What Joe Biden Is Betting On
Call it the White House’s dream scenario: In the end, the voters don’t blame Joe Biden. The president’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan simply aligns him with everyone else who has given up on the notion that the military could mold a fractious country into a stable democratic ally. The administration is hoping that grisly images of desperate Afghans clinging to a C-17 fade, replaced by collective relief that no more Americans will die in a murky, brutal war that spanned two decades and four presidencies.
Despite the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan, White House officials and people close to Biden don’t foresee his decision hurting Democrats in next year’s midterm elections, nor in the presidential race that follows. Their argument is that the nation should be reassured that a president who vowed during the 2020 campaign to end “forever wars” made good on the promise.
Will it work? Biden’s allies are betting so.
“A big majority of the American people want us out of Afghanistan,” Ted Kaufman, a Biden confidant since the 1970s and a former Democratic senator from Delaware, told me this week. “And that will be a key message—the key point for the American people is our troops are out,” he said. “It’s fine for us to sit in Washington and talk about what’s wrong in Afghanistan. We’re not bearing the brunt of this war. It’s another thing if you have a son or daughter or father over there.”
Biden’s handling of the biggest foreign-policy crisis on his watch to date is unfolding on two tracks: short- and long-term. In recent days, the White House has privately sent talking points to supporters that sought to blunt the ferocious backlash over the Taliban victory by deflecting responsibility onto a useful target. On his way out the door, Donald Trump left Biden with two bad choices: “indefinite war in Afghanistan” or a troop drawdown and potential Taliban victory, a White House communications aide wrote in an email obtained by The Atlantic. That binary formulation ignores all the other options that were open to Biden: at minimum, leaving sufficient troops in place so that a fleeing Afghan didn’t perish inside the wheel well of a departing plane. Not all Democratic partisans are sold on the idea that Trump boxed in Biden when he negotiated a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan set for this spring. After taking office, Biden quickly recommitted to the Paris climate accord and the Iranian nuclear deal that Trump had abandoned. “This one they chose not to reverse,” Donna Brazile, a former Democratic National Committee chair, told me. “If you don’t reverse it, you own it.”
Looking ahead, Biden’s team is focused on preventing any revival of a terrorist threat from Afghanistan. His national-security team said it is better positioned to quash terrorism emanating from nations with no U.S. military presence than was the case 20 years ago, when Osama bin Laden oversaw the 9/11 attacks from his sanctuary in Afghanistan. But if an attack happens on Biden’s watch, one of his campaign fundraisers said, Americans won’t necessarily rally behind a president who left Afghanistan in the hands of extremists. A natural reaction among voters will be, “We didn’t want you in Afghanistan, but you should have kept this from happening and now there are dead Americans, and you have to explain that, and you have to go to their funeral,” said this person, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely.
Read: Biden’s foreign policy starts at home
The cable networks are showing chaos, tears, and dead bodies on an airport tarmac, yet some of the living are already writing the scenes off as “the cost of war.” Afghanistan was a war that Americans have clearly wanted to end for a while. In a poll taken 10 years ago, voters largely predicted the messy outcome that’s unfolding today. More than 70 percent believed that the U.S. would eventually withdraw its troops and leave Afghanistan without a functioning democratic government. A Quinnipiac survey in May found that by a margin of 62 percent to 29 percent, Americans approved of Biden’s plan to pull out all troops. Military households approved by a 23-point margin: 59 percent to 36 percent.
“I don’t believe Americans are going to evaluate Joe Biden on whether Afghanistan is a stable democracy,” Jeff Horwitt, a Democratic pollster with Hart Research, told me. “They’re much more focused on whether America is a stable democracy. And, sad to say, we have our work to do there these days as well.”
For all the intense focus in Washington on the Taliban’s resurgence, the broader public seems more preoccupied with other issues, like the still-raging coronavirus pandemic. Ruben Gallego, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq and is now a Democratic representative from Arizona, tweeted last weekend, “What I am feeling and thinking about the situation in Afghanistan, I can never fit on Twitter. But one thing that is definitely sticking out is that I haven’t gotten one constituent call about it and my district has a large veteran population.”
