Washington is on edge for the tense final hours of a chaotic and tragedy-marred exit from Afghanistan, even as Biden girds for yet another domestic catastrophe after a historic hurricane slammed into Louisiana.
Hurricane Ida’s maximum 150 mph winds and torrential rainstorms pummeled the Gulf Coast, sparking extensive flooding and damage, as forecasters warned that areas of Louisiana could be left uninhabitable for months. The Category 4 monster, later downgraded Sunday evening, threatened to leave a trail of devastation and human suffering and potential new damage to the economic recovery in a region crucial to the energy and shipping industries. It also offered a fateful reminder of the way mishandled natural disasters can cause political blowbacks as the storm roared ashore on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which drained the political authority from George W. Bush, another President simultaneously confounded by a foreign war, in Iraq.
Biden vowed during a visit to the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Sunday to put the “full might” of the nation into efforts to put the Gulf Coast back on its feet with scenes of terrible damage expected when darkness lifts on Monday morning.
“We’re going to be here. We’re going to be here to help the Gulf region get back on its feet as quickly as possible, as long as it takes,” he said, refusing to also answer questions about Afghanistan during the brief media appearance.
The weekend’s events are further testing the leadership skills of Biden, who was left reeling by a suicide attack outside Kabul’s airport last week, which killed 13 US service members and dozens of Afghans and exacerbated fierce criticism of the White House’s frenetic and ill-planned retreat from America’s longest war. The White House said Monday that approximately 1,200 people were evacuated from Kabul in the last 24 hours, bringing the total evacuated to approximately 116,700 people since August 14.
Yet both Ida and the messy departure from Afghanistan pale in comparison to the worst challenge facing a presidency that has never experienced a normal day. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases specialist, said it was possible that a new University of Washington forecast of a possible 100,000 more US Covid-19 deaths by December 1 could be borne out.
“Unfortunately, it certainly is. You know, what is going on now is both entirely predictable, but entirely preventable. And you know, we know we have the wherewithal with vaccines to turn this around,” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.
A somber, emotional weekend
Few presidents of the modern era have faced simultaneous emergencies of such magnitude after grueling months that stretched the new administration and a nation exhausted by the worst public health crisis in a century.
The intensity of the emotional blow of recent days was brought home to Biden on Sunday when he traveled to Dover, Delaware, to honor the US troops killed in Kabul last week, and to console bereaved relatives as the remains of their loved ones were returned home. Before the “dignified transfer” of the fallens’ remains, Biden walked solemnly into the belly of a huge cargo plane for a moment of prayer alongside the transfer cases wrapped in US flags.
The Americans died in a suicide bomb blast, for which the Afghan affiliate of ISIS has claimed credit, in a packed crowd as they sought to process Afghans desperate to flee Taliban rule. The US then conducted a drone strike in Afghanistan that the Pentagon said killed two high-profile ISIS-K militants. After Biden warned Saturday that another attack at the airport was highly likely, a US airstrike on Sunday targeted a vehicle that military officials said was loaded with explosives posing an “imminent” threat to the airport.
In yet another apparent lurch into tragedy, a local journalist working with CNN reported that nine members of one family, including six children, were also killed in the attack.
The American combat deaths in the final days of US involvement in the war exposed Biden to fierce criticism over a withdrawal that was nothing like the safe and orderly departure after two decades of war he promised weeks ago. Among the most pertinent of questions is why the US – shocked by the pace of the fall of Afghanistan – ended up effectively depending on its longtime enemy to control security on access roads to the airport, from where the US has mounted a mammoth airlift that has now rescued around 114,000 people, mostly Afghans, since August 14.
But tens of thousands of Afghans who worked with US forces, diplomats and NGOs are likely to be left behind after Biden declined pleas by US allies including Britain and France to extend his deadline for withdrawal.
Evacuations of Afghans who did make it to the airport slowed markedly over the weekend, as the operation to extricate more of the 6,000 US troops rushed to Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul cranked into a higher gear.
Biden’s national security adviser told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” that efforts to save US citizens, residents and Afghans with US visas would go on after August 31, even though they will be at the mercy of the Taliban, amid fears the insurgent group will seek to execute many locals who worked with the United States and its allies over 20 years.
“August 31st is not a cliff. After August 31st, we believe that we have substantial leverage to hold the Taliban to its commitments to allow safe passage for American citizens, legal permanent residents and the Afghan allies who have travel documentation to come to the United States,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told Tapper. “We will use that leverage to the maximum extent, and we will work with the rest of the international community to make sure the Taliban does not falter on these commitments.”
Republicans lash out at Biden over Afghanistan withdrawal
The political fallout from the Afghanistan withdrawal continues to mount. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy signaled he will put the events of recent days at the center of his effort to seize back the House for the GOP in midterm elections next year.
“The President is preparing to leave Americans and allies we made distinct promises to behind. Indeed, he admitted last week ‘getting every single person out cannot be guaranteed,’” McCarthy said in a letter to his members Sunday.
“Frankly, this is not the tested leadership the President promised. Political decisions designed to get photo ops lead to fatal national security consequences on the battlefield. It was a political decision to act in haste days prior to the anniversary of September 11 — and our men and women in uniform died as a result,” McCarthy charged. His attacks ignored the fact that the stage for the chaotic withdrawal was set by ex-President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban last year for the exit of US troops that envisaged a final departure of May 1, even earlier than Biden’s deadline.
Yet sitting Presidents carry the can for their decisions, and the current commander in chief reversed many of Trump’s other most controversial foreign policy strategies but stuck with the core principle of the withdrawal. Biden’s defenders argue he is being blamed for the failures of three previous administrations in Afghanistan. But the President was on the record promising that the kind of chaos that ensued in recent weeks would not occur as American troops leave.
As he turned to Hurricane Ida, the President said he had spent the weekend talking to governors of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. His White House team has been talking to state, local and federal officials in the region.
As ghoulish as it sounds, the hurricane may give the President the chance to demonstrate the organized, compassionate leadership that was so lacking as Trump all but ignored the pandemic for months in his final year in office and that was missing from his own handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal.
But it is also a time of significant political peril as the focus of the country and the media turns from a disaster abroad to another one at home.