AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Amid scenes of desperation and devastation in Kabul, Democrats and Republicans alike have been criticizing President Biden for how the U.S. has managed a withdrawal from Afghanistan that has now left the Taliban in complete control of the country. But speaking at the White House this afternoon, President Biden said none of that is giving him second thoughts on his decision to end the 20-year conflict.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This is not in our national security interest. It is not what the American people want.
CHANG: All right, let's go now to the White House and to NPR's Scott Detrow, who saw the speech firsthand.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good afternoon, Ailsa.
CHANG: All right. So it sounds like the president is definitely not changing course despite what is happening in Kabul right now.
DETROW: Yeah, I was really struck by how similar this speech was to what he said a month ago before, of course, the government and army collapsed and before we saw people desperately clinging to Air Force jets taking off from Kabul. And Biden is saying essentially this should not be the U.S.' problem anymore and that it was the U.S.' problem for far too long.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
BIDEN: I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I've learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.
DETROW: Biden has long been a skeptic of the Afghanistan war, but I think there's something else going on here too. Many of Biden's big decisions center around a worry that many Americans want some of the themes that former President Trump ran on, even though Trump didn't often fulfill them. And a big one of those themes is that the U.S. is just too extended around the world. Biden seems to be trying to refocus and scale back, and he is sticking to that plan despite what has happened these past few days.
CHANG: Right. OK, so Biden is justifying his decision to pull out of Afghanistan, but what about how the U.S. pulled out? Did he address any of the chaos of the past several days or admit any mistakes or regrets?
DETROW: No, not at all, and he spent a lot of time blaming others, chiefly the Afghan army, for not putting up a fight. Biden seems to be making a risky political bet here that what's happening in Afghanistan just won't affect or upset most Americans. And, you know, a big part of that bet depends on what happens next. Now that 6,000 U.S. troops have returned to provide security for this evacuation, that means American lives are on the line. And if every American can get home safely, the White House seems to be betting most Americans will move on.
CHANG: The thing is President Biden keeps arguing the war was all about countering terrorism, but the threat of terrorism still remains, right? So how did Biden explain how the U.S. will address this threat?
DETROW: Biden insisted the U.S. remains laser-focused, as he put it, on addressing terror threats. NPR talked to one White House official who made the argument that this is what the U.S. does in many countries already where there are not boots on the ground. Somalia and Yemen are two examples. But the administration, you know, seems to be recognizing that just as the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan much more quickly than U.S. intelligence expected it to, terror threats could reemerge in Afghanistan faster. And if that is the case, they argue the military will deal with them.
CHANG: Well, do you think that's going to be enough to stave off the criticism that Biden has faced over the past few days?
DETROW: No, and I don't think this speech did either. Let's start with criticism from Biden's allies. You know, many Democrats in Congress have expressed worry, even anger about how chaotic this has been. They're also very upset that the U.S. abandoned so many translators and other Afghans who helped U.S. forces and are now at risk of being persecuted by the Taliban. The process of bringing many of these people to the U.S. has been very slow, and now many are now stuck, as we've seen at the airport and elsewhere.
So Republican lawmakers, on the other hand, are focusing on a couple things, including the fact that a month ago, Biden stood in the same room and really dismissed this idea that the government and army would collapse. And, of course, that's exactly what happened. They're also - they've also been criticizing him for not being more forceful in responding publicly the fact that he was at Camp David over the weekend as things deteriorated. But, you know, just as Biden is sticking to the argument, it's notable that he turned around and immediately flew right back to Camp David once the speech was over.
CHANG: That is NPR's Scott Detrow at the White House.
Thank you, Scott.
DETROW: Thank you.
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