“Our determination to get every American citizen home and to evacuate our Afghan allies is unwavering,” the President said, after he canceled a weekend in Delaware to stay close to his national security and disaster management teams.
His remarks — which still raised more questions when an official later clarified Biden’s statements about the expansion of a safe zone around Kabul airport — carried a strong sense of a political reset following a week in which images of helicopters lifting off from the US embassy in Kabul projected the impression of a humiliating retreat after a 20-year war that ended in defeat.
A critical moment in the Afghan evacuation
Still, the deep peril of the Afghanistan evacuation and the impact it could have on Biden’s political fortunes was underscored when he warned that the Afghan affiliate of ISIS posed a threat to US forces and those who want to flee.
“Every day we have troops on the ground. These troops, innocent civilians at the airport, face the risk of attack from ISIS-K from a distance,” Biden said. That reality reflected the fundamental vulnerability of not just US troops but that the President’s own political position depends on events beyond his control in Afghanistan.
After the stunning collapse of the Afghan state and the Taliban’s victorious march into Kabul, the White House had to endure days of unflattering media coverage and speculation about the impact of the fiasco on Biden’s reputation for leadership and his immediate political prospects.
But if the US airlift continues without incident in the days ahead, all of those who need to be extracted can leave Afghanistan, and American troops get out without casualties, the worst damage to Biden’s reputation may be averted in the United States — if not among dismayed allies abroad. For all the confusion, the evacuation could end up being considered something of a success.
It remains to be seen, however, if Biden’s upbeat report, about 28,000 people flown out of Kabul since August 14 and a willingness to rescue everyone who needs it accurately reflects facts on the ground where thousands of people are jammed into Kabul airport and thousands more wait outside, according to CNN sources.
Several times last week, the rosy picture of events offered by the White House was contradicted by eyewitness reporting in the Afghan capital, raising questions about Biden’s candor or his command of a chaotic situation. There were new questions on this score on Sunday. The President implied US troops had expanded a safe zone around the airport and gave the impression that they were now conducting unspecified operations to extract citizens who couldn’t reach entry points there. But a senior administration official later clarified that it was the Taliban that are going to be opening new entry points and that US operations at the airport had not been changed or expanded.
And the President faces some excruciating political choices in the week ahead. It is still far from certain that with the Taliban in control, he will be able to extricate all US citizens or Afghan translators and others who worked with US forces. There were reports Sunday, for instance, that local staff from the now abandoned US embassy had no way to get through Taliban cordons to reach evacuation flights at the airport.
Biden said there were discussions inside the administration about extending his deadline of August 31 for the operation to end.
Any decision to end the airlift before all Americans and Afghans eligible to come to the US get out would spark a torrent of criticism in Washington. But the rescue effort is taking place on a knife edge, dependent on the tacit cooperation of the fundamentalist Taliban and is a target for terror groups.
“A great nation is a nation that keeps its word,” warned Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska on Fox News Sunday.
“We’re talking about men and women who risk their lives to protect Americans. They fought hand-in-hand with our troops and we made promises to them,” Sasse continued.
Republicans are seeking to use the crisis to create a narrative that Biden is incompetent, and to broaden the critique to his handling of border policies, the resurgence of the pandemic and the economy.
Biden adamant he was right to leave the Afghan war
While Biden’s remarks appeared to be a tacit acceptance by the White House that some of last week’s criticisms were rooted in fact, Biden offered no concessions on his wider point — that he’s correct to end the war.
“The question is when is the right time to leave?” he said Sunday, after taking a card from his pocket listing the 2,448 combat deaths in Afghanistan and more than 20,000 wounded. “I am not about to send your son and your daughter to fight in Afghanistan,” the President said in a direct appeal to American viewers. He also insisted that history would vindicate his decision as logical, right and rational.
“My job is to make judgments, my job is to make judgments no one else can or will make,” the President said.
Biden and supportive liberal commentators have repeatedly sought to blur the distinction between the chaos of the withdrawal and the decision to leave. They have also portrayed Biden’s critics as all keen to prolong a hopeless war.
But the most accurate accounts of his leadership failures focused squarely on the administration’s failures to predict the fall of Kabul, the collapse of Afghanistan’s armed forces and the lack of preparation and sufficient troop numbers for a massive airlift to rescue Americans and others.
In one of the most surprising twists of this crisis, Biden’s trademark empathy was fleeting following harrowing scenes at Kabul airport as Afghan civilians clung to US aircraft, and several fell to their deaths after takeoff.
But on Sunday, he said his “heart aches” over the images on television and that he had been moved by US veterans to save their former translators. Many of those veterans had criticized the lack of preparation of the US withdrawal effort.
“It’s heartbreaking. We see it, we feel it. You can’t look at it and not feel it,” Biden said, referring to the humanitarian plight of Afghans.
The President vowed to welcome in the United States those Afghans who helped the US in its longest war “because that’s who we are. That’s what America is.”
While Biden’s political standing may depend on completing the US exit from Afghanistan without serious US casualties and getting all Americans home, the country’s partners abroad — and history — are likely to also judge him on how much that pledge is fulfilled.