Apr 14, 2021
Lindsey Graham Press Conference on Withdrawal of Troops From Afghanistan Transcript April 14
Senator Lindsey Graham held a press conference on April 14 to address Biden’s announcement on the removal of troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. Read the transcript of the briefing here.
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Senator Lindsey Graham: (00:03)
Okay. One, I got to get in better shape running up the stairs here.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (00:07)
So I miss John McCain a lot, but probably no more than today, because if John were with us, I’d be speaking second. And he would be telling you a story about how unwise this decision is to withdraw all of our forces from Afghanistan. So you can say on September, 9/11, 2021 we’re out. The conditions on the ground and the military advice runs counter to that decision. But the one thing I want to say is that President Biden, I respect him, but I completely disagree. I’ve tried to work with presidents of both parties when it comes to the war on terror. I stood up to President Trump when he announced our unilateral withdrawal from Syria and to his credit, he listened and adjusted his policies. I have been pushing the Trump administration that if you want to do a deal with the Taliban, make sure the conditions are met before we agree to the end game.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (01:32)
The Taliban have been trying to drive this out for years. They do not have our best interest at heart. On March 22nd, Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor to President Biden, called me, I like Jake, I think he’s smart, I appreciate the phone call. I want the American people to know when it comes to Afghanistan, there are no great options. This is a place that’s complicated and dangerous without a lot of great options. But the options are high risk, medium risk and low risk to the American homeland. President Biden unfortunately has chosen the highest risk option available, which is to leave no matter what. I am certain that our military advised against a unilateral withdrawal without conditions being met, to protect the American homeland and our way of life from a future attack emanating from Afghanistan. This September will be 20 years since Afghanistan was used as a launching pad to attack America, to kill almost 3000 of us.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (02:45)
The reason they killed 3000 of us almost, is they couldn’t find a better way to kill more of us. Does anybody doubt that if Al-Qaeda or ISIS had a nuclear capability they’d use it? Does anybody doubt at that if had a chemical capability they would use it? So what have we learned in the last 20 years? When we allow sanctuary for radical Islamic groups to train, equip and get stronger, they come after us. They come after our way of life and our allies. So on March 22nd, I talked with Mr. Sullivan, and I said, “I know, it is complicated and there are no great choices, but count me in for the idea. We will not withdraw all forces in Afghanistan until the conditions are ripe to tell the American people we left honorably and America is safer.” I told Mr. Sullivan that I would support President Biden’s decision to accept military advice to keep a residual force of several thousand as an insurance policy against another 9/11.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (03:55)
The result of this decision today by President Biden, is his canceling insurance policy that in my view would prevent another 9/11, because I believe with all my heart and soul after 50 something trips to the region that a few thousand Americans watching over there would make it hard for Al-Qaeda and ISIS to reorganize, to hit us over here. Those eyes and ears will be gone. I don’t trust the Taliban to look out for American interest, but we’re finding ourselves in a very precarious situation. Again, there are no great outcomes, but this is the worst possible outcome is to pull up and leave and hope that things will turn out well. That did not happen in Iraq, and it did not happen here. But I want to let the American people know that I felt it was incumbent upon me to tell President Biden that I will be with you if you accept sound military advice, even though some people in my party may not.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (04:57)
I felt it was incumbent upon me to stand up to Trump decisions that I thought would make us less safe, and work with President Trump. And I’m glad to say that President Trump listened, adjusted his policies, and I would like to end the war in Afghanistan as much as anybody. I think I have seen Afghanistan up close and personal and understand the sacrifice America has made, understand the thousands that have died, and the tens of thousands that have been injured, and the money spent, but I’ve also understand what the Afghan people have gone through. I understand what it’s like for a woman to go to school when she’s threatened every day. I understand what it’s like to take on some of the most radical forces in your own faith, to risk your family, to try to change your country.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (05:46)
