United States President Joe Biden said on Thursday the US military would complete its withdrawal from Afghanistan by August 31, ahead of schedule, and dismissed mounting concerns about a civil war developing in the country occupied by the US since 2001.
“The mission is accomplished in that we got Osama bin Laden and that terrorism is not emanating from that part of the world,” Biden insisted, defending his decision to keep up the rapid US withdrawal in the face of widening Taliban attacks on Afghan forces.
The US invaded Afghanistan after the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. The US has withdrawn approximately 3,500 remaining troops in a process the US military now says is 90 percent complete.
“Our military commanders advised me that once I made the decision to end the war, we needed to move swiftly,” Biden said.
“In this context speed is safety,” said the president, who is commander-in-chief of the military in the US system of government and holds ultimate authority over the deployment of troops.
The US will continue to have a few hundred troops in Afghanistan to maintain security for the US embassy and diplomatic community in Kabul as well as the city’s airport. And US officials have said the military will maintain an “over-the-horizon” capability to respond to events.
The US withdrawal follows a US agreement reached under former President Donald Trump in talks headed by US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad with the Taliban in Qatar. The US agreed that US and foreign forces would leave by May 1. In exchange, the Taliban promised to negotiate a peace agreement with the Western-backed government in Kabul.
When Biden came to office in January he was confronted with a stark choice of following through on the agreement with the Taliban or seeing US forces drawn back into a widening war.
Biden said on Thursday he and his top advisers had concluded the only path to peace and stability in Afghanistan is through a negotiated agreement between the Western-backed Afghan government in Kabul, regional leaders and the Taliban.
“We did not go into Afghanistan to nation-build,” the president said.
In the first significant peace talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban in months, a government delegation met Taliban representatives in Tehran on July 8. The two warring sides issued a joint statement that said “war is not the solution to the Afghanistan problem.”
It came as the Taliban claimed to have captured a main border crossing with Iran Thursday, with the Taliban spokesman posting a video showing purported fighters taking the Islam Qala border crossing and being welcomed by local residents. It would be the third international border the group has seized, as its fighters take territory around the country.
A Pentagon spokesman said on Thursday that Taliban fighters had taken dozens of district centers in Afghanistan.
“They have taken dozens of district centres, that is true. And we believe that they mean to threaten provincial centres as well,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.
A defensive Biden batted back several shouted questions from reporters at the White House, rejecting comparisons to the US departure from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war.
“No. No, no, no,” Biden says when asked if the US bears responsibility for Afghan lives lost post-withdrawal.
“It’s up to the people of Afghanistan to decide what government they want, not to impose the government upon them.”
Biden denied that US intelligence agencies have concluded that the Afghan government will fall to the Taliban without the presence of US forces. Biden met at the White House with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and national council chairman Abdullah Abdullah on June 25 and pledged continuing US financial and diplomatic support for the government.
The Afghan army is well trained and equipped, Biden said, and a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is not inevitable. The US has trained and equipped more than 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police although the Afghan military still relies on the US and foreign contractors for air support.
“I do not trust the Taliban but I trust the capacity of the Afghan military,” Biden said.
Biden offered a message to interpreters and other Afghans who worked with troops: “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.”
Congress is advancing legislation that Biden supports to eliminate bureaucratic obstacles to re-locating potential thousands of Afghans and their families to US territory, potentially the Pacifica island of Guam.
The US military announced Tuesday that 90 percent of American troops and equipment had already left the country, with the drawdown set to finish by late August.
Last week, US officials vacated the country’s biggest airfield, Bagram Air Base, the epicentre of the war to remove the Taliban and hunt down the al-Qaeda perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks on the US.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has confirmed that most British troops have left Afghanistan, almost 20 years after the UK and other Western countries sent troops into the country to engage in what they described as a “war on terror”.
Johnson stressed Thursday that the threat posed by al-Qaeda to the UK has substantially diminished, but he sidestepped questions about whether the hasty military exodus by his country and its NATO allies risks undoing the work of nearly two decades or leaves Afghanistan vulnerable to the Taliban, which has made rapid advances in many northern districts.
The prime minister declined to give details about the troop withdrawal, citing security reasons.
But he said that “all British troops assigned to NATO’s mission in Afghanistan are now returning home,” adding that “most of our personnel have already left.”
“We must be realistic about our ability alone to influence the course of events. It will take combined efforts of many nations, including Afghanistan’s neighbours, to help the Afghan people to build their future,” Johnson said.
“But the threat that brought us to Afghanistan in the first place has been greatly diminished by the valour and by the sacrifice of the armed forces of Britain and many other countries.”
He said that Britain remains committed to helping achieve a peace settlement in Afghanistan through diplomacy.
“We are not walking away. We are keeping our embassy in Kabul, and we will continue to work with our friends and allies, particularly our friends in Pakistan, to work towards a settlement,” Johnson said.
A total of 457 British service members died in Afghanistan during the UK’s deployment, a much higher death rate compared with the UK involvement in Iraq.
Britain’s Defence Ministry has said the withdrawal of the last troops would be “complete within a few months”. Already, most European troops have also quietly pulled out in recent weeks.
As Johnson announced the withdrawal, the head of Britain’s armed forces warned there is the possibility that Afghanistan could be on a path to civil war as American and other foreign troops leave.
In comments made after Johnson’s announcement, Nick Carter, chief of the defence staff said it was “plausible” that the country’s state would collapse without international forces there.
Afghanistan could see a situation like the country’s 1990s civil war “where you would see a culture of warlordism and you might see some of the important institutions like security forces fracturing along ethnic, or for that matter, tribal lines,” Carter said.
“If that were to happen, I guess the Taliban would control part of the country. But, of course, they would not control all of the country.”