My fellow Americans — and friends of America around the world — thank you for giving me your time today. I’m not sure I’ve earned it after the events of the last several weeks, so I appreciate it. I have a lot to say, but I hope not to take up too much of your time saying it.
This is me talking to you today. I’m not using a teleprompter because what I have to tell you came straight from my pen onto the paper I’m holding. The only other person who’s read what I have to say is Jill, the most important and trusted person in my life. Because giving speeches that have been written by committees is part of the problem I’ve resolved to fix going forward.
Here’s the thing. I screwed up. I screwed up tactically and strategically. I want to share with you how I’ve screwed up and what I’m going to do about it. God knows you deserve it.
Let’s talk about Afghanistan.
As Commander-in-Chief, I rushed into an all-or-nothing decision that was driven not by sound political or military strategy, but by an arbitrary deadline. There are more than 100 people here at the White House working on a week of activities to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11, as well we should. We envisioned the centerpiece of 9/11 week as a speech at the base of Liberty Tower in which I would declare victory in Afghanistan and an end to a war that has gone on for far too long.
Well, that’s a nice script. But just because you write it doesn’t make it true.
When we made the decision to leave Afghanistan by the end of August, it didn’t feel right to me. I had a lot of people pushing me to make that decision, and some of them won’t be around for much longer. I’m not blaming them. I blame me. But I also want people around me who understand my basic values. So there will be changes.
Bad decisions create bad consequences. What we’ve been witnessing in Kabul is a debacle. There is no other word for it. And it didn’t have to happen.
When I was growing up in Scranton, my Dad always said to me, “Joey, the easy way isn’t always the right way.” I’ve thought about that a lot over the past week. I think what my dad was telling me is that sometimes achieving desired outcomes is hard work. And when it comes to Afghanistan, I lost focus and gave up on the hard work.
Look, it was a bad decision to begin a rapid and random retreat from Afghanistan, plain and simple. But I made things worse. First, I tried to shift blame. I blamed my predecessor, the Afghan government, the Afghan military and the Afghan people. That was wrong. Afghanistan is far from perfect — as is America — but it was striving for something perfect.
And then I doubled down by reading language off a teleprompter that things were going OK because, after all, we were conducting the biggest airlift of people since World War II and the Taliban were promising a functioning government that would engage with the world and honor basic human rights. I didn’t level with the American people. In today’s parlance, I was gaslighting America, creating conflicting realities that made people question their own judgment.
So I have many apologies to make.
First, to the men and women of the American military who have served and are serving in Afghanistan with high ideals and deep courage, I apologize. This has been a strategic and tactical failure on my part that does not do honor to your service and sacrifice.
To the Afghan people who helped the U.S. in our mission over these past 20 years and who we left stranded to an uncertain fate, I apologize. You deserve better.
To our allies in NATO and beyond who were blindsided by these recent actions, I apologize. This will not happen again. As it turns out, multilateralism is hard work, whether fighting wars or climate change, and I gave up on my responsibilities.
And to the American people: More than anything, you deserve competence in government. Because this decision was arbitrary and rushed, competence was the first casualty. But even more, you deserve leadership that is patient and strong and focused. These decisions were none of those things.
So look, I don’t want to waste your time with platitudes and posturing — I’ve been doing too much of that since I was elected your president. Here’s what I’m going to do.
First, there is no arbitrary deadline regarding our presence in Afghanistan. We will take as much time as we need to ensure that American citizens and Afghan citizens have free and secure passage in and out of Kabul. We will also reopen Bagram Air Base to provide a stronger base of logistics for moving military and diplomatic personnel in and out of Afghanistan. Finally, the Taliban should be aware that the U.S. ordnance still on the ground in Afghanistan is the property of the United States and will be recovered as we see fit. In all regards, the Taliban will not dictate the terms of this transition, the United States will.
We respect the right of the Taliban to form a provisional and inclusive government. God knows, Afghanistan needs a working government. Like any sovereign nation, Afghanistan has the right to self-determination. But after an investment of so much blood and treasure, America also has a right to ensure our interests are protected during this transition. As a result, I’m ordering the return of a flexible number of troops and resources in and around Bagram for the foreseeable future to provide ongoing capabilities.
I recognize this violates some of the tenets of the treaty my predecessor negotiated with the Taliban in his zeal to end the so-called endless war in Afghanistan. So I am using my executive authority as Commander-in-Chief to suspend implementation of all parts of that treaty until we are confident American interests are being honored.
And make no mistake. In the long term, wherever there are actors plotting to do harm to American people or American soil, we will find you and we will lift that burden off your shoulders, quickly and forcefully.
Let me close with a few words on the state of America.
My fellow Americans, we’ve been through hell and back the past couple of years. Covid has knocked us for a loop. Our politics have been polarized beyond recognition. Optimism about the future has been replaced with fear, uncertainty and doubt.
This is not because we have lost our resolve. Americans still have the strongest backs and broadest shoulders of any people in the world. I believe it’s because we have lost our patience. We live in an age of immediate gratification, sometimes to our detriment.
There are many things in America we need to fix, but we don’t need to fix everything immediately.
We don’t need to spend $5 trillion — 5 trillion dollars! — on remaking the social contract in America overnight.
We don’t need to turn the economy inside out in a few short years to fight climate change when we can find ways to adapt over the long term, while also making the fundamental changes to the energy system we need to make.
And on reflection, we can’t reengineer race relations in America by rewriting history or creating a new quota system.
One of the fundamental tensions in the American character is between idealism and pragmatism. We usually want to do the right thing but we end up doing it in a measured, practical way. Social Security is a good example of this. Or public education. These are examples of idealism and pragmatism working hand-in-glove. This did not happen in our recent Afghanistan adventure and it is not working in much of our political life at the moment.
I believe people elected me because they thought I would bring that balance back to our political life. And I have let that balance slip away, for which I apologize. I have listened to too many people focused on ideology and not enough to the pragmatism of my instincts. This is going to change.
As my Dad also used to say to me, “Joey, don’t ever be afraid to change your mind if you have good reason to do so. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness.” Thanks Dad.
And thank you to everyone who serves this great country — our military, our great businesses, our social workers and public servants, and our citizens. God bless you and God bless America.