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.
Joe Biden's presidency is under scrutiny as never before over Afghan chaos
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"So we had to collapse one or the other, and a decision was made."
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.
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.
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.
"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."
Joe Biden says US troops may stay in Afghanistan beyond 31 August deadline
Joe Biden has said US troops may stay past a 31 August deadline so as to evacuate all Americans from Afghanistan, and defended the withdrawal, saying there was no way for the US to pull out “without chaos ensuing”.
As critics in the US and abroad questioned his handling of the withdrawal, the president said in his first on-camera interview since the Taliban took Kabul that troops would stay in the country to get American citizens out.
“If there’s American citizens left, we’re going to stay until we get them all out,” Biden told ABC News, implying that he would listen to US lawmakers who had pressed him to extend the 31 August deadline he had set for a final pullout.
The sentiment contradicts what Biden had said weeks back, when he insisted that the “likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely”.
The speed with which Taliban forces retook Afghanistan, as US and other foreign forces withdrew, has led to continued chaotic scenes at the airport with diplomats, foreign citizens and Afghans trying to flee. They are being impeded by crowds and Taliban checkpoints, with reports of citizens being crushed and beaten by Taliban force who now control the outside of the airport.
The US said it has evacuated nearly 6,000 people from Afghanistan since Saturday but thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans who want to leave the country remain and it is feared the slow speed of evacuations was putting lives at risk. Educated young women, former US military translators and other Afghans most at-risk from the Taliban appealed to the Biden administration to get them on evacuation flights as the United States as quickly as possible.
“If we don’t sort this out, we’ll literally be condemning people to death,” said Marina Kielpinski LeGree, the American head of nonprofit organisation Ascend.
Though the Taliban has appealed for international aid to continue to flow into the country, which currently accounts for 42.9% of GDP, the International Monetary Fund joined growing number of donors and lenders who said they would suspend funds going to Afghanistan. IMF Resources of over £268m had been set to arrive this month but an IMF spokesperson said “lack of clarity within the international community” over recognising a government in Afghanistan meant they would no longer send the funds.
It has also emerged that classified intelligence documents from the past few weeks gave multiple warnings to the Biden administration of the prospect of an imminent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the likely rapid collapse of Afghan troops, with Kabul portrayed as highly vulnerable. It raises questions as to why the US administration was not better prepared for security and evacuations in the event the Taliban took control.
He said: “They’re cooperating, letting American citizens get out, American personnel get out, embassies get out, et cetera, but they’re having … we’re having some more difficulty having those who helped us when we were in there.”
Biden appeared dismissive of images that emerged on Monday of packed US military planes taking off from Kabul airport as people clung to their sides. At least two people apparently fell to their deaths from the undercarriage soon after takeoff.
Stephanopoulos said: “We’ve all seen the pictures. We’ve seen those hundreds of people packed in a C-17. We’ve seen Afghans falling … ”
Biden interrupted and said: “That was four days ago, five days ago!”
The president was asked what he thought when he first saw those pictures. Biden replied: “What I thought was: we have to gain control of this. We have to move this more quickly. We have to move in a way in which we can take control of that airport. And we did.”
Former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country of Sunday as Taliban troops entered Kabul, made his first appearance since it emerged he had been granted entry into the United Arab Emirates on “humanitarian grounds”.
Ghani, speaking in a video posted on Facebook, said he supported talks between the Taliban and former government officials, led by former president Hamid Karzai. He said he was “in talks” to return to Afghanistan and that he was making efforts to “safeguard the rule of Afghans over our country”.
“Do not believe whoever tells you that your president sold you out and fled for his own advantage and to save his own life,” said Ghani. “These accusations are baseless.”
He also denied reports he had taken money with him when he fled. “I was expelled from Afghanistan in such a way that I didn’t even get the chance to take my slippers off my feet and pull on my boots,” said Ghani.
U.S. Leaves Afghanistan Aid Workers to Defend 20 Years of Progress Against Taliban
While the U.S. military scrambles to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies from Kabul's chaotic airport, Taliban fighters are entrenching their control of the capital and reviving the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Those Kabulites not desperately trying to find a way out are either... at home or trying to go about their daily lives, navigating heavily armed Taliban checkpoints and reported house-to-house searches for suspected collaborators.
Aid agencies that spoke with Newsweek said workers remain committed to their mission, though unsure whether the Taliban will allow them to continue opera....
"We of all people have not got any rose-tinted glasses about these guys," Mark Malloch‐Brown, the president of the Open Society Foundations, told Newsweek, though he said the group would have to subdue a more resilient Afghanistan than before.
"The progress is dramatic. It's not just that we're the defenders of it, it's a very different country to defend.
