UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended the US decision to abandon Afghanistan to the Taliban today as he prepared to meet President Joe Biden for talks at the White House.
Johnson admitted on that intelligence reports warned Afghanistan's capital could 'collapse very fast' to the Taliban amid a withdrawal of western forces, despite Biden stating shortly after the insurgent group's takeover that it caught the intelligence community by surprise.
Speaking to NBC in New York City during the United Nations General Assembly, Johnson appeared hesitant to criticize his host country despite host Savannah Guthrie calling the withdrawal a 'botched' effort.
'There was a spectrum of advice, a spectrum of convictions from the intelligence people, amongst which was the possibility that Kabul would collapse very fast and that the Taliban would take over very fast,' Johnson said.
He quickly added, 'Of course, you're going to look back on it with mixed feelings, but I'll say this, Savannah - all the things we did in Afghanistan, 3.6 million women and girls were educated, who would otherwise have not been educated.'
'But what about those women and girls now?' Guthrie pressed.
'Sure, I agree, it's a terrible thing now to listen to some of the threats that we're hearing to their potential, their freedom, their opportunities,' Johnson answered.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended President Biden's handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal in an interview that aired on NBC Tuesday
¿My admiration for American democracy is undimmed.¿
Watch @SavannahGuthrie¿s full interview with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ahead of the U.N. General Assembly on Afghanistan, the COVID-19 pandemic, the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and more. pic.twitter.com/mu5YKjDgJz— TODAY (@TODAYshow) September 21, 2021
Biden dismissed reports in August that he was warned about how quickly Kabul would fall to the insurgent group.
But speaking before Congress last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken admitted he received a cable in mid-July warning of a potentially swift takeover - but repeated several times that the Taliban's lightning fast advance and collapse of the Afghan military caught the government off guard.
Biden's claim the intelligence community had no idea how quickly Afghanistan would fall was further undercut by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward.
Both Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin tried to warn the president to slow down the Afghanistan withdrawal, but a stubborn Biden insisted on pressing forward, according to Woodward.
'Biden was insisting that we've got to get out now,' Woodward, author of the new tell-all 'Peril, said on MSNBC Tuesday morning.
'It turns out March of this year, Biden's top cabinet officers Tony Blinken, the Secretary of State and Lloyd Austin, the Defense Secretary, proposed formally in all of these discussions to slow down the process,' Woodward continued.
Biden denied in August that the intelligence community had any idea how quickly Kabul would fall
'Austin, particularly says, 'gate the withdrawal. A few here, a few now, don't do it in one sweep,' and you now look back at that, and that probably was good advice that was not taken.'
During the chaos of the Taliban takeover Johnson reportedly called Biden and had to wait 36 hours before getting a call back.
But the prime minister dismissed those reports and defended Biden.
'I don't discuss my calls with other leaders but to the best of my recollection we talked very frankly about this whole thing,' Johnson said.
Johnson also lauded United States' 'amazing operation' in Kabul and said the United Kingdom 'owes a big debt to the US military' for their actions at Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair slammed the military evacuation as a 'political decision, writing on his own institute's website that 'The abandonment of Afghanistan and its people is tragic, dangerous, unnecessary, not in their interests and not in ours.'
Secretary of State Antony Blinken admitted in a hearing last week that he received a mid-July cable warning Kabul could swiftly collapse to the Taliban
Theresa May, who led the country before Johnson and still sits in Parliament as a member of his own party, said it was 'incomprehensible and worrying' that Johnson could not work with other leaders to 'sustain' Afghanistan's government.
During the NBC interview Guthrie repeatedly pressed Johnson on whether he shared any frustration with Brits and Americans criticizing Biden.
'Do you think the president was too stubborn about this total withdrawal by a certain date from Afghanistan?'
Johnson avoided giving a direct answer.
'America has been there for 20 years, and it's a respectable argument to say enough is enough,' he said.
He also didn't say whether he personally agreed.
'Look, could we have done it a bit differently, maybe we could,' Johnson offered.
Taliban fighters on patrol in vehicles seized from the surrendering Afghan Army
Biden used his first address before the UN General Assembly to reassure other nations of American leadership on the global stage and call on allies to move quickly and cooperatively to address the festering issues of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and human rights abuses.
Biden, who arrived in New York last night to meet with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres ahead of today's address, offered a full-throated endorsement of the body's relevance and ambition at a difficult moment in history.
The president, in brief remarks at the start of his meeting with Guterres, returned to his mantra that 'America is back' - a phrase that's become presidential shorthand meant to encapsulate his promise to take a dramatically different tack with allies than predecessor Donald Trump.
But the president was facing a healthy measure of skepticism from allies during his week of high-level diplomacy.
The opening months of his presidency have included a series of difficult moments with friendly nations that were expecting greater cooperation from Biden following four years of Trump's 'America first' approach to foreign policy.
Eight months into his presidency, Biden has been out of sync with allies on the chaotic ending to the US war in Afghanistan.
President Biden's administration has faced widespread criticism for its rapid pull-out from Afghanistan, which left the country in the hands of one of a brutal theocratic regime (Kandahar pictured today)
Johnson has met the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in New York
He has faced differences over how to go about sharing coronavirus vaccines with the developing world and over pandemic travel restrictions. And there are questions about the best way to respond to military and economic moves by China.
Biden also finds himself in the midst of a fresh diplomatic spat with France, the United States' oldest ally, after announcing plans - along with Britain - to equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.
The move is expected to give Australia improved capabilities to patrol the Pacific amid growing concern about the Chinese military's increasingly aggressive tactics, but it upended a French defense contract worth at least $66 billion to sell diesel-powered submarines to Australia.
Boris Johnson has met the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in New York.
The Prime Minister said 'thanks for all your help with everything on Afghanistan', referring to the evacuation flights leaving Kabul airport and landing in Qatar.
Mr Johnson said he was looking forward to welcoming the emir to Glasgow for Cop26 and compared securing finance towards the 100 billion dollar (£730 million) a year fund to tackle climate change to a rugby game.
'We need to now start moving like in rugby, start binding everyone together for the final scrum,' the PM said.