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A Defensive Biden Argues There Was No Exit From Afghanistan 'Without Chaos Ensuing'

President Biden discusses the COVID-19 response and vaccination program Wednesday at the White House. Biden also spoke about Afghanistan in an interview Wednesday with ABC News.
President Biden discusses the COVID-19 response and vaccination program Wednesday at the White House. Biden also spoke about Afghanistan in an interview Wednesday with ABC News.

Updated August 18, 2021 at 8:24 PM ET

President Biden largely reiterated his defense of the Afghanistan withdrawal in an interview with ABC News on Wednesday, saying that some chaos was inevitable.

He added that U.S. troops will stay in Afghanistan until all American civilians are out.

The interview came days after the Afghan capital fell to the Taliban and thrust the region into the same violent uncertainty that the United States had sought to stabilize.

"The idea that somehow, there's a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don't know how that happens," Biden told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos.

"Do you believe the Taliban have changed?" Stephanopoulos asked in a portion of the interview that aired Thursday morning.

"No," Biden said. He added, "I think they're going through sort of an existential crisis about, do they want to be recognized by the international community as being a legitimate government? I'm not sure they do."

Biden also noted the Taliban's pressing needs to sustain Afghanistan's economy.

When the president was asked what the U.S. owes Afghans — particularly Afghan women — Biden said the United States should get as many people out of the country as it can. But he also said the military isn't the proper tool to establish women's rights.

"The idea that we're able to deal with the rights of women around the world by military force is not rational," Biden said. He later added, "There are a lot of places where women are being subjugated." The way to change that, he said, is through international pressure and diplomacy.

Making a "simple choice" to leave Afghanistan

The president said it was "a simple choice" to withdraw U.S. forces, and he faulted the Afghan government and its military for not more forcibly defending the capital.

"Look, it was a simple choice," Biden said. "When you had the government of Afghanistan, the leader of that government, get in a plane and taking off and going to another country, when you saw the significant collapse of the Afghan troops we had trained, up to 300,000 of them, just leaving their equipment and taking off — that was, you know, I'm not, that's what happened."

"That's simply what happened. And so the question was, in the beginning, the threshold question was, do we commit to leave within the time frame we set, do we extend it to Sept. 1, or do we put significantly more troops in?"

In the interview, Biden also stressed he's committed to keeping a troop presence in Afghanistan until every American who wants to get out is safely evacuated.

As far as the nation's Afghan allies, Biden made less of a firm commitment.

"We're going to do everything in our power to get all Americans out and our allies out," Biden said. "The commitment holds to get everyone out that, in fact, we can get out and everyone who should come out. And that's the objective. That's what we're doing now. That's the path we're on. And I think we'll get there."

There are mounting concerns that Afghans who aided the United States and their families are under violent threat from the Taliban if they remain in the country.

Biden had made an early promise to withdraw U.S. troops from the country by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the attacks that prompted the initial U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

By last week, when it became apparent the speed with which the Taliban were advancing their takeover, Biden authorized sending several thousand troops back to Afghanistan on a temporary mission to help evacuate most of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and Afghan civilians who had supported the United States.

"I had a simple choice. If I said, 'We're gonna stay,' then we'd better be prepared to put a whole lot, hell of a lot more troops in," Biden told ABC News.

Biden defends the decision to withdraw U.S. forces

The remarks are Biden's second since the Taliban seized Kabul — Afghanistan's capital — on Sunday. The president had been vacationing at Camp David when conditions in Afghanistan took a stunning turn, and Taliban forces overran the national government and military.

On Monday, Biden made a brief return to the White House and delivered remarks that were widely criticized for seeming to lack empathy and passing off the responsibility for the chaos left in the wake of the hasty U.S. exit.

The president defended his decision to withdraw U.S. forces, faulting the Afghan military — which the United States had trained and armed — for lacking the will to defend itself and the national sovereignty against a Taliban takeover.

"I am deeply saddened by the facts we now face, but I do not regret my decision," Biden said at the time.

"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," he said, noting the $1 trillion and nearly 20 years the U.S. has spent there since the 9/11 attacks.

Both Biden and his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, had vowed a full exit of American troops and an end to the deeply unpopular "forever war" that has come to define U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century, but Biden faced the brunt of criticism for how quickly the situation on the ground deteriorated.

"It's not that we left Afghanistan. It's the grossly incompetent way we left!" Trump said in a Monday statement.

Many on the right compared the scene to the fall of Saigon, a national embarrassment that saw South Vietnam's capital besieged by U.S. opposition following the speedy evacuation of American forces from the area in 1975.

As the Taliban cement their position as the leading authority in Afghanistan, U.S. citizens, special immigrant visa applicants and other vulnerable populations have sought to evacuate the country.

Earlier this week, graphic footage from the airport in Kabul showed people clinging to the wings of a plane in an attempt to flee. Several of their deaths were broadcast to a stunned global audience as people plunged to the ground from the ascending aircraft.

Milley pushes back on reports that intelligence warned of a rapid collapse

Biden and his advisers admitted their surprise at the rapid collapse of the Afghan government. Intelligence had previously suggested the government could fall six months after U.S. troops had withdrawn.

Instead, it took just 11 days.

Despite those reports, the White House rejected criticism that officials had previous insight to suggest that the capital city would fall to the Taliban so quickly.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday at the Pentagon, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pushed back on reports that U.S. intelligence warned of a rapid collapse with the exit of U.S. troops.

Appearing alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Milley, in a prepared opening statement, said: "I am very familiar with the intelligence, and in war nothing is ever certain, but I can tell you that there are not reports that I am aware of that predicted a security force of 300,000 would evaporate in 11 days ... with the capture of 34 provinces and the capital city of Kabul."

Milley went on to say that intelligence clearly indicated multiple scenarios, but that the rapid collapse scenario ranged from "weeks, months and even years following our departure."

He said U.S. Central Command submitted a number of plans to meet those possible scenarios, including "what we are executing now."

There are 4,500 U.S. troops on the ground to date in Afghanistan focused on the evacuation operation, Milley said, and the security situation at the Kabul airport is stable.

He also said that, through the State Department, the Taliban are guaranteeing safe passage to the airport for American citizens. In addition, Milley said there were other capabilities on the ground, including U.S. special operations forces.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alana Wise joined WAMU in September 2018 as the 2018-2020 Audion Reporting Fellow for Guns & America. Selected as one of 10 recipients nationwide of the Audion Reporting Fellowship, Alana works in the WAMU newsroom as part of a national reporting project and is spending two years focusing on the impact of guns in the Washington region.
Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.