By the time images of desperate Afghans clinging to American warplanes began emerging from Kabul on Monday morning, President Joe Biden had conceded to aides he had little choice but to interrupt his stay at Camp David to return to the White House.
He had been facing calls, even from his political allies, to speak out on the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. His top aides had begun publicly admitting they were caught off guard by the speed with which the Afghan military would collapse – but wanted the situation in Kabul to stabilize before Biden addressed the nation. And his own words from earlier this summer describing a Taliban takeover as “unlikely” were aggravating the sense of a commander-in-chief caught badly off guard.
During briefings, the President quizzed his team about how they could have misjudged the time it would take for the Afghan army to collapse, according to people familiar with the matter. He has also voiced dismay at the failure of Ashraf Ghani, the ousted Afghan president who fled the country on Sunday, to adhere to a plan he laid out in the Oval Office in June to prevent the Taliban from taking over major cities.
Throughout the weekend, Biden had remained at the presidential retreat, receiving briefings on screens or over the phone while sitting alone at conference table. Advisers huddled separately to discuss when and how he should address the situation. When he returned to the White House midday Monday, many of his aides assumed he would at least spend the night.
Yet almost as soon as Biden touched down in Washington, word went out that his stay at the executive mansion would be brief. After his 18-minute speech, Biden quickly decamped again for the mountains.
As advisers worked feverishly on Monday to calibrate the President’s speech, there was far less worry about the predictable criticism from Republicans than about how Biden’s own words and calculations over the last several months had been so wrong.
The three-day stretch put into sharp relief two of Biden’s most marked political traits: A stubborn defensive streak and a fierce certainty in his decision-making that allows little room for second-guessing.
Those traits led to an air of defiance hanging over the White House on Monday, but remarkable images of the chaos in Kabul – which the President called “gut wrenching” – stood as irrefutable evidence of failure. The task of what to do next will be left to Biden.
Scenes in Kabul are ‘way worse than Saigon’
Inside the White House and national security agencies, there has been fierce debate over how the current catastrophe unfolding in Afghanistan came to be. Officials who have built entire careers on issues related to the country have found it hard to fathom the blunt end to the 20-year conflict.
Never in the seven months of Biden’s presidency has the competence of the administration been so intensely questioned, with the President’s defiant and defensive speech on Monday only fueling the concerns rather than working to allay them.
A senior White House official told CNN a day after the speech that “there is no second-guessing of the President’s strategy,” but the official acknowledged that far more had to be done to explain how the crisis escalated and the government was blindsided by the Taliban’s surge.
Still, the official stressed the administration was focused “on looking forward, not looking back.”
“Yes, our competence is being questioned,” the official added. “The only way to fix that is to stabilize the airport and safely withdraw Americans and our partners to the best of our ability.”
The defiant message in Biden’s Monday speech reflected conversations he had with advisers over the last 48 hours. Officials were aware the situation that ultimately unfolded was possible – the Taliban overwhelming the civilian government in Kabul once US forces left – but had counted on it being unlikely.
Biden’s top aides have been candid this week in admitting they did not expect it to happen so quickly.
“It is certainly the case that the speed with which cities fell was much greater than anyone anticipated,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday on NBC’s “Today.”
At the same time, Biden has been confronted with his own past statements downplaying the notion the Taliban would overrun Kabul and outright rejecting the prospect the US embassy there would be evacuated.
Part of that approach – to downplay the prospect of the Taliban taking control of the country – was meant to avoid further erosion of morale among the country’s defense forces, one adviser said. And Biden said during his remarks that the now-deposed Afghan government had encouraged the United States to hold off on orchestrating a mass exodus “to avoid triggering, as they said, a crisis of confidence.”
Still, in retrospect, Biden’s comments about how the war would end – including a rejection of comparisons to the fall of Saigon in 1975 – appeared badly misguided.
“For the administration to say this isn’t going to be Saigon as we look at those sorts of images – well maybe they’re right. Because they’re way worse than Saigon,” said Ryan Crocker, who served as ambassador to Afghanistan under former President Barack Obama.