So I am heartbroken that President Biden for political reasons, took the high-risk strategy. I felt incumbent upon me to support him if he went another way, now I feel that it’s incumbent upon me to point out the perils that await us. Everything I’m about to tell you, I hope I am dead wrong. I hope that it works out. If he doesn’t change his mind, and I beg you, President Biden, re-evaluate this, don’t lock yourself in, because things are going to change quickly in Afghanistan for the worst. Al Qaeda and ISIS are going to benefit very quickly from this decision. So I feel like I need to tell the American people why it is in our interest to keep a few thousand troops over there until conditions are ripe. I believe if we leave Afghanistan under the path charted by President Biden, the government will deteriorate rapidly, people will go back to their corners, the Taliban will gain strength in the south and the central government and Kabul will lose it’s ability to effectively manage the country, it’s tenuous already. That the Haqqani network, a terrorist organization, named by our State Department to be a terrorist organization, will reign in the east. The Northern Alliance who are the mortal enemy, the Taliban will reconstitute and form militias in the North. In the West Herat, which is on the border of Iran and major city in Afghanistan, I think the Iranians will have a major influence.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (07:23)
What do we lose by pulling out? We lose that insurance policy against another 9/11. We lose listening post in the backyard of some of the most radical movements in the world. Afghanistan has been a platform where we can monitor what’s going on in Iran and other places. We lose all that. What do we gain? We gain the idea that the war is now over, and Joe Biden ended the longest war in American history. With all due respect to President Biden, you have not ended the war, you have extended it. You have made it bigger, not smaller. You’re going to do to us what you did in Iraq, put us in a world of hurt.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (08:10)
What did John McCain and Lindsey Graham say about Iraq? General Alston, who was in charge of Iraq, now Secretary of Defense, advised Vice President Biden and President Obama to leave a residual force somewhere around 20,000. I know that was true. Vice President Biden argued for zero. Eventually, it went to zero, and the rest is history. ISIS formed, and if you’ve ever been around the Yazidi people, you know how dangerous that was. The rape and destruction of the Yazidi people, the women is something I have a hard time dealing with, knowing it could have been avoided. This is an unforced error. So it’s just not me saying this. Congress asked the Afghan Study Group to be formed. It was a bi-partisan group…
Senator Lindsey Graham: (09:03)
… Group to be formed. It was a bipartisan group led by General Dunford, who was a commander in Afghanistan, Kelly Ayotte, Michele Flournoy, who was under consideration to be secretary of defense under President Biden, and former senator, Joe Donnelly. They spent a long time looking at, “What should we do?” Knowing that they would be advising the new president, whether it be Trump, Biden, or anyone else. And here’s the bottom line. This is a bipartisan group spending a lot of time looking at the options available to us in Afghanistan. According to experts who briefed the study group, a precipitous withdrawal could lead to a reconstitution of the terrorist threat to the US homeland within 18 months to three years. They’re telling, and they brief Secretary Blinken, I know, what would happen. I hope they’re wrong, but I think they’re right. And I know that our military believed that the Taliban were not complying with the agreement negotiated with President Trump, to the point that we could pull all of our forces without risking threat to the homeland.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (10:22)
What else do I know? That Congress, unusually, has been bipartisan over this. We had a resolution offered by Senator McConnell, urging the Trump administration not to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan as it could lead to a threat to our homeland, unless conditions were met on the ground and urge them to certify that any withdrawal did not expose the homeland to danger. That was 72 votes. That was a resolution urging the Trump administration, “Don’t pull out of the place, unless the conditions warrant.” We went further, in the 2021 omnibus appropriation bill, there are two provisions. One provision says that no later than 30 days after the enactment of this Act, and every 60 days thereafter, until September 30, 2021, the secretary of state submit to such committees, a report detailing and assessing the activities of the Taliban to abide by their commitments in such an agreement or arrangement. That has never been done.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (11:34)
