The U.S. is “watching with deep concern” as Taliban insurgents take control of more and more territory in Afghanistan while American forces are quickly returning home under President Joe Biden’s withdrawal orders, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Sunday.
“This is the time for [Afghan government troops] to step up and defend their country,” Kirby told the “Fox News Sunday” show. “This is a moment of responsibility.”
Over nearly two decades, the U.S. has supplied Afghanistan with billions of dollars in weaponry to defend itself, but with Biden pulling U.S. troops out of the country by August 31, control of the country is increasingly uncertain.
Taliban insurgents say they already control 85% of the country, a contested claim. But Kirby did not dispute a Fox News assessment that 13 million Afghans live under Taliban control, 10 million under Afghan government rule and 9 million in contested regions.
The U.S. first invaded the country in 2001 to overrun bases where al-Qaida terrorists trained to launch the September 11 hijacked airliner attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Even with the U.S. troop withdrawal, Kirby said American commanders would be able to advise Afghan forces from bases in other countries. But U.S. and NATO forces have mostly left Afghanistan already. All will be gone by the end of August.
Biden last week staunchly defended the U.S. troop withdrawal, even in the face of Taliban advances.
"We did not go to Afghanistan to nation build," Biden said at the White House. "It's the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country."
He described the troop drawdown as proceeding in a "secure and orderly way." Days ago, U.S. forces withdrew from the mammoth Bagram Airfield, the central point of U.S. military operations. Biden has committed to quickly evacuate thousands of Afghan translators and their families who worked for the United States. He said the processing of special immigrant visas had been "dramatically accelerated."
The U.S. leader stressed it was up to the Afghan government to determine its own fate.
“Nearly 20 years of experience has shown us — and the current security situation only confirms — that just one more year of fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution, but a recipe for being there indefinitely," he said. "It's up to the Afghans to make the decision about the future of their country."
A reporter questioning the troop withdrawal drew a sharp response from Biden. Asked whether he trusted the Taliban, Biden responded: "Is that a serious question?"
"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," Biden said.
Former President Donald Trump, defeated by Biden in last November’s election, has said he would have withdrawn all troops by May 1, which Biden said was too quick.
But Biden said he was the fourth U.S. president to preside over American forces in Afghanistan and that he would not hand the responsibility to a fifth.
As he first announced plans in April to end the U.S. presence in the country, he said the U.S. “cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal and expecting a different result.”
The foreign troop exit is the outcome of an agreement negotiated by Washington with the Taliban in February 2020 under then-President Trump. It requires the insurgents to fight terrorism on Afghan soil and negotiate a political peace deal with the Kabul government.
However, the U.S.-brokered intra-Afghan peace negotiations have moved slowly since they started last September in Qatar and have met with little success.