US President Joe Biden has been grilled on his handling of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan in his first interview since Kabul fell to the Taliban.
Mr Biden spoke to Good Morning America anchor George Stephanopoulos yesterday, and the interview aired on this morning’s show.
It’s only the second time he has spoken about the Afghanistan crisis in public. After giving a blame-shifting speech to the American people earlier this week, he did not address the topic at all during a press conference on Wednesday and refused to take any questions.
Given the chance to ask some, Stephanopoulos didn’t waste any time.
“Let’s get right to it,” he said.
“Back in July, you said a Taliban takeover was ‘highly unlikely’. Was the intelligence wrong, or did you downplay it?”
“There was no consensus,” said Mr Biden.
“If you go back and look at the intelligence reports, they said that it’s more likely to be sometime by the end of the year.
“I think you’re going to see the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and others speaking about this later today.”
Clearly, the interview was recorded before General Mark Milley held a media conference on Wednesday, in which said “nothing I or anyone else saw” indicated a collapse of the Afghan army and government “in 11 days”.
“But you didn’t put a timeline on it when you said it was highly unlikely. You just said flat out, ‘It’s highly unlikely the Taliban would take over,’” Stephanopoulos pointed out.
“Yeah, well, the question was whether or not it – the idea that the Taliban would take over was premised on the notion that somehow, the 300,000 troops we had trained and equipped were just going to collapse, they were going to give up,” said Mr Biden.
“I don’t think anybody anticipated that.”
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“So when you look at what’s happened over the last week, was it a failure of intelligence, planning, execution or judgment?” asked Stephanopoulos.
“Look, I don’t think it was a – look it was a simple choice, George,” said the President.
“When you had the government of Afghanistan, the leader of that government, get in a plane and take off and go to another country. When you saw the significant collapse of the Afghan troops we had trained, up to 300,000 of them just leaving their equipment and taking off, that was – you know, I’m not – that’s what happened. That’s simply what happened.”
The now former Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, fled the country as the Taliban advanced into Kabul.
“So the question was, in the beginning, the threshold question was do we commit to leave within the time frame we’ve set? We extended it to September 1. Or do we put significantly more troops in?” Mr Biden continued, alluding to his predecessor Donald Trump’s agreement with the Taliban to fully withdraw US forces by May 1.
“I hear people say, ‘Well, you had 2500 folks in there and nothing was happening.’ You know, there wasn’t any war.
“But guess what? The fact was that the reason it wasn’t happening is the last president negotiated a year earlier that he’d be out by May 1 and that, in return, there would be no attack on American forces. That’s why nothing was happening.
“I had a simple choice. If I had said, ‘We’re going to stay,’ then we’d better prepare to put a whole hell of a lot more troops in.”
Stephanopoulos asked whether Mr Biden would still have withdrawn US forces in this manner if Mr Trump hadn’t made that deal with the Taliban.
“I would have tried to figure out how to withdraw those troops, yes,” he said.
“There is no good time to leave Afghanistan. Fifteen years ago would have been a problem, or 15 years from now. The basic choice is, am I going to send your sons and your daughters to war in Afghanistan in perpetuity?
“We spent over a trillion dollars, George. Twenty years. There was no good time to leave.”
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Much of the criticism Mr Biden has copped has little to do with his broad decision to withdraw. It’s been about the botched execution of that withdrawal, which allowed the Taliban to conquer Afghanistan swiftly and has left thousands of people stranded, at its mercy.
Yesterday the US embassy in Kabul admitted it “cannot ensure safe passage” to the airport for Americans who wish to leave. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said the US military does “not have the capability” to go outside the airport and escort “large numbers of people” to safety.
Afghans who helped the US and are now at risk of retribution from the Taliban are in an even worse position than the American citizens. There have been reports of Afghans with all the correct paperwork – including, in some cases, green cards granting them permanent residency in the US – being denied entry to the airport at Taliban checkpoints.
“If you know you’re going to leave eventually, why not have everything in place to make sure Americans could get out, and to make sure our Afghan allies get out, so we don’t have these chaotic scenes in Kabul?” Stephanopoulos asked.
Mr Biden again blamed the US intelligence community for advising him the Taliban would not advance so quickly.
“We’re in a position where what we did was take precautions,” he said.
“That’s why I authorised that there be 6000 American troops flown in to accommodate this exit, and provided all those aircraft to get people out. We pre-positioned that, anticipated that. Now granted, it took two days to take control of the airport. We have control now.”
Stephanopoulos reminded him that there was, and still is, “a lot of pandemonium” outside the airport, as thousands of people try to get inside.
“Oh, there is. But look, no one’s being killed right now,” Mr Biden said.
“We got 1200 out yesterday, a couple thousand today, and it’s increasing. We are going to get those people out.”
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Now we reach the point at which Mr Biden got snappy.
“We’ve all seen the pictures. We’ve seen those hundreds of people packed into a C-17. You’ve seen Afghans falling-”
“That was four days ago, five days ago!” the President interjected.
Stephanopoulos was about to refer to the horrifying images of Afghans falling to their deaths after clinging to the exterior of departing US planes.
That actually happened just a couple of days before the interview, though why it would matter is beyond me. Deaths don’t stop being tragic after four days.
“What did you think when you first saw those pictures?” Stephanopuolos asked.
“What I thought was, we have to gain control of this. We have to move this quickly. We have to move in a way in which we can take control of that airport. And we did,” said Mr Biden.
“You don’t think this could have been handled, this exit, better in any way? No mistakes?” said Stephanopoulos.
“No,” the President insisted.
“I don’t think it could have been handled in a way that – we’re going to go back, in hindsight, and look. But the idea that somehow there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens.”
Stephanopoulos did extract a commitment from Mr Biden that US troops would stay in Afghanistan until “every American who wants to be out” had been evacuated, even if that meant remaining past the current deadline of August 31.
“How about our Afghan allies? We have about 80,000 people. Is that too high?” he asked.
“That’s too high,” said Mr Biden.
“The estimate we’re giving is somewhere between 50,000 and 65,000 folks total, counting their families.”
“Does the commitment hold for them as well?” the anchor asked.
“The commitment holds to get everyone out that, in fact, we can get out,” he answered.
“That’s the objective. That’s what we’re doing now, and I think we’ll get there.”
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The conversation eventually turned to the future of Afghanistan, and what Afghans – particularly women – will endure under the Taliban’s rule.
“Do you believe that Taliban has changed?” asked Stephanopoulos.
“No,” said Mr Biden.
“Let me put it this way. I think they’re going through a sort of, an existential crisis, about do they want to be recognised by the international community as being a legitimate government. I’m not sure they do.
“But they care about whether they have food to eat, whether they have an income, can make any money and run an economy. They care about whether or not they can hold together a society that they say they care so much about.
“I’m not counting on any of that.”
In a press conference earlier this week, the Taliban claimed it would not retaliate against Afghans who helped the US or the previous government, among other things. Similar promises in the past have proven to be empty.
“What do we owe the Afghans who are left behind, particularly Afghan women, who are facing the prospect of subjugation again?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“As many as we can get out, we should,” said the President.
“But here’s the deal, George. The idea that we’re able to deal with the rights of women around the world by military force is not rational.
“Look what’s happened to the Uighurs in western China. Look what’s happening in other parts of the world. I mean, there are a lot of places where women are being subjugated. The way to deal with that is not with a military invasion. The way to deal with it is putting economic, diplomatic and international pressure on them to change their behaviour.”
That answer will bring little comfort to the women of Afhganistan, whose rights are already being severely curtailed.