In August 2021, as the Taliban swept to power in Afghanistan, capturing major cities including the capital, Kabul, attention in the U.S. turned to President Joe Biden's decision to complete the withdrawal of American troops from the country, and the appearance of a frantic and hurried evacuation of diplomatic staff and certain Afghan nationals at risk of persecution by the extremist Islamist militia.
On Aug. 16, several news outlets and social media posts reported that National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had, at least in part, attributed the startlingly quick return to power of the Taliban to a lack of willingness, among Afghan government forces, to fight back.
For example, Bloomberg News White House reporter Jennifer Jacobs posted a tweet that attributed the following quotations to Sullivan:
Asked about last-minute scramble, despite Biden's assurances that wouldn't happen, [Jake Sullivan]: "Despite the fact that we spent 20 years and tens of billions of dollars" on the Afghan national security forces "we could not give them the will" to fight and they decided not to.
Similar quotations were attributed to Sullivan in reports by Business Insider and The Hill. Those remarks were authentic, and correctly attributed to Sullivan, who did indeed defend Biden's withdrawal decision, and said Afghan security forced did not have "the will" to fight to protect the capital city Kabul, or the country of Afghanistan. As such, we are issuing a rating of "Correct Attribution."
Sullivan's remarks came during the context of an interview with Savannah Guthrie on NBC's "Today" show, on the morning of Aug. 16, which can be watched in full below. Guthrie put it to Sullivan that the "last-minute scramble" to evacuate U.S. citizens and government personnel from Kabul was indicative of a poorly conceived or badly executed withdrawal plan. Sullivan replied, in part, as follows:
It is certainly the case that the speed with which cities fell was much greater than anyone anticipated, including the Afghans, including many of the analysts who looked hard at this problem. And part of the reason for that, Savannah, is because at the end of the day, despite the fact that we spent 20 years and tens of billions of dollars to give the best equipment, the best training and the best capacity to the Afghan national security forces, we could not give them the will. And they ultimately decided that they would not fight for Kabul, and they would not fight for the country, and that ultimately opened the door...to the Taliban to come into Kabul very rapidly [emphasis is added].
When Guthrie put it to Sullivan that the Taliban's rapid takeover of the country represented a "worst-case scenario," Sullivan rejected that claim, and defended Biden's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan:
Actually, Savannah, I think the worst-case scenario for the United States would be a circumstance in which were adding back in thousands and thousands of troops to fight and die in a civil war in Afghanistan, when the Afghan army wasn't prepared to fight in it, itself. That was the alternative choice Joe Biden faced.
And what we learned over the course of the past two weeks is that if we had stayed one more year, or two more years, or five more years, or 10 more years, no amount of training, equipping or money or lives lost by the United States was going to put the Afghan army in a position to be able to sustain that country on its own.
So the president had bad choices. And the choice he made, which was to bring U.S. forces home, to get us out of that civil war, to get our diplomats out of the embassy, and to ultimately ask the Afghans to step up and fight for themselves. It is heartbreaking to see what's happening in Kabul, but the president had to make the best possible choice he could, and he stands by that decision.