Throughout the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, which began in mid-August and wrapped up just before midnight Tuesday in that nation’s capital, President Joe Biden made many comments that later proved to be inaccurate.
After 20 years in Afghanistan, the last U.S. military personnel departed, leaving the Taliban to take over completely following Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline.
The Taliban is a political and military organization of Islamist extremists that gave shelter to Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda terrorist network as they planned the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America.
The Taliban still has links to other terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network. However, the Taliban is opposed to ISIS-K, or ISIS-Khorasan, which claimed credit for the terrorist attack Thursday outside the Kabul airport that killed 13 U.S. service members.
Here are nine of the key points on Afghanistan made by the president that turned out to be inaccurate.
1. Trump ‘Made a Deal’ With Taliban
Biden repeatedly said that he was bound by the February 2020 agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban that the U.S. would exit Afghanistan. Many Republicans are among those who criticized Trump’s conditions-based deal with the Taliban.
Biden said again Tuesday that when he came into office, the Taliban was in the strongest position it had been in since 2001 because of the deal with the Trump administration specifying that the U.S. would pull out by May 1.
“The previous administration’s agreement said that if we stuck to the May 1 deadline that we had signed on to leave by, the Taliban wouldn’t attack any American forces, but if we stay, all bets were off,” Biden said during his national address from the State Dining Room of the White House, adding:
So, we were left with a simple decision, either follow through the commitment made by the last administration and leave Afghanistan or say we weren’t leaving and commit another tens of thousands more troops going back to war. That was the choice, the real choice.
During his brief press conference last Thursday after the terrorist attack at the Kabul airport, Biden, responding to Fox News reporter Peter Doocy, said he bears responsibility.
But he also blamed his predecessor, Donald Trump.
“You know as well as I do that the former president made a deal with the Taliban that he would get all of the American forces out of Afghanistan by May 1,” Biden said. “In return … he was given a commitment that the Taliban would continue to attack others, but would not attack any American forces. Remember that?”
Biden has said before that the Trump agreement bound him, with no choice either than to exit or to send in thousands of troops for a new round of combat.
“There was only the cold reality of either following through on the agreement to withdraw our forces or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back into combat in Afghanistan, lurching into the third decade of conflict,” the president said.
However, in an ABC News interview Aug. 18, Biden suggested that it didn’t matter what Trump had done.
ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos asked Biden: “So would you have withdrawn troops like this even if President Trump had not made that deal with the Taliban?”
Biden responded that he wanted out of Afghanistan.
“I would’ve tried to figure out how to withdraw those troops, yes, because look, George: There is no good time to leave Afghanistan. Fifteen years ago would’ve been a problem, 15 years from now. The basic choice is, am I going to send your sons and your daughters to war in Afghanistan in perpetuity?”
During his remarks Tuesday, Biden said his entire national security team was unanimous on how to pull out:
The decision to end the military lift operations at Kabul airport was based on a unanimous recommendation of my civilian and military advisers, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and all the service chiefs, and the commanders in the field. Their recommendation was that the safest way to secure the passage of the remaining Americans and others out of the country was not to continue 6,000 troops on the ground in harm’s way in Kabul, but rather to get them out through nonmilitary means.
However, The New York Times reported that Biden’s own military leadership, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised him that keeping a force of 3,000 to 4,500 troops—along with drones and close air support—could allow Afghan security forces to continue holding off the Taliban.
In the four-page deal that the Trump administration signed with the Taliban in February 2020, the United States agreed to withdraw all troops by May 1, 2021, and to lift sanctions. In return, the Taliban committed not to attack departing American troops or let terrorist groups use Afghanistan as a base to attack the U.S.
The Afghanistan Study Group, a bipartisan, congressionally chartered panel led by a former Joint Chiefs chairman, retired Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, issued a final report this past February that suggested extending the May 1 exit and seeking better conditions before pulling out.
In 2014, the Obama-Biden administration had opted to declare the combat mission over as the U.S. military worked to train the Afghan army and played a counterterrorism role.
