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Biden Speaks On The End Of War In Afghanistan And Evacuations

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

After 20 years, the U.S. war in Afghanistan has ended. President Biden today spoke about this milestone and defended himself against criticism for the chaotic exit.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I take responsibility for the decision. Now, some say we should have started mass evacuations sooner. And couldn't this have been done in a more orderly manner? I respectfully disagree.

FADEL: But there are still loose - a lot of loose ends. There are more than a hundred Americans who didn't get out in the massive military airlift and thousands more Afghans who helped troops during the long war who were promised they would get help leaving. Joining me now is White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez and veterans correspondent Quil Lawrence.

Welcome to you both.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Thanks, Leila.

FADEL: Franco, we'll start with you. You were at the White House today for these remarks. How did the president mark the end of the war?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, he gave a very fiery defense of his decision to leave Afghanistan. He said the world has changed and that it was time to face the threats that are most in the national interest. In his view, that's the rise of China and persistent threats from Russia. You know, he also blamed again former President Donald Trump for making a deal with the Taliban to leave. And he emphasized that he didn't want to see a, quote, "forever exit" for what he and others had called a forever war. And he also defended how the draw down was done.

Really, I mean, the closest he came to admitting any kind of mistake was to say that there was an assumption that the Afghan government would retain control of the country, and he admitted that that turned out not to be accurate. But even then, Leila, he argued that his team was prepared for all scenarios.

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BIDEN: We were ready when the Afghan security forces, after two decades of fighting for their country and losing thousands of their own, did not hold on as long as anyone expected.

ORDOÑEZ: The bottom line, he said, was that these kinds of departures are always messy.

FADEL: But, Franco, the president had pledged to get Americans and Afghan allies out of the country if they wanted to leave. So how did he defend the fact that his administration failed to keep this promise?

ORDOÑEZ: That's right. I mean, he said his administration did everything it could to reach out to Americans. He indicated that many of those who remained had a chance to leave months before but didn't do so when they had the chance. Now, he says about 100 to 200 U.S. citizens are still there. And in the case of the Afghan people who left behind, he said no country in history had done more to try to evacuate those who had helped them. And he added that ending the airlift was a, quote, "unanimous recommendation" of his military advisers. He did promise, though, that the United States would still work to get Americans out. But at this stage - and Afghan partners. But at this stage, it's really unclear exactly how that's going to happen.

FADEL: Quil, let's turn to you. What are veterans who served in Afghanistan saying about this news?

LAWRENCE: Yeah. You know, vets, like all other Americans, have a wide range of opinions. Some of them tune out the news as kind of a therapeutic strategy, although it was hard to do in this past couple of weeks. Others are political, and they blame things on the other guy, the other party. Polls support that - show that the majority of vets supported an end to the war in Afghanistan. And President Biden spoke to that. He said he had promised them, among others, that he would end this war. He even mentioned the high suicide rate among young veterans...

FADEL: Right.

LAWRENCE: ...That lost lives and limbs.

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BIDEN: So when I hear that we could have, should have continued the so-called low-grade effort in Afghanistan at low risk to our service members at low cost, I don't think enough people understand how much we've asked of the 1% of this country who put that uniform on, willing to put their lives on the line in defense of our nation.

FADEL: So that's the president speaking about the war itself, but what about the way it ended?

LAWRENCE: Yeah. I mean, veterans are, of course, finding it very hard to separate the end of the war from this messy evacuation. And I cannot think of a single vet I've spoken with who hasn't expressed some outrage at this chaos and at the tens of thousands of Afghans - and that's Afghan allies and their families - who helped the U.S. that are being left behind. And many of them have been informally trying to get those people out, and Biden acknowledged that in his speech. From them, from people working the gates and pulling people out of this chaotic crowd around the airport, I'd have to say the most broadcastable (ph) word I've heard from them about this process is a disgrace, and there's a lot of other words I can't say on the radio.

FADEL: Wow. Quil, you cover veterans, but you were also NPR's Kabul bureau chief. What are you hearing today from Afghanistan?

LAWRENCE: Well, there was celebratory gunfire from the Taliban when the Americans left. But much of the country has already voted with its feet, and there are thousands who are trying to leave amassing at borders. There seems to be good security in Kabul right now, maybe out of fear of the Taliban and just a lot of uncertainty about what comes next.

FADEL: Franco, in the few seconds we do have left, how important was this moment for Biden politically?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, very. It will be part of his legacy. I mean, it is no small feat that the administration evacuated 124,000 people in less than three weeks. But it came at a significant cost, and he's been under intense criticism from both Republicans and Democrats about how the exit was conducted. And this scrutiny is just going to continue.

FADEL: That's NPR's Franco Ordoñez joining us from the White House and veterans correspondent Quil Lawrence.

Thanks to you both.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

LAWRENCE: Thanks, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.