Biden officials defend chaotic Afghanistan exit
The White House on Tuesday acknowledged the chaotic and at times tragic images that have surfaced as Afghan civilians and American personnel scramble to exit from Afghanistan, while still defending the U.S. military’s withdrawal from the country as the correct choice.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan insisted that President Biden had to choose between exiting Afghanistan or significantly ramping up U.S. forces in the country to push back on what would have been a robust Taliban offensive if the U.S. had abandoned the agreement negotiated by the Trump administration to leave the country.
“When a civil war comes to an end with an opposing force marching on the capital, there are going to be scenes of chaos,” Sullivan told reporters. “There are going to be lots of people leaving the country. That is not something that can be fundamentally avoided.”
Sullivan and White House press secretary Jen Psaki sidestepped questions about whether U.S. forces would stay in Afghanistan beyond the Aug. 31 deadline if there were still Americans and at-risk Afghans that need to be evacuated.
“I’m not going to comment on hypotheticals,” Sullivan said.
The White House has faced criticism from both sides of the aisle over the messy and chaotic nature of the withdrawal, as well as questions about how the administration was so wrong about the rapid advance of the Taliban and subsequent collapse of the Afghan government.
The U.S. government is now rushing to evacuate thousands of American citizens and at-risk Afghans ahead of the Aug. 31 date that is supposed to mark the completion of the withdrawal.
Sullivan was grilled by reporters on Tuesday during the first White House briefing since the Taliban took full control of Afghanistan on Sunday evening.
Asked about Biden’s speech on Monday defending his decision to withdraw, Sullivan said that the president “is taking responsibility for every decision the United States government took with respect to Afghanistan because, as he said, the buck stops with him.”
“We as a national security team collectively take responsibility for every decision — good decision, every decision that doesn’t produce perfect outcomes,” Sullivan added. “Now, at the same time, that doesn’t change the fact that there are other parties here responsible as well who have taken action and decisions that helped lead us to where we are.”
Biden and other officials have blamed the Afghan security forces for not having the will to fight the Taliban.
The president, who is currently at Camp David, will return to the White House on Wednesday, when he will do an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and deliver remarks on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sullivan became defensive when asked about Biden’s decision to remain at Camp David. Beyond issuing a written statement on Saturday, Biden did not publicly address the situation in Afghanistan until Monday afternoon when he briefly returned to the White House.
“The president worked throughout the entire weekend,” Sullivan said. “He was monitoring developments hour by hour during that time and has made a series of decisions about troop deployments.”
The top White House adviser also acknowledged that Biden has yet to speak to another world leader since the fall of Kabul on Sunday evening.
The U.S. is deploying a total of 6,000 troops to Afghanistan to assist with evacuation efforts. About 4,000 forces are expected to be on the ground in Kabul by the end of the day on Tuesday, and more will arrive on Wednesday.
Sullivan and Psaki both repeatedly conceded that the nature of ending a decades-long military campaign would lead to some chaotic and heart-wrenching images. And Sullivan expressed sympathy for the plight of women and girls in particular who may suffer under Taliban rule.
“That’s a very hard thing for any of us to face. But this wasn’t a choice just between saving those women and girls and not saving those women and girls,” Sullivan said. “The alternative choice had its own set of costs and consequences … and those human costs and consequences would’ve involved a substantial ramp up of American participation in a civil war with more loss of life.”