The president, officials in the State Department, the Pentagon and elsewhere have expressed surprised at the speed of the collapse of the Western-backed government in Kabul, with the Taliban capturing the vast majority of the country’s urban areas in less than two weeks before entering the capital on Sunday.
US President Joe Biden has said that he does not believe that the Taliban* have changed, and that it’s up to the militia to determine, by its actions, whether or not they want to be recognised by the international community.
“No. I think – let me put it this way: I think they’re going through sort of an existential crisis about whether they want to be recognised by the international community as being a legitimate government. I’m not sure they do,” Biden said, speaking to ABC News in an interview which aired Thursday.
“They care about their beliefs more,” Biden’s interviewer George Stephanopoulos interjected. “Well they do, but they also care about whether they have food to eat, whether they have an income that can make any money and run an economy. They care about whether or not they can hold together the society they in fact say they care so much about,” Biden responded, adding however that he was “not counting on any of that.”
Biden admitted that he did not predict that the Taliban would have agreed to “provide safe passage for Americans to get out” of the country when the US made the decision to leave.
Biden reiterated that he considers the troop pullout the correct thing to do, and said he would have withdrawn the troops even if the Trump administration had not reached the peace deal with the Taliban in Doha in February 2020.
“I would have 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 gonna send your sons and your daughters to war in Afghanistan in perpetuity?…What constitutes a defeat of the Taliban? What constitutes defeats? Would we have left then? Let’s say they surrender like before. Ok. Do we leave then?…We spent over $1 trillion, George, 20 years. There was no good time to leave,” the president repeated.
Asked to comment on the colossal failure of US intelligence to predict that the Afghan government would fall so quickly, Biden said that the intelligence reports he had read said that the collapse would have been “more likely sometime by the end of the year.”
“The question was whether or not it – the idea that the Taliban would take over was premised on the notion that the – that somehow, the 300,000 troops we had trained and equipped was gonna just collapse, they were gonna just give up. I don’t think anybody anticipated that,” Biden admitted. “When you had the government of Afghanistan, the leader of that government get in a plane and taking off and going to another country, when you saw the significant collapse of the Afghan troops we had trained – up to 300,000 of them just leaving their equipment and taking off, that was – you know, I’m not – this – that – that’s what happened. That’s simply what happened.”
Biden also dismissed criticism from detractors, who have suggested recently that the collapse of the Afghan government could have been avoided by keeping a ‘small force’ of 2,500 US troops permanently stationed in the country. He pointed out the Doha agreement had already committed Washington to withdraw by 1 May, and that the Taliban had kept its word and not attacked US forces after signing the 2020 peace deal. “That’s why nothing was happening,” Biden said, referring to attacks on US troops. “If I had said, ‘we’re gonna stay’, then we’d better prepare to put a whole hell of a lot more troops in,” he added.
The president noted that the US has taken control of the Kabul airport, and was now in the process of evacuating US citizens and those who assisted the NATO occupation administration. “People are – we got 1,000 – somewhat, 1,200 out yesterday, a couple thousand today. And it’s increasing. We’re gonna get those people out,” he vowed. He indicated that the US was on course to evacuating the estimated 10,000-15,000 Americans from Afghanistan by the previously set 31 August deadline, but said that Stephanopoulos’s estimate of 80,000 Afghans was “too high” and that “the estimate we’re giving is somewhere between 50,000 and 65,000 folks total, counting their families.”
Biden suggested that the Taliban returning to rule Afghanistan ahead of the upcoming 20th anniversary of 9/11 was not the same Taliban which the US and its allies fought to topple in 2001, and that the US had succeeded in “getting” Osama Bin Laden and “wiping out” al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. America’s mistake, the president said, was allowing the mission in the country to “morph into the notion that, instead of having a counterterrorism capability to have small forces there in – or in the region to be able to take on al-Qaeda if it tried to reconstitute, we decided to engage in nation building.”
The US and its allies invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 on the pretext of the Taliban’s refusal to hand over bin Laden, with the militant group asking Washington to first provide evidence of the terrorist leader’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks. The NATO-led mission quickly toppled the Taliban and set up a Western-backed civilian administration, but the occupation soon degenerated into an insurgency, with Taliban militants attacking coalition forces and foreign troops. Brown University’s Costs of War Project recently estimated that the 19 year war in Afghanistan has cost Washington some $2.26 trillion. In that time, over 100,000 civilians, tens of thousands of Afghan security forces personnel and Taliban fighters, about 3,500 US and NATO troops, and 4,000+ Western mercenaries were killed. Bin Laden was liquidated in a US Seal Team operation in May 2011 in Pakistan, although the US has refused to release images of his body, ostensibly over fears that doing so might “offend terrorists.”