A day after the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan, President Joe Biden defended his decision to withdraw military forces from the country as a choice that saved American lives, despite the frantic and deadly evacuation mission that followed in recent weeks.

“The real choice was between leaving or escalating, and I was not going to extend this forever war,” Biden said in his fifth national address on Afghanistan in the last 10 days.

“We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries. We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it.”

On Tuesday, just before midnight in Afghanistan, the final U.S. troops at the Kabul airport left the country, ending the nearly 20-year American military presence there prompted by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania.

The move had been expected for weeks after Defense Department officials surged about 6,000 troops into the country to help with evacuation of American citizens and Afghan allies amid the fall of the democratic government there.

Biden hailed that evacuation mission — which transported more than 130,000 individuals out of the country — as a triumph in the face of overwhelming adversity.

“The extraordinary success of this mission was due to the incredible skill, bravery gravely and selfless courage of the U.S. military, and our diplomats, and intelligence professionals, for weeks,” he said.

“They risked their lives to get American citizens, Afghans who helped us and others onboard planes and out of the country. They did it facing a crush of enormous crowds seeking to leave the country. And they did it knowing ISIS-K terrorists were lurking in the midst of those crowds … they did their jobs, and did it well.”

Thirteen U.S. service members were killed Aug. 26 in a terrorist attack on the airport. For the second time in less than a week, Biden publicly mourned those deaths, saying the country owes them “a debt of gratitude we can never repay, but we should never, ever, ever forget.”

He also recognized the significant cost in both injuries and money for the military over the two decades of war there, saying that maintaining the military mission there would have only demanded more sacrifices of those troops.

“I don’t think enough people understand how much we have asked for the 1 percent of this country” who serve in the military, he said. “A lot of our veterans and their families have gone through hell.

“Deployment after deployment, months and years away from their families. Missed birthdays, anniversaries, empty chairs on holidays, financial struggles, divorces, loss of limbs, traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress. We see the struggles.”

Critics have attacked Biden for creating a false choice between keeping up military operations overseas and the haphazard withdrawal of the last few months. On Tuesday, before his speech, House Republican leadership blasted the president for the efforts of the last few weeks and for abandoning Afghanistan completely.

Biden acknowledged that despite the massive evacuation efforts, “between 100 and 200” American citizens remain in the Taliban-controlled country, looking for a way to exit. He said State Department officials are looking for ways to safely get them out of the country, through “diplomatic” means.

But he said that deals made last year by his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, with the Taliban effectively forced his administration to follow through with departure from Afghanistan or prepare for years more of fighting overseas.

“We’ve been a nation too long at war,” he said. “If you’re 20 years old today, you’ve never known in America at peace.

“As we close 20 years of war and strife and pain and sacrifice … I believe this is the right decision.”

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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