Biden: Americans Shouldn't Die In A War That Afghans Aren't Willing To Fight : The NPR Politics Podcast In a speech at the White House Monday, President Biden forcefully defended his decision to withdrawal from Afghanistan — rebuking the Afghan government for being unwilling to fight the Taliban and emphasizing that spending more time and money in the country would not, in his view, have changed the outcome.

The president devoted very little of the speech to criticism he has faced over how the withdrawal was conducted. He took no questions from reporters.

It remains to be seen how many of tens of thousands of Afghans who aided the American war effort will be successfully evacuated.

This episode: congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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Biden: Americans Shouldn't Die In A War That Afghans Aren't Willing To Fight

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(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I cover the White House.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

SNELL: It's 4:49 p.m. on Monday, August 16. Afghanistan is now under Taliban control. The country's president, Ashraf Ghani, has fled, and the U.S. embassy has been evacuated. President Biden returned to Washington from Camp David today to address the nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The truth is this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated. So what's happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforce that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision. American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.

SNELL: We have NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman here to help with the context. Tom, thanks so much for being here.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

SNELL: You know, before we get into the domestic politics of this, can we start with what this means for the people of Afghanistan?

BOWMAN: Well, it means a completely different country, especially for women and girls. They'll have to cover up. The Taliban say that girls can continue to go to school. Very few doubt that. It's going to be a completely different country, and the future is bleak for many, many people in that country.

SNELL: Just to give us an idea, who is still in the country as far as Americans and Afghans who assisted them and troops?

BOWMAN: Well, as far as the Americans, most of the embassy folks have left. There's a small sort of skeleton crew of embassy personnel at the Kabul airport. And there are thousands of Americans there, maybe hundreds, who are still trying to get out. And there are thousands, if not tens of thousands of Afghans who worked for the Americans as interpreters mostly and mostly for the U.S. military. They are still trying to get out.

A good friend of mine is in hiding right now in Kabul. His brother just arrived in Washington, and he's very, very worried about his brother. Can he get out? So the airlift of these folks has started. Afghans have just arrived at Dulles Airport, another 300. That makes 2,000 total who have arrived in the United States. But again, there are tens of thousands more of interpreters and others who worked for the Americans as well as their family. The numbers, Kelsey, are anywhere from 70,000 to 88,000.

If you were in Kabul, you're in pretty good shape. You can make it to the airport. But what about those who are in Taliban-controlled territory, in Herat in the west or Kandahar in the south or Mazar-i-Sharif in the north? There's no way to be able to get to Kabul to get out because the Taliban control the cities as well as the roads. There are roadblocks. So that's going to be really difficult. I don't think there's any way they'll be able to get out those tens of thousands - 70,000 to 88,000 some people estimate. There's just no way they'll be able to leave.

SNELL: And this has been happening so quickly. You know, Mara and Franco, this swift collapse caught the U.S. by surprise. Can you talk a little bit more about how President Biden discussed the withdrawal in his speech?

LIASSON: He did make some glancing mentions of the withdrawal. He said this did unfold more quickly than we anticipated. At another point, he said this was hard and messy, far from perfect. He said there were many missteps. At one point he said, the buck stops with me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: I will not mislead the American people by claiming that just a little more time in Afghanistan will make all the difference, nor will I shrink from my share of responsibility for where we are today and how we must move forward from here. I am president of the United States of America, and the buck stops with me.

LIASSON: But the speech was all about the policy, the decision to withdraw and why it was the right decision - very little about the execution, and that's what he's being most criticized for.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I was very struck by how adamant and forceful he was with his defense and, frankly, felt like he owned this, you know, and really took this on. You know, he put some blame on former President Donald Trump for, you know, kind of setting a bad deal. He also blamed the Afghan government and the Afghan military for not having the will to fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.

ORDOÑEZ: And as Mara says, though, he did not address the execution, which he has been criticized the most for, other than to say that it's never a good time to withdraw.

SNELL: Yeah. Tom, I think that word you were using when we were talking earlier was that it sounded defiant. And, you know, we heard President Biden reference the deal that former President Trump negotiated with the Taliban in early 2020 for U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan by May of this year in exchange for a halt in violence against Americans. And we heard him say that going back on that deal would be escalating the conflict. I'm wondering if you can explain a little bit about, you know, if that's right. Is that interpretation correct - that he had to do this? He had to follow through?

BOWMAN: Right. According to the agreement, all troops are supposed to be out beginning May 1. So he is right on that point. But also, the Taliban have not lived up to the agreement. They attacked cities. They continued to work with al-Qaida. I was there two years ago, and the reports in Jalalabad were from Special Forces that, yeah, we see al-Qaida all over the place working with the Taliban. And recently, Afghan forces captured al-Qaida members in the western part of Afghanistan and Helmand Province. So they did not break, again, with al-Qaida, they continue to work with al-Qaida. So they weren't living up to the agreement. So a lot of people say - I've talked with say, well, wait a minute, if the Taliban isn't living up to the agreement, why does the U.S. have to live up to the agreement?

LIASSON: I mean, Tom, I have a kind of a larger geopolitical question. I mean, the life for Afghans is going to be pretty bleak. But already the Taliban has met with Chinese and Russian officials. Does Afghanistan now become part of a kind of Chinese-Russian sphere of influence and maybe Pakistan to a lesser extent? What does that - what does it mean for geopolitics?

