US president Joe Biden has defended his decision to leave Afghanistan after two decades, saying he was not going to extend a “forever war” and make it a “forever exit”.
Biden has faced criticism for a lack of flexibility over the August 31 deadline to pull US and western troops from the war-torn country.
But in a speech on Tuesday night in the aftermath of the final American soldier flying out of Kabul, Biden said his predecessor Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban for a US exit gave him a choice of either withdrawing or adding thousands more troops.
“That was the choice, the real choice: between leaving and escalating,” he said.
Defending the hard deadline, the president said: “I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit.”
He argued America’s main mission – to kill Osama bin Laden – had been complete in 2011.
“We succeeded in what we set out to do in Afghanistan over a decade ago – and we stayed another decade,” he said from the White House.
On Monday, the US had finally withdrawn the last of its troops out of Kabul, officially ending America’s 20-year war with Afghanistan.
The US has evacuated more than 120,000 people from Kabul airport, and the UK has managed to get more than 15,000 people out of the country over a 14-day period.
Biden said Washington would continue to target militants in the country who posed a threat to the US, but would no longer use its military to try to build cohesive, democratic societies in places that have never had them.
“This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries,” he said.
The president stressed that the Trump administration’s agreement last year with the Taliban — which had taken over Afghanistan amid the quick collapse of the country’s government — required Biden to stick to a previously set deadline in order to protect American forces from being attacked by the Taliban.
“Leaving on August 31 is not due to an arbitrary deadline. It was designed to save American lives,” he said. “That was the choice, the real choice, between leaving or escalating.”
Biden said that his administration had reached out 19 times to Americans in Afghanistan since March, with multiple warnings and offers to evacuate. Some Americans made an earlier decision to stay, and then later wanted to evacuate, according to the president.
“Now, some say we should have started mass evacuations sooner, and couldn’t this have been done in a more orderly manner?” Biden said. “I respectfully disagree.”
“Imagine if we began evacuations in June or July, bringing in thousands of American troops and evacuating more than 120,000 people in the middle of a civil war,” he continued.
“There still would have been a rush to the airport, a breakdown of confidence and control of the government — and it still would have been a very difficult and dangerous mission.”