Five takeaways from Biden’s week of chaos in Afghanistan
President Biden sustained a barrage of criticism this week over the chaos unfolding in Afghanistan amid the U.S. military withdrawal and collapse of the country’s government.
The Biden administration is now scrambling to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies, under enormous pressure from congressional lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
While the majority of voters support Biden’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, administration officials are in damage control after being caught off guard over the speed of the Taliban’s takeover.
Here are five takeaways on Biden’s week of chaos in Afghanistan.
Biden can redeem himself if evacuations are successful
While Biden has come under intense criticism for his handling of the withdrawal, he could receive a boost if the U.S. military successfully evacuates Americans and Afghan allies.
Biden acknowledged on Friday that the evacuation operation in Afghanistan is “incredibly difficult and dangerous” for U.S. troops but vowed that the mission will be completed.
Evacuation efforts for Americans and the tens of thousands of Afghans who worked with the U.S. military and government have been nothing short of chaotic so far.
Images of massive crowds at Kabul’s airport, a baby hoisted over a wall by Marines near the airfield and Afghans seeking cover from Taliban gunfire as they try to escape have all cast a long shadow over the withdrawal.
“This is one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history,” Biden said in remarks Friday.
The administration insists it’s making progress.
The president on Friday said the U.S. has evacuated more than 18,000 people since July and 13,000 since Aug. 14. Nearly 6,000 U.S. troops are on the ground to provide runway security and assist civilian departure.
Biden was firm on Friday that the U.S. would help every American get out before troops leave.
But there are significant challenges to making that happen. The administration is in part reliant on the Taliban, which have been patrolling the area around the airport. Thus far, the U.S. has not gone into Kabul to help Americans get to the airport, though Biden said Friday that officials are considering “every opportunity and every means by which we can get folks to the airport.”
There will be investigations
Various Democratic-led congressional committees have vowed to seek answers about the handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
While it’s too early to determine how the probes will shape up, lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee are expected to receive a classified briefing from intelligence officials on Monday, when the House returns from its August recess.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) has requested that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken testify as soon as possible.
Other committees expected to hold hearings on the fallout include the Senate Intelligence, Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees.
At the same time, Republicans are looking to hit Biden and score political points against Democrats leading up to the 2022 midterm elections.
Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former top aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said Democrats will at least be in a position to prevent some of those GOP attacks since Republicans do not control the oversight mechanisms of the House or Senate.
“They can try as usual to pull off some stunts, but what’s interesting here is that … both House and Senate committees of jurisdiction have pledged in pretty strong terms to conduct rigorous oversight,” Manley said.
Biden needs to reassure worried allies
Former government officials have expressed concerns about how the situation in Afghanistan might hurt America’s standing on the world stage and relationship with allies, particularly those where the U.S. has a military presence.
Since he took office, Biden has been trying to repair foreign ties and bolster alliances after four years of tumult and uncertainty under former President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy.
“I think we’re going to have to restore some credibility with our allies who had raised questions about whether or not they could trust Trump,” said Leon Panetta, who served as Defense secretary during the Obama administration. “When something like this happens, it does raise questions. And I think there’s some repair work that has to be done here with our allies because protecting our allies is absolutely critical to our ability to be a world leader.”
Biden has insisted he sees no detrimental impact on U.S. credibility. Biden and the other leaders of Group of Seven countries will meet virtually next week to discuss Afghanistan. In recent days, Biden has spoken with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.
“I have seen no question of our credibility from our allies around the world,” Biden said on Friday.
Some argue that while in the near term the U.S. is grappling with the situation in Afghanistan, withdrawing from the 20-year war will ultimately allow the U.S. to focus on more urgent strategic challenges.
“The U.S. has a history of going through painful strategic realignments that hurt in the short run and work to the country’s advantage in the long run, and what we’re seeing today in Afghanistan is just that,” said Charles Kupchan, who served as a special assistant to former President Obama and senior director for European affairs on the National Security Council.
Biden may fall short of his Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline
Biden had set a deadline of Aug. 31 — 10 days from now — for U.S. troops to withdraw from Afghanistan. He said during an interview with ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos on Wednesday, however, that he was committed to staying until every American who wants to be out is out, even if that means missing his self-imposed deadline.
Biden on Friday further opened the door to staying past the withdrawal deadline by saying the U.S. plans to evacuate remaining special immigrant visa holders from Afghanistan.
“I think we can get it done by [Aug. 31], but we’re going to make that judgment as we go,” he said Friday when asked about staying past the deadline.
Panetta argued that it is important for the White House not to be tied to any timeline when it comes to evacuations.
The administration is getting thousands of people out of the country each day, but it’s unlikely that pace will be enough to get everyone out before September.
Flights out of Kabul’s international airport were paused for eight hours on Friday when the facility in Qatar where evacuees were being taken reached capacity, underscoring how complicated the mission has become.
Afghanistan threatens to distract from Biden’s domestic agenda
House lawmakers return to Washington on Monday, and Democratic leadership plan to vote on a budget resolution that will pave the way for a $3.5 trillion measure that’s packed with Biden’s top legislative priorities.
But the looming threat of congressional investigations on Afghanistan and the debate over evacuations and refugees dividing the Republican Party will likely pull some of the focus away from Biden’s domestic agenda.
The administration had just a weeklong victory lap on Senate passage of the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan shifted attention overseas.
The administration also faces the threat of COVID-19 once again surging in parts of the U.S. as the highly transmissible delta variant creates anxiety ahead of a new school year.
Biden’s efforts to promote booster shots, increase vaccinations and move forward with his own efforts to win over hesitant Americans on vaccines risk being overshadowed by the mess in Afghanistan.