The Congress put in the appropriations bill, a periodic report on progress regarding an agreement with the Taliban, whether or not they’re complying. I am calling on Secretary Blinken today to submit your report. It is a part of our law. It’s not advisory. No administration’s above the law. I put this in the law, not knowing who was going to be president, this concept. It goes further. It says that a joint certification by the secretary of state and secretary of defense, that such an agreement or arrangement, or amendment to such an agreement or arrangement will further the objective of setting conditions for the long-term defeat of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and will not make the United States more vulnerable to terrorist attacks originating from Afghanistan, or supported terrorist elements in Afghanistan. That has not been complied with. That is part of our law. And I’m calling on Secretary Blinken and Secretary Austin to do the certification required under the law, given President Biden’s decision.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (12:44)
Whether you agree with Biden or not, Congress has a role in foreign policy. This is part of the appropriations provisions passed. It Is the law of the land. And I think it is important that the Biden administration comply with it. I think it would be important for any administration to comply with this because it shows that the Congress is uniquely interested in what happens to our nation if we leave Afghanistan under the wrong conditions.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (13:12)
And this started in the Trump administration, it was incredibly bipartisan. And it is a provision of the law that has not been complied with, so I am urging the secretary of state and defense to comply with the law, as written by Congress, to give us the certifications, if you can. And if you can’t, tell us. And I think it would be a good thing to revisit this issue. This is not an advisory piece of legislation. This is the law of the land, and I hope and pray that they will abide by it. And here’s what I tell my colleagues, “You may agree with President Biden, but no president should be able to ignore laws written by Congress that give us the information we need as to what we should do later.” The bottom line is, obey the law. The Afghan Study Group is an independent group, bipartisan, that warned against a withdrawal that was not conditions-based. And what I heard today from President Biden is we’re withdrawing because it’s been too long, withdrawing because America is tired. I can tell America that you may be tired of fighting radical Islam, they are not tired of fighting you. That if we leave Afghanistan under the conditions being proposed by the Biden administration, just to assure as I’m standing here, what happened in Iraq will happen in Afghanistan, but it would be worse. The south would deteriorate quickly, and everybody will go back to their camps, and Al-Qaeda and ISIS will reform, and they will have safe havens. You can’t trust the Taliban to look after our interests. And that’s where we find ourselves.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (14:53)
What to do next? President Biden says, “We will support peace talks between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, facilitated by the United Nations. We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago. That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021.” Mr. President, the best people to explain to you why we should stay in Afghanistan with a residual counter-terrorism force are your own military and intelligence community, and people like the Afghan Study Group. They have told you point blank, the high-risk nature of a decision to withdraw because we’re tired of being there, because you want to tell the public 20 years later, “I got us out of Afghanistan.”
Senator Lindsey Graham: (15:48)
If you will listen to the military and the intelligence community, they can explain to you why we need to have a residual force to protect the American homeland, because the Afghan Study Group indicated that if we do this the wrong way, within 18 months to three years, there will be threats to our homeland. And all I can say is that, Mr. President, that’s not a fair summary. You had sound advice, you ignored it. This is on you. This is not on the military, this is on you. You’re doing in Afghanistan what you did in Iraq. I went with Senator McCain to sit down with President Obama, to tell him, “If you will stay the course and have a residual force in Iraq, we will back you up.” They decided to go to zero. The rest is history, but Afghanistan is worse than Iraq. This is where the war started. And every terrorist camp in the world is on steroids today, because in their world, they beat us. In their world, they drove us out, and it is so sad.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (16:58)
To the women of Afghanistan, I pray for you. You’re in my thoughts. To the women of America, the people who would do what they’re doing to their own women, they would hurt us all. In their world, there is no room, but for one faith on the planet. They would destroy the State of Israel, if they could. They would attack us unrelenting. They have no sense of compassion. They’re religious Nazis. And we have abandoned the construct that has worked to replace it with a construct that is unsound and has not worked every time we’ve done it. Unilateral withdrawal without conditions being met results in, we know what. Iraq, Syria, and now, again, in Afghanistan.