One former Biden campaign aide told me, “It’s tough to imagine that in the midterm elections or certainly in 2024 that the Afghanistan withdrawal will be front and center. These things often seem urgent, and the implications seem enormous in the moment. But at the end of the day, voters care about things that affect them and their families.”
But even some Biden allies fear he has given the opposition a cudgel they can use for as long as he’s in power. The frenzied exodus from Kabul carries an eerie echo of Americans hastily boarding a helicopter from a rooftop when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975. Republicans are already trying to capitalize on the idea that Biden “lost” Afghanistan and will bear direct responsibility should the Taliban execute Afghans who tried to assist the U.S. war effort. “Where this potentially hurts is the Republicans being able to say, ‘Well, you fucked up Afghanistan,’” the Biden fundraiser told me.
When it comes to America’s longest war, Biden has long been a skeptic—though in 2001 he did vote for a Senate resolution authorizing then-President George W. Bush to use military force against nations that planned or aided the September 11 attacks. Nine years later, as vice president, he committed a revealing gaffe as the war neared its second decade. The U.S. would be “totally out” of Afghanistan in 2014, “come hell or high water,” he said in an interview. At the time, that wasn’t the White House’s position: Barack Obama hadn’t planned a wholesale military departure by that date. Biden later backed off a statement that didn’t jibe with official policy, yet foreshadowed the steps he’d take after becoming commander in chief.
Read: Biden isn’t talking for a reason
Although Biden’s critics allege that he merely wants to be on the right side of public opinion, his opposition to maintaining an American troop presence in Afghanistan may be rooted in something more personal. He’s long displayed empathy for combat troops deployed in far-flung theaters. When raising his young family, he’d circle Memorial Day on the calendar and take his children to events in Delaware, Kaufman told me. I asked him if Biden’s resolve to get out may have been shaped by his late son, Beau, who served a tour in Iraq in the decade before dying of brain cancer at the age of 46. Kaufman said the reverse is true: Beau Biden joined the Delaware National Guard because of his father’s veneration of the military when he was growing up. As president, Biden typically ends his speeches with the phrase “May God protect our troops.” Trump had moved the prisoner-of-war/missing-in-action flag to a less visible spot on the White House grounds; Biden returned it to the pole atop the building.
How forcefully Biden pushed to wind down the war over the years isn’t so clear. During a Democratic-primary debate last year, Biden said he was “totally opposed to the whole notion of nation-building in Afghanistan.” Yet that’s not the way some diplomats who worked in the region remember it. It is undoubtedly true that most people don’t remember this 2002 statement from Biden, which he directly contradicts today: “History is going to judge us very harshly, I believe, if we allow the hope of a liberated Afghanistan to evaporate because we are fearful of the phrase ‘nation-building.’”
Ryan Crocker reopened the U.S. embassy in Kabul in 2002 and said his first congressional visitor was Biden, then a senator. They visited a girls’ school in Kabul that was up and running after U.S. forces had ousted the Taliban from power. “He was a big supporter of the stuff we were trying to get off the ground,” Crocker told me. When Crocker returned for another stint as U.S. ambassador to the country in 2011, he said Biden “just wasn’t visible on Afghanistan. I didn’t hear from him, nor did I feel his weight. We had occasional National Security Council meetings, and I don’t recall him ever saying anything of note.”
Part of Biden’s pitch as a 2020 candidate was that he would restore competence to a White House sorely in need of it. He’d hire seasoned experts; he’d bring to bear all the experience he’d gathered as a onetime chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a two-term vice president. For critics of the withdrawal such as Crocker, the new scenes of Taliban fighters beating people trying to flee the country following the abrupt collapse of the American-backed Afghan government undercut that image. “I always had great admiration for [Biden],” Crocker told me. “He was a decent person in higher politics, an internationalist. Frankly, this raises questions of competence.”
