As Americans watched chaotic and often heartbreaking scenes of desperation around the airport in Kabul this week, President Joe Biden on Friday vowed to do everything in his power to bring Americans home safely from Afghanistan as that nation descends into chaos under Taliban control.
But Biden’s assertions that the US has made “significant progress” since Monday in getting control over the situation appeared directly at odds with the images of chaos, eyewitness accounts from reporters on the ground and even some comments from members of his own administration.
For all the pomp and circumstance of Biden’s operational update Friday, it capped a week that has raised questions about his judgment and revealed a catastrophic failure to draw up plans to provide for the safety of both Americans and the thousands of Afghans and their families who assisted the US war effort. By Saturday, Biden had scrapped his plans to travel to Wilmington, Delaware, for the weekend and instead was briefed by members of his national security team at the White House, which included a discussion of counterterrorism operations, the administration said.
“Let me be clear, any American who wants to come home, we will get you home,” Biden said from the East Room on Friday, attempting to right the narrative in the midst of a week of disastrous optics for his administration. “But make no mistake: This evacuation mission is dangerous. It involves risks to our armed forces, and it is being conducted under difficult circumstances. I cannot promise what the final outcome will be … (or) that it will be without risk of loss. But as commander-in-chief, I can assure you that I will mobilize every resource necessary.”
It was intended as a message of strength and reassurance to distraught Americans, outraged veterans and shaken US allies who have watched as the arduous work and countless sacrifices of US soldiers over the past two decades seemed to evaporate within a matter of days.
Arguing that the US no longer has an interest in the country, Biden claimed that al Qaeda is “gone” from Afghanistan. But his own administration soon acknowledged that’s not true.
Most jarring, however, was how Biden’s answers to reporters’ questions on some of the most pressing concerns about the evacuation were undercut by his own military leaders and personnel almost immediately following his White House appearance – most notably his assertion that the US had “no indication” that Americans in Kabul hadn’t been able to get to the airport because of both crowding around the gates and interference from the Taliban, who have set up checkpoints throughout the city.
“We’ve made an agreement with the Taliban. Thus far, they’ve allowed them to go through,” Biden said. “We know of no circumstance where American citizens — carrying an American passport — are trying to get through to the airport.”
A short time later, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told House lawmakers in a call that some Americans have been beaten by the Taliban in Kabul, as they made their way to the airport, according to multiple sources on the call, although Austin added that generally the Taliban were not hindering Americans seeking to get to the airport.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby confirmed on Saturday that they have received some reports that Americans have been harassed or beaten by Taliban members during their attempts to get to the Hamid Karzai International Airport.
“We are aware of sporadic cases where they aren’t being allowed, where there is some harassment going on, and yes some physical violence has occurred, and as the Secretary has made clear – and he made clear in that phone call – that’s unacceptable,” Kirby said.
The US military is establishing “alternative routes” for people to get to Kabul airport and access gates, because of a threat posed by ISIS-K to the airport and its surroundings, according to two US defense officials on Saturday.
“There is a strong possibility ISIS-K is trying to carry off an attack at the airport,” one official said.
A senior diplomat in Kabul said they are aware of a credible but not immediate threat by Islamic State against Americans at the airport.
Earlier Saturday, the US embassy in Kabul posted a notice advising Americans not to come to the airport unless directed by the US government. It warned of “potential security threats outside the gates at the Kabul airport.”
The Pentagon revealed Friday night that the US military used helicopters to evacuate 169 Americans from a hotel near the airport, offering more detail about an operation that Biden briefly referenced in his remarks.
When pressed on Friday, Kirby told reporters that the US military has flown in additional troops, which could allow them to go out into Kabul to extract Americans and bring them to the airport if needed, but he declined to “talk about potential future operations one way or the other.” He said “by and large” US troops have not seen a need to assist Americans through Taliban checkpoints, because they have been able to get through the checkpoints to the airport on their own.
Lawmakers express frustration
Though Biden and members of his administration tried to project confidence Friday about the influx of military manpower in Kabul and their ability to ramp up and streamline the evacuation process, many lawmakers – including Democrats – are expressing profound dismay over the lack of preparedness for a Taliban takeover and the haphazard evacuation operation that still appeared to be overwhelming US resources in Afghanistan Friday.
