President Joe Biden defended his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan Wednesday, blaming the Taliban's swift takeover of the country squarely on the Afghan army and a peace deal brokered with the Taliban by the Trump administration.
In an interview with ABC News's George Stephanopoulos, Biden argued that there was no way the intelligence community could have foreseen the Afghan army's quick surrender, despite being provided with U.S. equipment and having received years of training from U.S. forces.
"When you had the government of Afghanistan, the leader of that government, getting in a plane and taking off and going to another country, when you saw the significant collapse of the Afghan troops we had trained, almost 300,000 of them, just leaving their equipment and taking off. That's what happened; that's simply what happened," Biden said. "...the idea that the Taliban would take over was premised on the notion that somehow the 300,000 troops we had trained and equipped was going to just collapse, that they were going to give up. I don't think anyone anticipated that."
When questioned about statements he made in July in which he noted that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was "highly unlikely" amid an American withdrawal, Biden admitted that he did receive some estimates that the U.S.-backed Afghan government could fall by the "end of the year."
"By the end of the year, (intelligence said) that (Taliban takeover) was a real possibility. But no one said that it was going to happen (by August)," Biden said.
EXCLUSIVE: Asked about July comment that a Taliban takeover was “highly unlikely,” Pres. @JoeBiden tells @GStephanopoulos, “there was no consensus” in the intelligence. “They said it was more likely to be by the end of the year.” https://t.co/NmBEmVRw8M pic.twitter.com/LSXSC51ox8— Good Morning America (@GMA) August 19, 2021
Biden also told Stephanopoulos that he felt his hands were tied by a 2020 peace deal the Trump administration brokered with the Taliban. That deal promised that U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan by May, though Biden later extended the withdrawal through the end of August. In exchange, the Taliban would not attack U.S. troops.
Stephanopoulos also asked Biden if he had been advised to keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan — the number of troops deployed in the country at the time Biden extended the withdrawal timeframe — to thwart a Taliban takeover. Biden said the U.S. would have needed a "whole hell of a lot more" forces to keep the Taliban at bay.
"The threshold question was, 'Do we commit to leave within the timeframe that was set when we extended it to Sept. 1, or do we put significantly more troops in?'" Biden said. "I hear people say, 'Well, you had 2,500 folks in there, and nothing was happening. There wasn't any war.' Well, guess what? The fact was, the reason it wasn't happening was because the last president negotiated a year earlier that he'd be out by May 1, and that in return, there'd be no attack on American forces. That's what was done; that's why nothing was happening."
Biden also defended the evacuation mission itself, which has been chaotic at times. On Monday, seven people were killed at an airport in Kabul when thousands of people breached the perimeter and rushed the runway in an attempt to seek a safe passage home.
Biden noted that the airport had been secured that evacuations are continuing.
"No one's being killed right now — we got 1,200 out yesterday, a couple thousand today. And it's increasing," Biden said. "We're gonna get those people out."
Reports on the ground indicate that areas surrounding the airport are being controlled by the Taliban, who are blocking roads and preventing people from reaching the airport. The U.S. has told those in the country that they cannot guarantee safe passage to the airport, though they will continue evacuation flights until Aug. 31.