WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden defended his decision to end the US war in Afghanistan after 20 years of conflict with full throats, saying the era of major US military operations to rebuild other nations was over.
Biden's address on Tuesday came just 11 days before the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that sparked US intervention in Afghanistan.
"My fellow Americans, the war in Afghanistan is over now," said White House Biden. "I am the fourth president to have asked myself if and when this war should end."
“When I ran for president, I made a commitment to end this war, and today I kept that commitment to Afghanistan,” he said.
"This decision on Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan, it is about ending an era of great military operations to transform other countries," said the president.
At 3:29 p.m. ET on Monday, one minute before midnight in Kabul, the last C-17 cargo plane carrying US forces left Afghanistan, effectively ending America's 20-year military campaign in the country.
The Taliban, who were ousted by the United States shortly after the 9/11 attacks, now control almost the entire country.
The withdrawal of US forces came at the end of a whopping 17-day humanitarian evacuation of 123,000 people desperate to flee Taliban rule. Of the total evacuees flown from Kabul, 6,000 were US citizens.
In the final days of the mission, an ISIS-related suicide bomber detonated explosives near the airport gates, killing 13 US soldiers and more than 100 Afghans.
Biden praised the soldiers who gave their lives as heroes and thanked all members of the military, diplomatic corps, and intelligence services who risked their safety for what he called a Mission of Mercy.
On Sunday, the President and First Lady Jill Biden traveled to Dover Air Force Base to meet privately with the families of the fallen before watching the dignified handover of American flag-draped coffins from a C-17 military cargo plane to a vehicle.
"We owe them and their families a never-repayable thank you that we should never forget," said the president on Tuesday of the fallen.
Although Biden said he took full responsibility for the decision to retire by August 31, he turned down critics who say the White House is unprepared for the chaos that ensues following the withdrawal of American forces and the speedy conquest Afghanistan was created by the Taliban.
The president said he had hired his national security team to prepare for any eventuality, including a swift takeover by the Taliban, and blamed the Afghan government for the country's swift collapse.
"We were ready when, after two decades of fighting for their country and losing thousands of them, the Afghan security forces did not hold out as long as everyone expected," said Biden.
"We were ready when the Afghan people watched their own government collapse and the president flee amid corruption and wrongdoing, handing the country over to his enemy, the Taliban, and greatly increasing the risk to US personnel and our allies" said Biden.
"Let me be clear that the August 31st departure is not based on an arbitrary deadline. It was designed to save American lives," the president said.
"It was time to end this war," said Biden, adding, "I didn't want to extend this war forever and I did not extend an eternal exit."
Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie, the four-star commander of US Central Command, said no Americans had been on board on the last five flights from Kabul on Monday. Foreign Secretary Antony Blinken said in a speech on Monday evening that fewer than 200 Americans are still seeking evacuation.
McKenzie, who oversees the U.S. military mission in the area, added that there were no evacuees at the airfield when the last C-17 took off. All US soldiers and Afghan troops who helped defend the airport were also blown from the air along with their families on Monday, the general said.
Biden said in his address on Tuesday that "90% of Americans in Afghanistan who wanted to leave could leave." The US will hold the Taliban responsible for guaranteeing safe passage to anyone who wants to leave the country, he said.
"There is no deadline for the remaining Americans. We remain determined to get them out if they want to come out," said the president.
The US and NATO launched their military campaign in Afghanistan weeks after the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Taliban then offered refuge to Al-Qaeda, the terrorist group that planned the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center and carried out the Pentagon.
Around 2,500 US soldiers were killed in the conflict, which also killed more than 100,000 Afghan soldiers, police officers and civilians. The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have cost US taxpayers more than $ 1.57 trillion since September 11, 2001, according to a Department of Defense report.
In his address on Tuesday, Biden said the US had to learn from the mistakes of its two decades of military intervention in Afghanistan. The US accomplished its mission to decimate al-Qaeda and kill terrorist group leader Osama bin Laden a decade ago, the president said.
Biden pledged to defend the US against evolving threats from terrorist groups like ISIS without engaging the US in another ground war. The US must now also face the challenges of powerful opponents such as Russia and China, he said.
"As we turn the page of foreign policy that has guided our nation for the past two decades, we must learn from our mistakes," said Biden.
"First, we need to set missions with clearly achievable goals, not with which we will never achieve. And, second, we need to focus clearly on America's basic national security interests."