US president Joe Biden said he stands “squarely behind” his decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan, and that the government’s collapse was quicker than anticipated.
Speaking in a televised address to the US nation on Monday, Mr Biden said he was faced with a choice between sticking to a previously negotiated agreement to withdraw US troops this year or sending thousands more service members back into Afghanistan for a “third decade” of war.
Mr Biden said he will not repeat mistakes of the past and did not regret his decision to proceed with the withdrawal.
“I stand squarely behind my decision,” Mr Biden said, speaking from the White House East Room.
“After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces.”
Afghans crowd at the airport as US soldiers stand guard in Kabul on Monday. Photograph: Shakib Rahmani/AFP via Getty Images
Mr Biden said he would rather take the criticism over the fallout in Afghanistan than leave the decision to another president.
He said the decision to leave Afghanistan is “the right one for America.”
Senior US military officials earlier said chaos at Kabul airport in Afghanistan on Monday morning left seven people dead, including some who fell from a departing US military transport jet. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
Afghans rushed onto the tarmac of the capital’s airport on Monday as thousands tried to flee the country after the Taliban seized power with stunning speed.
Some clung to the side of a US military plane before takeoff, in a widely shared video that captured the sense of desperation as America’s 20-year war comes to a chaotic end.
Another video showed the Afghans falling as the plane gained altitude over Kabul.
The US military is sending another battalion of about 1,000 troops to help safeguard the airport, where US forces killed two armed people during increasingly chaotic evacuation efforts.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby briefed reporters on the additional deployments aimed at bringing a semblance of order to the evacuations.
Separately, one of the top US military commanders has met face-to-face with senior leaders of the Taliban, urging the longtime US enemy not to interfere with the massive airport evacuation as the United States withdraws.
General Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, warned the Taliban officials that the US military would respond forcefully to defend the airport if necessary, the official said.
Afghans crowd at Kabul airport. Photograph: Shakib Rahmani/AFP via Getty Images
The mayhem reflects the pervasive fear and panic among Afghans as they brace for life under the rule of the Islamist Taliban after it drove the US-backed government of Ashraf Ghani from power over the weekend.
When the Taliban previously ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 it enforced a literalist interpretation of Islamic law, carrying out public executions, stoning women accused of adultery and cutting off the hands of accused thieves. It was subsequently driven from power by a US-led invasion following the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001.
The Taliban is now seeking to reassure Afghans that it has moderated its approach, and Mullah Baradar, a senior Taliban leader, publicly urged his fighters to show “humility” following their virtually bloodless seizure of the city on Sunday.
Taliban fighters stand guard along a roadside near the Zanbaq Square in Kabul on Monday. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images
“We reached a victory that wasn’t expected,” he said in a video message from Qatar. “We should show humility in front of Allah. Now, it’s about how we serve and secure our people and ensure their future and good life to the best of our ability.”
Mullah Baradar added that the Taliban was negotiating with other Afghan political leaders over forming “an open, inclusive Islamic government”.
However, many Afghans – particularly educated women – remain intensely anxious. “The fear just sits inside your chest like a black bird. It opens its wings and you can’t breathe,” Muska Dastageer, a political-science professor at the American University of Afghanistan, wrote on Twitter early on Monday morning.
Away from the airport, the streets of Kabul were largely quiet on Monday. Schools, government offices, colleges, banks, private offices and other businesses were all shut. Only grocery stores and food stalls remained open.
“We are staying home for now, but it feels like a war situation,” said a Kabul-based university professor. “The Taliban has not yet clarified what they are going to do and what their policies will be towards women and schools. There is an overwhelming fear.”
Kobra Balooch, who runs the Afghanistan Civil Society Forum Organisation, said many Afghans were running short of cash because they “never expected Kabul to collapse that quickly. But Afghan people . . . have the experience of sudden chaos and usually hoard foodstuffs.”
TV channels had also stopped broadcasting Turkish and Indian soap operas and replaced them with religious programmes. “Television directors are so scared of any consequences if they go on broadcasting those series,” Balooch said.
The Taliban’s capture of Kabul followed a sweeping offensive that saw the Islamist group overrun most of the country, facing little armed resistance, as many Afghan troops opted to surrender peacefully rather than fight for an unpopular leader.
A volunteer carries an injured man as other people can be seen waiting at the Kabul airport in Kabul. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar / AFP / Getty Images
Analysts said many Afghan troops had calculated that Mr Ghani’s exit was imminent once the US troops were withdrawn and were unwilling to die for a failing cause.
Mr Ghani, a former World Bank official, had resisted pressure to resign and initiate a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban. He fled the country to an undisclosed location as an assault on the capital appeared imminent.
Taliban fighters took control of the empty presidential palace and abandoned police posts in the capital without a struggle on Sunday. The Taliban has also reportedly freed thousands of prison inmates, many of them hardcore Islamist fighters associated with various militant groups.
Ben Wallace, the UK defence secretary, on Monday confirmed to Sky News that the Taliban was in control, and said the UK government was working through a third country “to seek assurances from the Taliban to protect our people and indeed the people we’re trying to work to get out.”
The US currently has almost 6,000 troops in Kabul but military officials said their mission is only to facilitate the safe and rapid evacuation of US civilians, other foreign nationals and some Afghan allies.
Ned Price, US state department spokesman, said all embassy personnel had been moved out of Kabul and were congregated at the airport, where a de facto embassy had been established. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. Additional reporting: Agencies