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Biden puts faith behind Afghan troops while defending U.S. withdrawal

President Joe Biden on Thursday issued a forceful defense of his decision to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan and denied it was inevitable that the Taliban would eventually topple the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.

In a question-and-answer session with reporters following a brief address from the White House, the president expressed faith in Afghan leaders while effectively washing his hands of America’s longest war, which he said would formally conclude at the end of next month.

“The Afghan government and leadership has to come together. They clearly have the capacity to sustain the government in place,” Biden said. “The question is, will they generate the kind of cohesion to do it?”

“It’s not a question of whether they have the capacity,” he continued. “They have the capacity. They have the forces. They have the equipment. The question is, will they do it?”

Biden also rejected the notion that his own military commanders had all but declared the Afghan government doomed in the face of escalating Taliban attacks, saying a takeover by the Islamic fundamentalist group was not a foregone conclusion.

“It is not inevitable,” he said, later adding: “The likelihood that there’s going to be a Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”

Biden’s remarks seemingly broke with the assessment of Gen. Austin Miller, the commander of the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan, who warned in a recent news conference that civil war in the country “is certainly a path that can be visualized if it continues on the trajectory it is on. … That should be a concern for the world.”

Biden also denied reports of a U.S. intelligence assessment saying the government in Kabul could be toppled in as little as six months after the withdrawal.

But regardless of the conflict’s outcome, U.S. forces will not be on the ground to see a resolution, Biden said, as “our military mission in Afghanistan will conclude on Aug. 31.” Until Thursday, the administration had pegged the end of the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan to Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“Nearly 20 years of experience has shown us that the current security situation only confirms that just one more year of fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution,” he said, “but a recipe for being there indefinitely.”

The Pentagon signaled that the United States will continue to play some role in helping the beleaguered Afghan security forces fight off Taliban advances, likely by providing surveillance drones to watch over the battlefield in coordination with local troops on the ground.

“We’re not walking away from that relationship,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said after Biden’s speech.

Despite having spent $82 billion to build, train and equip the Afghan military over the past two decades, the force remains an inconsistent organization. Some units have stood their ground while others, rife with corruption, have melted away and signed truce agreements with the Taliban. Just this week, Taliban fighters paraded dozens of heavy guns, tactical vehicles and trucks seized from an abandoned Afghan army base in Wardak province.

Biden made the comments as he and the administration have been buffeted by criticism over what the withdrawal decision means for regional security, the plight of women in Afghanistan and the safety of interpreters who aided U.S. troops at great personal risk — the latter of which has been a top priority for both parties on Capitol Hill.

Earlier Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration in August would fly thousands of Afghan interpreters and their families out of the country to safety ahead of the U.S. military’s full withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Psaki told reporters the administration had “stood up an operation to physically relocate” the Afghan nationals “before the U.S. military mission concludes,” but she did not say specifically where they would be relocated.

The administration’s operation “has identified U.S. facilities outside of the continental United States, as well as third countries,” she said. “Because of security reasons, we’re not going to outline and detail at this point where those are.”

The U.S. is considering sending the Afghans to the United Arab Emirates, Qatar or Guam as they wait for their visas to the U.S. to be processed, The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.

The security of Afghan interpreters and translators has emerged as an area of concern for the administration and lawmakers as Biden pushes the troop withdrawal. The interpreters and translators are under threat by the Taliban for helping U.S. forces throughout the war.

This month, the House is set to take up two pieces of legislation that would increase the admission cap and, separately, streamline the vetting process to speed up the effort.

The press secretary’s remarks on Thursday confirm reports from last month that the administration was working to evacuate the Afghan nationals so they could safely await U.S. processing as part of the Special Immigrant Visa program.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who helped establish the program for Iraqis and Afghans who helped the U.S. military, said the announcement was “welcome news that we will keep that promise to our allies.”

Psaki said the administration had “already dramatically accelerated the processing timeline” for the visas “to bring them to the United States.” White House officials are also “continuing to work closely with Congress to change the authorizing legislation so that we can streamline the process for approving visas even when they are in a third country,” she added.

