'How Many More American Lives?' Biden Stands by Afghan Withdrawal Amid Kabul Turmoil

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President Joe Biden speaks about Afghanistan
President Joe Biden speaks about Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Joe Biden on Monday stood by his decision to withdraw the final U.S. troops from Afghanistan, as he faced increasingly cutting criticism about the pullout following Kabul's stunning fall and the Taliban's complete conquest of the nation.

In his roughly 19-minute speech from the White House, after which he departed without answering shouted questions from reporters, Biden referred to Afghanistan as "the graveyard of empires," and said U.S. military force would never produce a stable nation, no matter how many more years it stayed.

"How many more generations of America's daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghanistan's civil war, when Afghan troops will not?" Biden said. "How many more American lives is it worth? How many endless rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery? I'm clear on my answer."

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Biden repeatedly sought to cast the blame for the rapid fall of Afghanistan away from his administration, primarily to the now-deposed Afghan government and its conventional forces, which collapsed as the Taliban swept across the nation.

Political opponents moved swiftly to hold him responsible for both the withdrawal and how it was handled as shock radiated around the world at the sight of Taliban fighters throughout Kabul.

"What we are seeing in Afghanistan is an unmitigated disaster," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on Twitter. "The Biden administration's retreat will leave a stain on the reputation of the United States. And it didn't have to happen this way."

Even Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner of Virginia -- a fellow Democrat -- called the images "devastating." Warner said an investigation is needed to find out why, when intelligence officials warned for years that the Taliban would gain in Afghanistan after the U.S. departed, more was not done to prepare.

"I hope to work with the other committees of jurisdiction to ask tough but necessary questions about why we weren't better prepared for a worst-case scenario involving such a swift and total collapse of the Afghan government and security forces," he said in a statement. "We owe these answers to the American people and to all those who served and sacrificed so much."

Biden focused blame at the Trump administration's drawdown of U.S. forces from roughly 15,500 troops to about 2,500 by the time Biden took office, and to the deal Trump's team negotiated that called for withdrawing the remainder by the beginning of May.

He pointed to the trillion dollars the U.S. spent, the salaries it paid, and the close-air and maintenance support it provided Afghanistan as signs of its commitment to the Afghan people.

"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," Biden said. "We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide was the will to fight for that future.

Afghanistan's political leaders were unable to come together "when the chips were down" and negotiate for their people, he said.

Biden even saved some blame for his former boss and close political ally, former President Barack Obama, saying that he disagreed with the surge Obama ordered in 2009, and that he would not hand the war off to a fifth president.

The administration has moved in recent days to shore up the evacuation effort by sending 6,000 troops to secure Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, where many desperate Afghans are fleeing to in a scramble to get out of the country.

The Pentagon shut down military and civilian flights for several hours due to the chaos, which saw Afghans swarm the tarmac.

The Pentagon said later on Monday that flights had resumed at the airport that afternoon. The first C-17 Globemaster III loaded with Marines landed soon afterward, the Pentagon said, and another C-17 with troops from the Army's 82nd Airborne was on its way.

Biden also said the military will provide more help to Afghans who served the U.S. in interpreter or other jobs and have applied for Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs.

The Pentagon said that more than 700 SIV applicants had left Afghanistan over the last 48 hours, using either commercial or contract aircraft. That brings the total number of applicants who have left to nearly 2,000.

The military is setting up additional sites to temporarily house up to 22,000 refugees at Fort Bliss, Texas, and Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, and more sites may be added.

Biden dismissed criticism that his administration didn't move fast enough to evacuate interpreters and others who worked for the U.S. government over the years, and who now are at risk of reprisal killings from the Taliban. Some SIV applicants chose not to leave, Biden said. And he alleged the now-deposed Afghan government in recent months discouraged the U.S. from organizing a mass evacuation process they feared would cause a "crisis of confidence."

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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