KABUL, Afghanistan - President Joe Biden authorized $500 million in aid relief to Afghan refugees on Monday, according to a White House news release.
The money will come from the "United States Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund for the purpose of meeting unexpected urgent refugee and migration needs of refugees, victims of conflict, and other persons at risk as a result of the situation in Afghanistan, including applicants for Special Immigrant Visas," according to the White House.
The aid comes after chaotic scenes of Afghans clinging to U.S. military planes in Kabul in a desperate bid to flee their home country after the Taliban's easy victory over an Afghan military that America and NATO allies had spent two decades trying to build.
Meanwhile, Biden defended his decision to draw back U.S. troops, which left an opening for Taliban fighters to take control, saying the mission was never about nation-building but about preventing future terrorist attacks against the United States.
Biden said he was faced with a choice between sticking to a previously negotiated agreement to withdraw U.S. troops this year or sending thousands more service members back into Afghanistan for a "third decade" of war. Biden said he will not repeat mistakes of the past and did not regret his decision to proceed with the withdrawal.
"This did unfold more quickly than we anticipated," he said, adding that had U.S. troops stayed longer in Afghanistan, it wouldn’t have made a difference in the outcome.
Biden said he’d rather take the criticism over the fallout in Afghanistan than leave the decision to another president. He said the decision to leave Afghanistan is "the right one for America."
Biden blamed the fall of Afghanistan on its own military and government leaders failing to protect the country.
"We could not provide them the will to fight for that future," Biden said.
Biden outlined his plan going forward in U.S.-Afghanistan relations in the White House address.
"We will continue to work with the Afghan people," he said, emphasizing that he will not resort to military action unless U.S. personnel are harmed. He said he will transport American citizens and diplomats out of Afghanistan. The State Department is asking Americans to take shelter and not to go to the airport until they hear otherwise from U.S. officials.
Biden said if the Taliban interferes with U.S. evacuation efforts, action will be swift.
Biden also said he will expand refugee efforts to help Afghan families and civilians who are at great risk. He said more civilians weren’t evacuated earlier because some were unwilling to do so, choosing to stay in their home country.
The president ended his speech by saying he was the fourth president to preside over the war in Afghanistan and said he had no choice but to complete military withdrawal.
"I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth president," he continued. "The buck stops with me."
The Taliban swept into Afghanistan’s capital Sunday after the government collapsed and the embattled president joined an exodus of his fellow citizens and foreigners, signaling the end of a costly two-decade U.S. campaign to remake the country. Heavily armed Taliban fighters fanned out across the capital, and several entered Kabul’s abandoned presidential palace.
Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman and negotiator, told the Associated Press that the militants would hold talks in the coming days aimed at forming an "open, inclusive Islamic government."
Thousands of people rushed to Kabul International Airport on Monday, pushing toward the tarmac and onto planes in desperate attempts to leave the country. The chaos left at least seven people dead, including some who fell from a departing American military transport jet, U.S. officials said.
Shortly after Biden’s address, Pentagon officials said the Defense Department’s mission is to secure the airport in Kabul for American citizens and allies.
Videos circulating on social media showed hundreds of people running across the tarmac at Kabul’s airport as U.S. soldiers fired warning shots in the air. One video showed some clinging to the side of a U.S. military transport plane before takeoff.
Another video showed the Afghans falling as the plane gained altitude over Kabul. U.S. troops resorted to firing warning shots and using helicopters to clear a path for transport aircraft.
The Pentagon also confirmed Monday that U.S. forces shot and killed two individuals it said were armed, as Biden ordered another battalion of troops — about 1,000 troops — to secure the airfield, which was closed to arrivals and departures for hours Monday because of civilians on the runway.
The U.S. Embassy has been evacuated and the American flag lowered, with diplomats relocating to the airport to aid with the evacuation. Other Western countries have also closed their missions and are flying out staff and nationals.
A tense calm set in in the capital, with most people hiding in their homes as the Taliban deployed fighters at major intersections. There were scattered reports of looting and armed men knocking on doors and gates, and the streets were eerily quiet for a city of 5 million people usually jammed with traffic. Fighters could be seen searching vehicles at one of the city’s main squares.
