WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — President Biden defended the United States’ exit from Afghanistan as an “extraordinary success,” in the face of criticism over the hundreds of Americans who are still there and the 13 American troops who died in a terrorist attack.
After two decades, the United States completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan just before midnight in Kabul Monday, ending America’s longest war. It’s likely to be remembered for colossal failures, unfulfilled promises and a frantic final exit that cost the lives of more than 180 Afghans.
Hours before Biden’s Tuesday deadline for shutting down a final airlift, and thus ending the U.S. war, Air Force transport planes carried a remaining contingent of troops from Kabul airport late Monday. Thousands of troops had spent a harrowing two weeks protecting the airlift of tens of thousands of Afghans, Americans and others seeking to escape a country once again ruled by Taliban militants.
In remarks at the White House on Tuesday, Biden pointed to the 120,000 people the U.S. airlifted out of Kabul during the evacuation.
He also said the U.S. government had reached out 19 times since March — prior to his public announcement that he was going to end the U.S. war — to encourage all American citizens in Afghanistan to leave. He acknowledged that 100 to 200 were unable to get out when the airlift ended Monday.
“I was not going to extend this forever war,” Biden said in an address from the White House State Dining Room. “And I was not going to extend a forever exit.”
Biden asserted that his administration was ready when the U.S.-backed government in Kabul collapsed in mid-August and the Taliban took over. But the airlift that began Aug. 14 has been heavily criticized by many as initially unorganized and chaotic.
Watch Biden’s remarks in the player below.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on Tuesday described the Biden administration’s handling of the evacuation as “probably the biggest failure in American government on a military stage in my lifetime” and promised that Republicans would press the White House for answers on what went wrong.
“We can never make this mistake again,” McCarthy said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the end of the war a “milestone of extraordinary solemnity.” She said Congress and the White House would work to address the humanitarian crisis that could result from the Taliban takeover.
Biden said that 5,500 Americans eventually got out, and that “arrangements” will be made to get the remaining Americans out if they so choose.
“To those asking for a third decade of war in Afghanistan I ask, ‘What is the vital national interest?’” Biden said. He added, “I simply do not believe that the safety and security of America is enhanced by continuing to deploy thousands of American troops and spending billions of dollars in Afghanistan.”
In announcing the completion of the evacuation and war effort. Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said the last planes took off from Kabul airport at 3:29 p.m. Washington time Monday, or one minute before midnight in Kabul.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised the military-led evacuation as heroic Monday and said the U.S. diplomatic presence would shift to Doha, Qatar.
Biden said in a written statement Monday that he asked Blinken to coordinate with international partners in holding the Taliban to their promise of safe passage for Americans and others who want to leave in the days ahead.
The closing hours of the evacuation were marked by extraordinary drama. American troops faced the daunting task of getting final evacuees onto planes while also getting themselves and some of their equipment out, even as they monitored repeated threats — and at least two actual attacks — by the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate.
The Taliban triumphantly marched into the airport Tuesday, just hours after the final troops withdrew. Standing on the tarmac, Taliban leaders pledged to secure the country, quickly reopen the airport and grant amnesty to former opponents.
“After 20 years we have defeated the Americans,” said Mohammad Islam, a Taliban guard at the airport from Logar province, cradling a Kalashnikov rifle Tuesday. “They have left and now our country is free.”
“It’s clear what we want. We want Shariah (Islamic law), peace and stability,” he added.
The final pullout fulfilled Biden’s pledge to end what he called a “forever war” that began in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and rural Pennsylvania. His decision, announced in April, reflected a national weariness of the Afghanistan conflict. Now he faces criticism at home and abroad, not so much for ending the war as for his handling of a final evacuation that unfolded in chaos and raised doubts about U.S. credibility.
More than 1,100 troops from coalition countries and more than 100,000 Afghan forces and civilians died, according to Brown University’s Costs of War project.
NewsNation spoke with Emily Harding, the deputy director and senior fellow with the International Security Program, about the withdrawal.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.