During the Trump administration, the U.S.-backed Afghan government “controlled most of the country’s territory,” James Carafano, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at The Heritage Foundation, wrote in August.
The United States was spending less per year in Afghanistan than it previously spent in a week during peak combat periods, Carafano wrote, adding:
Trump was negotiating with the Taliban, but there was nothing wrong with that. The negotiations were conditions-based, and Trump made clear the Taliban would be held accountable for its actions.
Moreover, Trump’s team made sure that if, in the end, the Taliban proved untrustworthy, the remaining U.S. force had been sized and scoped to present a serious deterrent to the Taliban and be sufficient to protect U.S. interests.
2. ‘More Quickly Than We Had Anticipated’
The U.S. government didn’t see the chaos coming, Biden has said.
“The truth is: This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” Biden said Aug. 16.
Pressed during the ABC News interview on why his administration didn’t have a more deliberate and strategic plan for the exit, even if the withdrawal was inevitable, Biden responded that the Taliban’s rapid pace of advance was unexpected.
Taliban control of Afghanistan was expected to be more likely by the end of the year, the president said.
“No. 1, as you know, the intelligence community did not say back in June or July that, in fact, this was going to collapse like it did. No. 1,” Biden told Stephanopoulos in the ABC News interview.
Stephanopoulos then asked: “They thought the Taliban would take over, but not this quickly?”
Biden affirmed: “But not this quickly. Not even close.”
Various news accounts, however, suggest that this isn’t true.
U.S. intelligence agencies reportedly warned as early as April that the Taliban would take over Afghanistan quickly.
An urgent “confidential dissent channel” signed by 23 officials of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul warned July 13 that Afghanistan would fall quickly to the Taliban if the Biden administration followed through with the Aug. 31 troop withdrawal, The Wall Street Journal first reported.
The Journal separately reported that Biden’s top generals and diplomats all warned him of potential perils of the withdrawal, including that it could lead to a Taliban takeover and to attacks on American soldiers and diplomats.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., normally no critic of Biden, said Aug. 24 that this was not an intelligence failure but a military planning failure.
3. ‘90% of Americans … Able to Leave’
Since March, Biden said in his address to the nation Tuesday afternoon, his administration had reached out 19 times to Americans in Afghanistan to warn them to leave the country.
“Our Operation Allied Rescue ended up getting more than 5,500 Americans out,” Biden said.
He added: “Now we believe about 100 to 200 Americans remain in Afghanistan with some intention to leave.”
Biden noted that the administration also evacuated U.S. Embassy staff and their families, totaling about 2,500, along with thousands of Afghan translators, interpreters, and others who assisted the United States.
Biden said most Americans still in Afghanistan are dual citizens who at one point wanted to stay.
“The bottom line is 90% of Americans in Afghanistan who wanted to leave were able to leave,” Biden said. “For those remaining Americans, there is no deadline. We remain committed to getting them out if they want to come out.”
During the ABC News interview Aug. 18, Stephanopoulos asked Biden: “Are you committed to making sure that the troops stay until every American who wants to be out is out?”
Biden answered: “Yes, yes.”
He later added: “If there are American citizens left, we’re going to stay until we get them all out.”
In a press conference Aug. 20 at the White House, Biden said: “Let me be clear. Any American who wants to come home, we will get you home.”
However, he added: “I cannot promise what the final outcome will be.”
As of the completed evacuation Monday, Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said that 6,000 Americans were flown out.
However, it has been widely reported that 10,000 to 15,000 Americans remained in the country as of mid-August, according to The Washington Post. A later analysis by the Post determined that the 15,000 number was “very rough,” and that 6,000 was more likely.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the State Department would work to identify any remaining Americans who want to return home.
During the evacuation, Biden asserted that Americans were not having trouble leaving Afghanistan.
“We know of no circumstance where American citizens are—carrying an American passport—are trying to get through to the airport,” Biden said. He added: “We’ve made an agreement with the Taliban. Thus far, they’ve allowed them to go through.”
However, Pentagon officials said the Taliban was stopping Americans from entering the Kabul airport.
