Defense

Overnight Defense: Biden defends exit, blames Afghanistan leaders for chaos | US sending 1,000 more troops to Kabul as chaos reigns at airport | Taliban takeover scrambles U.S. evacuation efforts

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It’s Monday, welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Rebecca Kheel, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: A day after Kabul fell to the Taliban, the scramble was on in Washington to attribute blame and answer the question of what went wrong.

Scenes of chaos at the Kabul airport as Afghans desperately tried to get on U.S. military evacuation flights also dominated airwaves and social media feeds. 

Even as criticism mounted, even from those that initially supported the withdrawal, that President Biden botched its execution, Biden stood by his decision.

“I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden said in remarks from the East Room of the White House, adding that his administration planned for every contingency. “After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.”

Still, he acknowledged the Taliban’s takeover happened quicker than he expected.

“I always promised the American people I will be straight with you. The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we anticipated,” Biden said.

A stain on Biden’s legacy?: The Hill’s Morgan Chalfant and Amie Parnes took a look Monday at how Afghanistan’s quick fall and ensuing chaos 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, and he had to return to return the White House from Camp David amid pressure to publicly address the situation.

Still, it’s unclear whether there will be any blowback politically to the Afghanistan crisis. Indeed, polls show voters support the decision to withdraw.

Biden vs. Trump: The political blame game is also on, including a back and forth between Biden and his predecessor over who’s at fault, as The Hill’s Brett Samuels reported.

Former President Trump has been claiming the chaos that’s been unfolding wouldn’t have happened under his watch. But Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban that would have seen a withdrawal May 1, even sooner than Biden’s withdrawal though the previous administration maintain it came with caveats. 

Biden has been pointing to Trump’s deal with the Taliban as the reason he couldn’t stay, saying he was boxed in.

But Biden ripped up a slew of Trump administration policies at the beginning of his presidency, and the Taliban never upheld its end of the deal to break ties with al Qaeda and reduce violence in Afghanistan.

CHAOS IN KABUL

Among the striking scenes that emerged from Kabul on Monday was video of Afghans running alongside and clinging to a U.S. military C-17 transport plane as it tried to take off.

Another video allegedly showed two Afghans who had apparently grabbed onto the landing gear falling to their deaths as the plane ascended.

Satellite imagery released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies also showed a bird’s eye view of the chaos.

Trying to regain control: Amid the disarray, the Pentagon temporarily halted the evacuation flights as U.S. military forces attempted to regain control of the airport.

Defense officials told reporters Monday afternoon that flights resumed as of 3:35 p.m. EST.

The Pentagon also announced it was deploying another 1,000 troops to help secure the airport, bringing the total sent to Kabul to 6,000.

Death toll: According to The Associated Press, at least seven people died in the chaos.

U.S. troops fatally shot two armed men who presented “hostile threats” in two separate incidents at the airport, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said, adding there is no indication the two individuals were Taliban.

More imagery: The Hill collected some of the most striking imagery out of Afghanistan (and the White House) from the last couple days here.

WHERE WILL THE AFGHANS GO?

The Pentagon also confirmed Monday it will provide two additional facilities in the United States to house thousands of at-risk Afghans being evacuated.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “did approve a Department of State request for assistance yesterday for the transport and temporary housing of Afghan Special Immigrant Visa applicants, their families and other individuals at risk,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Monday morning. “In the United States, we are assessing facilities and support at two additional stateside installations.”

Garry Reid, who’s leading the Pentagon’s support to the State Department’s Special Immigrant Visa efforts, later confirmed the two sites are Fort Bliss in Texas and Fort McCoy in Wisconsin.

The two locations would add to the existing evacuation site at Fort Lee in Virginia. Between the three sites, the Pentagon expects to be able to house up to 22,000 Afghans “three to four weeks from now,” Kirby said.

The military is also flying Afghans to a third-party “partner nation,” Kirby said, declining to name the country. 

Advocates frustrated: The Hill’s Rebecca Beitsch and Laura Kelly took a look more broadly at the scramble to get Afghans out, including the frustration advocates are expressing that the administration didn’t act sooner.

“Obviously we’re extremely alarmed and concerned with the situation and how quickly the security situation deteriorated,” Adam Bates, policy counsel with the International Refugee Assistance Project, told The Hill. “This is why we have been arguing for months in favor of evacuating of SIVs applicants and other U.S. affiliated and at risk Afghans to U.S. soil to avoid specifically this situation.”

Evacuations so far: Prior to the Taliban completing its takeover of Afghanistan on Sunday, the Biden administration had evacuated just about 2,000 Afghans who helped the U.S. military and their families to Fort Lee despite pressure from lawmakers and advocates to ramp up evacuations long before Kabul fell.

Nearly 20,000 Afghans who helped the U.S. military and thousands more family members have been seeking visas, in some cases waiting years to overcome bureaucratic hurdles.

LAWMAKERS REACT

The debate over what went wrong also brought a flood of lawmaker statements.

Republicans, unsurprisingly, largely pinned the blame directly on Biden.

“I think Afghanistan is lost. Every terrorist around the world is cheering in Syria, in Yemen, in Africa. They’ve watched the Taliban … defeat America in effect,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said during a press conference in Kentucky.

“It’s a sad day for the United States of America. … He owns it,” he added.

Intel chair vows ‘tough’ questions: Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.), meanwhile, said he would work with other congressional committees to probe the rapid unraveling of Afghanistan, including why the United States was caught off guard by the Taliban’s quick advances.

Warner’s statement, and broader bipartisan concern about the execution of the exit strategy, underscores that the administration is likely to face lingering questions about how it overestimated Afghan officials and underestimated the Taliban.   

“As the Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I hope to work with the other committees of jurisdiction to ask tough but necessary questions about why we weren’t better prepared for a worst-case scenario involving such a swift and total collapse of the Afghan government and security forces,” Warner said in a statement.

“We owe those answers to the American people and to all those who served and sacrificed so much,” he added.

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command, will speak about “Rethinking Homeland Defense: Global Integration, Domain Awareness, Information Dominance and Decision Superiority” at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at 2 p.m. https://bit.ly/37LFnAW

ICYMI

— The Hill: Female Afghan reporter to Pentagon press secretary: ‘Everybody is upset, especially women’

— The Hill: Pelosi circulates WH talking points after Afghanistan collapse

— The Hill: UN Security Council calls for cessation of hostilities in Afghanistan, new government

— The Hill: WaPo publisher urges White House to help evacuate journalists in Afghanistan

— The Hill: Blinken reaches out to China and Russia on Afghanistan

— The Hill: Senate GOP campaign chairman floats 25th Amendment, probe against Biden

— The Hill: Opinion: Afghanistan’s collapse shows the failure to create a country worth dying for

— The Hill: Opinion: Taliban control creates new risk for the region: clashes with India or Iran

— Washington Post: Afghanistan’s military collapse: Illicit deals and mass desertions

— Defense One: Inside Reach 871, a US C-17 packed with 640 Afghans trying to escape the Taliban

— Associated Press: Billions spent on Afghan army ultimately benefited Taliban

Tags Donald Trump Joe Biden Lloyd Austin Mark Warner Mitch McConnell

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