BOWMAN: I think more so with China. I think China will move in and fill that void. It's part of their One Belt One Road. They're going in there to get the precious metals. Mara, I was on one of the best roads in Afghanistan. This is about five or six years ago. It was a perfectly paved road with asphalt. It was almost like Route 1. And I asked the Green Berets we were with - I said, why is this road so great? And one guy said, this is built by the Chinese. It's the road to their copper mine.

You're going to see a lot more of that with the Chinese. They're going to make deals with the Taliban. They don't care about the fate of women or human rights. They want to make money. They want to extract the minerals from Afghanistan. And you're going to see that wholesale, I think, in the coming months.

SNELL: So Tom, you have been covering this war since the beginning. Do you have any reflections, and what does this moment mean to you?

BOWMAN: I think, you know, you have to go back to the very beginning and ask yourself, was this worth all of this effort? And again, President Bush, in April of 2002 at the Virginia Military Institute, laid out a path ahead for Afghanistan. He talked about a Marshall Plan. He talked about bringing democracy to the country, helping little girls and women. And he said others have tried this and failed. We will not fail.

It was too ambitious. You know, looking back now, a lot of people I talk with say, you know, you should have sent in small numbers of troops to help train, maybe some money to help with the - with projects around the country. But sending 150,000 U.S. and NATO troops, spending a trillion dollars, it was just - it was overkill, so to speak. And for - in creating a new country, they tried to create a Western democracy, and it just never took.

SNELL: All right. Well Tom, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us and give us all of that extra context.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

SNELL: We're going to take a quick break. And when we come back, we're going to talk more about the politics of the moment.

And we're back. Now Franco, Biden was articulating a really narrow view of the role of American power in Afghanistan. You know, he said the United States was there to combat terror, not to nation-build. That's sort of remarkable to hear a president say and to describe the role of the military in that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation-building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy. Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been - preventing another terrorist attack on American homeland. I've argued for many years that our mission should be narrowly focused on counterterrorism, not counterinsurgency or nation-building.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, it was very interesting to hear how stark President Biden was in that description. Here we have a president who is so known for empathy and really relating to, you know, the humanness of it. And then to see these images that we're seeing of people running after U.S. military planes flying off and for President Biden to, you know, come with, you know, some tough language that - look, our goal was to, you know, to end this danger to the United States, but not to nation-build - you know, was, you know, very different. Because as Tom was saying and as Mara was saying, there is a lot, a lot of concern about the Afghans there, you know, about democracy, about the gains and losing the gains, particularly for girls and women, and, you know, for what so many American veterans fought for. So it is very interesting to hear him talk that way and surprising.

SNELL: Yeah, it was a little bit of a strange juxtaposition between the images we were seeing and the way that, you know, Biden came out with that very strong and defiant posture about it. And I'm wondering, Mara, what has kind of the reaction been from the rest of Washington, and does it matter how Washington responds?

LIASSON: Yes, it certainly matters what Washington thinks. It matters what our allies think. It matters what the history books think about what Joe Biden did in this episode. But when he says the United States was there to combat terror, not to nation-build, I think what he's saying is we shouldn't have been there to nation-build. But we were there to nation-build because that was the George W. Bush policy.

George W. Bush hasn't gotten a whole lot of attention in these last couple of days, but he went into Afghanistan with, as Tom Bowman just described, an extremely expansive, ambitious plan. This was when neocons and - ruled the Republican Party and believed that they could export democracy to countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. I think the Republican Party has turned away from that. Donald Trump is part of that turn. The American people have turned away from that. They don't want any more Vietnams and Afghanistans.

But what Biden was saying was the reason we went there and the reason we should have been there was to combat terror. And he says we accomplished that. We denied al-Qaida a safe haven. We got rid of Osama bin Laden. We'll see if that holds. That's one of the big questions about this. Will al-Qaida get a safe haven again in Afghanistan from the Taliban as they did before 9/11?

But in terms of public opinion, we just have to wait and see what happens. I think this has been a huge blow to Biden in Washington and around the world. Do the American people feel that he has handled this poorly? Probably if they think about it, yes. But most Americans are not thinking about what's happening in Kandahar or Kabul.

SNELL: Yeah, I...

LIASSON: And they support the idea of withdrawing. Big majorities support the idea of withdrawing. And that's why, as we said before, he spent so much of this speech talking about the decision to withdraw, not the way it was executed.

SNELL: Right. And I thought it was interesting that we - even people who - people in Congress, Republicans and Democrats who supported the concept of withdraw, seem to be very upset about the process and the way this actually went down, which...

LIASSON: Yes. And that's what they're talking about. They're not talking about the decision to withdraw because Trump made the decision to withdraw, and they didn't - and very few of them criticized him for that. It's all about the execution, and I think there is bipartisan condemnation of the way this was handled.

ORDOÑEZ: Mara is absolutely right. I mean, the real pointed criticism and concern about all this is how it happened, how it was executed and could we have avoided these very difficult and painful scenes, and we could stop worrying about what's to come next.

SNELL: All right. Well, we're going to leave it there today. We're going to obviously be continuing to cover the fallout from this - also, the earthquake in Haiti and all of the news on our air and online. And you know how to find it.

I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I cover the White House.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

SNELL: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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