United States President Joe Biden said on Thursday the US military would complete its withdrawal from Afghanistan by August 31, ahead of schedule, and dismissed mounting concerns about a civil war developing in the country occupied by the US since 2001.
“The mission is accomplished in that we got Osama bin Laden and that terrorism is not emanating from that part of the world,” Biden insisted, defending his decision to keep up the rapid US withdrawal in the face of widening Taliban attacks on Afghan forces.
The US invaded Afghanistan after the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. The US has withdrawn approximately 3,500 remaining troops in a process the US military now says is 90 percent complete.
“Our military commanders advised me that once I made the decision to end the war, we needed to move swiftly,” Biden said.
“In this context speed is safety,” said the president, who is commander-in-chief of the military in the US system of government and holds ultimate authority over the deployment of troops.
The US will continue to have a few hundred troops in Afghanistan to maintain security for the US embassy and diplomatic community in Kabul as well as the city’s airport. And US officials have said the military will maintain an “over-the-horizon” capability to respond to events.
The US withdrawal follows a US agreement reached under former President Donald Trump in talks headed by US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad with the Taliban in Qatar. The US agreed that US and foreign forces would leave by May 1. In exchange, the Taliban promised to negotiate a peace agreement with the Western-backed government in Kabul.
When Biden came to office in January he was confronted with a stark choice of following through on the agreement with the Taliban or seeing US forces drawn back into a widening war.
Biden said on Thursday he and his top advisers had concluded the only path to peace and stability in Afghanistan is through a negotiated agreement between the Western-backed Afghan government in Kabul, regional leaders and the Taliban.
“We did not go into Afghanistan to nation-build,” the president said.
In the first significant peace talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban in months, a government delegation met Taliban representatives in Tehran on July 8. The two warring sides issued a joint statement that said “war is not the solution to the Afghanistan problem.”
It came as the Taliban claimed to have captured a main border crossing with Iran Thursday, with the Taliban spokesman posting a video showing purported fighters taking the Islam Qala border crossing and being welcomed by local residents. It would be the third international border the group has seized, as its fighters take territory around the country.
A Pentagon spokesman said on Thursday that Taliban fighters had taken dozens of district centers in Afghanistan.
“They have taken dozens of district centres, that is true. And we believe that they mean to threaten provincial centres as well,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.
A defensive Biden batted back several shouted questions from reporters at the White House, rejecting comparisons to the US departure from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war.
“No. No, no, no,” Biden says when asked if the US bears responsibility for Afghan lives lost post-withdrawal.
“It’s up to the people of Afghanistan to decide what government they want, not to impose the government upon them.”
Biden denied that US intelligence agencies have concluded that the Afghan government will fall to the Taliban without the presence of US forces. Biden met at the White House with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and national council chairman Abdullah Abdullah on June 25 and pledged continuing US financial and diplomatic support for the government.
The Afghan army is well trained and equipped, Biden said, and a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is not inevitable. The US has trained and equipped more than 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police although the Afghan military still relies on the US and foreign contractors for air support.
“I do not trust the Taliban but I trust the capacity of the Afghan military,” Biden said.
Biden offered a message to interpreters and other Afghans who worked with troops: “There is a home for you in the United States, if you so choose, and we will stand with you just as you stood with us.”
Congress is advancing legislation that Biden supports to eliminate bureaucratic obstacles to re-locating potential thousands of Afghans and their families to US territory, potentially the Pacifica island of Guam.