WHITE HOUSE - "Our military mission in Afghanistan will conclude on August 31st," U.S. President Joe Biden announced on Thursday.
Speaking at the White House, the president defended his decision to end America's longest war, reiterating that "the status quo is not an option."
He explained that after spending $1 trillion over 20 years and seeing 2,400 American service personnel die, the United States cannot remain tethered to a policy set two decades ago when Afghanistan-based al-Qaida terrorists attacked the country.
Higher priorities for the U.S. these days are preparing for the next pandemic, shoring up core strengths to compete economically with China, and "the existential threat of climate change," Biden said.
"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," he added.
The televised address, with a group of reporters in the East Room, came just hours after his security team briefed Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on the latest developments in Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, the U.S. military announced the withdrawal process was more than 90% complete. Officials have said the entire process is expected to finish by late August. NATO troops also are following suit, and most of them have left the country.
Taliban take districts
Taliban fighters have made rapid territorial advances across Afghanistan since May 1, when the United States and NATO allies formally began withdrawing their last remaining troops from the country.
The insurgents have since overrun at least 150 of Afghanistan's more than 400 districts.
The commander of U.S. troops in the country, General Austin Scott Miller, last week warned that Afghanistan may be headed toward a civil war.
Biden rejected a characterization that the U.S. intelligence community had concluded that within six months the civilian government in Kabul could be overwhelmed by the Taliban.
"That is not true," the president said. "They did not reach that conclusion."
Following Biden's remarks, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee said the president failed to give adequate reassurance of sufficient plans to ensure the safety of U.S. diplomats in Kabul and America's partners in Afghanistan.
"President Biden only offered more empty promises and no detailed plan of action," said Representative Michael McCaul of Texas. "Shockingly, he even rejected his own intelligence community's assessments on the deteriorating security situation in the country. The time for platitudes and casting blame is over. The American people deserve answers and concrete solutions, not false hope."
Biden pledges support
Biden reiterated on Thursday what he had told Afghan leaders during a White House meeting on June 25: U.S. support for Afghanistan would continue despite the military pullout.
The government in Kabul needs to work out a peace deal with the Taliban, Biden said, while acknowledging "the likelihood there's going to be one unified government in Afghanistan, controlling the whole country, is highly unlikely."
Authorities in Afghanistan said Wednesday that pro-government forces had pushed back Taliban insurgents from parts of a northwestern city and regained control of official buildings after hours of fierce clashes.
Asked by a reporter if he trusted the Taliban, who assert they will respect human rights, Biden at first called that "a silly question" before flatly answering, "no."
Asked by VOA how much of a role corruption among Afghan officials had played in the mission failing, Biden paused before stating: "First of all, the mission hasn't failed — yet."
He then added that while there has been corruption in Afghanistan among all parties, "the likelihood there's going to be the Taliban, overrunning everything, and owning the whole country, is highly unlikely."
Responding to Republican critics on Capitol Hill and others who contend Biden is making a mistake removing the U.S. forces at this juncture, the president replied: "How long would you have them stay?"
He asked whether those opposing his action would have the children and grandchildren of those who fought in Afghanistan be sent into combat there as well.
U.S.-led foreign forces are supposed to fully withdraw from Afghanistan by the September 11 deadline set by Biden in mid-April.
The foreign troop exit is the outcome of a peace deal negotiated by Washington with the Taliban in February 2020 under then-U.S. President Donald 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.
Afghan government officials and the Taliban this week have held talks in Tehran hosted by the Iranians.
American troops vacated Bagram Airfield, the largest such facility in Afghanistan, in the middle of the night last Thursday, prompting criticism and complaints by Afghan commanders they were kept in the dark about the departure plans.
U.S. officials maintain the transfer of Bagram was fully coordinated with Afghan leaders, just as the handing over of other military bases in the country was.
The abrupt exit, Afghan officials insisted, allowed looting on the military base by locals before Afghan forces arrived and took control of the facility.
The United States plans to leave 650 troops in Afghanistan to provide security for the U.S. Embassy.
Biden's latest remarks are receiving mixed reviews from analysts. The president is receiving praise for promising to eventually relocate to the United States those Afghans who served as translators or interpreters and had other important roles helping American forces during the war. But Biden's outlook for the fate of Afghanistan is too rosy, according to Mark Jacobson, an assistant dean at Syracuse University and a former second-highest NATO official in Afghanistan.
"I still think there's a good chance that the Taliban are able to topple the government in Kabul and then we're right back to 1996 again," Jacobson told VOA following Biden's speech.
The predominately Pashtun Islamic fundamentalist group ruled in Afghanistan from 1996 for five years until a U.S.-led invasion. The Taliban's tenure is remembered as a reign of violence, especially against women. Public beatings and executions for infractions of Taliban law, including carrying proscribed literature, were common.
VOA's Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.