President Joe Biden speaks about the withdrawal of troops and diplomats from Afghanistan at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. Photo by Pat Benic/UPI | License Photo
Aug. 31 (UPI) -- President Joe Biden credited the U.S. military for carrying out "one of the biggest air lifts in history" by evacuating more than 120,000 people from Afghanistan by Tuesday's deadline.
He addressed the nation from the White House to mark the United States' departure from the country, nearly 20 years after going to war there.
"Last night in Kabul, the United States ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan. The longest war in American history," Biden said.
"Only the United States had the capacity and the will and ability" to carry out the evacuations, which included some 5,500 Americans. "We did it today. The extraordinary success of this mission was due to the incredible skill, bravery and selfless courage of the United States military and our diplomats and intelligence professionals."
A bombing near the airport Thursday left 13 U.S. service members dead, and another 20 were injured.
Biden said the State Department was in frequent contact with Americans in Afghanistan to work on evacuating them, including by walking them to the Kabul airport. He said between 100 and 200 Americans still have "intention to leave."
"For those who remain, we will make arrangements to get them out if they so choose," he said. "For those remaining Americans, there is no deadline."
Biden also defended choices his administration made regarding the timeline of the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the evacuation process. He said intelligence reports didn't foresee the Taliban defeating Afghan security forces as quickly as they did.
"Imagine if we begun evacuations in June or July, bringing in thousands of American troops and evacuating more than 120,000 people in the middle of a civil war," he said. "There still would have been a rush to the airport, a breakdown in confidence and control of the government, and it still would have been a very difficult and dangerous mission."
The last U.S. troops departed late Monday, leaving the country to the Taliban, which now must govern over an unstable economy and a growing humanitarian crisis.
The fundamentalist Islamist group celebrated Afghanistan's "independence" and their "victory" over the Americans in Kabul on Tuesday, setting off fireworks and firing weapons into the air.
"What we achieved today is the result of the blood of thousands of [freedom fighters], loyalty, patience and tolerating the difficulties," Anas Haqqani, second in command of the Taliban's Haqqani Network, told NBC News.
Chief Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid congratulated Afghans on the victory at the airport in Kabul, which had been in chaos for two weeks and was the scene of a bloody suicide attack days ago.
"This victory belongs to us all," he said, according to The New York Times.
Biden stuck to his Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline even after the suicide bombing that killed more than a dozen Marines and almost 200 Afghan civilians, telling the American people he refused to pass on the war to yet another president when he leaves office.
"The fundamental obligation of a president, in my opinion, is to defend and protect America," Biden said Tuesday. "Not against threats of 2001, but against the threats of 2021 and tomorrow. That is the guiding principle behind my decisions about Afghanistan.
"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 a year in Afghanistan.
"When I was running for president, I made a commitment to the American people that I would end this war. Today, I've honored that commitment."
A number of Afghan nationals holding evacuation documents said they were left behind because they could not reach Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul during the evacuation.
"No one helps us," Ali Mohammad, an Afghan national with evacuation documents, told Tolo News. "On the first day, we went to the main gate. We were forced to leave there. Then we went to another gate, and another gate."
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday that the United States will continue to try and get refugees like Mohammad out through diplomatic channels.
Blinken said fewer than 200 U.S. citizens who want to leave remain in Afghanistan.
"Part of the challenge with fixing a precise number is that there are long-time residents of Afghanistan who have American passports, and who were trying to determine whether or not they wanted to leave," Blinken said in a statement. "Many are dual-citizen Americans with deep roots and extended families in Afghanistan, who have resided there for many years. For many, it's a painful choice."
The Taliban now face crises on multiple fronts in Afghanistan, including a massive rebuilding effort, food insecurity and an emerging and bloody feud with the Islamic State-Khorasan, or IS-K.
"Peoples' expectations have grown dramatically after the past 20 years of freedom and liberation, and the pain is yet to come," Tolo News owner Saad Mohseni said, according to the Times.
"Will the Taliban engage the world with a more inclusive approach? Or will they return to the ways of the past?"
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley deliver remarks about the end of the 20-year military mission in Afghanistan at the Pentagon, in Arlington, Va., on September 1. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo