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Biden speech: President defends withdrawal from Afghanistan after end of country’s longest war: “I was not prolonging an exit forever”

Biden, defending a decision that has come under scrutiny for his execution, said the real decision in Afghanistan was “between departure and escalation,” defining his choice to withdraw his troops as the only one option apart from sending more forces into the country.

“I wasn’t going to prolong this war forever, and I wasn’t going to extend an outing forever,” he said.

The US withdrawal was shaken by the rapid and unexpected takeover of the Afghan capital by the Taliban. Snapshots of people trying to flee the Taliban by gathering outside the gates of Kabul airport, as well as interior footage of US military planes filled with evacuees, have been shown around the world. More than 150 Americans struggling to get to the airport were flown by helicopter from the roof of a nearby hotel. Thirteen U.S. servicemen were killed in a terrorist attack last week outside the airport gates and more than 170 others died in the suicide bombing. And on Sunday, US forces carried out a deadly defensive strike targeting a suspected ISIS-K suicide bomber who posed an “imminent” threat to the airport.

The president said the US military was ready to deal with all of these events, although he himself admitted that the US was caught off guard by the rapid collapse of the Afghan military.

“That’s how the mission was designed. It was designed to operate under conditions of severe stress and attack, and that’s what it did,” Biden said.

A day after letting Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Commander of US Central Command General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie speak within hours of the departure of the country’s last military plane, Biden spoke to the American people for its decision not to extend the American military presence. in Afghanistan after the end of the month. Earlier Tuesday morning, the president first met with his national security team for a briefing on Afghanistan in the situation room.

Biden paid tribute to the servicemen who were deployed to handle the withdrawal, including the 13 who died in the terrorist attack and congratulated their comrades who completed the mission.

“For weeks, they risked their lives to get American citizens, Afghans who helped us, citizens of our allies and partners and others aboard planes and out of the country. in the face of the crush of huge crowds seeking to leave the country, “Biden said.

The president, who faces a political account for handling the withdrawal by the United States, said in a statement Monday that “it was the unanimous recommendation of the joint chiefs and all of our commanders on the ground to end the our airlift mission as planned. ”He also argued that he believed chaos in the country was inevitable when US troops left.

“Their point of view was that ending our military mission was the best way to protect the lives of our troops and ensure the prospects of civilians leaving for those who wish to leave Afghanistan in the weeks and months to come.” , added Biden.

He thanked the last American forces serving in the country for carrying out the “dangerous retrograde of Afghanistan as planned”, without further loss of American life.

While the president delivered a speech to announce the start of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan earlier this year, the Biden administration left the announcement of the full withdrawal on Monday to McKenzie.

The CENTCOM commander admitted on Monday that the US military “hadn’t let out everyone we wanted out.”

“But I think if we had stayed 10 more days we wouldn’t have taken out everyone we wanted out and there would still be people who would have been disappointed in that. It’s a difficult situation,” he added.

On Monday, more than 122,000 people had been flown from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul since July, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters, including 5,400 Americans.

And in the 24 hours leading up to Monday morning, 26 C-17 military planes took off from Kabul carrying 1,200 evacuees, according to General Hank Taylor, deputy director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for regional operations. A total of 28 flights took off from Kabul airport within that 24-hour window, Taylor said.

A senior State Department official said the department believes there are currently fewer than 250 U.S. citizens in Afghanistan – and Blinken said on Monday that number may be closer to 100 – who may wish to leave, while US officials have underscored the Taliban’s commitment to let Afghans leave the country after the US and its allies leave. The State Department official put the number of American citizens who have left the country by evacuation flights or other means closer to 6,000.

“We’re trying to figure out exactly how much. We’re going through manifests and calling and texting through our lists,” Blinken said in remarks to the State Department.

The State Department no longer has diplomats in Afghanistan and has moved its diplomatic mission in the country to Doha, Qatar, Blnken said. He added that the decrease in the American presence in Afghanistan is not necessarily the end of the American engagement there.

The senior US diplomat noted that there are residents of Afghanistan who have US passports trying to determine whether they should leave.

“Our commitment to them and to all Americans in Afghanistan and around the world continues,” said Blinken.

Biden said he intends to hold the Taliban accountable for their commitment that those seeking to leave the country can do so safely.

On Monday, White House officials said the president was continuing the hunt for terrorists in Afghanistan, telling his military commanders to “stop at nothing” to avenge the deaths of 13 US servicemen at Kabul airport.

The United States also carried out a defensive airstrike on Sunday targeting a suspected car bomb on its way to the airport. The strike killed nine family members, including six children, according to a relative of those killed who spoke with a local journalist working for CNN.

This is a breaking story and will be updated.

CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, Betsy Klein, Barbara Starr, Oren Liebermann, Jennifer Hansler, Nicole Gaouette and Jason Hoffman contributed to this report.