Speaker 1: (17:48)
Senator Lindsey Graham: (17:49)
Okay. “While we will not stay involved in Afghanistan militarily, our diplomatic and humanitarian work will continue.” To President Biden, it is impossible under the construct you have created for our diplomatic…
Senator Lindsey Graham: (18:03)
Under the construct you have created for our diplomatic corps to work safely in Afghanistan, without some military presence, our CIA, who’s on the front lines of defending America, cannot stay in Afghanistan. It is folly to assume that the security environment deteriorating, which it surely will, will allow us to meet our goals of diplomatic and humanitarian work. I think a lot of Democrats are going to be with me that if we pull out of Afghanistan and the security environment deteriorates, we cannot waste taxpayer dollars. What good is it sending aid to a country where you can’t deliver the aid? This is a disconnect between reality. Were we able to work in Mosul after ISIS took over? Were we able to help the people of Iraq when the country was being consumed by ISIS elements? No. This construct is fantasy. We will not be able to engage in diplomatic or humanitarian work unless the security environment would allow us to do so.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (19:12)
So I have been at this a long time. I know people are frustrated by the length of the war, the money we spent, the lives we lost. All I would say is never forget the enemy. It takes two to end the war, folks. They’re not close to quitting. The Taliban are different than Al Qaeda and ISIS. I don’t believe they will attack us here at home, but I believe they will allow Al Qaeda and ISIS to roam freely in Afghanistan. They don’t have the will or the capability to police them, and I think this is a high-risk strategy. I pray that I’m wrong, but I know what happened in Iraq, the slaughter in Paris, hundreds of people killed here at home because of radicals inspired by their success over there.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (20:06)
Here’s what I can tell you, that ISIS or Al Qaeda will never conquer America, but they can make our lives miserable. They can radicalize people in our backyard to do a lot of damage to us. If they ever got the ability to use a weapon of mass destruction against America, they would use it. The best way to prevent that is to keep your foot on their throat over there so they can’t hurt us here.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (20:31)
What have I learned? That when they’re doing well, the terrorists over there, people want to come to their calls. When they’re defeated and deflated and on their back, we’re safer. I fear that the radicalization on the Internet is going to start anew, that they’re going to take credit for driving America out, and that we’re going to have holy hell in our backyard, that Afghanistan is going to disintegrate, that Iran is going to be one of the biggest winners, that our friends in Pakistan are going to have a massive problem on their hand, that the Russians and the Chinese are going to fill the void created by this mistake.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (21:06)
What breaks my heart is it is an unforced era. I started with the idea that there are no good choices, but there are high-risk, medium, and low-risk choices. We’ve chosen the highest risk strategy, and I don’t know why after Iraq. Two kicks of a mule doesn’t do you any good. I can tell you from the people I’ve been working with in Afghanistan, in the military, they’re worried this is not going to end well for us. I told President Trump that, that if you leave Syria, the Kurds, who helped us to feed ISIS, will be slaughtered by Turkey and ISIS will come back, and that will undercut the narrative you’ve created that you destroyed them. President Biden, I’m willing to work with you. If you want to reconsider this strategy now or in the future, my friend, I’m here to help you, because this is not about you. It’s not about me. It’s about America.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (22:07)
Here’s the saddest of all the news. As difficult as Afghanistan has been and will be, things have changed. I went over right after the fall of the Taliban. Today, there are over six million women who have been educated. Kabul is a very commerce-driven area. People can sing and dance and live their lives without the oppression that the Taliban brought on them, that to the American people, that any force that will kill women for sport in a soccer stadium and blow up religious statutes of others is a threat to our way of life. The Taliban are not accepted in their own country. They have marginal support. They’ve used force of arms intimidation. But they’re rejected by the Afghan people, who could be and will be great allies of the United States. They’ve seen a different life, and it breaks my heart that we’re going to go backward, not forward.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (23:11)
A few thousand Americans would protect our homeland and give the edge to the Afghan military against any enemy that would come over there. They would be able to deny Al Qaeda and ISIS safe haven, which means that another 9/11 is far less likely. So we’re months away from 20 years of that fateful day that I’ll never forget. Walking over that night to the Capitol, I made a promise to myself that I will do everything in my power to make sure this never happens to America again. I’ve tried to keep that promise by staying involved, going over there with Senator McCain, listening and learning. The good news is we’re down to where a few thousand Americans can do the job to keep America safe and hold the place together, and we’ve blown it right here toward the end. I’ll take any questions you’ve got.