After the Taliban freed thousands of prisoners and the police simply melted away, many fear chaos or a return to the kind of brutal rule the Taliban imposed when it was last in power.
Shafi Arifi, who had a ticket to travel to Uzbekistan on Sunday, was unable to board her plane because it was packed with people who had raced across the tarmac and climbed aboard, with no police or airport staff in sight.
"There was no room for us to stand," the 24-year-old told the Associated Press. "Children were crying, women were shouting, young and old men were so angry and upset, no one could hear each other. There was no oxygen to breathe."
After another woman fainted and was carried off the plane, Arifi gave up and went back home.
The turmoil in Afghanistan resets the focus in an unwelcome way for Biden, who has largely focused on a domestic agenda that includes emerging from the pandemic, winning congressional approval for trillions of dollars in infrastructure spending and protecting voting rights.
Biden remained at Camp David over the weekend, receiving regular briefings on Afghanistan and holding secure video conference calls with members of his national security team, according to senior White House officials. His administration released a single photo of the president on Sunday alone in a conference room meeting virtually with military, diplomatic and intelligence experts.
He was briefed again by his national security team on Monday before returning to Washington.
Just last week, though, administration officials warned privately that the military was crumbling, prompting Biden on Thursday to order thousands of American troops into the region to speed up evacuation plans.
Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump also yearned to leave Afghanistan, but ultimately stood down in the face of resistance from military leaders and other political concerns. Biden, on the other hand, has been steadfast in his refusal to change the Aug. 31 deadline, in part because of his belief that the American public is on his side.
A late July ABC News/Ipsos poll, for instance, showed 55% of Americans approving of Biden’s handling of the troop withdrawal.
Most Republicans have not pushed Biden to keep troops in Afghanistan over the long term and they also supported Trump’s own push to exit the country. Still, some in the GOP stepped up their critique of Biden’s withdrawal strategy and said images from Sunday of American helicopters circling the U.S. Embassy in Kabul evoked the humiliating departure of U.S. personnel from Vietnam.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell deemed the scenes of withdrawal as "the embarrassment of a superpower laid low."
Senior administration officials believe the U.S. will be able to maintain security at the Kabul airport long enough to extricate Americans and their allies, but the fate of those unable to get to the airport was far from certain.
In the upper ranks of Biden’s staff, the rapid collapse in Afghanistan only confirmed the decision to leave: If the meltdown of the Afghan forces would come so quickly after nearly two decades of American presence, another six months or a year or two or more would not have changed anything.
The country’s initial invasion drove the Taliban from power and scattered al-Qaida, which had planned the 9/11 attacks while being sheltered in Afghanistan. Many had hoped the Western-backed Afghan government would usher in a new era of peace and respect for human rights.
As the U.S. lost focus on Afghanistan during the Iraq war, the Taliban eventually regrouped. The militants captured much of the Afghan countryside in recent years and then swept into cities as U.S. forces prepared to withdraw ahead of an Aug. 31 deadline.
Under the Taliban, which ruled in accordance with a harsh interpretation of Islamic law, women were largely confined to their homes and suspected criminals faced amputation or public execution. Since their overthrow, Afghan women have made major gains.
The Taliban has said they are no longer opposed to women attending school but have not set out a clear policy on women's rights, and many Afghans remain skeptical.
Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman, tweeted that fighters had been instructed to protect "life, property and honor," and the group has also said it will stay out of the upscale diplomatic quarter housing the U.S. Embassy complex.
But some worried those promises are hollow. On Monday, Nillan, a 27-year-old resident of Kabul, said she didn't see a single woman out on the streets during a 15-minute drive, "only men and boys."
"It feels like time has stopped. Everything’s changed," she told The Associated Press. She said even the most independent Afghan women now have to worry about the simplest things, such as how to get groceries in the absence of a male escort.
Nillan, who spoke on condition that she only be identified by her first name out of fear for her safety, said the Taliban ran TV ads urging people to return to work, without mentioning women.
"We don’t know what to do, we don’t know if we still have jobs," she said. "It feels like our life and our future has ended."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. It was reported from Los Angeles and Cincinnati. Catherine Park contributed to this report.