Back in 2011, I was part of a small pool of reporters who traveled to Afghanistan with Biden aboard Air Force Two. I remember the way he’d come to the back of the plane and schmooze with the press corps, bracing himself against the seats during bouts of turbulence, while worried aides stood nearby ready to steady him if he lost his balance. Wearing his trademark sunglasses and bomber jacket, he toured a 22,000-acre military training center and watched an exercise in which Afghan soldiers seized a building. Speaking at the presidential palace, he said, “It is not our intention to govern or to nation-build.” That, he added, is “the responsibility of the Afghan people, and they are fully capable of it.”
Memories being short, voters may eventually forget the tumult at the Kabul airport. Biden might get political credit for ending American involvement in an unpopular war, as people in his orbit predict. But what happens next isn’t only the Afghan people’s responsibility; it’s also the president’s. If a terrorist attack originates in Afghanistan, Biden might also take the blame.
“More than the awful things that may happen in Afghanistan to our interpreters and to women and girls, I fear for the damage to America’s leadership, which he vowed he would restore,” Crocker told me. “I just feel kind of sick.”
This debacle has exposed Joe Biden as a failed president
Joe Biden has no interest in your facts. Those are from four or five days ago. Or, actually, two.
In his contentious interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos — his sentences jumbled together, alternately rambling and insisting with vociferous certainty things that were not true — Biden came across as an image of incompetent frailty.
For a man who promised a restoration of American unity after years of intense political conflict, Biden has achieved this goal: Everyone now thinks he failed. No matter your feelings about Afghanistan — whether you thought we should get out now, or 10 years ago, or never — Americans all agree this exit is a debacle, an embarrassment of logistical planning that has left our fellow citizens and our allies in the lurch.
Yet Biden will brook no objections to his approach. Stephanopoulos, ever the dutiful Democratic coffee boy, gave him one softball after another to cast blame or meander toward an excuse. Biden didn’t take it. Instead, he deployed his cantankerous Scranton Joe personality familiar to many of us who saw him in his Senate days — an old man raising his voice and insisting he knows best, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Joe Biden is derelict in his duty. His State Department failed to prepare adequately to get Americans and our allied Afghans out of the country in time. His Department of Defense made the decisions that left our resources and materiel to be used by the Taliban. His intelligence units were the ones he now claims — despite evidence to the contrary — never warned that the Afghan government could fall so fast.
This was a failure of many institutions of American government. But above all, it was a failure of the Commander in Chief.
A man carries a bloodied child on the street as Taliban fighters punish thousands of Afghans waiting outside of the Kabul Airport in Afghanistan on August 17, 2021. MARCUS YAM/LOS ANGELES TIMES/Shutterstock
The media depicted Joe Biden as an American comeback — that the arc of history, having been momentarily disrupted by a populist brigand in Donald Trump, would now return to its proper state.
But a problem has emerged in this narrative, and that problem is Joe Biden. He is not the leader that was promised. His version of normalcy — chaos at the southern border, inflation hitting every household, a return to mandates and lockdowns, massive debt spending, and an anti-American education system run amok — hurts your average working American. And every smart Democratic operative can see the tidal wave heading their way because of it.
There were many in the Republican coalition who objected to Trump’s reform of the foreign policy as a more isolationist, America First philosophy. But at its base definition, America First is a pragmatic policy designed to inspire trust from our friends and fear in our enemies.
Biden’s failed Afghanistan exit inspires nothing of the sort. It manages to make America look both faithless and stupid. And the whole world knows it.
Analysis: Biden’s presidency is under scrutiny as never before over Afghan chaos
(CNN) President Joe Biden is struggling against an intensifying examination of his judgment, competence and even his empathy over the chaotic US exit from Afghanistan. And each attempt the administration makes to quell a furor that’s tarnishing America’s image only provokes more questions about its failures of planning and execution.
A defiant Biden on Wednesday rejected criticism of his leadership, as he battled the most significant self-inflicted drama of a term that he won by promising proficient government and to level with voters.
“I don’t think it was a failure,” the President said in an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, referring to a US pullout that sparked scenes of desperate Afghans clinging to, and falling to their deaths from, US evacuation planes.
The President had repeatedly pledged the withdrawal from the country’s longest war would be orderly, deliberate and safe and that there were no circumstances that Afghanistan would suddenly fall to the Taliban.
