By Morgan Chalfant
and Amie Parnes
President Biden is facing criticism over his administration’s withdrawal from the two-decade conflict in Afghanistan that could leave a lasting blemish on his presidency.
Biden, who ran for president in part on his foreign policy experience, looked like he was caught flat-footed as he and other U.S. officials acknowledged on Monday that Afghanistan fell to the Taliban much quicker than they anticipated.
Under pressure to address the situation, Biden returned to the White House from Camp David on Monday and offered a full-throated defense of his decision to end the U.S. military combat operation after two decades of war.
“I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden said. “After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.”
At the same time, he acknowledged that the collapse of the Afghan government “did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated” and that the “buck” stopped with him. But Biden showed no second thoughts about his decision, and repeatedly deflected blame to Afghanistan’s government for the chaos in Kabul. Biden took no questions from reporters on Monday.
Biden’s first seven months in office have been largely successful as he worked to make progress vaccinating the public against COVID-19 and notched legislative wins, like the Senate passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill just last week.
It’s unclear whether there will be any blowback politically to the Afghanistan crisis. Indeed, polls show voters support the decision to withdraw.
Dennis Ross, a former special assistant to President Obama, said the administration needs to further explain why the withdrawal unfolded so differently than anticipated.
“He made a very compelling case as to why we couldn’t stay, but in the end it’s pretty hard to make a compelling case for why the nature of the withdrawal has gone as badly as it has,” Ross said.
Former officials expressed concerns that the chaos in Afghanistan will undermine U.S. influence and trust abroad at a time when Biden is trying to restore America’s credibility on the world stage and unite allies against authoritarian regimes.
“The botched execution of our exit…needs to be explained, especially our failure to adequately evacuate our allies there,” said Allison Jaslow, an Iraq war veteran who worked on Capitol Hill and in the Obama White House. Jaslow pointed to the interpreters “that took fire alongside US troops despite repeated calls from the veterans community.”
For some observers, the dire situation was not only reminiscent of the fall of Saigon, but of the American troop withdrawal in Iraq, which led to the rise of ISIS, the terrorist organization.
“This failure has a thousand fathers in policy terms and in political terms,” said Richard Fontaine, the chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security. “The thing that I think matters politically is whether Afghanistan turns into a sanctuary for terrorism that could threaten the United States and I think it could.”
Biden has long been determined to end U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, announcing earlier this year that he would wind down the U.S. presence
by the Sept. 11 anniversary.
“It is heartbreaking to see what is happening in Kabul, but the president had to make the best possible choice he could and he stands by that decision,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said earlier Monday on NBC’s TODAY show.
As Kabul fell to the Taliban and embassy staff were hurriedly evacuated, the president was slammed by critics for comments he made in July rejecting comparisons between the Afghanistan withdrawal and fall of Saigon in 1975.
“There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan,” Biden told reporters on July 8. “It is not at all comparable.”
The comments were repeated on cable news and social media, as video showed images strikingly familiar to the U.S. retreat from Vietnam. A photo released by the White House showing Biden sitting in an empty Situation Room at Camp David — where he has been vacationing during the late summer days — also received scrutiny.
“We’ve had better moments for sure,” one ally close to the White House said on Monday.
The White House has vociferously defended the withdrawal. Both Biden and Sullivan acknowledged Monday that the Taliban overran the country
quicker than anticipated, but they attributed this to a lack of will on the part of the Afghan security forces.
Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, have seized on the Afghanistan crisis. “First Joe Biden surrendered to COVID and it has come roaring back. Then he surrendered to the Taliban, who has quickly overtaken
Afghanistan and destroyed confidence in American power and influence,” Trump said in one of many statements he has issued in recent days
criticizing Biden over Afghanistan.
In fact, Trump laid plans to withdraw from Afghanistan when he was still in office, inking a deal with the Taliban to withdraw by May of this year. Biden administration officials insist that their hands were tied by the actions of the previous administration and that the Taliban would have launched offenses throughout Afghanistan regardless.
“The idea that we could have maintained the status quo beyond May 1 if the president had decided to stay, I think, is a fiction,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.
But former officials who support the president’s decision to withdraw reject the notion that the Biden administration couldn’t adjust its course. Some have questioned why the administration didn’t push back its timeline to withdraw during the winter months, when the Taliban would be less active and therefore less able to exploit the drawdown.
“President Biden was handed a really poor deck of cards by President Trump, who had started a unilateral negotiation with the Taliban, cutting out the internationally recognized government in Kabul led by President Ghani,” said Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia under the Obama administration. “President Biden should not have accepted that as his starting point and should have actually worked harder to bring things back to a normal diplomacy.”
Supporters credit the president with following through on his pledge to end a war other presidents failed to stop.
“Four commanders in chief said they wanted to bring our presence in Afghanistan to an end. Only one did,” said Philippe Reines, a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton. “To do something wrong that even if executed perfectly will look ugly isn’t weakness. It’s confidence, gutsy and a longer-term view than a photo. With hindsight the White House will be the first to say they’d adjust the exit plan. That’s only normal. Five, ten and twenty years from now, Joe Biden will be the president who finally brought this failure to a very overdue end.”
By Morgan Chalfant