Biden on Afghanistan: ‘There is never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces’

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said Monday that he stood by the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan even as Taliban forces quickly retook control of the country.

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Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to be nation building,” the president said in an address from the White House on Monday. “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.”

Biden spoke after video and photographs posted online earlier Monday showed chaos at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport as thousands of people swarmed the tarmac. At least seven people died, including some who plunged to their deaths after grabbing hold of a U.S. military jet as it took off, The Associated Press reported, citing unidentified senior U.S. officials.

Biden has faced criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike for the swift collapse of Afghanistan’s government. On Sunday, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, told CNN that the Biden administration’s handling of the situation in the country was an “unmitigated disaster of epic proportions.”

“I think the president -- this is going to be a stain on this president and this presidency, and I think he’s going to have blood on his hands for what they did,” he said.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country Sunday without notifying his cabinet or sharing plans for a government handoff, cementing the Taliban’s hold over the country, according to The Washington Post and The New York Times. Taliban forces entered the Afghan capital that same day after sweeping through other cities in the previous week as U.S. troops, who first arrived in the country nearly 20 years ago following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, withdrew, the Times reported. Last month, Biden said he aimed to have U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by September.

“I stand squarely behind my decision,” the president said Monday. “After 20 years I’ve learned the hard way that there is never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces. That’s why we’re still there.”

However, he acknowledged that the situation unfolded “more quickly than we anticipated.” He placed blame for the situation on the country’s political leaders, saying that they “gave up and fled the country.”

“The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military enforcement in Afghanistan now was the right decision,” he said. “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.”

In a statement released Sunday, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, said that the withdrawal of U.S. troops “should have been carefully planned to prevent violence and instability.”

“We must act swiftly to protect Americans and our Afghan allies and partners on the ground,” he said. “We cannot abandon those who fought by our side who now face mortal danger from the Taliban’s takeover. We have a moral obligation to act immediately to protect their lives and a national security imperative to ensure that Afghan soil does not again become a source of terrorist attacks on our allies and our homeland.”

The top Republican in the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, wrote Sunday in a social media post that Biden’s “lack of leadership during this pivotal moment has been shameful -- it has only served to embolden our adversaries and let down our allies.”

On Monday, Biden said that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan “has taken many missteps ... over the past two decades.”

“I will not pass this responsibility onto 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,” he said.

“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 counterterrorism mission.”

Biden campaigned as a seasoned expert in international relations and has spent months downplaying the prospect of an ascendant Taliban while arguing that Americans of all political persuasions have tired of a 20-year war, a conflict that demonstrated the limits of money and military might to force a Western-style democracy on a society not ready or willing to embrace it.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.