President Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Monday defended the White House’s withdrawal from Afghanistan but admitted the South Asian country fell to the Taliban terrorist group faster than officials had anticipated.
“It is certainly the case that the speed with which cities fell was much greater than anyone anticipated, including the Afghans, including many of the analysts who looked hard at this problem,” Sullivan said during a Monday morning interview on the “Today” show.
The reason why Afghanistan’s armed forces and government collapsed so quickly, he said, is that “we could not give them the will and they ultimately decided that they would not fight for Kabul and they would not fight for the country,” while noting that the United States spent 20 years and billions of dollars in nation-building after the 2001 invasion.
Over the past several days, as the Taliban made swift advances across the country before taking Kabul and the presidential palace on Sunday, Biden’s administration has received blowback for the execution of the withdrawal. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul, at one point, issued a warning to staff to shelter in place due to gunfire being reported at the Kabul airport. Reports said that Americans are still sheltering in place at the Kabul airport.
About a month ago, Biden said the pullout of Afghanistan is dissimilar to the fall of Saigon in 1975, when Vietnamese communist forces overran Vietnam’s capital city, which produced enduring images of American staff and civilians hastily evacuating on U.S. military helicopters.
“There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy,” Biden said last month, adding that it was “highly unlikely” the Taliban would take over the country.
Biden’s words came back to haunt him over the weekend, with some pundits and GOP lawmakers accusing the president of failing to execute the pullout. They’ve also criticized the president for taking a vacation and not issuing any televised statements as the Afghan army collapsed.
Sullivan on Monday insisted that the helicopter evacuations in Kabul were not unusual.
“To be fair, the helicopter has been the mode of transport from our embassy to the airport for the last 20 years,” he said, again noting that the terrorist group took over Afghanistan faster than the administration anticipated. Sullivan also said that the military had additional contingencies in place, including adding more military forces to the Gulf to ensure they would be sent to Afghanistan.
On Sunday and Monday, the terror group sought to project a more moderate face, promising to respect women’s rights and protect both foreigners and Afghans.
But many Afghans fear the Taliban will return to past harsh practices with their imposition of sharia. During their 1996-2001 rule, women could not work and punishments such as public stonings, whipping, and hangings were administered. Both the United Nations and the United States said last week they had received reports that Taliban fighters were executing surrendering government soldiers.
Reuters contributed to this report.