|Pix Credit: The President at Camp David|
The President of the United States, having decided to withdraw what remained of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, was left in the awkward position of appearing to be compelled to explain himself (and U.S. policy) in the wake of the speed with which the opponents of the government of the (now former) Republic of Afghanistan was replaced by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the same government installed (by force of arms) after September 27, 1996, until it was toppled by U.S. led forces in December 2001, installing Hamdi Karzi (whose own involvement through the present day will eventually be unraveled by a creative doctoral student with the archival materials and courage to do so) as leader.
I leave it to others to quantify the extent of relief the statement produced and satisfaction produced by these efforts among the masses in this Republic. There ought to be much gratitude, if only for the parade of euphemisms to which we were all treated. But the greatest value of this performance was in the small opening it provided to the way that the elite that surrounds this president is now seeking to make meaning of the last twenty years. As a consolation to the people of the United States, the American adventure in Afghanistan has now been reduced to a sort of glorious treasure hunt, the object of which was eventually killed. . . in Pakistan. . . in 2011. Everything else, this new mandatory history would have us now understand, was waste, misdirection, and a testament to the egos of misguided leaders; American leaders. "Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified centralized democracy. Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been, preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland." But mostly, these remarks chronicle a remarkable personal journey of the individual who now has merged himself with the office of the President. That merging, sad and dangerous enough when attempted in prior administration, is now apparently something that ought to bring comfort--at least the comfort of a plausible explanation.
But the great object of this talk in the ancient form of a confession ("But, I always promised the American people that I will be straight with you"), was to frame its reality in a way that could bring a measure of comfort to those who sacrificed, and a measure of a therapeutic transfer of guilt away from those who bear responsibility for the decision.
It is not the truth of these statements that are important; critically important is that the statements are delivered authoritatively. Mr. Biden's narrative weaves facts in a way that reduce the Taliban to ta very lucky group, who owe their success to the faults of others--prior American presidents, and a phlegmatic and parasitic Afghani governance structure that imploded because, in the end, their lacked either solidarity, integrity, or loyalty to the ideals and principles of that Republic, which were also, in their best light, those ideals at the core of the international liberal democratic order. At its best it is hoped that this new narrative of personal courage in decisive decision making will provide a measure of comfort to those who have sacrificed--and those who in the future will have to sacrifice--because of the choices now embedded in the story of the American departure from Afghanistan. One fears, however that other narratives may acquire substantially more authority among the allies and friends of the United States, who also are asked to sacrifice and who now perhaps worry more that this President, or another, will in the future tell their electorate the sad tale of another abandonment because the United States does not support losers ("We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future."). Again, one ought not to interpret these comments as criticizing any of the decisions taken since before 2001 in Afghanistan--that would require access to information and the collectives who processed that information into (in)action, access to which most do not have. Instead, the focus is on the discourse and what it suggests, precisely because it is meant to be proffered for that purpose.
|Pix Credit: UK TV Detective Show Vera|
|Pix Credit: NCIS Season 1 Episode 12|
This, then, is what President Biden offers. He offers it well; pure of heart and innocent perhaps. He is, after all, the product of his own personal journey and its apotheosis. We are left only with this, and from it we will be asked to continue to put our trust in individuals, structures, processes, institutions, and principles. Yet one cannot help but worry that trust--the essential currency of American influence and authority--may have just been revalued, whatever the perfectly plausible justifications that are proffered in defense of the decisions that brought the U.S. President to this pass.
Joe Biden: (00:55)
Good afternoon. I want to speak today to the unfolding situation in Afghanistan, the developments that have taken place in the last week and the steps we’re taking to address the rapidly evolving events. My National Security Team and I have been closely monitoring the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and moving quickly to execute the plans we had put in place to respond to every contingency, including the rapid collapse we’re seeing now.
Joe Biden: (01:29)
I’ll speak more in a moment about the specific steps we’re taking, but I want to remind everyone how we got here and what America’s interests are in Afghanistan. We went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago with clear goals, get those who attacked us on September 11th, 2001, and make sure al-Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again.
Joe Biden: (01:57)
We did that. We severely degraded al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. We never gave up the hunt for Osama bin Laden and we got him. That was a decade ago. Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified centralized democracy. Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been, preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland.
Joe Biden: (02:30)
I’ve argued for many years that our mission should be narrowly focused on counter terrorism, not counterinsurgency or nation building. That’s why I opposed The Surge when it was proposed in 2009 when I was Vice-President, and that’s why, as President I’m adamant we focus on the threats we face today in 2021, not yesterday’s threats.
