President Joe Biden and other senior US officials were shocked Sunday by the pace of the Taliban’s near-total takeover of Afghanistan, as the urgently planned withdrawal of US forces became important to ensuring a safe evacuation.
The speed of the Afghan government’s collapse and the chaos that followed posed the most serious test for Biden as commander in chief, and he was the subject of heavy criticism from Republicans who said he failed.
Biden campaigned as a seasoned expert on international relations and spent months playing down the prospect of the Taliban’s rise while arguing that Americans of all political persuasions were tired of a 20-year war, a struggle that demonstrated the limits of money and the military might of power. Western-style democracy in a society that is neither ready nor willing to embrace it.
But by Sunday, senior administration figures admitted they were surprised by the sheer speed of the collapse of Afghan security forces. The challenge of this effort became apparent after reports of sporadic shootings at Kabul airport prompted Americans to seek refuge as they waited for flights to safety.
“We saw that that force was not able to defend the country, and it happened more quickly than we expected,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told CNN, referring to the Afghan military.
The turmoil in Afghanistan is refocusing in an unwelcome way for a president who has largely focused on a domestic agenda that includes exiting the pandemic, winning congressional approval in exchange for trillions of dollars in infrastructure spending and protecting voting rights.
Biden remained at Camp David on Sunday, receiving regular briefings on Afghanistan and holding secure video calls with members of his national security team, according to senior White House officials. The next few days may be critical in determining whether the United States is able to regain some level of control over the situation.
Discussions were underway for Biden to speak publicly, according to two senior administration officials who requested anonymity to discuss internal conversations. Biden, who is scheduled to stay at Camp David until Wednesday, is expected to return to the White House if he decides to provide an address.
Biden is the fourth US president to face challenges in Afghanistan, and he has insisted he will not hand America’s longest war to his successor. But the president will likely have to explain how security in Afghanistan has deteriorated so quickly, especially since he and others in the administration have insisted that it won’t.
“The jury is still out, but the possibility of the Taliban taking over everything and taking over the entire country is highly unlikely,” Biden said on July 8.
Last week, Biden publicly expressed his hope that Afghan forces could develop the will to defend their country. But privately, administration officials have warned that the military is collapsing, prompting Biden on Thursday to order thousands of American troops to the area to speed up evacuation plans.
One official said Biden was more optimistic about the outlook for Afghan fighters to repel the Taliban in part to prevent a further erosion of morale among their forces. It was finally in vain.
Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump also longed to leave Afghanistan, but eventually stepped down in the face of resistance from military leaders and other political concerns. On the other hand, Biden has been consistent in his refusal to change the August 31 deadline, in part because he believes the American public is on his side.
For example, an ABC News/Ipsos poll in late July showed that 55% of Americans approved of Biden’s handling of troop withdrawal.
Most Republicans have not pushed Biden to keep troops in Afghanistan long-term, nor have they supported Trump’s own bid to get out of the country. However, some in the Republican Party have stepped up their criticism of Biden’s withdrawal strategy and said that photos taken on Sunday of US helicopters flying over the US Embassy in Kabul sparked a humiliating departure of US personnel from Vietnam.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell called the withdrawal scenes “an embarrassment to a faint superpower.”
Meanwhile, US officials are increasingly concerned about the potential for terrorist threats against the United States to escalate as the situation in Afghanistan evolves, according to a person familiar with the matter who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive security issue.
The source said that General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told senators in a media call Sunday that US officials are expected to change their previous assessments about the pace of reconfiguration of terrorist groups in Afghanistan. Depending on the development of the situation, officials believe that terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda may be able to grow much faster than expected.
On the call, officials told senators that the US intelligence community is currently working on shaping a new timeline based on evolving threats.
However, there were no additional steps planned after the deployment of troops ordered by Biden to assist with the evacuations. Senior administration officials believed that the United States would be able to maintain security at Kabul airport long enough to rid the Americans and their allies, but the fate of those unable to reach the airport was uncertain.
“The speed is a surprise,” Senator Chris Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has endorsed the Biden administration’s strategy, said in an interview but would not describe the situation as an intelligence failure. He said it has long been known that Afghanistan would fall into the hands of the Taliban if the United States withdrew.
“Given the amount we’ve invested in the Afghan army, it’s not absurd that analysts think they’ll be able to put up a fight for more than a few days,” Murphy said. “You want to believe that trillions of dollars and 20 years of investment add up to something, even if it doesn’t add to the long-term ability to defend the country.”
In the upper echelons of Biden’s staff, the rapid collapse in Afghanistan underscored the decision to leave: If the collapse of Afghan forces occurred so quickly after nearly two decades of the American presence, then another six months or a year or two or more has changed nothing.
Biden has argued for more than a decade that Afghanistan has been a kind of purgatory for the United States. He finds it corrupt, addicted to America’s generosity, and an unreliable partner who must fend for himself. His goal was to protect Americans from terrorist attacks, not build a nation.
As vice president, he argued privately against Obama sending 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in an effort to stabilize the country so that the United States and its allies could withdraw their forces.
As president, Biden said in July that he made the decision to withdraw “with clear eyes” after receiving daily updates on the battlefield. His ruling was that Afghanistan would be partitioned in a peace agreement with the Taliban, rather than fall at once.
While Biden has prided himself on presenting clear facts to the American public, his optimistic assessment of the situation just a month ago may come back to haunt him.
“There will never be a circumstance where you see people being lifted from the roof of an embassy in the — the United States from Afghanistan,” he said in July. It is highly unlikely that there will be a unified government in Afghanistan controlling the entire country.
Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo and Marie Claire Galonic contributed to this report.