Senator, is there anything else that you can do beyond demanding the certifications you were mentioning or continuing to [inaudible 00:24:22] administration?
Senator Lindsey Graham: (24:24)
In case the Biden administration’s listing, it would be great to get the Taliban to the peace table and end the war honorably for the women of Afghanistan and safe for us. I just don’t see how you can do that until they comply with the conditions of rejecting Al Qaeda and ISIS. They haven’t. Over 3,500, I think, Afghan security forces have been killed during the negotiations. I think the Taliban have elements that want to move on. They want to be part of the country. I think they’ve given up taking it over. But there are some pretty hardcore folks. So what I would advise the Biden administration, as you continue to work with the UN and others to end the war, that you reinforce to the Taliban that there are conditions that matter to us, that an international peacekeeping force will be present, because the world is at risk here. Look what happened in the opera house or the movie theater. I can’t remember. I think it’s the Musical in Paris. That came because we left Iraq, they formed safe Haven in Syria, and they came after the French people. So I’d like the world to know, our NATO allies, that you’re at risk as much as we are. They’ve hit you as much, if not more, than we have, and here’s what’s so sad. I’ve been called by three major allies in the last month, urging me to urge President Biden to stay the course, because they would. There is no desire by NATO to leave.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (25:55)
We’re talking about we were up to 140,000 at one time, I think. Now we’re down to less than five? So I’m hoping they will look at the conditions of the agreement. The Taliban are not meeting them, and when they realize they’re not, impose those conditions on the Taliban and put back on the ground an international force to make sure Afghanistan doesn’t fall apart.
Senator, you mentioned that you’re certain that the military opposes the Biden plan. I was just wondering if you might be able to talk a little bit about how you’re certain of that, and are you saying that the DOD opposes this plan?
Senator Lindsey Graham: (26:32)
Yeah, I’m saying that they’ll salute smartly when the president makes a decision. I know there was a big discussion and President Biden listened intently. I know where the military has been on this. I know what they were telling President Trump, that until the Taliban become a more reliable partner, until they renounce terrorism, Al Qaeda, and ISIS, until they stop trying to undermine the peace process, that we cannot leave. I am certain that Secretary Pompeo put these conditions in, and nobody’s certified they have-
Senator Lindsey Graham: (27:03)
… put these conditions. In and nobody’s certified, they have been met. So that’s the whole point here. Yeah, I’m confident that that the low risk strategy was to have your residual counter-terrorism force until the peace deal actually became a deal and was being implemented and was working. But I’m sure the military will do whatever they’re told by President Biden. He has the authority as Commander In Chief to do this. I don’t question that. But he has an obligation under our law to inform Congress of the risk and to make certifications. We have the right to ask that of any administration. I was going to ask it of the Trump Administration.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (27:41)
So I want you to know that this is an unforced error from my point of view. This was not the preferred route. This was not the pervert route for President Trump. And when President Trump said a hard deadline of May 1st, it wasn’t hard. It was a conditions based deadline.
Do you think that another 9/11 like incident is more likely as a result of this?
Senator Lindsey Graham: (28:11)
That’s what they say, the Afghan study group. I’ve talked to commanders in Afghanistan. What’s their big nightmare? That the safe haven and sanctuaries that have been denied because we have counter-terrorism forces to whack them will be gone and they will begin to reconstitute along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the desire to hit the homeland is the greatest has ever been. Over time, as conditions in Afghanistan deteriorate, the likelihood of being able to project force outside of Afghanistan goes up. We saw that Iraq and Syria. When they can plan and prepare and train, they deploy their forces outside the region.
