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US President Joe Biden declares Afghanistan war 'over'

August 31, 2021

The US president had long wanted to end the 20-year US engagement in Afghanistan, but the speed of the Taliban's return to power has led to widespread criticism.

President Joe Biden speaks about the end of the war in Afghanistan from the State Dining Room of the White House.
US President Joe Biden spoke of his determination to fight terrorism after the Afghan pulloutImage: Evan Vucci/AP/picture alliance

US President Joe Biden said he would "go after terror wherever it is" on Tuesday evening, following the messy withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the US exit from a failed 20-year war. 

The country's swift fall into the hands of the Taliban took onlookers and Afghans by surprise and sent thousands fleeing. Following US withdrawal, the Taliban seized control of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, completing the takeover of much of the country.

What did Biden say on the war?

Joe Biden said that "the war in Afghanistan is now over" after making a commitment with the American people to end it.

He said $300 million (€254 million) was spent every day in Afghanistan and it was time to leave. 

"I refused to open another decade of war in Afghanistan," he said, before adding that 800,000 Americans had served in the country and 2,461 had died, including 13 "heroes" last week.

"I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not going to extend a forever exit," Biden said, having faced criticism from allies abroad and rivals at home over the nature of the exit, as well as the Taliban's rapid return to power.

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Biden said the US had "succeeded in what we set out to do in Afghanistan over a decade ago. Then we stayed for another decade. 

"It was time to end this war," he reiterated.

What did he say on the evacuation?

The US president spoke glowingly about the evacuation, saying it was "one of the biggest airlifts in history. No nation has ever done anything like it."

He added that "the assumption that more than 300,000 Afghan national security forces we had trained over the past two decades ... would be able to hold a period of time ... turned out not to be accurate."

But Biden said he had "instructed our national security team to prepare for any eventuality, even that one."

In the end he said 90% of Americans who wanted to leave were airlifted, along with thousands of Afghan diplomats and support staff. More would be brought out as soon as the airport was opened once again by the Taliban.

He said that "with more than 120,000 people evacuated to safety, that number is more than double what most experts saw as possible." 

Joe Biden, US President speaks to his citizens after the Afghanistan pullout
Joe Biden said more Americans and Afghan workers could soon be evacuated.Image: Evan Vucci/AP/picture alliance

Biden answered critics who said that the evacuation could have been carried out earlier in a more orderly manner.

"Imagine if we've begun evacuations in June or July, bringing thousands of American troops and evacuating more than 120,000 people in the middle of a civil war," he said. "There would have been a rush to the airport, a breakdown and confidence in control of the government and it still would have been a very difficult and dangerous mission."

What lessons were learned?

The US President hinted at a new direction in US foreign policy, indicating the country had learnt important lessons in Afghanistan.

"First, we must set missions with clear achievable goals, not ones will never reach," he said. "And second, stay clearly focused on the fundamental national security interest of the United States of America.

"It's about ending an era of major military operations to remake, other countries," Biden added.

He said this meant "moving on from that mindset in those kinds of large-scale troop deployments." He added, "Human rights would be at the center of our foreign policy."

US President Joe Biden speaks to the cameras in the White House.
US President Joe Biden articulated a new foreign policy perspective to the people.Image: Brendan Smialowski/AFP

Looking to the future, Biden explained that "the terror threat has metastasized across the world well beyond Afghanistan."

"The fundamental obligation of a president, in my opinion, is to defend and protect America, not against the threats of 2001, but against the threats of 2021 and tomorrow," he said. "That is the guiding principle behind my decisions about Afghanistan."

"The world is changing," Biden continued. "There's nothing Chinaor Russia would want more in this competition than the United States to be bogged down for another decade in Afghanistan."

Continued efforts to 'get people out'

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg earlier said that Afghans who were not able to get out of Kabul on evacuation flights would not be forgotten. He added that it was "essential" to keep the airport open, both enable humanitarian aid and allow for officials to "continue to get people out."

More than 114,000 people were airlifted from Kabul airport over the past two weeks, while the US has evacuated more than 5,500 US citizens since flights began on August 14. Meanwhile, efforts were further harmed by a suicide bombing that killed 13 US service members and scores of Afghans.

However, tens of thousands of at-risk Afghans, including interpreters who worked for the US military, journalists and rights advocates were left behind. Those individuals face an uncertain future in the hands of the Taliban, where they fear retaliation.

No more nation-building

"The American people do have a complicated relationship with Afghanistan," said DW's Washington bureau chief Ines Pohl. "There is still a majority that are still on the side that this war has to come to an end."

"On the other hand, the pictures we are seeing today, how the Taliban are wearing the uniforms of American soldiers, entering big hangars, driving through the streets of Kabul in American military vehicles, this hurts the hearts of many many Americans," she added.

What was clear from Biden's address, was that "the military engagement in Afghanistan was never about the Afghan people but only to prevent future terror attacks" on the US "from being planned inside the country," she said, before concluding that the US will "at least under his watch, never put boots on the ground in the pursuit of nation building."

Thousands killed, trillions spent

Meanwhile, leaders of European countries are also debating their next steps regarding how many asylum seekers to take in, and different methods of quickly absorbing a large number of people.

Getting out of Afghanistan was one of Biden's top campaign promises upon coming into office. The war itself resulted in over 2,300 US military deaths, thousands wounded and around $2.3 trillion (roughly €2 trillion) spent.

However, the chaotic manner of the departure and the speed of the Taliban's return to power has shocked many in the US, as well as some of Washington's allies. More critical western voices have questioned how the Afghan departure and its aftermath squares with Biden's repeated promise to allies that "America is back" in the aftermath of the "America First" mantra of his predecessor, Donald Trump.

jc, js, lc/msh (Reuters, AFP)