Remarks on United States Military Operations in Afghanistan and an Exchange With Reporters
The President. Good afternoon.
Earlier today I was briefed by our senior military and national security leaders on the status of the drawdown of U.S. forces and allied forces in Afghanistan.
When I announced our drawdown in April, I said we would be out by September, and we're on track to meet that target. Our military mission in Afghanistan will conclude on August 31. The drawdown is proceeding in a secure and orderly way, prioritizing the safety of our troops as they depart.
Our military commanders advised me that once I made the decision to end the war, we needed to move swiftly to conduct the main elements of the drawdown. And in this context, speed is safety. And thanks to the way in which we have managed our withdrawal, no one—no one U.S. forces or any forces have—have been lost. Conducting our drawdown differently would have certainly come with a increased risk of safety to our personnel.
To me, those risks were unacceptable. And there was never any doubt that our military would perform this task efficiently and with the highest level of professionalism. That's what they do. And the same is true of our NATO allies and partners who have supported—we are supporting, and supporting us as well, as they conclude their retrograde.
I want to be clear: The U.S. military mission in Afghanistan continues through the end of August. We remain—we retain personnel and capacities in the country, and we maintain some authority—excuse me, the same authority under which we've been operating for some time.
As I said in April, the United States did what we went to do in Afghanistan: to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and to deliver justice to Usama bin Laden and to degrade the terrorist threat to keep Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks could be continued against the United States. We achieved those objectives. That's why we went.
We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build. And it's the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.
Together, with our NATO allies and partners, we have trained and equipped over three hundred—nearly 300,000 current serving members of the military—of the Afghan National Security Force, and many beyond that who are no longer serving. Add to that, hundreds of thousands more Afghan National Defense and Security Forces trained over the last two decades.
We provided our Afghan partners with all the tools—let me emphasize—all the tools, training, and equipment of any modern military. We provided advanced weaponry. And we're going to continue to provide funding and equipment. And we'll ensure they have the capacity to maintain their air force.
But most critically, as I stressed in my meeting just 2 weeks ago with President Ghani and Chairman Abdullah, Afghan leaders have to come together and drive toward a future that the Afghan people want and they deserve. In our meeting, I also assured Ghani that U.S. support for the people of Afghanistan will endure. We will continue to provide civilian and humanitarian assistance, including speaking out for the rights of women and girls.
I intend to maintain our diplomatic precedence [presence]* in Afghanistan, and we are coordinating closely with our international partners in order to continue to secure the international airport. And we're going to engage in a determined diplomacy to pursue peace and a peace agreement that will end this senseless violence.
I've asked Secretary of State Blinken and our Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation to work vigorously with the parties in Afghanistan, as well as the regional and international stakeholders to support a negotiated solution. To be clear—to be clear: Countries in the region have an essential role to play in supporting a peaceful settlement. We'll work with them, and they should help step up their efforts as well.
We're going to continue to work for the release of detained Americans, including Mark—excuse me—Frerichs—I want to pronounce the name correctly; I misspoke—so that he can return to his family safely.
We're also going to continue to make sure that we take on the Afghan nationals who work side-by-side with U.S. forces, including interpreters and translators—since we're no longer going to have military there after this; we're not going to need them and they have no jobs—who are also going to be vital to our efforts so they—and they've been very vital—and so their families are not exposed to danger as well. We've already dramatically accelerated the procedure time for special immigrant visas to bring them to the United States.
Since I was inaugurated on January 20, we've already approved 2,500 special immigrant visas to come to the United States. Up to now, fewer than half have exercised their right to do that. Half have gotten on aircraft and commercial flights and come, and the other half believe they want to stay, at least thus far.
We're working closely with Congress to change the authorization legislation so that we can streamline the process of approving those visas. And those who have stood up for the operation to physically relocate thousands of Afghans and their families before the U.S. military mission concludes so that, if they choose, they can wait safely outside of Afghanistan while their U.S. visas are being processed.
The operation has identified U.S. facilities outside of the continental United States, as well as in third countries, to host our Afghan allies, if they choose—if they so choose. And this—starting this month, we're going to begin relocation flights for Afghanistan SIV applicants and their families who choose to leave.
We have a point person in the White House and at the State Department-led task force coordinating all these efforts. But our message to those women and men is clear: There is a home for you in the United States if you so choose, and we will stand with you just as you stood with us.
When I made the decision to end the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, I judged that it was not in the national interest of the United States of America to continue fighting this war indefinitely. I made the decision with clear eyes, and I am briefed daily on the battlefield updates.
But for those who have argued that we should stay just 6 more months or just 1 more year, I ask them to consider the lessons of recent history. In 2011, the NATO allies and partners agreed that we would end our combat mission in 2014. In 2014, some argued, "One more year." So we kept fighting, and we kept taking casualties. In 2015, the same. And on and on.
