President Joe Biden grew visibly irritated Friday when questioned about the state of Afghanistan, where a formal withdrawal is nearly complete, and a major US air base was officially handed over even as US generals warn of a looming civil war.
“I want to talk about happy things,” Biden said as a reporter asked a third question about the winding-down of America’s longest war.
“I’m not going to answer any more questions about Afghanistan,” Biden said later after detailing his drawdown plans, his hopes for the embattled civilian Afghan government and his view of US air support.
“Look, It’s the Fourth of July,” Biden said, gesturing with his hands in exasperation. “I’m concerned that you guys are asking me questions that I’ll answer next week. This is a holiday weekend, I’m going to celebrate it. There’s great things happening.”
On Thursday, CNN reported the last US troops have left Bagram Air Base, according to a US defense official, marking the end of the American presence at the sprawling compound that became the center of military power in Afghanistan. Bagram was officially handed over to the Afghan military Friday, Rohullah Ahamadzai, spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense told CNN. The full withdrawal of US troops from the country is not complete yet but expected very soon.
The Pentagon had been drawing down the troop presence in Afghanistan for years, and the Biden administration made it clear the last remaining troops would be out by September 11 at the latest. As the withdrawal progressed, it became clear they would be out far earlier. Over the last few days of the US withdrawal, crews loaded shipping crates onto cargo planes, loading up the last of what was deemed valuable enough to remove from the country. On Tuesday, US Central Command, which oversees Afghanistan, said it had removed the equivalent of nearly 900 C-17 cargo loads out of Afghanistan and destroyed nearly 16,000 pieces of equipment.
Still, concerns are rising about the deteriorating security in Afghanistan, the pace of withdrawal and the many questions that are still unanswered about America’s long-term strategy.
But Biden was loathe to discuss any of those worries on Friday, growing frustrated with reporters as they asked questions. He cited a growing economy, progress against Covid and the fact US troops are coming home after 20 years of war as reasons to celebrate – even if the future of Afghanistan remains uncertain.
“We’re bringing our troops home. All across America, people are going to ballgames and doing good things,” he said.
Biden said “I’ll answer all your negative questions – not negative, legitimate questions” at a later date.
Biden said the withdrawal was not going faster than he planned.
“We’re on track exactly where we expected to be,” he said, adding he wanted to build in “running room” to ensure some forces remain to protect diplomatic facilities.
“It’s a rational drawdown with our allies,” he said. “There’s nothing unusual.”
“We were in that war for 20 years,” he went on when questioned about the Afghan government’s ability to resist Taliban offensives.
“I think they have the capacity to sustain the government,” Biden said, adding negotiations with the Taliban – currently stalled – would likely have to resume.
“I am concerned they deal with the internal issues they have to generate the kind of support they need,” he said.
Asked about American air support, Biden said he’d worked out “over the horizon” capacity but that the “Afghans are going to have to do it themselves with the air force they have, which we’re helping them maintain.”