NOEL KING, HOST:
President Biden talked to the country yesterday for the first time since the Taliban overthrew the Afghan government.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The events we're seeing now are, sadly, proof that no amount of military force would ever deliver a stable, united, secure Afghanistan.
KING: The president said he is sticking with his plan, and his focus is on evacuating Americans and Afghans who worked with the U.S. during the war. NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow is following this one. Hey, Scott.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: Did the president offer an explanation for why this has unfolded the way it has?
DETROW: A little bit. And remember; just a month ago, speaking in the very same room of the White House, President Biden was saying the Afghan army had the tools it needed, and he was very skeptical of the idea the Taliban would quickly take over the country. Obviously, things have played out very differently. Biden did acknowledge the pace was much quicker than U.S. officials envisioned, but he largely tried to put the blame on Afghanistan's leaders for fleeing the country and on the Afghan military for not putting up more of a fight. And notably, he did not admit any mistakes in planning or execution. The White House is insisting that they were prepared for and gamed out all of the scenarios, you know, even if rushing thousands of troops back into Afghanistan really does suggest otherwise.
Biden called the scenes at the airport that we've been talking about gut-wrenching, but he kept his focus on this argument that leaving is the right thing to do for the United States.
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BIDEN: This is not in our national security interest. It is not what the American people want. It is not what our troops, who have sacrificed so much over the past two decades, deserve.
KING: What's been the reaction to that speech?
DETROW: You know, Biden has been getting a lot of criticism for what's happened, and this didn't really stop any of it. Lawmakers from both parties stressed that it is not about the decision to leave, as Biden keeps trying to frame it; it's about how the withdrawal has been carried out. Senator Mitt Romney, a Republican, put it this way - he said, contrary to Biden's argument, quote, "our choice was not between a hasty and ill-prepared retreat or staying forever."
KING: What did the president say about Afghans who worked with the U.S., who helped us during the war and who are now desperate to get out?
DETROW: You know, he really only mentioned it very briefly. There was some criticism he didn't say more about the sacrifice these people have made and the situation that they're in. And more broadly, there's been a lot of frustration for how slowly the administration dealt with this issue over the past few months. About 2,000 have been evacuated to the U.S. so far, according to the White House. There's estimates tens of thousands more need to get out. We have now heard from the Pentagon that they're trying to find seats on planes for some 20- to 30,000 people over the next few weeks. And now we are seeing images of jam-packed Air Force cargo planes taking people out of the country as the airport gets more secured. But let's remember a lot of these people can't get to the airport with the Taliban patrolling the city. Or, you know, they're far from Kabul, and it's just a nonstarter at this point.
KING: Scott, what do you make of the president's response to this, both in the speech and in the way he's responded over the past couple of days and weeks?
DETROW: I think there's two big themes that we've seen a lot over the past few years, and first is a strategic view from Biden and his top advisers that Americans do want more of a focus on America's needs first from the government, and that's a reason why so many have looked to populism and Trumpism over the past few years, which is why you kept hear him saying, this is not worth spending American lives on anymore. And the second is just staying the course, digging in. That's why he went right back to Camp David, despite the criticism that he's been absent from the White House.
KING: NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow. Thank you, Scott.
DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.