President Biden said the withdrawal from Afghanistan of U.S troops after 20 years of war will conclude on August 31, ahead of the September 11 deadline he announced in mid-April.
"We are ending the nation's longest war," the president said in remarks at the White House Thursday.
At the time he announced the September deadline, about 3,500 troops remained. Earlier this week, the Pentagon said that the withdrawal was 90% complete. It proceeded quickly for a reason.
"Our military commanders advised me that once I made the decision to end the war, we needed to move swiftly to conduct the main elements of the drawdown, and in this context, speed is safety," the president said. A different approach "would have certainly come with an increased risk of safety to our personnel," and he noted that so far, no U.S. military personnel have been lost in the process.
, the largest American base in the country. The turnover of Bagram to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces completed the U.S. transfer of all seven bases to Afghanistan, in effect, finishing the logistical part of the withdrawal.
Although the president made August 31 the formal deadline for U.S. troops to be out of Afghanistan, the withdrawal is for all intents and purposes complete, with the transfer of control of Bagram. The commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller, will soon be leaving the remaining forces in the charge of a two-star general.
The military supports the president's decision, even if top military advisers may not initially have concluded that the U.S. should withdraw. But Mr. Biden heard what they had to say, met with them at least half a dozen times, and showed he was reading the briefing books. Ultimately both agreed that the U.S. could not stay in Afghanistan forever — there are greater threats facing the nation than al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
"The United States cannot afford to remain tethered to policies creating a response to a world as it was 20 years ago," Mr. Biden said. "We need to meet the threats where they are today."
The president has said the U.S. will continue to have a diplomatic presence in the country. To maintain an embassy in Kabul, several hundred troops will remain for protection, and more could support the security of Kabul International Airport.
As U.S. troops have been withdrawing, the Taliban has been steadily seizing more territory. In the past two months, it has taken control of more than 80 of the 407 districts in Afghanistan, according to the Long War Journal, which closely tracks the conflict. In the past week alone, the Taliban has taken 10% of the country, currently controlling 195 districts.
But Mr. Biden maintained Thursday that it is not inevitable the Taliban will take control of the country, noting that Afghan forces heavily outnumber the Taliban, by about 300,000 to 75,000.
"The Afghan government and leadership has to come together. They clearly have the capacity to sustain the government in place," the president 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 — they have capacity. They have the forces. They have the equipment. The question is will they do it?"
Mr. Biden insisted that "first of all, the mission hasn't failed," but he also pointed out that "no nation has ever unified Afghanistan," that "empires have gone there and not done it."
Along with the withdrawal of troops, the U.S. is still working on airlifting over 60,000 Afghans — 18,000and their families —out of the country to protect them from Taliban reprisals. Mr. Biden promised that the Afghans who have risked so much to help the U.S. "are not going to be left behind."
He announced that starting this month, the administration will begin relocation flights to third countries outside of Afghanistan for the applicants and their families who would like to leave.
"There is a home for you in the United States if you so choose and we will stand with you as you stood with us," Mr. Biden said.
When asked what would the U.S. would do if Kabul fell, Mr. Biden said the U.S. would make a determination based on the danger to the U.S.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Thursday that the U.S. remains committed to helping the air force of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently approved the delivery of two refurbished UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters this month with 35 more to come as well as purchasing three more A-29 aircraft.
"It's not like we're clapping hands and walking away," Kirby said.