The US President on Tuesday defiantly rejected criticism of his decision to stick to a deadline to pull out of Afghanistan this week, a move that left up to 200 Americans in the country along with thousands of US-aligned Afghan citizens. In a televised address, offered a sweeping defense of his handling of the withdrawal, saying he inherited an unstable situation from his predecessor, Republican Donald Trump, and that the 20-year war “should have ended long ago.” But his exit from the press conference drew even more criticism as he did not answer any questions.
After finishing his speech, Mr Biden turned away from the podium before turning back briefly to collect his face mask.
One Twitter user wrote: “Joe Biden says a few words then turns his back and walks away like a 10-year-old. He refuses to answer questions.”
Another added: “It’s like Joe Biden has taken a page out of the Trump playbook. He gives speeches, then walks away, ignoring questions from the Press.”
A third person said: “Joe Biden is such a coward. When asked a question by the press that he knows he can’t answer he closes his book and walks away. Just walks away. What kind of President does that?”
Mr Biden’s handling of the withdrawal has drawn sharp criticism from Republicans and his own Democrats as well as foreign allies, punctured his job approval ratings, and raised questions about his judgment.
The fate of Americans and Afghans who were not able to get on the last U.S. flights out of Kabul airport this week after the Taliban took over the capital remains a top concern.
US officials believe 100 to 200 Americans remain in Afghanistan “with some intention to leave,” Biden said. He said most of those who remained were dual citizens and long-time residents who earlier had decided to stay, and added the United States was determined to get them out if they wanted to go.
Many lawmakers had called on Biden to extend the August 31 deadline to allow more Americans and Afghans to escape. He said on Tuesday it was not an arbitrary deadline, and that sticking to it was aimed at saving lives.
“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,” he said from the White House State Dining Room.
The White House said it had enormous leverage over the Taliban, including access to the global marketplace, that could be used to ensure Americans get out of the country.
President Biden said a deal brokered by the Trump administration last year authorized the release of 5,000 prisoners, including some of the Taliban’s top war commanders.
“By the time I came to office, the Taliban was in its strongest military position since 2001, controlling or contesting nearly half of the country,” he said.
Even if evacuations had begun in June or July, Biden said there still would have been a late rush to the airport by people wanting to leave.
He criticized the ousted Afghan government’s inability to fight back against swift Taliban advances, which forced the United States and its NATO allies into a hasty and humiliating exit.
Biden met now-exiled Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani in the Oval Office in June and called him an old friend; in a July call he promised Ghani he would “fight hard, diplomatically, politically, economically” to support his government.
But on Tuesday, Biden said “the people of Afghanistan watched their own government collapse and their president flee amid the corruption and malfeasance, handing over the country to their enemy, the Taliban, and significantly increasing the risk to US personnel and our allies.”