Nearly 20 years of experience has shown us that the current security situation only confirms that "just 1 more year" of fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution, but a recipe for being there indefinitely. It's up to Afghans to make the decision about the future of their country.
Others are more direct. Their argument is that we should stay with the Afghan—in Afghanistan indefinitely. In doing so, they point to the fact that we have not taken losses in this last year, so they claim that the cost of just maintaining the status quo is minimal.
But that ignores the reality and the facts that already presented on the ground in Afghanistan when I took office: The Taliban was at its strongest—is at its strongest militarily since 2001.
The number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan had been reduced to a bare minimum. And the United States, in the last administration, made an agreement that the—with the Taliban to remove all our forces by May 1 of this past—of this year. That's what I inherited. That agreement was the reason the Taliban had ceased major attacks against U.S. forces.
If, in April, I had instead announced that the United States was going to back—going back on that agreement made by the last administration [that]* the United States and allied forces would remain in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, the Taliban would have again begun to target our forces.
The status quo was not an option. Staying would have meant U.S. troops taking casualties, American men and women back in the middle of a civil war. And we would have run the risk of having to send more troops back into Afghanistan to defend our remaining troops. Once that agreement with the Taliban had been made, staying with a bare minimum force was no longer possible.
So let me ask those who wanted us to stay: How many more—how many thousands more of America's daughters and sons are you willing to risk? How long would you have them stay? Already we have members of our military whose parents fought in Afghanistan 20 years ago. Would you send their children and their grandchildren as well? Would you send your own son or daughter?
After 20 years, a trillion dollars spent training and equipping hundreds of thousands of Afghan National Security and Defense Forces, 2,448 Americans killed, 20,722 more wounded, and untold thousands coming home with unseen trauma to their mental health, I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.
The United States cannot afford to remain tethered to policies creating a response to a world as it was 20 years ago. We need to meet the threats where they are today. Today, the terrorist threat has metastasized beyond Afghanistan. So we are repositioning our resources and adapting our counterterrorism posture to meet the threats where they are now significantly higher: in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
But make no mistake: Our military and intelligence leaders are confident they have the capabilities to protect the homeland and our interests from any resurgent terrorist challenge emerging or emanating from Afghanistan. We are developing a counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and act quickly and decisively if needed.
And we also need to focus on shoring up America's core strengths to meet the strategic competition with China and other nations that is really going to determine our future. We have to defeat COVID-19 at home and around the world, make sure we're better prepared for the next pandemic or biological threat. We need to establish international norms for cyberspace and the use of emergency—emerging technologies. We need to take concerted action to fight existential threats of climate change.
And we will be more formidable to our adversaries and competitors over the long run if we fight the battles of the next 20 years, not the last 20 years.
Finally, I want to recognize the incredible sacrifice and dedication that the U.S. military and civilian personnel, serving alongside our allies and partners, have made over the last two decades in Afghanistan.
I want to honor the significance of what they've accomplished and the great personal risk they encountered and the incredible cost to their families: pursuing the terrorist threat in some of the most unforgiving terrain on the planet—and I've been almost throughout that entire country; ensuring there hasn't been another attack on the homeland from Afghanistan for the last 20 years; taking out bin Laden.
I want to thank you all for your service and the dedication to the mission so many of you have given and to the sacrifices that you and your families have made over the long course of this war.
We'll never forget those who gave the last full measure of devotion for their country in Afghanistan, nor those whose lives have been immeasurably altered by wounds sustained in service to their country. We're ending America's longest war, but we'll always—always—honor the bravery of the American patriots who served in it.
May God bless you all, and may God protect our troops. Thank you.
Afghan Military Capability
Q. Mr. President—do you trust the Taliban, Mr. President?
Q. Mr. President, why can't you evacuate—Mr. President, why can't you evacuate——
Q. Is a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan now inevitable?
The President. No, it is not.
The President. Because you—the Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped—as well-equipped as any army in the world—and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban. It is not inevitable.
Q. Mr. President, why can't you evacuate——
Taliban/Afghan Military Capability
Q. Do you trust the Taliban, Mr. President? Do you trust the Taliban, sir?
The President. Are you—is that a serious question?
Q. It is absolutely a serious question. Do you trust the Taliban?
The President. No, I do not.
Q. Do you trust handing over the country to the Taliban?
The President. No, I do not trust the Taliban.
Q. So why are you handing the country over?
Q. Mr. President, is the U.S. responsible for the deaths of Afghans after you leave the country?
Q. Mr. President——
Q. Mr. President, will you amplify that question, please? Will you amplify your answer, please—why you don't trust the Taliban?
The President. It's a silly question. Do I trust the Taliban? No. But I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more competent in terms of conducting war.
