President Joe Biden is struggling against an intensifying examination of his judgment, competence and even his empathy over the chaotic US exit from Afghanistan. And each attempt the administration makes to quell a furor that’s tarnishing America’s image only provokes more questions about its failures of planning and execution.
A defiant Biden on Wednesday rejected criticism of his leadership, as he battled the most significant self-inflicted drama of a term that he won by promising proficient government and to level with voters.
“I don’t think it was a failure,” the President said in an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, referring to a US pullout that sparked scenes of desperate Afghans clinging to, and falling to their deaths from, US evacuation planes.
The President had repeatedly pledged the withdrawal from the country’s longest war would be orderly, deliberate and safe and that there were no circumstances that Afghanistan would suddenly fall to the Taliban.
But in the ABC News interview he changed tack, saying there was no way the US could have left without “chaos ensuing” and that such scenes were always baked into the decision to get all troops out this year.
In one part of the interview, Biden said that he didn’t trust the Taliban but argued that the militia was cooperating with the US evacuation.
“I’m not sure I would have predicted nor would you or anyone else, that when we decided to leave that they’d provide safe passage for Americans to get out,” the President.
In the chaos at Kabul airport, however, it is far from clear that the Taliban is cooperating. While hundreds have people have been getting through, CNN’s Clarissa Ward in Kabul reported Thursday that there was no process, only mayhem of Afghans who worked for the US and are seeking exit visas because they fear for their – and their families’ – lives. Some lucky people got through Taliban checkpoints but many others were turned back or beaten, Ward said.
Biden is failing to adequately explain why he so badly failed to predict the swift collapse of the Afghan state. And his credibility has been sullied because his confident downplaying of the risks of the withdrawal has been repeatedly confounded by events. Seven months into his term, Biden no longer gets credit simply for not being Donald Trump.
The President spoke to ABC News after details emerged from a high-level Pentagon briefing that appeared to confirm the US never had sufficient troops left in Afghanistan to facilitate the orderly, deliberate withdrawal Biden had promised. And the deeply awkward session in which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the nation’s top military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, spoke to reporters also left open the grave possibility that the US military would be unable to rescue all American citizens and potential Afghan refugees before it departs for good.
Biden’s defensiveness, imprecision and apparent changes of position hardly project confidence or competence during an extraordinarily sensitive crisis on hostile foreign soil. Anytime a commander in chief does not appear in control or is in denial of obvious developments is a moment that threatens to inflict political damage.
A changed presidency
The atmospherics around a White House that was on a roll have shifted in a matter of days.
Just over a week ago, Biden was taking a victory lap for his unlikely feat of passing a bipartisan infrastructure deal in the Senate and also ramming a $3.5 trillion spending framework through the chamber. As the pandemic rebounds, his July Fourth partial declaration of independence over the virus looks like a “Mission Accomplished” moment, even if the reluctance of millions of Americans to get vaccinated has fueled its spread.
He has given Republican foes their clearest opening of a presidency in which he has been a hard political target. It may well be, if the rest of the evacuation goes smoothly, that Americans will buy Biden’s argument that the chaos and collapse of Afghanistan proves the US should have left long ago.
But the GOP is seeking to bolster impressions of incompetence by hammering Biden over the pandemic, rising inflation and record southern border crossing attempts to foster a narrative of political decay. In close elections like next year’s midterms, unflattering impressions that take hold among voters can be disastrous. Biden’s appeal lies in his candor and competence. Both are taking a hit.
The President’s image abroad is also taking a beating. His goal of reviving US relations with allies after declaring “America is back” following the Trump administration have been complicated by dismay over the possibility that interpreters and other workers who helped US troops over 20 years could be left behind to face reprisals from the Taliban.
Questions Biden must answer
Despite Biden’s efforts to portray the current situation as a simple choice between staying in Afghanistan and fighting a never-ending war, the President is not being held to account for the mistakes of the three previous administrations, whose missteps turned the war into an American failure. The Trump administration especially left Biden with some tough choices in a strategy that left the US with a skeleton garrison and poisoned relations with Kabul by negotiating with the Taliban behind the government’s back.