But in the ABC News interview he changed tack, saying there was no way the US could have left without “chaos ensuing” and that such scenes were always baked into the decision to get all troops out this year.
JUST WATCHED Biden: No way out of Afghanistan without ‘chaos ensuing’ Replay More Videos … MUST WATCH Biden: No way out of Afghanistan without ‘chaos ensuing’ 03:07
In one part of the interview, Biden said that he didn’t trust the Taliban but argued that the militia was cooperating with the US evacuation.
“I’m not sure I would have predicted nor would you or anyone else, that when we decided to leave that they’d provide safe passage for Americans to get out,” the President.
In the chaos at Kabul airport, however, it is far from clear that the Taliban is cooperating. While hundreds have people have been getting through, CNN’s Clarissa Ward in Kabul reported Thursday that there was no process, only mayhem of Afghans who worked for the US and are seeking exit visas because they fear for their – and their families’ – lives. Some lucky people got through Taliban checkpoints but many others were turned back or beaten, Ward said.
Biden is failing to adequately explain why he so badly failed to predict the swift collapse of the Afghan state. And his credibility has been sullied because his confident downplaying of the risks of the withdrawal has been repeatedly confounded by events. Seven months into his term, Biden no longer gets credit simply for not being Donald Trump.
The President spoke to ABC News after details emerged from a high-level Pentagon briefing that appeared to confirm the US never had sufficient troops left in Afghanistan to facilitate the orderly, deliberate withdrawal Biden had promised. And the deeply awkward session in which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the nation’s top military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, spoke to reporters also left open the grave possibility that the US military would be unable to rescue all American citizens and potential Afghan refugees before it departs for good.
Biden’s defensiveness, imprecision and apparent changes of position hardly project confidence or competence during an extraordinarily sensitive crisis on hostile foreign soil. Anytime a commander in chief does not appear in control or is in denial of obvious developments is a moment that threatens to inflict political damage.
A changed presidency
The atmospherics around a White House that was on a roll have shifted in a matter of days.
Just over a week ago, Biden was taking a victory lap for his unlikely feat of passing a bipartisan infrastructure deal in the Senate and also ramming a $3.5 trillion spending framework through the chamber. As the pandemic rebounds, his July Fourth partial declaration of independence over the virus looks like a “Mission Accomplished” moment , even if the reluctance of millions of Americans to get vaccinated has fueled its spread.
He has given Republican foes their clearest opening of a presidency in which he has been a hard political target. It may well be, if the rest of the evacuation goes smoothly, that Americans will buy Biden’s argument that the chaos and collapse of Afghanistan proves the US should have left long ago.
JUST WATCHED See ‘breathtaking’ scale of evacuation effort at Kabul airport Replay More Videos … MUST WATCH See ‘breathtaking’ scale of evacuation effort at Kabul airport 01:49
But the GOP is seeking to bolster impressions of incompetence by hammering Biden over the pandemic, rising inflation and record southern border crossing attempts to foster a narrative of political decay. In close elections like next year’s midterms, unflattering impressions that take hold among voters can be disastrous. Biden’s appeal lies in his candor and competence. Both are taking a hit.
The President’s image abroad is also taking a beating. His goal of reviving US relations with allies after declaring “America is back” following the Trump administration have been complicated by dismay over the possibility that interpreters and other workers who helped US troops over 20 years could be left behind to face reprisals from the Taliban.
Questions Biden must answer
Despite Biden’s efforts to portray the current situation as a simple choice between staying in Afghanistan and fighting a never-ending war, the President is not being held to account for the mistakes of the three previous administrations, whose missteps turned the war into an American failure. The Trump administration especially left Biden with some tough choices in a strategy that left the US with a skeleton garrison and poisoned relations with Kabul by negotiating with the Taliban behind the government’s back.
The issue is not even over the President’s decision to leave a war that long ago lost public support.
Instead, he is being asked to answer for things that were in his power to influence: the poorly planned evacuation effort, the failure to speed up visa processing for thousands of Afghans and the missed opportunity to get US citizens out earlier.
