President Joe Biden on Sunday said he had no qualms about removing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, telling reporters he had a decision to make, a judgment “no one else can or will make,” and that he is convinced he’s “absolutely correct in not deciding to send more young women and men to war for a war that is not warranted.”
Answering a question about a CBS poll published earlier Sunday that found that just 49% of Americans consider his actions competent – compared with 56% in April – Biden defended his decision for the U.S.’ chaotic exit from Afghanistan, which resulted in the swift takeover of the Afghan government by the Taliban.
“I haven’t seen that poll,” Biden said, laughing when he was told it was from CBS News.
“I had a basic decision to make. I either withdraw America from a 20-year war, that depending on whose analysis you accept, cost us $150 million a day for 20 years or $300 million a day for 20 years. Lost 2,448 Americans dead 20,722 wounded. I either increase the number of forces and keep that going or end the war,” he said.
“I decided to end the war. The only reason we are in Afghanistan is because this is the place from which (Osama) bin Laden attacked the United States of America. If this had been in other Middle Eastern country where he could have easily moved from, we would have never gone to Afghanistan.
“The question is when is the right time to leave? Where are our national interests? Where do they lie? The idea that we are in a situation where we cannot recognize that terrorism has metastasized around the world and the need for us to focus on other parts of the world which create an even greater danger of another al Qaeda-like operation can’t be ignored. We are in a number of places where we are doing that without permanent basing American forces there.”
Biden, under a barrage of criticism from U.S. allies, including NATO and Group of Seven members, also expressed confidence that Americans “will have a clear understanding of what I did, why we did it. That’s the job. My job is to make judgments, to make judgments no one else can or will make. I made them; I’m convinced I’m absolutely correct in not deciding to send more young women and men to war for a war that is not warranted.”
The president also touted the U.S.’s evacuation efforts, saying troops have evacuated nearly 33,000 people from Afghanistan since July, including American citizens, citizens of NATO allies and “our partners” and their diplomats and embassy staff, and promised that Americans who wants to get home “will get home.”
“We are also working to move our Afghan allies who stood with us side by side and other vulnerable Afghans such as women leaders and journalists out of the country,” Biden said.
He also acknowledged that the evacuation of thousands of people from Kabul will be “hard and painful, no matter when it started, when we began.”
“There’s no way to evacuate this many people without pain or loss and heartbreaking images you see on television. It’s just a fact. My heart aches for those people you see. We are proving that we can, though, move thousands of people out of Kabul. … But we have a long way to go. A lot can still go wrong. To move out 30,000 people in just over a week, that’s a great testament to the men and women on the ground in Kabul and our armed services.”
Biden said the U.S. has expanded its efforts to help evacuate Americans who’ve struggled to reach the Kabul airport and may extend the Aug. 31 deadline for a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“We’re working hard and as fast as we can to get people out,” Biden said Sunday at the White House. “That’s our mission, that’s our goal.”
The president declined to provide more detail about U.S. efforts to assist people outside of the Kabul airport perimeter. Biden said about 7,800 people were evacuated over the weekend, bringing the total since Aug. 14 to more than 25,000.
Biden’s remarks come just two days before a virtual meeting with Group of Seven leaders — the same group he promised in June that “critical U.S. enablers” would remain in place to keep Kabul safe following the drawdown of NATO forces, according to a British diplomatic memo seen by Bloomberg.
The chaos in Afghanistan and around the Kabul airport is fueling widespread criticism of the Biden’s handling of the withdrawal of thousands of Americans and Afghans who helped U.S. forces over the past two decades and now face the risk of reprisal from the Taliban.
Between Aug. 21 and Aug. 22 at 3 a.m., 23 U.S. military flights evacuated about 3,900 people, and 35 coalition aircraft — including foreign military and commercial airlines — evacuated another roughly 3,900, according to a senior White House official. About 30,000 people have been evacuated since the end of July.
“We see no reason why this tempo will not be kept up,” Biden said.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, said Sunday that the U.S. is placing “paramount priority” on defending crowds at the Kabul airport, and warned of the “acute” risk of a terrorist attack by Islamic State.
Earlier Sunday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that he activated stage one of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, which gives the military access to U.S. commercial airlines to assist with the evacuation effort. In a tweet Sunday, Austin said that aircraft from American Airlines, Delta Airlines, United Airlines, Atlas Air, Omni Air and Hawaiian Airlines are being used in the effort. They’re not flying into Kabul’s airport, instead flying passengers out of safe havens to interim staging bases, he said.
In recent days, Biden has held calls with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi, the White House said.
Bloomberg News contibuted to this report.