Although somewhat rambling and incoherent in a somber address Thursday evening, President Joe Biden’s latest remarks to the nation concerning the ongoing Afghanistan fiasco were relatively lucid and focused by his own standards.
Hitting talking points well rehearsed by now—that he is able to empathize with gold-star military families due to the service of his own son, Beau; that he has overseen a historic and successful airlift; and that former President Donald Trump was to blame for the withdrawal that the current administration “inherited”—Biden generally was able to command the right tone.
However, his words rang hollow for many as the 20-year conflict zone saw its deadliest day since the first term of the Obama administration, in 2011, and an enemy once thought vanquished—ISIS—announced its unexpected comeback.
“We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down, and make you pay,” Biden told the perpetrators of Thursday’s suicide bombings, which killed at least a dozen military service members and left many more Afghani civilians dead or wounded.
“Make no mistake: The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts,” Bush said on Sept. 11, 2001, in a speech that launched the War on Terrorism, which ultimately would lead to the two-decade-long occupation of Afghanistan.
Biden often has been accused of plagiarizing speeches throughout his long political career, including a 1987 scandal that forced him to withdraw from seeking the Democrat presidential nomination to run against Bush’s father, then Vice President George H. W. Bush.
Yet, despite the echoes of Bush’s military escalation, Biden remained resolute for the time being that the US would not re-occupy the country and that it would proceed as planned with the evacuation leading up to next Tuesday’s deadline.
Biden said that, in consultations with his military commanders, all had indicated their agreement, telling him they “subscribe to the mission” of complete withdrawal.
“They made it clear that we can and we must complete this mission—and we will,” the president said.
Nonetheless, Biden hinted that the US may continue to strike terrorist assets, including those of the new variant ISIS-K, “at the place we choose, in the moment of our choosing.”
Unlike past missions, however, Biden said he would do so on a strictly limited basis.
“We will find ways of our choosing without large military operations to get them wherever they are.”
Biden stuck largely to a script, not only reading off a teleprompter and thumbing through pages of notes during the speech, but also calling on a list of pre-approved journalists for questions afterward.
However, in one surprise moment, he reserved his final question for Fox News’s Peter Doocy, whom he called the “most interesting guy that I know in the press.”
“You said the buck stops with you. Do you bear any responsibility for the way things have unfolded in the last two weeks,” Doocy asked.
Biden responded by blaming Trump for having established a May 1 withdrawal deadline.
That, he said, had forced him to set the delayed Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline.
“The reason why, whether my friend will acknowledge it … was because the commitment was made by President Trump.”
Biden also blamed his military advisers, claiming they had told him to abandon Bagram Airfield in favor of the less secure and more public Hamid Karzai International Airport.
“They concluded that Bagram was not much value added, that it was much better to focus on Kabul,” Biden claimed.
Despite the finger-pointing, he insisted that his rationale in refusing to budge on the mission—even despite the casualties, which he acknowledged may grow in the days to come—was entirely justified since the goal was never to engage in nation-building.
“I have never been of the view that we should be sacrificing American lives to try to establish a democratic government in Afghanistan, a country that …. is made up of different tribes who have never ever, ever gotten along with each other,” he said.
Biden said that Bush’s decision to enter the country was entirely circumstantial.
“If Osama bin Laden, as well as al Qaeda, had chosen to launch an attack when they left Saudi Arabia out of Yemen, would we have ever gone to Afghanistan?” he asked the media present. “I know it’s not fair to ask you questions—it’s rhetorical—but raise your hand if you think we’d have gone.”