Taliban seize power as Washington debates what went wrong

The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan on Sunday, capturing control of the capital city of Kabul and leaving Washington debating two key questions: what exactly went wrong with the U.S.’s withdrawal mission, and who is to blame.

The Taliban entered Kabul on Sunday, unleashing chaos throughout the region and marking the culmination of a weeks-long effort by the insurgent group to capture key provincial capitals in Afghanistan as the U.S. withdrew troops from the region.

The pivotal advances by the insurgent group drove Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to flee the country. He later released a statement saying he had done so to avoid clashes in Kabul that could lead to further bloodshed.

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Hours later, Al Jazeera aired video footage that showed members of the Taliban inside the presidential palace in Kabul.

The group’s leadership reportedly addressed the media from the throne of power while flanked by armed fighters. A Taliban spokesman told The Associated Press the group was holding talks on forming an "open, inclusive Islamic government."

The U.S. reacted quickly to the rapidly escalating situation on Sunday, evacuating personnel from the embassy in Kabul and deploying an additional 1,000 troops to help pull Americans and Afghans from the region, bringing the total number of authorized military personnel to roughly 6,000.

State Department spokesman Ned Price announced on Sunday evening that the “safe evacuation” of all personnel from the embassy in Kabul was complete, adding that the individuals “are located on the premises of Hamid Karzai International Airport, whose perimeter is secured by the U.S. Military.”

Images of Chinook helicopters evacuating personnel from the consulate circulated on social media, leading some to compare the rapidly deteriorating situation and hasty departure to America’s exit from Vietnam in 1975.

The Pentagon and State Department also announced in a joint statement Sunday night that the U.S. is taking steps to secure Hamid Karzai International Airport to help remove Americans and Afghans from the country.

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While Washington watched chaos ensue in Afghanistan as the once hopeful democratic nation was overrun by the Taliban, Americans were left grappling with and arguing over what went wrong in the withdrawal effort and who is to blame for the harrowing fall of the nation just weeks before the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that sparked America’s longest war.

Republican lawmakers were quick to jump to the offensive on Sunday, blaming President Biden for the state of affairs in Afghanistan.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocrats livid over GOP's COVID-19 attacks on Biden US could default within weeks absent action on debt limit: analysis The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Congress avoids shutdown MORE (R-Ky.) released a fiery statement on Sunday that said the administration's “botched exit” from Afghanistan is “a shameful failure of American leadership” and accused Biden of “publicly and confidently” dismissing threats of Taliban advances following the U.S.’s troop withdrawal.

Rep. Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulWTA suspends tournaments in China pending investigation into star Peng Shuai's allegations Biden administration resists tougher Russia sanctions in Congress China draws scrutiny over case of tennis star Peng Shuai MORE (Texas), the top Republican lawmaker on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Biden is “going to have blood on his hands” for his decision to pull troops from the country, adding that the administration “totally blew this one” and “completely underestimated the strength of the Taliban.”

House Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseHouse sets up Senate shutdown showdown GOP beginning to jockey for post-election leadership slots The Memo: Omicron poses huge threat to Biden presidency MORE (R-La) drew a comparison between the unfolding situation in Afghanistan and the U.S.’s exit from Vietnam, calling the events “President Biden’s Saigon moment.”

The Biden administration, however, is defending its efforts in South Asia, doubling down on its position that pulling troops from Afghanistan was the right move and that the Taliban's offensive was inevitable.

Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenBiden administration prepared to use 'other tools' on Iran amid troubled nuclear talks US intelligence says Russia planning Ukraine offensive involving 175K troops: reports Blinken: A move by China to invade Taiwan would have 'terrible consequences' MORE argued on Sunday that the insurgent group's takeover of Afghanistan would have occurred even if U.S. forces remained on the ground. 

“The idea that the status quo could have been maintained by keeping our forces there, I think, is simply wrong," he told CNN's Jake TapperJacob (Jake) Paul TapperOmar calls out Boebert over anti-Muslim remarks, denies Capitol incident took place Republican Rep. Upton unsure if he'll run again Bass calls 'Black pastors' comment during Arbery trial 'despicable' MORE.

He continued, contending that the U.S. “would have been back at war with the Taliban” had American forces remained engaged in Afghanistan.

The secretary also pushed back on comparisons between the situation in Afghanistan and the fall of Saigon. When asked by Tapper if the U.S. is “already in the midst of a Saigon moment,” Blinken responded, “No, we’re not.”

“Remember, this is not Saigon,” he said, adding that the U.S. completed its mission to “deal with the folks who attacked us on 9/11” and that it “succeeded in that mission.”

Blinken did, however, recognize that Afghan forces were “unable to defend the country” and the Taliban takeover “happened more quickly than we anticipated."

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Biden was silent on the situation Sunday, but he had sounded a similar note on Saturday night, writing in a statement that additional years of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan “would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country.”

“And an endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict was not acceptable to me,” he added.

He also pinned some of the blame for the declining situation in Afghanistan on the Trump administration, arguing that the deal brokered by the former president put Biden in a predicament with no good way out.

“Therefore, when I became President, I faced a choice—follow through on the deal, with a brief extension to get our forces and our allies’ forces out safely, or ramp up our presence and send more American troops to fight once again in another country’s civil conflict,” Biden wrote.

He noted that four American presidents have led the U.S. during its involvement in Afghanistan, adding that he “would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth.”

All eyes are now on Biden, with onlookers from both inside and outside the Beltway waiting to see if, and when, the commander in chief will address the developments in Afghanistan and how he will speak to the American people as they watch a U.S. ally fall to the insurgent group.

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Biden is currently at Camp David, where he is scheduled to remain through Wednesday, but discussions are reportedly underway regarding if he will comment on the developments and potentially travel back to the White House. He had no public events on a schedule released by the White House on Sunday evening.

The president held conversations with key national security officials on Sunday, according to the White House, which released a photo of Biden at a table alone in Camp David being briefed by members of his team virtually.

Blinken on Sunday spoke separately with his counterparts in Australia, France, Germany and Norway about the recent developments in Afghanistan and “efforts to bring our citizens to safety and assist vulnerable Afghans,” according to Price, the State Department spokesman.

Updated on Aug. 16 at 5:49 a.m.