Joe Biden: (02:55)
Today, the terrorist threat has metastasized well beyond Afghanistan. al-Shabab in Somalia, al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula, al Nusra in Syria, ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq and establishing affiliates in multiple countries in Africa and Asia. These threats warrant our attention and our resources.
Joe Biden: (03:23)
We conduct effective counter-terrorism missions against terrorist groups in multiple countries where we don’t have permanent military presence. If necessary, we’ll do the same in Afghanistan. We’ve developed counter-terrorism Over The Horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on the direct threats to the United States in the region, and act quickly and decisively if needed.
Joe Biden: (03:52)
When I came into office, I inherited a deal that President Trump negotiated with the Taliban. Under his agreement, US forces would be out of Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, just a little over three months after I took office. US forces had already drawn down during the Trump administration from roughly 15,500 American forces to 2,500 troops in country. And the Taliban was at its strongest militarily since 2001. The choice I had to make, as your President, was either to follow through on that agreement or be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the spring fighting season.
Joe Biden: (04:44)
There would have been no ceasefire after May 1. There was no agreement protecting our forces after May 1. There was no status quo of stability without American casualties after May 1. There was only a cold reality of either following through on the agreement to withdraw our forces or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back into combat in Afghanistan, lurching into the third decade of conflict.
Joe Biden: (05:20)
I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces. That’s why we’re still there. We were clear-eyed about the risks, we planned for every contingency. But, I always promised the American people that I will be straight with you. The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.
Joe Biden: (05:52)
So what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometime without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending US military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.
Joe Biden: (06:18)
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. We spent over a trillion dollars. We trained and equipped an Afghan military force with some 300,000 strong, incredibly well-equipped. A force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies. We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries, provided for the maintenance of their air force. Something that Taliban doesn’t have, Taliban does not have an air force. We provided close air support.
Joe Biden: (07:06)
We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future. There’s some very brave and capable Afghan special forces units and soldiers. But if Afghanistan is unable to mount any real resistance of the Taliban now, there is no chance that one year, one more year, five more years or twenty more years of US military boots on the ground would have made any difference.
Joe Biden: (07:42)
Here’s what I believe to my core, it is wrong to order American troops to step up when Afghanistan’s own armed forces would not. The political leaders of Afghanistan were unable to come together for the good of their people, unable to negotiate for the future of their country when the chips were down. They would never have done so while US troops remained in Afghanistan, bearing the brunt of the fighting for them.
Joe Biden: (08:16)
And our true strategic competitors, China and Russia, would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilizing Afghanistan indefinitely.
Joe Biden: (08:31)
When I hosted President Ghani and Chairman Abdullah at the White House in June, and again when I spoke by phone to Ghani in July, we had very frank conversations. We talked about how Afghanistan should prepare to fight their civil wars after the US military departed. To clean up the corruption in government so the government could function for the Afghan people. We talked extensive about the need for Afghan leaders to unite politically. They failed to do any event. I also urge them to engage in diplomacy, to seek a political settlement with the Taliban. This advice was flatly refused. Mr. Ghani insisted that the Afghan forces would fight, but obviously he was wrong.
Joe Biden: (09:26)
So I’m left again to ask of those who argue that we should stay, how many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghanistan’s civil war when Afghan troops will not? How many more lives, American lives, is it worth? How many endless rows of headstones in Arlington National Cemetery?
Joe Biden: (09:55)
I’m clear on my answer. I will not repeat the mistakes we’ve made in the past. The mistake of staying and fighting indefinitely in a conflict that is not in the national interest of the United States. Of doubling down on a civil war in a foreign country, of attempting to remake a country through the endless military deployments of US forces. Those are the mistakes we can not continue to repeat because we have significant vital interest in the world that we cannot afford to ignore.
Joe Biden: (10:33)
I also want to acknowledge how painful this is to so many of us. The scenes we’re seeing in Afghanistan, they’re gut-wrenching. Particularly for our veterans, our diplomats, humanitarian workers, for anyone who has spent time on the ground working to support the Afghan people. For those who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan, and for Americans have fought and served in the country, served our country, in Afghanistan. This is deeply, deeply personal.
Joe Biden: (11:07)
It is for me as well. I’ve worked in these issues as long as anyone, I’ve been throughout Afghanistan during this war, while the war was going on from Kabul to Kandahar to the Kunar Valley. I’ve traveled there on four different occasions. I met with the people, I’ve spoken to the leaders. I spent time with our troops and I came to understand firsthand what was and was not possible in Afghanistan.
Joe Biden: (11:39)
So now we’re focused on what is possible. We will continue to support the Afghan people. We will lead with our diplomacy, our international influence and our humanitarian aid. We’ll continue to for regional diplomacy and engagement to prevent violence and instability. We’ll continue to speak out for the basic rights of the Afghan people, of women and girls, just as we speak out all over the world.
