WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden broke days of silence on Monday (Aug 16) on the chaotic American pullout from Afghanistan, doubling down on his decision as he fired scorching criticism at the country's former Western-backed leadership for failing to resist the Taliban.
"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," he said in a televised address from the White House.
As images of chaos and desperation beamed in from Kabul, where American soldiers were trying to mount an evacuation from the airport while Taliban fighters flooded the city, Biden said: "The buck stops with me."
Brushing off criticism that the evacuation is a debacle, Biden said the priority is to stop a war that had expanded far beyond its initially modest goals of punishing the Taliban for links to Al-Qaeda after 9/11.
"The mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to be nation-building," he said, vowing that despite the departure of US troops anti-terrorism operations would continue.
Biden said "thousands" of US citizens and Afghans who had worked with American forces are to be evacuated over the coming days. He threatened a "devastating" military response if the Taliban launch attacks in the meantime.
Underlining his insistence that he is on the right course, Biden was due to leave the White House soon after the speech to return to his weekend retreat at Camp David. He had just flown in from Camp David hours earlier to give the speech after coming under pressure to address the nation.
BLAMING THE AFGHANS
While Biden said he took responsibility for the fate of the US mission, he lashed out at the former Afghan government and military commanders who were put in place, organised and supported by Washington over the last 20 years.
Instead of standing up to the advancing Taliban - a highly experienced guerrilla force but more lightly armed than the US-supplied Afghan army - the government fled.
"We gave them every chance to determine their own future. We could not provide them with the will to fight for that future," Biden said.
Partly acknowledging the surprising suddenness of the final Taliban assault, Biden said "this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated".
But rather than dwell on the shocking scenes of Afghans mobbing the airport or respond to criticism that the White House was unprepared, Biden hammered home his wider message that ending the war is what matters.
"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 stabilising Afghanistan indefinitely," he said.
Biden said he was "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 Afghanistan's civil war?"
Biden had been on a political roll until this last week.
Defying those who said Washington had become too dysfunctional for bipartisan dealmaking, Biden was celebrating the passage by the evenly divided Senate of his US$1.2 trillion infrastructure Bill. His Democrats were starting to work on a second, mind-bogglingly ambitious US$3.5 trillion Bill.
And it was only a few weeks ago that Biden was congratulating Americans for their COVID-19 vaccination rates - a seeming victory over the coronavirus that the emerging Delta variant has now put in peril.
Like the pandemic, Afghanistan was a crisis that Biden inherited.
The US public has long lost interest in the fighting there and Trump tapped into powerful isolationist sentiment with a drive to extricate the country from "stupid" post-9/11 wars.
Unlike on most other matters, Biden agreed with his Republican predecessor.
In fact, Biden's pullout is based almost entirely on a plan set in motion by Trump himself, who ordered negotiations with the Taliban and, if reelected, had been teeing up an even earlier exit.
Now beset by accusations of incompetence and betrayal, the White House is doubling down, insisting that the chaos in Kabul is actually the best of all the bad available options.
"What the president was not prepared to do was to enter a third decade of conflict, throwing in thousands more troops - which was his only other choice," National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told NBC.