribute to those killed last week, saying their sacrifice can never be forgotten.
He also acknowledged the suffering and commitment of the thousands of Americans who have served there, and of those killed or wounded, and the impact on the military families, making clear this too was a reason he made the decision he did. In doing so, he implied that those who argue for an indefinite commitment in Afghanistan, or elsewhere, fail to take full measure of the costs to those who serve. The war, he said, should have ended “long ago.”
National security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN that he disagreed with characterizations of the speech as defiant. Instead, he said the president spoke with “passion” and “conviction.” It is difficult to argue with that. What Biden said Tuesday reflects what he has believed for more than a decade.
He has long argued that the strategy pursued across multiple administrations was misguided. He argued that in 2009 in the Situation Room in the Obama administration, ending up on the losing side of the argument as the United States poured tens of thousands of additional troops into the effort.
He has been bristling ever since, or so it would seem. Given the power to change course, he did, in the most emphatic way he knew. As he put it Tuesday, “I was not going to extend this forever war and I was not extending a forever exit,” he said.
Biden said he took responsibility for the decision to withdraw by Tuesday, claiming it was done to protect the lives and security of U.S. military personnel aiding in the heroic evacuation that helped more than 120,000 people — some Americans but mostly others — get out by the deadline. He said his advisers, civilian and military, were unanimous in supporting the decision not to extend the deadline.
But he refused to shoulder all the blame for the decision to end the conflict in the way he did. He was unsparing in his criticism of former president Donald Trump and the previous administration, suggesting that the agreement they struck with the Taliban in 2020 had put unacceptable constraints on him as he took office in January.
He described the choice left to him by Trump as binary: to stick with the agreement Trump’s administration had negotiated (although Biden moved the deadline for withdrawal from May 1 to Tuesday) or embrace a significant troop escalation. He thought the idea of sending in more troops would be fruitless, so he went ahead with a full withdrawal.
Ironically, because of the chaos that erupted after the Taliban took control of Kabul and thousands sought to flee, he was forced to send more troops back in temporarily to manage the logistical and security challenges of the evacuation.
Biden said he was not only bringing an end to America’s longest war but closing a chapter in the fight against international terrorism that has defined U.S. foreign policy since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A ground war in Afghanistan is not a policy for the future, he said. Nor, he added, is a U.S. intervention that is allowed to expand its ambitions to include nation-building. “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan,” he said. “It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”
Biden said the threats of terrorism have “metastasized” to other parts of the world, as they have. The United States has been trying to combat them for some years, and the president said that will continue. One question now is whether Afghanistan will again become a breeding ground for terrorism, as it was two decades ago. Biden insisted that his administration is prepared to deal with that threat if it arises, just as he contended that the United States has leverage over the Taliban to make it live up to its commitments. Meanwhile, Afghans continue to try to flee the country.
Biden sought to make the strongest argument he knew in defense of the decision to leave Afghanistan. As Sullivan suggested, it was a speech of conviction, one in which the president believed in every word, every syllable. He spoke plainly, an address shorn of soaring oratory. The emotion was in the delivery rather than the words. It was Biden as Biden. He now owns it all and will take the consequences.