"It is much more urbanized, much more middle class, women obviously in a much more prominent public role than in the past and not confined to the homes anymore. There is a much wider set of societal barriers and firebreaks to a reversion to the 1990s."
A sign of the international presence in Afghanistan, aid agencies and their workers have repeatedly been attacked by Taliban and Islamic State Khorasan Province fighters, and even by U.S. forces.
It remains to be seen if the Taliban will revert to the brutal authoritarianism it practiced before the U.S.-led invasion i.... Taliban spokesmen have said that Afghans have nothing to fear, issuing an amnesty and even encouraging women to join the new government.
Observers have suggested that the group may present a softer public image in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Kabul, wary of undermining nascent ties with powerful potential allies in Russia, China, and across the Middle East.
But recent years give little indication that the Taliban has changed. In the areas under Taliban control before the recent offensive that overwhelmed Kabul, there have been reports of executions, attacks on civilians, forced marriages, and sexual assault.
Malloch‐Brown said the Open Society Foundations was working to help evacuate a "vast network" of human rights activists, democracy advocates, and women's leaders.
"Those are people with targets painted on them," Malloch-Brown said, the number of which rose into the hundreds.
Local women's rights groups and human rights organizations are most at risk: "These are groups which are already having Taliban visits to their offices. Although from all we can tell, just at this moment, to gather names and information, not yet with any attempt in general to arrest people."
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) told Newsweek its staff have been operating across Afghanistan during the recent offensive, engaging in talks with all warring parties including the Taliban to ensure the safety of its facilities.
During the rapid Taliban advance last week, Filipe Ribeiro—MSF's country representative in Afghanistan—said intense fighting reached several MSF facilities in cities including Lashkar Gah, Kandahar, and Herat.
"We are using all possible channels to take our concerns to the parties to the conflict and make sure that the medical mission of MSF is respected," Ribero said.
The Norwegian Refugee Council told Newsweek its staff in Kabul had gone into hibernation since Taliban fighters took the city. Still, the organization hopes to continue its work protecting displaced people and providing other humanitarian aid.
NRC Afghanistan advocacy manager Eileen McCarthy said the group had been renegotiating with local authorities to continue operations as control changed from government to Taliban hands.
"States and other actors that control territory have the responsibility to meet the basic needs of their people. If they are unable or unwilling, they should give access to humanitarian actors instead," McCarthy said.
"For the past two decades, Afghanistan has remained one of the most dangerous places for humanitarian workers. Local Afghan humanitarian employees have been the hardest hit, but expatriate aid workers have also been frequently targeted.
"As the security situation deteriorates across the country, the safety and wellbeing of our staff is our number one priority."
Half of NRC's expatriate staff are working remotely, though before the Taliban offensive they were still rotating in and out of the country frequently.
"NRC Afghanistan is committed to staying and delivering assistance to millions of people in need," McCarthy said.
"While Afghanistan remains one of the world's most dangerous countries for us to operate in, it is more important than ever that aid agencies can reach communities.
"We also need parties to conflict to ensure that our teams and humanitarian assets such as our aid offices and vehicles are respected. We also require assurances that humanitarian aid operations are permitted to continue as needs soar across the country."
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Save the Children Afghanistan's director of communications, Athena Rayburn, told Newsweek that operations are currently on pause "as we assess the situation."
"We plan to resume the full spectrum of our services as soon as it is safe to do so. We have been working in Afghanistan since 1976 and have had provincial offices in locations that have been under Taliban control for the duration of that time," Rayburn said.
"Last year we directly reached just under 1.7 million Afghan's across the country with lifesaving health, education, child protection and nutrition services, including 600,000 children.
"Our commitment to staying and delivering for the people of Afghanistan remains unchanged, the children of Afghanistan must not be abandoned by the international community.
"What is needed now is for the international community to step up and ensure continued funding for humanitarian services in Afghanistan and protect Afghanistan, and Afghan children from further conflict and violence."
Malloch-Brown said that the remaining humanitarian organizations could be key in pressuring the Taliban not to return to the worst abuses of their previous rule.
The United Nations, too, must step in to fill the void, he added: "The actually pretty moribund, useless UN Security Council of recent years is a platform to replace the US-NATO platform in terms of international engagement, to get some purchase on the direction of political events going forward in the country."
The historic Taliban press conference in Kabul on Tuesday was carefully choreographed for the international community.
Spokesmen assured observers that women would be safe—if they adhered to the Taliban interpretation of Sharia law—and that those previously loyal to the Afghan government would not be punished.
"It seems really an opportune time to get together and try and condition a new Afghan government to respect human rights...to engage with the international community. The risk is that if we don't it will just be Taliban mark 2," Malloch-Brown said.