Lawmakers have been fielding hundreds, if not thousands, of requests for help getting both vulnerable Afghans and US citizens into safe harbor at the Kabul airport and out of the country. Many nongovernmental groups and volunteer organizations are engaged in similar work, attempting to connect Afghans with State Department personnel and seeking charter planes that can assist in the evacuation efforts from Kabul. Senate aides have been on the phones with US citizens while they’ve been stopped, harassed and even attacked by the Taliban, CNN reported Friday evening.
Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, a member of the Armed Services Committee who served four tours in Iraq, told CNN’s Jake Tapper he was appalled that “a tremendous amount of success of this operation is in the hands of the Taliban right now” and that the US is having to rely on the Taliban “to allow us to continue this operation and not massacre people long enough for it to be complete.”
Moulton said he was encouraged that the administration had relaxed some of the screening requirements for evacuees at the airport to try to speed up the process of getting them out of the country. But he said there are simply not enough State Department employees on the ground to handle processing for tens of thousands of evacuees. Marines on the ground, he added, have also told him that more troops are needed to process people through the airport gates.
“This is all happening way too late,” Moulton told Tapper. “Myself and others have called on the administration to start this evacuation months ago, and the fact that we’re figuring it out on the fly now is totally unacceptable.”
The White House seemed to still be struggling to get a handle even on a basic figures that would appear to be the underpinning of the rescue operation. The President acknowledged at the White House Friday that he does not know the “exact number” of Americans who are still in Afghanistan. State Department spokesman Ned Price said later on Friday that the department has set up a task force dedicated to establishing contact with Americans who want to be repatriated to the US and “find out precisely where these individuals are.”
With that work underway, Biden attempted to refocus attention Friday on US progress in speeding up departures from Afghanistan even though there were at least eight hours overnight where CNN reported that no planes left the airport.
The President described that delay as “a pause” to make sure there was room for arriving evacuees at transit points. But he stressed that the order had already been given to resume outbound flights, allowing Americans and vulnerable Afghans to leave the country and calling the operation “one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history.” He underscored that the US now has nearly 6,000 troops standing guard at the airport, providing runway security and assisting civilian departures.
But the commander-in-chief’s descriptions of order did not square with the images flashing on Americans’ television screens and accounts from witnesses on the ground. Clarissa Ward, CNN’s chief international correspondent, described a human crush of would-be evacuees outside multiple gates at the airport as people attempted to press their way through the gates to safety within the airport perimeter. Eyewitness video from the streets in Kabul captured people screaming as the Taliban fired weapons, or patrolled the crowds bearing guns and whips.
CNN and other outlets have recounted the stories of stranded Afghans who faced harrowing journeys through Taliban checkpoints as they tried to make it to the airport, with some opting to turn back. At the Kabul airport itself, women, babies and small children waited in scorching temperatures around the airfield without protection from the sun. As night fell, images emerged of Afghans sleeping on gravel outside without blankets in a holding area near the runways.
Biden, perhaps hoping to sound less defensive than he did earlier this week, spoke with compassion Friday about the plight of Afghans who are desperate to get out of the country.
“We’ve seen gut-wrenching images of panicked people acting out of sheer desperation,” he said. “It’s completely understandable. They’re frightened. They’re sad – uncertain what happens next. … I don’t think any one of us can see those pictures and not feel that pain on a human level.”
Though Biden said the evacuations of American citizens remain the first priority, he said he was committed to assisting Afghan partners of the US leave the country if they wish to do so.
“They’re equally important, almost,” he said of the Afghans who have applied for Special Immigrant Visas status. “They were translators. They went into battle with us. They were part of the operation. … We’re also trying to get out as many NGOs – nongovernmental organizations – women’s organizations, et cetera. We’re doing all we can.”
Biden was more defensive, however, when a reporter asked him to respond to criticism from US allies who are questioning America’s credibility on the world stage. He insisted that he had “seen no question of our credibility from our allies” and reaffirmed his commitment to withdrawing from Afghanistan, stating that each of America’s NATO partners “knew and agreed” with the decision to end US involvement in Afghanistan.
The President said there would be “plenty of time to criticize and second guess” when the evacuation operation is over, but that he is focused for now “on getting this job done.”
Many Americans may have already seen enough to cast judgment on the lack of planning that went into wrapping up this nation’s two-decade investment in Afghanistan. Former President Donald Trump’s peace deal with the Taliban has come under fresh scrutiny this week. But when there is time for that moment of reflection that Biden spoke of, it’s likely the current White House occupant is the one who will be associated with the searing images from the past week.
This story has been updated with further developments.