WASHINGTON - Former U.S. President George W. Bush, who sent U.S. troops to Afghanistan in 2001 to wipe out training grounds for al-Qaida terrorists after the September 11th attacks, says he thinks it is a mistake for U.S. troops to be pulled out now as Taliban insurgents take control of more and more territory in the country.
Bush, since leaving office in 2009, has rarely commented on the actions of three subsequent U.S. presidents -- Barack Obama, Donald Trump and now Joe Biden.
But with Biden rapidly pulling American forces out of Afghanistan and saying they all will return home by the end of August, Bush says he is worried how the Taliban, if they take power again after American forces ousted them two decades ago, will treat women and children, along with others who have supported U.S. and NATO forces.
In an interview released Wednesday, Bush, from his summer estate in the northeastern U.S., told German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle, "I'm afraid Afghan women and girls are going to suffer unspeakable harm."
Asked if it is a mistake for Biden to pull troops out of Afghanistan, Bush said, "I think it is, yeah, because I think the consequences are going to be unbelievably bad, and I'm sad."
The Taliban claims it already controls 85% of the country, a figure which the U.S. disputes even as Pentagon officials express concern about militant group's rapid takeover of territory and its advance toward the capital, Kabul. Already, more Afghans are said to live in territory controlled by the Taliban than that overseen by the Afghan government.
Bush launched the U.S. war in Afghanistan in his first year in office in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in the U.S. American forces helped Afghan resistance units to overthrow the Taliban-run government and targeted al-Qaida. It became America's longest war.
Bush said Afghan women, who have been terrorized by the Taliban, are "scared" by the prospect of living under Taliban rule again. Bush said he is also worried about the fate of thousands of Afghans who acted as interpreters for U.S. and NATO troops over the last 20 years.
"I think about all the interpreters and people that helped not only U.S. troops, but NATO troops and they're just, it seems like they're just going to be left behind to be slaughtered by these very brutal people, and it breaks my heart," Bush said.
Biden has vowed to grant the interpreters and their families visas to move to the United States and says the processing of their visas has been "dramatically accelerated," but it is far from complete.
Trump, while he was in office, also committed to ending the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Biden followed suit, although with a longer troop withdrawal period than Trump envisioned.
Although some opposition Republicans have criticized Biden's troop withdrawal, polls show the American public supports it.
Biden staunchly defended bringing the troops home last week, saying the U.S. did not go to Afghanistan to "nation build."
"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 said.
He described the troop drawdown as proceeding in a "secure and orderly way." Days ago, U.S. forces withdrew from the mammoth Bagram Airfield, the central point of U.S. military operations.
"Nearly 20 years of experience has shown us - and the current security situation only confirms - that just one more year of fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution, but a recipe for being there indefinitely," he said.
A reporter questioning the troop withdrawal drew a sharp response from Biden. Asked whether he trusted the Taliban, Biden responded: "Is that a serious question?"
"It's a silly question. Do I trust the Taliban? No. But I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped and more competent in terms of conducting war," Biden said.
Trump, defeated by Biden in last November's election, has said he would have withdrawn all troops by May 1, which Biden decided was too hasty.
But Biden said he was the fourth U.S. president to preside over American forces in Afghanistan and that he would not hand the responsibility to a fifth.
As he first announced plans in April to end the U.S. presence in the country, he said the U.S. "cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal and expecting a different result."
The foreign troop exit is the outcome of an agreement negotiated by Washington with the Taliban in February 2020 under then-President Trump. It requires the insurgents to fight terrorism on Afghan soil and negotiate a political peace deal with the Kabul government.
However, the U.S.-brokered intra-Afghan peace negotiations have moved slowly since they started last September in Qatar and have met with little success.