U.S. Counterterrorism Mission in Afghanistan/Reconciliation Efforts
Q. Thank you, Mr. President. Given the amount of money that has been spent and the number of lives that have been lost, in your view, with making this decision, were the last 20 years worth it?
The President. You know my record. I can tell by the way you asked the question.
I opposed permanently having American forces in Afghanistan. I argued, from the beginning, as you may recall—it came to light after the administration was over, last administration—our administration—no nation has ever unified Afghanistan. No nation. Empires have gone there and not done it.
The focus we had—and I strongly support it—and you may remember I physically went to Afghanistan. I was up in that pass where Usama bin Laden was—allegedly escaped or—out of harm's way. We went for two reasons: one, to bring Usama bin Laden to the gates of hell, as I said at the time. The second reason was to eliminate Al Qaida's capacity to deal with more attacks on the United States from that territory. We accomplished both of those objectives—period.
That's what I believed, from the beginning, why we should be and why we should have gone to Afghanistan. That job had been over for some time. And that's why I believe that this is the right decision and, quite frankly, overdue.
Q. Mr. President, Mr. President——
Q. Mr. President, what's your top general——
Q. Mr. President, has the civilian government failed the people of Afghanistan?
Reconciliation Efforts/Afghan Military Capability/Continued U.S. Assistance
Q. Thank you. Mr. President, thank you very much. Your own intelligence community has assessed that the Afghan Government will likely collapse.
The President. That is not true.
Q. Is it—can you please clarify what they have told you about whether that will happen or not?
The President. That is not true. They did not—they didn't—did not reach that conclusion.
Q. So what is the level of confidence that they have that it will not collapse?
The President. The Afghan Government and leadership has to come together. They clearly have the capacity to sustain the Government in place. The question is: Will they generate the kind of cohesion to do it? It's not a question of whether they have the capacity. They have the capacity. They have the forces. They have the equipment. The question is: Will they do it?
And I want to make clear what I made clear to Ghani: that we are not going just sus—walk away and not sustain their ability to maintain that force. We are. We're going to also work to make sure we help them in terms of everything from food necessities and other things in—in the region. But——
The President. But there's not a conclusion that, in fact, they cannot defeat the Taliban.
I believe the only way there's going to be—this is now Joe Biden, not the intelligence community—the only way there's ultimately going to be peace and security in Afghanistan is that they work out a modus vivendi with the Taliban and they make a judgment as to how they can make peace.
And the likelihood there's going to be one unified government in Afghanistan controlling the whole country is highly unlikely.
Q. Mr. President—Mr. President, thank you. But we have talked to your own top general in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller. He told ABC News the conditions are so concerning at this point that it could result in a civil war. So, if Kabul falls to the Taliban, what will the United States do about it?
The President. Look, you've said two things—one, that if it could result in a civil war—that's different than the Taliban succeeding, number one. Number two, the question of what will be done is going to be implicated—is going to implicate the entire region as well. There's a number of countries who have a grave concern about what's going to happen in Afghanistan relative to their security.
The question is: How much of a threat to the United States of America and to our allies is whatever results in terms of a government or an agreement? That's when that judgement will be made.
Taliban/U.S. Military Exit From Vietnam
Q. Mr. President, some Vietnamese veterans see echoes of their experience in this withdrawal in Afghanistan. Do you see any parallels between this withdrawal and what happened in Vietnam, with some people feeling——
The President. None whatsoever. Zero. What you had is—you had entire brigades breaking through the gates of our Embassy, six, if I'm not mistaken.
The Taliban is not the south—the North Vietnamese army. They're not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There's going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a Embassy in the—of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.
Q. And, Mr. President——
Q. Mr. President, can I——
The President. I'll take him, and then I'll—and then I'll go—I'll go to the other side. Hang on a second.
Corruption Issues in Afghanistan/Reconciliation Efforts/Taliban
Q. Mr. President, how serious was the corruption among the Afghanistan Government to this mission failing there?
The President. Well, first of all, the mission hasn't failed yet. There is in Afghanistan—in all parties, there's been corruption. The question is, can there be an agreement on unity of purpose? What is the objective?
For example, it started off—there were going to be negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan National Security Forces and the Afghan Government. That of—it didn't come to—it didn't come to fruition.
So the question now is, where do they go from here? That—the jury is still out. But the likelihood there's going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.
Withdrawal of U.S. Military Forces From Afghanistan
Q. Mr. President, will the United States be responsible for the loss of Afghan civilian lives that could happen after the——
The President. No.
Q. ——military exit?
The President. No, no, no. It's up to the people of Afghanistan to decide on what government they want, not us to impose the government on them. No country has ever been able to do that. Keep in mind, as a student of history, as I'm sure you are, never has Afghanistan been a united country, not in all of its history. Not in all of its history.