Questions left unanswered
Biden has long exuded self-assurance both in his foreign policy views and political strategy, honed over his many years in Washington. Aides say while he welcomes dissenting views and robust debate, he is most likely to abruptly shut down a conversation if he feels his knowledge of a situation – particularly on international affairs – is being questioned.
That stubbornness was on fully display in his speech from the East Room, during which the President devoted far time defending his decision to withdraw American troops than acknowledging his administration’s admitted miscalculations. While briefly acknowledging that the Taliban’s advance and the collapse of the government took place “more quickly than we anticipated,” Biden made clear that his intent to end the war hadn’t changed.
“I am the President of the United States of America,” Biden said. “The buck stops with me.”
Yet if that truly is the case, Biden left unanswered a myriad of questions about how events spiraled out of control so swiftly, saying only that the process of withdrawing troops had been “hard and messy.”
He has not shown any sign – publicly or, aides say, in private – that he believes his own decision to pull troops from Afghanistan helped cause the current crisis. Instead, he has placed the blame elsewhere: the Afghan military for falling apart, former President Donald Trump for agreeing to a deal with the Taliban and his predecessors for expanding a mission in a country without any consideration of how to end it.
He lashed out sharply at Ghani, saying the Afghan leader “flatly refused” Biden’s advice on seeking a political settlement with the Taliban and was “wrong” on the strength of the Afghan military.
“I know my decision will be criticized, but I would rather take all that criticism than pass this decision onto another president of the United States,” he said in his speech.
While he walked out of the East Room without answering questions from reporters, key members of Congress signaled their intent to get to the bottom of the crisis.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said he and other lawmakers had “tough, but necessary questions about why we weren’t better prepared for a worst-case scenario involving such a swift and total collapse of the Afghan government and security forces.”
“We owe those answers to the American people,” Warner said, “and to all those who served and sacrificed so much.”
The White House on Tuesday was reaching out to allies on Capitol Hill – and beyond – to explain their efforts and try to ease their concerns.
Since the moment he walked into the Oval Office seven months ago, Biden was determined to see that his presidency would do what his three predecessors did not: end America’s longest war. He surrounded himself with top advisers who shared that core belief, which now raises a question even among some Democrats about whether their loyalty kept them from taking seriously the warnings about the consequences of a swift withdrawal.
“No one disagrees with the decision to leave Afghanistan – literally almost no one,” a former Obama national security official told CNN on Monday. “But executing that decision was their responsibility and they were blindsided.”
In the White House, few advisers are closer to Biden than Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Sullivan, both of whom have spent years working for him. They appeared on television this week to defend their boss’ decision to end the war.
Other advisers, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley, have spent less time in Biden’s orbit. When the President was weighing an Afghanistan decision in the spring, Milley was among the loudest voices advocating for a continued US force presence in Afghanistan.
Biden rejected that view, even as generals warned of the potential for a Taliban takeover. Whether it was a miscalculation, a failure of intelligence or some combination of both, the President now faces a credibility crisis on one of his strongest calling cards: foreign policy.
“You cannot defend the execution here,” said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama who participated in deliberations on Afghanistan early in that administration. “This has been a disaster and everybody – anybody with a beating heart – watching these scenes of people desperately swarming the airport trying to get out ahead of the slaughter that they anticipate from the Taliban, you know, it is heartbreaking. It is depressing. And it’s a failure.”
“He needs to own that failure,” said Axelrod, who is a CNN senior political commentator. “He’s the commander in chief.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday responded to those comments, sharing kind sentiments about Axelrod – as they were colleagues during the Obama administration – but adding, “He would be the first to say that there is a difference between being on the outside and speaking on television and being on the inside and the difficult choices that you have to make.”
Officials say driving the President’s thinking is an overriding belief that, like him, most Americans are tired of the prolonged conflict in Afghanistan. His advisers have been confident over the past months that the American public was behind him in his decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan.
An ABC News/Ipsos poll in July found 55% of US adults approved of the way Biden was handling the withdrawal; in a May Quinnipiac University poll, 62% of US adults approved of Biden’s decision to bring home all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021.
Some White House officials have also privately noted that as the country continues to battle Covid-19 and the economy shrugs off the lingering effects of the pandemic, events unfolding thousands of miles away are hardly at the forefront of Americans’ minds.