You’ve said repeatedly that you think that there aren’t the right conditions to leave right now. So I’m wondering, are you willing, are you okay with keeping troops in Afghanistan indefinitely until the conditions are right? How long would in your mind be too long to-
Senator Lindsey Graham: (29:05)
I think that’s not the question. The question is when you leave, what do you leave behind? If you believe like I do that radical Islam would kill me and Americans if they could, you would deny them that capability. We’ve got troops in Japan. We’ve got troops in Germany. We haven’t had a casualty in the last year. In fairness to President Biden, if the Taliban bail out and don’t keep the word, which I think they want, then they’ll start attacking the forces we have. So there’s no great options here. So if you leave say 4,000 or 5,000 people, they’ll be a non-permissive environment and we’ll have to go after the Taliban.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (29:40)
That is better than leaving the country where the enemy can reconstitute and hit us in multiple places, including America. So that’s why you don’t have great choices. But the least risky choice is to keep American military personnel with the intelligence community involved in Afghanistan until there’s a genuine reconciliation, until the Taliban and the Afghan people can find a way to move forward together. It’s not democracy I’m pushing under this concept. It is making sure that the country doesn’t become the safe haven it was 20 years ago.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (30:19)
And what we’re doing, according to the people I’ve talked to, is setting the conditions for Afghanistan to go backward, not forward. For the last 20 years, it really hasn’t been used as a safe haven to attack America because we’ve had forces over there to prevent that. So I would tell the American people, listen to your military, put the Afghans out into the fire. They’re dying by the thousands compared to us. Reduce your aid until they do better, but never lose sight that Afghanistan is about us. On September 11th, 2021, we will all remember that day that are old enough to remember it. And here’s what I want to remind you of. Afghanistan is still about us 20 years later.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (31:09)
So I wanted to close with this. This is what they’re capable of doing when we ignore the thread of the enemy. Remember the famous statements being made, that the warning lights are blinking red. As we ignored the buildup of Al Qaeda and Afghanistan, this is what happened. This is what happened. Flight 93, where Americans on that flight were the first to fight back. What makes you this won’t happen again if we create the conditions for it to happen again? What’s it worth to Americans to make sure this never happens again? Is it worth it to us as a nation to keep the fight over there so it doesn’t come here? The risk that our soldiers take is to protect their homeland.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (32:07)
President Biden went to Arlington today. I’m glad he did. I’ve got some friends there from Iraq and Afghanistan. This has been a very long war. The bottom line is they died in defense of their nation. Not in some endless war. They died to make sure this never happens again. And I can assure you the likelihood of this and this happening again has gone through the roof after President Biden’s decision today if it’s not changed because he’s setting Afghanistan on a path to deteriorate rather quickly, and for the enemy, radical Islam to reconstitute, and it can all be avoided with a minimal commitment compared to the past, and I’m expecting the certifications owed to the Congress to be delivered.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (32:54)
And one final warning about that. If you do comply with the law as written, and it wasn’t written for a Democrat or a Republican, it was written for the Congress as a whole, then the Senate will be a very difficult place to do business. I feel like I owe it to all those who have died to fight as hard as I can to make sure they have not died in vain.
Senator Lindsey Graham: (33:15)
And more importantly, equally importantly, is to make sure that Americans do not die senselessly. Soldiers take on the risk. They know why they’re there. These people were defenseless. Let’s keep the fight over there. Let’s keep it in their backyard, not ours. And I can tell you, Afghanistan has changed. The people of Afghanistan have seen a better way of life. And I know it’s been long. I know it’s been hard. But pulling the plug now is going to take us backward, not forward. And the good news is we can do with a few thousand troops what it took 100,000 to do, that the Afghan people are more capable and they have died by the thousands. I just think it’s in our interest to see this thing through until we can have a honorable and secure end to this war. Thank you.