As that pressure mounts, the President raised the possibility in the ABC News interview that the effort could stretch beyond August 31, his previous deadline.
“We’re going to do everything in our power to get all Americans out and our allies out,” Biden said.
The operation at Kabul airport is cranking up, with hundreds of people leaving on flights from the US armed forces and those of other nations. But CNN reported that some of those hoping to leave were being stopped at Taliban checkpoints, reflecting the extent to which US evacuations rely on the forbearance of an enemy force.
At the Pentagon news conference, Milley and Austin inadvertently revealed the deficiencies of the US evacuation.
They said there were insufficient forces at the airport to keep its perimeter secure and to venture behind enemy lines to collect Americans or allied Afghans as they shelter from the Taliban in Kabul and elsewhere.
“We don’t have the capability to go out and collect up large numbers of people,” Austin said.
Austin also said US forces would try to “deconflict” the situation with the Taliban to “create passageways for them to get to the airfield.” But he also admitted he didn’t have enough forces to do much more.
“I don’t have the capability to go out and extend operations currently into Kabul,” he said.
Milley revealed that a lack of resources was also behind the decision to shutter the vast former US base at Bagram airfield further out of Kabul, in comments that implicitly confirmed that the forces were never in place to assure Biden’s vow for an orderly withdrawal.
“If we were to keep both Bagram and the embassy going, that would be a significant number of military forces that would have exceeded what we had,” he said.
“So we had to collapse one or the other, and a decision was made.”
Both Milley and Austin, a retired general, appeared deeply uncomfortable at the news conference.
“This is a war that I fought in and led. I know the country. I know the people. And I know those who fought alongside me,” Austin said.
JUST WATCHED Fareed Zakaria: This withdrawal is a stain on Biden’s foreign policy Replay More Videos … MUST WATCH Fareed Zakaria: This withdrawal is a stain on Biden’s foreign policy 02:59
“We have a moral obligation to help those who helped us,” he added. “I feel the urgency deeply.”
With the Taliban celebrating an extraordinary victory over the United States, they may lack an incentive to orchestrate clashes with US forces confined to the airport. But the extent of the group’s patience is unclear. And there are no guarantees its extremists will not hunt down Afghans it sees as US collaborators before they can escape to the airport.
This position of powerlessness, in which the US is at the whim of a ragtag militia, is hard for many Americans to accept, especially those who served in uniform.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, had harsh words for the position in which the United States now finds itself in Kabul.
“Now we are in a position where we are disgracefully begging the Taliban for permission to save Americans,” Kinzinger told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
An ‘America First’ moment
Events of the last few days have done more than damage Biden’s reputation for competency. They have also exposed as never before the cold-eyed calculation behind a foreign policy that includes some elements of the “America First” approach of Trump.
On Tuesday, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said it was heartbreaking that Afghan women and girls would now face repression under the Taliban. But he indicated the President chose that option over more US blood being shed in Afghanistan.
All presidents face impossible choices. And Biden is honoring his duty to protect Americans. But his chosen course and failure to speed up processing of Afghan refugees months ago, despite warnings from veterans and members of Congress, call into question his commitment to civilians who trusted the US.
Biden’s harsh criticism of the Afghan Army has been particularly poorly received abroad and may damage his ability to wield US soft power.
JUST WATCHED ‘I do not regret my decision’: Biden on US military withdrawal from Afghanistan Replay More Videos … MUST WATCH ‘I do not regret my decision’: Biden on US military withdrawal from Afghanistan 02:01
The President argued with reason last week that US forces should not have to fight a war that Afghan soldiers refuse to wage. But in blaming Afghans he ignored savage losses of life among armed and police forces built with US dollars, which far exceed US casualties.
His stance fueled anger in Britain’s House of Commons on Wednesday, in a debate in which Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced a backlash because of his association with the US President.
Tom Tugendhat, a member who served with the British Army in Afghanistan, lambasted the US President’s comments.
“To see their commander in chief call into question the courage of men I fought with, to claim they ran. It’s shameful,” Tugendhat said. “Those who have never fought for the colors they fly should be careful about criticizing those who have.”