Joe Biden: (12:09)
I’ve been clear that human rights must be the center of our foreign policy, not the periphery. But the way to do it is not through endless military deployments. It’s with our diplomacy, our economic tools and rallying the world to join us.
Joe Biden: (12:30)
Now let me lay out the current mission in Afghanistan. I was asked to authorize, and I did, 6,000 US troops to deploy to Afghanistan for the purpose of assisting in the departure of US and allied civilian personnel from Afghanistan, and to evacuate our Afghan allies and vulnerable Afghans to safety outside of Afghanistan.
Joe Biden: (12:55)
Our troops are working to secure the airfield and ensure continued operation of both the civilian and military flights. We’re taking over our traffic control. We have safely shut down our embassy and transferred our diplomats. Our diplomatic presence is now consolidated at the airport as well. Over the coming days, we intend to transport out thousands of American citizens who have been living and working in Afghanistan. We’ll also continue to support the safe departure of civilian personnel, the civilian personnel of our allies, who are still serving Afghanistan.
Joe Biden: (13:40)
Operation Allies Refuge, which I announced back in July, has already moved 2000 Afghans who are eligible for special immigration visas and their families to the United States. In the coming days, the US military will provide assistance to move more SIV eligible Afghans and their families out of Afghanistan.
Joe Biden: (14:04)
We’re also expanding refugee access to cover other vulnerable Afghans who worked for our embassy. US non-governmental agencies or US non-governmental organizations, and Afghans who otherwise are at great risk, and US news agencies. I know there are concerns about why we did not begin evacuating Afghan civilians sooner. Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country. And part of it because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid “triggering,” as they said, “a crisis of confidence.”
Joe Biden: (14:50)
American troops are performing this mission as professionally and as effectively as they always do, but it is not without risks. As we carry out this departure, we have made it clear to the Taliban, if they attack our personnel or disrupt our operation, the US presence will be swift and the response will be swift and forceful. We will defend our people with devastating force if necessary.
Joe Biden: (15:23)
Our current military mission will be short in time, limited in scope, and focused in its objectives. Get our people and our allies as safely, as quickly as possible. And once we have completed this mission, we will conclude our military withdrawal. We will end America’s longest war, after 20 long years of bloodshed.
Joe Biden: (15:52)
The events we’re seeing now are sadly proof that no amount of military force would ever deliver a stable, united, secure Afghanistan as known in history as the graveyard of empires. What’s happening now could just as easily happened 5 years ago or 15 years in the future. We have to be honest, our mission in Afghanistan has taken many missteps, made many missteps over the past two decades. I’m now the fourth American President to preside over war in Afghanistan, two Democrats and two Republicans.
Joe Biden: (16:31)
I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth president. I will not mislead the American people by claiming that just a little more time in Afghanistan will make all the difference. Nor will I shrink from my share of responsibility for where we are today and how we must move forward from here. I am President of the United States of America, and the buck stops with me.
Joe Biden: (17:01)
I’m deeply saddened by the facts we now face, but I do not regret my decision to end America’s war fighting in Afghanistan, and maintain a laser focus on our counter terrorism mission there and other parts of the world. Our mission to degrade the terrorist threat of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and kill Osama bin Laden was a success. Our decades-long effort to overcome centuries of history and permanently change and remake Afghanistan was not, and I wrote and believed it never could be.
Joe Biden: (17:39)
I cannot and will not ask our troops to fight on endlessly in another country’s civil war, taking casualties, suffering life shattering injuries, leaving families broken by grief and loss. This is not in our national security interest. It is not what the American people want. It is not what our troops, who have sacrificed so much over the past two decades, deserve.
Joe Biden: (18:10)
I made a commitment to the American people when I ran for President that I’d bring America’s military involvement in Afghanistan to an end. And while it’s been hard and messy, and yes, far from perfect, I’ve honored that commitment. More importantly, I made a commitment to the brave men and women who serve this nation that I wasn’t going to ask them to continue to risk their lives in a military action that should have ended long ago.
Joe Biden: (18:41)
Our leaders did that in Vietnam when I got here as a young man. I will not do it in Afghanistan. I know my decision will be criticized, but I would rather take all that criticism then pass this decision onto another President of the United States, yet another one, a fifth one. Because it’s the right one, it’s the right decision for our people. The right one for our brave service members who have risked their lives serving our nation. And it’s the right one for America. Thank you. May God protect our troops, our diplomats, and all brave Americans serving in harm’s way.
Speaker 2: (19:27)
[crosstalk 00:19:27] Mr. President, what do you make of the Afghans clinging to the aircraft?