According to a Reuters report, American citizens at one point had to be loaded onto three Chinook helicopters at the Baron Hotel, located near the airport, since they were unable to reach the airport gates.
During the evacuation, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued an alert stating: “The U.S. government cannot ensure safe passage to the airport due to large crowds and security concerns, gates may open or close without notice. Please use your best judgment and attempt to enter the airport at any gate that is open.”
One American in Afghanistan, David Fox, told ABC News that he and his wife and son were trapped in Kabul because they couldn’t get past the gates at the airport. Fox said that Marines told him it wasn’t safe.
4. ‘Afghan Forces Not Willing to Fight’
During his address to the nation Tuesday afternoon, Biden repeated that Afghanistan’s military and political leaders folded.
“We were ready when the Afghan security forces, after two decades of fighting for their country and losing thousands of their own, did not hold on as long as anyone expected,” Biden said. “We were ready when they, when the people of Afghanistan, watched their own government collapse and their own president flee amidst the corruption and malfeasance, handing over the country to their enemy, the Taliban.”
As he has before, the president asserted that the U.S.-trained Afghan army wouldn’t stand and fight against the Taliban.
“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,” Biden said Aug. 16. He added: “We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future. … It is wrong to order American troops to step up when Afghanistan’s own armed forces would not.”
However, since the fighting began, about 69,000 soldiers of the Afghan army have been killed, the BBC reported. The Afghan army stopped combat operations after the U.S. military pulled away air and logistics support in withdrawing 18,000 security contractors, The New York Times reported.
Military leaders reportedly advised Biden that keeping 2,500 U.S. troops would sustain the Afghan army.
“Afghanistan’s political leaders gave up and fled the country,” Biden said Aug. 16.
The president’s reference apparently was directed primarily at Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, a former U.S. academic in office since September 2014, who left the country before the Taliban entered the capital of Kabul.
However, as BBC reported, other Afghan political leaders stayed and made public statements. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, appearing in a video with family members, asked Afghan government forces and the Taliban to protect civilians.
Former Afghanistan Vice President Amrullah Saleh also remained, as did political leaders such as Ahmad Shah Massoud Jr., son of former anti-Soviet military leader and politician Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was assassinated two days before the 9/11 attacks.
The BBC also reported that Massoud and other political leaders are forming an anti-Taliban resistance coalition.
The British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, Tom Tugendhat, himself a former British army officer in Afghanistan who fought with Afghan soldiers, criticized Biden’s dismissive view of the Afghan army.
“To see their commander in chief call into question the courage of men I fought with, to claim that they ran, is shameful,” Tugendhat said. “Those who have not fought for the colors they fly should be careful about criticizing those who have.”
5. ‘No Question of Our Credibility’
During an Aug. 20 press conference, Biden said: “I have seen no question of our credibility from our allies around the world. Matter of fact, the exact opposite I’ve got.”
But leaders from one of the most reliable U.S. allies have been outspoken.
“When the United States decides emphatically to withdraw in a way that they have, clearly we’re going to have to manage the consequences,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.
Johnson’s was among the more diplomatic points as most of the related criticism has come from Britain.
Former British Prime Minister Theresa May asked what the hasty withdrawal does to America’s reputation on the world stage.
“What does it say about NATO if we are entirely dependent on a unilateral decision taken by the United States?” May asked, adding: “Did we feel we just had to follow the United States and hope that on a wing and a prayer it’d be all right on the night?”
In a mocking reference to a Biden slogan after becoming president, British Parliament Defense Committee Chairman Tobias Ellwood asked: “Whatever happened to ‘America is back’?”
The criticism spread in other parts of Europe.
Josep Borrell, vice president of the European Commission, called the situation in Afghanistan a “catastrophe” during a virtual session of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Borrell reportedly warned Blinken beforehand that pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan at this stage risked putting the Taliban in charge, posing a direct threat to European security.
In Germany, Armin Laschet—the top candidate to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel—said: “This is the greatest debacle that NATO has seen since its foundation, and it is an epochal change that we are facing.”