The issue is not even over the President’s decision to leave a war that long ago lost public support.
Instead, he is being asked to answer for things that were in his power to influence: the poorly planned evacuation effort, the failure to speed up visa processing for thousands of Afghans and the missed opportunity to get US citizens out earlier.
As that pressure mounts, the President raised the possibility in the ABC News interview that the effort could stretch beyond August 31, his previous deadline.
“We’re going to do everything in our power to get all Americans out and our allies out,” Biden said.
The operation at Kabul airport is cranking up, with hundreds of people leaving on flights from the US armed forces and those of other nations. But CNN reported that some of those hoping to leave were being stopped at Taliban checkpoints, reflecting the extent to which US evacuations rely on the forbearance of an enemy force.
At the Pentagon news conference, Milley and Austin inadvertently revealed the deficiencies of the US evacuation.
They said there were insufficient forces at the airport to keep its perimeter secure and to venture behind enemy lines to collect Americans or allied Afghans as they shelter from the Taliban in Kabul and elsewhere.
“We don’t have the capability to go out and collect up large numbers of people,” Austin said.
Austin also said US forces would try to “deconflict” the situation with the Taliban to “create passageways for them to get to the airfield.” But he also admitted he didn’t have enough forces to do much more.
“I don’t have the capability to go out and extend operations currently into Kabul,” he said.
Milley revealed that a lack of resources was also behind the decision to shutter the vast former US base at Bagram airfield further out of Kabul, in comments that implicitly confirmed that the forces were never in place to assure Biden’s vow for an orderly withdrawal.
“If we were to keep both Bagram and the embassy going, that would be a significant number of military forces that would have exceeded what we had,” he said.
“So we had to collapse one or the other, and a decision was made.”
Both Milley and Austin, a retired general, appeared deeply uncomfortable at the news conference.
“This is a war that I fought in and led. I know the country. I know the people. And I know those who fought alongside me,” Austin said.
“We have a moral obligation to help those who helped us,” he added. “I feel the urgency deeply.”
With the Taliban celebrating an extraordinary victory over the United States, they may lack an incentive to orchestrate clashes with US forces confined to the airport. But the extent of the group’s patience is unclear. And there are no guarantees its extremists will not hunt down Afghans it sees as US collaborators before they can escape to the airport.
This position of powerlessness, in which the US is at the whim of a ragtag militia, is hard for many Americans to accept, especially those who served in uniform.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, had harsh words for the position in which the United States now finds itself in Kabul.
“Now we are in a position where we are disgracefully begging the Taliban for permission to save Americans,” Kinzinger told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
An ‘America First’ moment
Events of the last few days have done more than damage Biden’s reputation for competency. They have also exposed as never before the cold-eyed calculation behind a foreign policy that includes some elements of the “America First” approach of Trump.
On Tuesday, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said it was heartbreaking that Afghan women and girls would now face repression under the Taliban. But he indicated the President chose that option over more US blood being shed in Afghanistan.
All presidents face impossible choices. And Biden is honoring his duty to protect Americans. But his chosen course and failure to speed up processing of Afghan refugees months ago, despite warnings from veterans and members of Congress, call into question his commitment to civilians who trusted the US.
Biden’s harsh criticism of the Afghan Army has been particularly poorly received abroad and may damage his ability to wield US soft power.
The President argued with reason last week that US forces should not have to fight a war that Afghan soldiers refuse to wage. But in blaming Afghans he ignored savage losses of life among armed and police forces built with US dollars, which far exceed US casualties.
His stance fueled anger in Britain’s House of Commons on Wednesday, in a debate in which Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced a backlash because of his association with the US President.
Tom Tugendhat, a member who served with the British Army in Afghanistan, lambasted the US President’s comments.
“To see their commander in chief call into question the courage of men I fought with, to claim they ran. It’s shameful,” Tugendhat said. “Those who have never fought for the colors they fly should be careful about criticizing those who have.”