Q. Mr. President, Mr. President——
U.S. Counterterrorism Mission in Afghanistan
Q. Mr. President, if this isn't a "mission accomplished" moment, what is it, in your view?
The President. No, there's no "mission accomplished."
Q. How would you describe it?
The President. The mission was accomplished in that we get—got Usama bin Laden, and terrorism is not emanating from that part of the world.
Q. Mr. President—[inaudible]——
Evacuation of Afghan Interpreters and Other Service Contractors Who Assisted With U.S. Military Operations in Afghanistan
Q. Mr. President, if "speed is safety," as you just said in your remarks, are you satisfied with the timeline of relocating Afghan nationals? Is it happening quickly enough to your satisfaction, if it may not happen until next month, at the end?
The President. Well, much of it has already happened. There's already been people—about a thousand people have gotten on aircraft and come home—come to the United States already on commercial aircraft. So, as I said, there's over 2,500 people that as—from January to now, have gotten those visas. And only half decided that they wanted to leave.
The point is that I think the whole process has to be speeded up, period, in terms of being able to get these visas.
Q. Mr. President——
Q. Why can't the U.S. evacuate these Afghan translators to the United States to await their visa processing as some immigrants at the southern border have been allowed to do?
The President. Because the law doesn't allow that to happen. And that's why we're asking the Congress to consider changing the law.
But in the meantime, we can guarantee their safety, if they wish to leave, by taking them to third countries and/or, while the wait is taking place, to come to—and hopefully, while they're waiting there, to be able to bring them back to the United States, if that's what they choose to do.
Q. And what do you make—and what do you make, sir, of the Taliban being in Russia today?
Status of Women and Girls in Afghanistan
Q. Mr. President, I'm from Afghanistan. I am Afghan—[inaudible]—woman. Any message—good message for Afghan women in future? Because they have achievement, they are really concerned about their achievement.
The President. They are very concerned, with good reason.
The President. When I was in Afghanistan—I've been there a number of times—I remember being in a school outside and—and by the way, the schools in Afghanistan are not fundamentally unlike schools in the West Coast, where they have, you know, an area in the middle that is sort of like—it looks like a playground and single-story buildings connected around it.
And I remember saying to—speaking to a group of young women—I guess they were roughly—don't hold me to this—they look like they'd be 14, 15 years old. And they're in school, and there's a tiered classroom with single light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, as I know you know.
And I said: "You know, the United States came here to make sure that we got this terrorist, Usama bin Laden and that terrorists didn't amass again to go after our country. And then, we're going to have to leave." And a young woman said: "You can't leave. You can't leave." It was—it was heartbreaking. "You can't leave," she said. "I want to be a doctor. I want to be a doctor. I want to be a doctor. And if you leave, I'll never be able to be a doctor." Well, that's why we spent so much time and money training the Afghan Security Forces to do the work of defending that. If every work—well, anyway—so yes, I'm aware.
I'm going to take one more question.
Q. Mr. President, have you spoken with any Taliban officials about the withdrawal?
The President. [Inaudible]
Q. Mr. President, can you explain—[laughter]——
Q. [Inaudible]—the Taliban being in Russia today—the Taliban——
Taliban/Afghan Military Capability
Q. Mr.—Mr. President, I—[laughter]—thank you. I wanted to ask: With the benefit of hindsight, you've spoken to the fact that the Taliban are sort of at their militarily strongest point that you've seen in 20 years. How do you feel personally about that, with the benefit of hindsight and all of the dollars and investment and American troops that were sent there?
The President. Relative to the training and capacity of the ANSF and the training of the federal police, they're not even close in terms of their capacity.
I was making the point—the point was that here we were; I was—the argument is: "Well, we could stay because no one was dying. No Americans are being shot. So why leave?" Once the agreement was made by the last administration that we were going to leave by May 1, it was very clear that a Taliban that had always been a problem was even a more sophisticated problem than they were—than before. Not more sophisticated than the ANSF, than Government. More than they were.
The point being that it would have increased the prospect that they would have been able to take more lives of Americans if they decided we weren't going to go after them. That was the point I was making.
Thank you all so very much. Thank you.
Q. Have you spoken with any Taliban officials on the withdrawal?
Q. Mr. President——
NOTE: The President spoke at 2:09 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad; Lombard, IL, resident Mark R. Frerichs, a U.S. civil engineer who was kidnapped in Afghanistan on January 31, 2020, and believed to be held by the Haqqani Network, a faction of the Afghan Taliban; and Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Brian P. McKeon. A reporter referred to Gen. Austin S. Miller, USA, outgoing commanding general, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan.
* White House correction.
Joseph R. Biden, Remarks on United States Military Operations in Afghanistan and an Exchange With Reporters Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/350746