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.
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.
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 McConnell (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 McCaul (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 Scalise (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 Blinken 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 Tapper.
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.”
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.
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.
This morning, the President and Vice President met with their national security team and senior officials to hear updates on the draw down of our civilian personnel in Afghanistan, evacuations of SIV applicants and other Afghan allies, and the ongoing security situation in Kabul. pic.twitter.com/U7IpK3Hyj8
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) August 15, 2021
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.