President Joe Biden defiantly rejected blame Monday for chaotic scenes of Afghans lunging desperately for US military planes in a bid to flee after the easy victory by the Taliban over an Afghan military that America and NATO allies had spent two decades trying to build.
At the White House, Biden conceded the Taliban had achieved a much faster takeover of the country than his administration had expected, while the US rushed in troops to protect its own evacuating diplomats and others at the Kabul airport.
But the president expressed no second thoughts about his decision to stick by the US commitment, formulated during the Trump administration, to end America's longest war, no matter what.
"I am president of the United States of America and the buck stops with me," Biden said in a much-awaited televised address from the White House, after several days of silence on the momentous developments.
"I stand squarely behind my decision" to finally withdraw US combat forces, Biden said, while acknowledging the Afghan collapse played out far more quickly than the most pessimistic public forecasts of his administration. "This did unfold more quickly than we anticipated," he said.
Biden placed almost all blame on Afghans for the shockingly rapid Taliban takeover.
"We gave them every chance to determine their own future. We could not provide them with the will to fight for that future," President Biden said.
But he was steadfast in insisting he did not regret pulling out America's troops -- despite a torrent of criticism of the chaotic end to two decades of US-led military intervention.
"After 20 years, I've learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces," the US president said.
Biden reiterated however that the US national interest in Afghanistan was always principally about preventing terrorist attacks on the US homeland -- and that America would continue to "act quickly and decisively" against any terror threat emanating from the country.
"The mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to be nation-building," he said.
And the US president issued a stark warning to the Taliban not to disrupt or threaten the evacuation of thousands of American diplomats and Afghan translators at the Kabul airport.
"We will defend our people with devastating force if necessary," he said.
As scenes of mayhem unfolded in the Afghan capital, Biden said he was "deeply saddened" by the turn of events -- and promised to "speak out" on the rights of women now facing a return to Taliban rule.
His grim comments were his first in person to the world since the biggest foreign policy crisis of his still-young presidency. Emboldened by the US withdrawal, Taliban fighters swept across the country last week and captured the capital, Kabul, on Sunday, sending U.S.-backed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country.
Biden said he had warned Ghani — who was appointed Afghanistan's president in a US-negotiated agreement — to be prepared to fight a civil war with the Taliban after U.S. forces left. ""They failed to do any of that," he said.
Internationally, the spectacle of the Taliban takeover and the chaos of the evacuation effort was raising doubts about America's commitments to its allies.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was "bitter" to watch the complete collapse in a war that Germany and other NATO partners had followed the US into after the 9/11 attacks, which were plotted from Afghanistan. The humiliating scenes seemed certain to give comfort to American foes.
At home, it all sparked sharp criticism, even from members of Biden's own political party, who implored the White House to do more to rescue fleeing Afghans, especially those who had aided the two-decade American military effort.
"We didn't need to be seeing the scenes that we're seeing at Kabul airport with our Afghan friends climbing aboard C-17s," said Rep. Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat and Iraq and Afghanistan military veteran.
He said that is why he and others called for the evacuations to start months ago. "It could have been done deliberately and methodically," Crow said. "And we think that that was a missed opportunity."
Besides the life-and-death situation in Kabul, the timing of the crisis was unfortunate for Biden's domestic efforts at home. It could well weaken his political standing as he works to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and build congressional support for a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and an even larger expansion of the social safety net.
Still, the focus at home and abroad on Monday was on Kabul's airports, where thousands of Afghans trapped by the sudden Taliban takeover rushed the tarmac and clung to US military planes deployed to fly out staffers of the U.S. Embassy, which shut down Sunday, and others.
At least seven people died in the chaos, including two who clung to the wheels of a C-17 and plunged to the tarmac as it flew away, and two others shot by U.S. forces. Americans said the men were armed but that there was no evidence that they were Taliban.
With tens of thousands of US citizens and others as well as Afghans desperate to escape, Biden insisted the US had done all it could to plan.
In fact, Afghan leaders had asked the US not to publicly play up any advance efforts to evacuate former military translators, female activists and others most at risk from the Taliban, saying that in itself could trigger what the Afghans said could be "a crisis of confidence," Biden said.
He called Monday's scenes of panic among Afghan civilians at the airport "gutwrenching."
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said late Monday that the US, which had taken charge of air traffic control at the Kabul airport, had resumed airlifts out, after suspending them due to the morning's stampedes onto the runways by frightened Afghans.
Kirby said US forces are planning to wrap up their oversight of the evacuation by 31 August, also the date Biden has set for officially ending the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan.
The US hopes to fly out up to 5,000 people a day once more of 6,000 US troops being deployed to secure the evacuation arrive, and once more transport planes can land, he said.
Biden pledged to work to also evacuate private US citizens and citizens of foreign governments, as well as Afghans who formerly worked with Americans in the country, journalists, prominent women and other Afghans considered most at-risk of Taliban reprisal.
As of July, the US had a visa application backlog of 18,000 former Afghan employees alone who were seeking a haven in the United States, and had been able to evacuate only a few thousand in what was meant to be a sped-up process over the last month.
Veterans groups, and non-profit groups that worked with Afghan women, appealed to Biden on Monday to keep troops at the Kabul airport at least through the end of the month, to keep the escape route out of Taliban hands.
With inputs from AP and AFP