President Joe Biden has said the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan will conclude on August 31, adding that "speed is safety" as the United States seeks to end the nearly 20-year war despite growing concerns about a possible civil war amid a string of military successes by the Taliban that have seen large swaths of territory fall to the militants.
"We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build," Biden said in a speech at the White House on July 8 to update his administration’s ongoing efforts to wind down the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
"We are ending America's longest war," he said.
Under pressure from critics to give more explanations for his decision to pull out, Biden said it is up to the Afghan people alone how they run their country.
"Afghan leaders have to come together and drive toward a future," he said. "It's the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country."
Biden pledged to continue supporting the Afghan government and security forces and said thousands of Afghan interpreters who worked for U.S. forces and face threats from the Taliban would be able to find refuge in the United States.
He added that 2,500 Afghans have already been granted special immigrant visas since he took office in January.
"There is a home for you in the United States if you so choose," Biden said, adding that Washington will begin the evacuation flights for Afghan recipients of special U.S. visas this month. "We will stand with you, just as you stood with us."
The White House says the administration has identified U.S. facilities outside the United States, as well as third countries, where evacuated Afghans would potentially stay while their visa applications are processed.
The Pentagon said the withdrawal of U.S. forces is 90 percent complete as it handed Bagram air base, the largest American outpost in Afghanistan, to the Afghan government forces last week.
Most countries in the U.S-led coalition have also quietly withdrawn their troops from the war-wracked country.
The United States agreed to withdraw in a deal negotiated last year under Biden's Republican predecessor, Donald Trump.
Washington plans to leave 650 troops in Afghanistan to provide security for the U.S. Embassy.
Biden's order in April to pull out U.S. forces by September 11 -- the 20th anniversary of the Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks that triggered the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan -- has coincided with major gains by the Taliban, which had been removed from power in 2001, against Afghan forces after peace talks ground to a halt.
The commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, General Austin Miller, warned last week that the country may be headed toward a civil war.
Despite strong territorial gains by the militants, who have been fighting for control of a provincial capital in northwestern Afghanistan for a second day and have overrun several border crossings into neighboring Tajikistan and one crossing into Iran, Biden said he was confident the Afghan armed forces could stand up to the Taliban.
"I do not trust the Taliban," Biden said, "but I trust the capacity of the Afghan military."
Asked if a Taliban takeover was "inevitable," the president said: "No, it is not."