Biden faces lasting blemish from Afghanistan exit

President BidenJoe BidenWhite House: Window for finalizing sweeping budget package 'closing' Jayapal says tuition-free community college 'probably won't' be in spending plan Jan. 6 panel votes to hold Bannon in contempt MORE 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 more quickly 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.

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“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 has worked to make progress vaccinating the public against COVID-19 and notched legislative wins, including 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 RossDennis Alan RossBiden faces lasting blemish from Afghanistan exit Biden needs a Middle East strategy to avoid new crises Biden ramps up pressure on Iran as it grapples with protests MORE, a special assistant to former President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaEmanuel to take hot seat in Senate confirmation hearing Public officials are under physical and digital siege We must protect and support our health care safety net MORE, 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.

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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 who “took fire alongside U.S. troops despite repeated calls from the veterans community.” 

For some observers, the dire situation was reminiscent not only of the fall of Saigon but also 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 SullivanJake SullivanBiden struggles to rein in Saudi Arabia amid human rights concerns Hillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — World leaders call for enhanced cooperation to fight wave of ransomware attacks White House weighing steps to address gas shortages MORE 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 the 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 TrumpDonald TrumpTrump defends indicted GOP congressman House to vote Thursday on holding Bannon in contempt Youngkin calls for investigation into Loudoun County School Board amid sexual assault allegations MORE, have seized on the Afghanistan crisis.

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“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 BlinkenAntony BlinkenUS, Brazil discuss ways to slow migration Mayorkas tests positive for COVID-19 breakthrough case The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Biden, Democrats dig into legislative specifics MORE 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 [Ashraf] 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 ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump defends indicted GOP congressman GOP lawmaker says he expects to be indicted over FBI investigation Why it's time for conservatives to accept the 2020 election results and move on MORE. “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, 10 and 20 years from now, Joe Biden will be the president who finally brought this failure to a very overdue end.”