Joe Biden’s bid to complete an already messy US withdrawal from Afghanistan was rocked after a pair of bombings in Kabul killed dozens of people and marked the most trying day yet of his presidency.
The sheer scale of the tragedy – which saw at least 13 US service members and at least 60 Afghans killed – renewed criticism from lawmakers and allies over the precipitous American withdrawal and the failure to forecast the Afghan government’s rapid fall at the hands of the Taliban.
The attacks also undercut the president’s repeated arguments since taking office that he would offer a steady hand on foreign policy. And the scenes of chaos unleashed by a pair of suicide bombers drowned out efforts to cast the evacuation of more than 100,000 people from Afghanistan as a humanitarian success story.
In a sombre address to the nation on Thursday evening, Biden said he took responsibility for “all that’s happened of late” in Afghanistan but stood firm on his plans to withdraw American forces by August 31. Blaming an offshoot of Islamic State for the deadly attacks, he also said he would go after those responsible.
“To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this – we will not forgive, we will not forget, we will hunt you down and make you pay,” Biden said.
It was a speech the president never wanted to give, but which he and his advisers long feared was inevitable.
The atrocity in Kabul – which saw at least 18 other US service members wounded and scores more Afghans seeking to flee their nation killed – quickly overshadowed progress in getting people out. Since August 14 , about 5,000 Americans and tens of thousands of Afghan allies have been evacuated.
Biden is now left trying to restore some balance to the high-wire act he’s been attempting since the Taliban swept into Kabul, forced into an impossible choice between maintaining evacuation efforts for Americans stranded in the country and the knowledge that every minute on the ground means increasing danger for US service members.
General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, said Thursday that terrorist attacks had been expected and that more were likely in the days ahead. But evacuation efforts continued, with buses of evacuees arriving at Kabul’s airport in the hours after the attacks.
“Here’s what you need to know: These ISIS terrorists will not win,” Biden said. “We will rescue the Americans, we will get our Afghan allies and our mission will go on. America will not be intimidated.”
For a president who campaigned on his decades of foreign policy experience, and who said his message to the world after taking office was “America is back,” the scenes of chaos playing out in recent days have been devastating.
Administration officials had hoped that the quickly assembled airlift effort, combined with the winding down of America’s longest war, would push Afghanistan out of voters’ minds in the months and years ahead. Polls show the withdrawal was popular, but the images out of Kabul over the past 10 days have been shocking, even for the president’s allies.
‘In Deep Despair’
And they have given Biden’s political enemies a powerful cudgel.
Republicans looked to seize upon the moment to pin two decades of failures in Afghanistan on Biden, with Senators Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee calling for his resignation. But concern was evident even among Democrats, with Senator Joe Manchin, the moderate West Virginia Democrat who has served as the linchpin of Biden’s domestic legislative agenda, saying in a statement that the United States had found itself “in deep despair.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, called for Congress to pass legislation prohibiting the withdrawal of troops until every US citizen was evacuated from Afghanistan. Of the approximately 1,000 Americans believed to be remaining in Afghanistan, US officials say they believe about two-thirds want to leave.
Biden was defiant in his remarks at the White House, maintaining that his drawdown was the correct course of action and saying former president Donald Trump – who brokered a withdrawal deal with the Taliban last year – had left him little choice.
Had he rejected the Trump administration’s agreement after taking office, Biden said his only real option would have been to “pour more troops” back into Afghanistan, something he’s opposed going back to his tenure as Barack Obama’s vice-president.
“I have never been of the view that we should be sacrificing American lives to try to establish a democratic government in Afghanistan, a country that has never once in its entire history been a united country,” Biden said.
Thursday’s violence underscored the alarm Biden has sounded in recent days. On Tuesday, the president detailed an “acute and growing risk” as he addressed the nation from the White House. That was echoed in talking points distributed by the White House to allies on Capitol Hill, and in a security alert issued by the US Embassy in Kabul on Wednesday telling Americans to avoid the area surrounding the airport and await specific instructions.
The realisation of the president’s dire warnings were seen within the White House as validation of his desire to maintain the August 31 deadline, despite demands from some quarters that the operation be extended.
Continued efforts to evacuate Americans are “certainly going to require more resources and, candidly, it’s going to require a lot of bravery on the part of those American troops who are going into get them,” Mark Kimmitt, a retired Army general who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle Eastern policy under President George W. Bush, said in an interview on Bloomberg TV.
Biden, however, maintained that the United States had a moral obligation to proceed.
“I think what America says matters,” the president said.
The difficulty of the situation in Kabul – and the unease and uncertainty it sparked – was apparent throughout the day, as White House aides hastily scrapped Biden’s plans to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office and to later hold a virtual meeting with governors on the resettlement of Afghan evacuees.
Bennett will now visit the White House on Friday.
Even before the loss of life, the chaotic scenes in Kabul were eroding Biden’s approval ratings. The president for the first time slipped underwater in the RealClearPolitics average of public polling, with 49 percent of US citizens disapproving of his job performance, compared to 47 percent who approved.
Before the attacks, Biden allies had remained hopeful that the situation was politically salvageable. Earlier in the week, the White House crowed over an evacuation effort that had outpaced expectations voiced by journalists and national security experts. Former Biden campaign aides and Obama administration officials accused journalists of overstating the circumstances in Kabul.
That hope dimmed on Thursday as the realities of the bloodshed set in, and Biden’s political opponents seized on the attacks. Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said the attack confirmed that “there are very real and disastrous consequences to the way this withdrawal has been conducted.”
And South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, widely believed to be preparing a bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, issued a statement blaming the White House for the episode.
“As we learn more details over the next 24 hours, one thing will be clear: these attacks are a result of the Biden administration’s reckless failure to secure the situation before withdrawing troops,” Noem said. “How we respond will come to define the Biden-Harris administration for a generation.”
Yet pressed repeatedly on whether he should be reconsidering the withdrawal, Biden said he had made the right decision.
“Ladies and gentleman, it was time to end a 20-year war,” he said.
by Justin Sink, Bloomberg