In June, Biden told allies that he would maintain enough of a security presence in Afghanistan to ensure that they could continue operating in Kabul, Bloomberg News reported.
6. ‘Al-Qaeda Gone’
Biden again said Tuesday that the original U.S. mission is finished, as he has in recent weeks.
“What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point, with al-Qaeda gone?” Biden said Aug. 20.
But according to a United Nations Security Council report, al-Qaeda still has a base in at least 15 of 34 Afghan provinces, Reuters reported.
Defense Department spokesman John Kirby said Thursday that “we know that al-Qaeda is a presence—as well as ISIS—in Afghanistan, and we’ve talked about that for quite some time.”
“What we believe,” Kirby added, “is that there isn’t a presence that is significant enough to merit a threat to our homeland as there was back on 9/11, 20 years ago.”
7. ‘Bagram Not Much Value Added’
Biden blamed his military advisers for the decision to abandon Bagram Airfield, a strategically located military base many times larger than the Kabul airport to the south.
“They concluded—the military—that Bagram was not much value added, that it was much wiser to focus on Kabul [airport] and so, I followed that recommendation,” Biden told reporters Aug. 26.
However, a president generally determines the constraints under which the military draws up operational plans, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board noted.
Bagram, a large, fortified military base, is about 40 miles from the small, one-runway airport in Kabul. The U.S. exited the base overnight in early July without informing the Afghan military and U.S. allies.
Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Aug. 18 that securing Bagram took “a significant level of military effort.” Milley added: “Our task given to us at that time, our task was to protect the embassy in order for the embassy personnel to continue to function.”
The Associated Press, in a report on the U.S. abandonment of the air base, quoted an Afghan soldier as saying of the Americans: “They lost all the goodwill of 20 years by leaving the way they did, in the night, without telling the Afghan soldiers who were outside patrolling the area.”
8. ‘Lose Thousands of Americans’
In making the case for pulling out completely, Biden asked about Afghanistan during the ABC News interview: “Are we going to continue to lose thousands of Americans to injury and death to try to unite that country?”
The last U.S. combat death had been in February 2020, just ahead of the Trump-Taliban agreement. Although the reason for that lack of casualties may have been because the agreement was in place, the number of combat deaths still was shrinking.
A total of 94 U.S. military deaths occurred in Afghanistan from 2015 up to the point of the evacuation in August, BBC reported. That compares with 1,897 U.S. military killed in action over the duration of the war. Another 415 soldiers died in nonhostile circumstances before the U.S. withdrawal began.
A total of about 20,000 soldiers were wounded in Afghanistan since the U.S. and NATO allies invaded in October 2001.
The terrorist attack last week by ISIS-K added another 13 deaths among U.S. service members under fire.
9. Evolution on ‘Nation Building’
Biden also tackled the concept of “nation building” in his remarks Tuesday afternoon at the White House.
“This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries,” Biden said, adding:
Nation building, trying to create a democratic, cohesive, and united Afghanistan—something that has never been done over many centuries of Afghan’s history. Moving on from that mindset and large-scale troop deployments will make us stronger and more effective and safer at home.
In previous remarks, Biden said: “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building.”
The president said Aug. 16 that the U.S. goal in going into Afghanistan had “always been preventing a terrorist attack on [the] American homeland” and was “never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.”
Although nation building and the mission in Afghanistan may be a legitimate policy debate that divides Democrats and Republicans, Biden’s use of “always” doesn’t line up with his comments soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, or his comments in early 2003.
“Our hope is that we will see a relatively stable government in Afghanistan, one that does not harbor terrorists, is acceptable to the major players in the region, represents the ethnic makeup of the country and provides the foundation for future reconstruction of that country,” Sen. Joe Biden, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Oct. 22, 2001, as the U.S. invaded Afghanistan.
During a committee meeting in February 2003, the Delaware Democrat again directly defended nation building, asking what the alternative was.
“The alternative to nation building is chaos, a chaos that churns out bloodthirsty warlords, drug traffickers and terrorists,” Biden said.
Ken McIntyre contributed to this report.
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