WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden announced Thursday the rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan would conclude by Aug. 31, bringing America’s longest war to a swift end weeks before the Sept. 11 deadline he set this year.
“We did not go to Afghanistan to nation build,” Biden said in remarks at the White House. “It’s the right and the responsibility of Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.”
Biden said he was advised by his military commanders to move swiftly once the drawdown began, declaring “speed is safety” as he outlined the end of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan.
The new deadline comes as the Taliban continue to gain new territory at an alarming pace, raising concerns the militant Islamic group could topple the Afghan government. Biden told reporters it was not inevitable the Taliban would seize control of the government and that he trusts the ability of the Afghan National and Defense Security Forces, who is “better trained, better equipped and more competent in terms of conducting war.”
He defended his decision to end the war and appeared to push back on criticism among some defense officials and Republicans who argue Afghanistan is on the verge of collapse.
“I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome,” he said.
Biden and his national security advisers have repeatedly emphasized the U.S. will continue to provide humanitarian and economic assistance to Afghanistan, but the security situation has rapidly deteriorated as Taliban fighters continue to overtake Afghan security forces across the country.
The president announced in April the U.S. would withdraw all troops by Sept. 11, the 20-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks that triggered the “forever war,” but the majority of U.S. troops and its NATO allies have already left the country.
The U.S. has withdrawn more than 90% of its troops and equipment and handed over seven facilities to Afghan military, the Pentagon’s Central Command announced this week. British Prime Minster Boris Johnson confirmed earlier Thursday that most British troops had also left Afghanistan.
Afghan evacuations to begin in July
Thousands of Afghans who worked with the U.S. military, as translators and in other roles, have been seeking to leave their homeland before the U.S. completes its military withdrawal. These Afghans fear that once U.S. forces are gone, the Taliban will sweep back into power and target them as traitors.
The president said this month the U.S. began relocation flights to third-party countries for Afghans applying for a special immigrant visa and that his administration was working with Congress to change the law to accelerate the application process.
“Our message to those women and men is clear: There is a home for you in the United States, if you so choose. And we will stand with you, just as you stood with us,” he said.
Ned Price, the State Department’s chief spokesman, said the administration was in talks with a number of countries about hosting the Afghan applicants on a temporary basis, but he declined to identify possible locations.
He said the administration had identified an initial number of at-risk Afghans who are eligible for relocation now and could be moved in the coming weeks but did not rule out evacuating additional applicants at a future date.
“We’re preparing for any number of contingencies,” Price said.
Biden’s advisers have also not said how many Afghans will be included in the evacuation plans. But the State Department has said about 18,000 Afghans have expressed interest in the U.S. special visa program – created to help Afghans and Iraqis who worked with the U.S. military. About 9,000 of them have filled out the necessary paperwork and the other 9,000 are still at the beginning of the process.
Leaving Bagram Airfield
The dramatic acceleration of Biden’s timeline comes after U.S. troops quietly departed Bagram Airfield, which served as the pivotal base of the American-led war against al-Qaida and the Taliban, effectively ending the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan after nearly two decades.
The White House has been steadfast in adhering to its plan to end military operations in the country by the end of August, despite criticism from some U.S. officials and Republicans who warn the Taliban’s rapid advancement could soon overtake the capital of Kabul.
Biden told Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani at a White House meeting in June the U.S. will continue to support Afghanistan from U.S. bases outside the country. As many as 650 U.S. troops will stay in Afghanistan indefinitely to protect the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
The president declared there is no “mission accomplished” moment.
“The mission was accomplished in that we got Osama bin Laden and terrorism is not emanating from that part of the world,” he said.
Mark Jacobson, former deputy NATO senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, said while he doesn’t agree with Biden’s assessment on Afghanistan’s ability to keep the threat of terror at bay, the president “took ownership of his decision.”
“He made a very strong justification of what he did. There’s going to be disagreement over whether he’s much too optimistic on what happens in Afghanistan next, but it’s very clear that he knows he owns this and he knows this is not going to end well for the people on the ground in Afghanistan,” he said.
Following the speech, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the decision would be Biden’s “biggest mistake yet.”
“President Biden does not understand conditions are developing in Afghanistan for a reemergence of al-Qaeda and ISIS which will directly threaten the American homeland and our allies,” he tweeted.
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was set in motion by former President Donald Trump. Under an agreement Trump’s advisers brokered with the Taliban, the U.S. agreed to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban promised to sever its ties with al-Qaida and end its attacks on American forces.
At the war’s peak, the U.S. and NATO military numbers surpassed 150,000. The conflict has cost more than $2 trillion, according to a Brown University analysis released in April. More than 2,400 American service members were killed, along with scores of allied troops, humanitarian workers, journalists and tens of thousands of civilians.
Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden says US withdrawal from Afghanistan will conclude August 31
Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather
A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.
The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.
“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.
The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.
In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.
Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.
“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”
The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.
“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”
Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.
More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.
Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.
Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.
The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.
So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.
Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.
“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”
Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park
A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.
The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.
He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.
The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.
The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.
“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”
Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.
The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.
House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight
House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.
The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.
The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.
The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.
Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.
“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”
It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.
The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.
However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.
Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.
Haley Talbot contributed.
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