President Joe Biden said Tuesday that he took “responsibility” for his decisions on Afghanistan. As for any mistakes made — well, he offered plenty of potential culprits.
The hundred-plus American citizens who didn’t make it out? They were notified 19 times “with multiple warnings and offers to help them leave Afghanistan, all the way back as far as March,” he said, adding that most of them were dual citizens, anyway.
The fall of Kabul, far earlier than most intelligence and military advisers predicted? Biden pointed the finger at the Afghan army and said he’d instructed his team to prepare for that eventuality. Plus, he had to withdraw quickly because of the deal his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, cut last year with the Taliban. And some errors were simply unavoidable, he argued. “The bottom line is, there is no evacuation from the end of a war that you can run without the kinds of complexities, challenges, threats we faced,” Biden emphasized in a roughly 30 minute White House address. “None.”
Despite those errors, Biden declared the U.S. evacuation of more than 120,000 people from Afghanistan was an “extraordinary success.”
Biden spent no time dwelling on his own broken promises — including a vow to fly out any U.S. citizen who wished to leave — and instead delivered a defiant address to close out America’s longest war, defending his handling of the exit, pointing to “corruption and malfeasance” in the Afghan government that the U.S. spent far too long supporting, slamming his critics as downplaying the costs of the armed conflict and arguing the country must move past the “War on Terror” that began almost exactly 20 years ago.
“This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries,” Biden said. He took no questions.
Biden’s remarks served as the latest instance of the president digging his heels in on Afghanistan in the face of an unprecedented wave of criticism from traditional allies in the Democratic Party and the media. In fact, Biden has appeared more resolute and defensive the louder his critics became, appearing convinced that voters and history will ultimately reward him for ending the war despite the chaotic withdrawal.
His administration has spent weeks hawking polls showing voters support his policy goal, confident that the Beltway’s reaction to his decision was just the latest instance of its disconnect from regular voters.
“I give you my word with all of my heart, I believe this is the right decision, the wise decision, and the best decision for America,” he said today.
Not everyone in the administration shared the commander in chief’s confidence. “I am absolutely appalled and literally horrified we left Americans there,” one administration official told POLITICO. “It was a hostage rescue of thousands of Americans in the guise of a NEO [noncombatant evacuation operations], and we have failed that no-fail mission.” Another White House official said that the mission isn’t accomplished if they left Americans behind.
The drawdown of the war in Afghanistan represents the most significant failure Biden has confronted in his presidency — one where he repeatedly failed to meet his lofty promises and flawed predictions. Biden has long relished proving his doubters wrong and wrapping his pursuits in a sense of optimism. It has worked for him before, most recently with his zealous quest to win Republican support for a bipartisan infrastructure deal.
After the massive bill passed the Senate, he slammed critics who had long said his push amounted to trying to revive “a relic of an earlier age.”
“I never believed that. I still don’t,” the president said, turning a question back on reporters to ask if they’d learned any lessons from watching him negotiate and offering that he’d just finished reviewing 50 statements from “very serious press people that my whole plan was dead from the beginning.”
On several other occasions, however, he has run into trouble or been forced to eventually shift tactics. Biden for months had maintained that the rise in migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border was part of a seasonal pattern. “It happens every single, solitary year,” he said. But the numbers through the summer have reached a two-decade high, with a record number of unaccompanied children arriving here.
Earlier, even after months of hand-wringing from fellow Democrats who saw the decision as unsustainable and morally wrong, the administration had also refused to raise the 15,000-person cap on refugee admissions that was set by the Trump administration. Ultimately, Biden backed down, agreeing to lift it to 62,500 for 2021.
In other areas where the outcome remains uncertain, he’s been less willing to give. After meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this year, Biden chided the news media for being too down about the possibility of achieving strategic stability between the two countries. “The country has put a different face on where we’ve been and where we’re going — and I feel good about it,” he said at the time.
“I mean, look, guys,” he added, telegraphing his frustration, “I’m going to drive you all crazy because I know you want me to always put a negative thrust on things.”
Yet, even when he’s drilled down on valid critiques of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, Biden has consistently stretched the limits of optimism while appearing unwilling to admit that his earlier predictions were overly rosy. “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States in Afghanistan,” Biden had told reporters earlier this summer.
Then, digging the hole deeper, he added, “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
He was wrong on both counts.
When pressed on some of the predictions, Biden and his administration again and again sought to shift responsibility elsewhere.
Asked Tuesday if the president, by remarking on the number of times U.S. citizens were warned to leave Afghanistan, was essentially placing blame on those Americans who could not get to the airport in time to be evacuated, White House press secretary Jen Psaki replied, “I think what the president stated clearly … is that our commitment remains, there is not an end to our commitment to American citizens who are in Afghanistan who want to leave.”
Then she added, “It’s also important for people to note and to understand what the process has been and what we’ve undergone over the past few months, and that’s what the president laid out.”
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