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NEW YORK/WASHINGTON — The U.S. no longer had a vital national interest in staying in Afghanistan and the withdrawal was necessary to shore up the country’s competitiveness to meet the challenges from China and Russia, President Joe Biden said in a speech Tuesday.

In his remarks at the White House state dining room, intended to mark the end of nearly two decades in the Central Asian country, the president said that there are two lessons the country has learned regarding foreign policy.

“First, we must set missions with clear achievable goals — not ones we will never reach,” Biden said. “Second, stay clearly focused on the fundamental national security interest of the United States of America.”

Biden said the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was also about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries. He said that efforts at nation building and trying to create a democratic, cohesive and united Afghanistan was something that has never been done over many centuries in the country’s history.

“Moving on from that mindset, those kinds of large scale troop deployments will make us stronger and more effective and safer at home,” he said.

He described that such a shift in thinking was necessary to meet the big challenges of the day: first and foremost China.

“The world is changing. We’re engaged in a serious competition with China,” Biden said. “We’re dealing with the challenges on multiple fronts with Russia. We’re confronted with cyberattacks, and nuclear proliferation. We have to shore up American competitiveness to meet these new challenges in the competition for the 21st century.”

“We succeeded in what we set out to do in Afghanistan,” the president said, and he was not going to extend this “forever war” or a “forever exit.”

On the chaotic final weeks in Afghanistan, where the U.S. and coalition forces rushed to evacuate its citizens and the Afghans who helped, the president said he does not think that it could have been done in a more orderly manner.

But while the president sought to bring closure to the Afghanistan War — and shift attention to the competition with China and domestic issues leading up to the midterm elections next year — there are questions of his handling of the exit, even from his own Democratic Party.

“The evacuation process appears to have been egregiously mishandled,” Rep. Susan Wild, a Pennsylvania Democrat and a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, tweeted last week after 13 U.S. service members were killed in an attack at Kabul airport.

“In order to move forward, we need answers and accountability regarding the cascading failures that led us to this moment. Our troops deserve nothing less than a complete and unvarnished truth,” she wrote.

Republicans were quick to criticize the speech Tuesday. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas released a statement slamming the decision to impose an “artificial deadline” for domestic political considerations and refusing to adjust or adapt as the Taliban swept the country. 

Noting that the Taliban seized sophisticated American military equipment, including Black Hawk helicopters, C-130 cargo planes and over half a million weapons, Cruz said the president “dragged our nation into a crippling, humiliating defeat that has shaken our allies and emboldened our enemies.”

“It will take Congress years to investigate the breadth and depth of these failures. It will take America years to recover and rebuild from them. Both tasks must begin immediately,” he said.

On Monday, nearly 90 retired generals and admirals signed a letter calling for the resignation of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, to take responsibility for the “disastrous withdrawal.”

There are also calls from within the party to fire national security adviser Jake Sullivan and to signal a new start to foreign policy, Democratic sources said.

An Aug. 18-20 CBS poll showed that 53% of respondents disapproved of Biden’s handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan while 47% approved. The disapproval rating jumped 13 points from a July survey.

But progressives in the Democratic Party, who have long opposed U.S. engagement in conflicts around the world, have not joined the chorus of criticism against the president. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a leading voice within the party on climate change and immigration, has been relatively quiet on Afghanistan.

The liberal wing of the party would welcome a reduction in defense spending — a move that could free up funding for issues such as education and health care.