Biden elaborated on the subject of the Afghan nationals and special visa applicants in his speech on Thursday afternoon. “Our message to those women and men is clear. There is a home for you in the United States, if you so choose, and we will stand with you, just as you stood with us,” he said.

The president noted that the administration has already approved 2,500 special visas, yet half of those people who were approved have decided to stay in Afghanistan. He also said the evacuations would begin this month, moving up the timeline laid out earlier in the day by Psaki.

The remarks from Biden were intended at least in part to reassure lawmakers from both parties who have been pressuring the administration to do more to protect the Afghans who aided the U.S. war effort.

Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), a former Green Beret who relied on Afghan interpreters while serving there, said in an interview that Biden’s promises amounted to “a lot of rhetoric” without specific details, including which countries would take in the Afghans while they await visa approval.

“We’re talking a few thousand here who have worked with Americans for years and been extensively vetted already. It makes no sense. It’s infuriating,” Waltz said. “Time has run out, and these people are being hunted down as we speak.”

Biden’s address represented a politically precarious moment for the administration, which is working to repel a series of negative headlines about the drawdown. But Biden’s speech also comes amid a potentially perilous situation in Afghanistan, as the Taliban continues to make rapid advances across the country.

The Islamic fundamentalist group has taken over nearly 10 percent of the country in the last week alone, according to The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and it now controls 195 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts — while contesting another 129.

On Capitol Hill, Biden’s party has largely defended the president’s decision even as the situation on the ground worsens. One of his few Democratic detractors, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, said Biden’s speech did not fully address all of her concerns, including on the plight of women and girls in the country.

“Sadly, this follows a trajectory that I feared: a resurgence of the Taliban and direct threats to communities vulnerable to their violence and oppression,” Shaheen said. “It is critical that there is a clear plan in place in the days, weeks and months ahead to maintain the progress made to advance women’s rights and to ensure the safety of our allies who risked their lives, and the safety of their families, in support of the U.S. mission.”

With the U.S.-backed Afghan government in Kabul already under increasing threat of Taliban takeover, Biden’s withdrawal strategy faced further criticism on Friday after American forces quietly exited Bagram Airfield, which for two decades had served as the hub of the war effort.

Afghan officials accused their American counterparts of leaving the airfield with little coordination in the middle of the night, resulting in electricity and water services being cut off and incidents of looting by locals. The Pentagon has insisted there was sufficient communication with the Afghans before the Americans’ exit.

Nevertheless, the appearance of a botched departure and other recent developments provoked a new round of second-guessing by former national security officials, foreign policy experts and media commentators.

Biden’s frustration with the unfavorable news coverage was apparent at a White House event last Friday, on the eve of the Fourth of July weekend, when he brushed aside reporters’ “negative questions” about Afghanistan and other topics, saying: “I want to talk about happy things, man.”

The president’s speech on Thursday came shortly after he and Vice President Kamala Harris met with their national security team in the Situation Room for an update on the troop withdrawal, which U.S. officials told POLITICO on Wednesday was “over, for all intents and purposes.”

Last Friday, however, Psaki told reporters the administration expected the drawdown to be completed by the end of August, while Biden denied that the withdrawal would be finished within the next few days.

“We’re on track exactly as to where we expected to be,” Biden said last Friday, apparently referring to his self-imposed deadline for a full withdrawal by Sept. 11 — the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The Pentagon’s first substantive update on the drawdown in roughly a month came on Tuesday, when U.S. Central Command announced that 90 percent of American forces had been pulled out of Afghanistan.

Approximately 600 U.S. troops are still stationed in the country, all of whom are expected to stay in Afghanistan after the withdrawal is complete. Most of the remaining troops are serving as security at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and the rest of them will be based at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.

The forces yet to be withdrawn include Miller, and a small group of staff — as well as the security and logistical personnel deployed to Afghanistan this year to help facilitate the drawdown, according to Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby.

Andrew Desiderio and Paul McLeary contributed to this report.

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