Biden and Afghanistan: Is the President in control of the situation

style="float: right; margin-bottom: 10px; font-weight: 600;"Sat 21st Aug, 2021

"We will bring you home," Joe Biden promised Friday at the White House, to all Americans still stuck in Afghanistan. Any citizen who wants to go home will be able to leave, the president assured. At the same time, he acknowledged that they were on an extremely dangerous mission, adding, "I can't promise what the end result will be." Biden spoke to reporters for half an hour after canceling a planned weekend trip. As images of desperate crowds at Hamid Karzai Airport in Kabul make the rounds, he tried to project confidence and give the impression of an orderly approach. Biden said the only country that could mount an evacuation operation as "powerful" as the one currently underway in Kabul is the United States. It is an unprecedented effort that is being carried out with "precision," he said.

That flights out of the country had been suspended for more than eight hours recently was due to a backlog of thousands of people at the U.S. military base in Qatar, he said. Now bases in other countries are to be opened. Since Aug. 14, he said, the Americans have taken more than 13,000 people out of the country - including Afghan aid workers and people in particular danger from the Taliban. According to NATO, the evacuations by all countries so far have allowed a total of 18,000 people to leave.

Biden again responded to questions about the timing and planning of the withdrawal. There will be plenty of time later to criticize his decisions and the procedure, he said. Now, he said, it was a matter of "getting the job done." It had been made clear to the Taliban that "any attack on our troops or blockade of our operation will result in an immediate and powerful response," Biden said. However, the president also acknowledged that his administration did not know how many Americans were still in Afghanistan. Citizens abroad are supposed to register, but many do not declare when they leave a country. Work is underway to determine the exact number of Americans in Afghanistan, Biden assured. American soldiers would remain in the country until all citizens were evacuated.

"As far as we know, at the checkpoints, the Taliban let all people into the airport who show an American passport," the president said of the situation in Kabul. It was different, he said, with people who did not have such a passport and went into the chaotic crowd outside the airport. Asked what he had to say to Afghan allied aid workers, Biden said, "We want you to be able to come to the airport. Contact us, and we will do everything we can to get you there. We've got to get you 'out of there.'" He said that "every opportunity will be used" to continue the evacuations. The fact that all embassy personnel were able to leave the country was due to negotiations with the Taliban, he said. Negotiations were continuing and there was "constant contact" with the Islamists, he said.

The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan after twenty years is Biden's first major foreign policy crisis. As the Taliban reportedly hunt down people who have worked for Americans and their allies, Biden again rejected any criticism of the timing of the withdrawal. He has seen "no questions about our credibility from our allies around the world," he said. Now that al Qaeda is "gone," he said, questions must be asked about interests in Afghanistan. "We went into Afghanistan because we wanted to get rid of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and we did," the president said. "You've known my position for a long time. It's time to end this war." NATO partners agreed with his decision, Biden said. "This is about America leading the world," he added. Asked about the threat of terrorism, Biden said it also exists from many other so-called failed states. U.S. intelligence agencies and the military would continue to do everything possible to detect threats from anywhere early enough, he said.

Many commentators stressed after Biden's speech that the chaotic situation at Hamid Karzai Airport was exactly the opposite of the "precision" the president spoke of. Kabul correspondent Clarissa Ward told CNN after the speech that 10,000 people had currently been processed at the airport, but there were not yet enough planes for them. She said the situation remains desperate and chaotic. She said she has seen babies with symptoms of dehydration receive inadequate treatment. Ward also responded to Biden's assurance that everyone at the airport would be helped. Getting there and then inside, she said, is life-threatening for many people. To Biden's assurance that Americans would have no trouble at the Taliban checkpoints outside the airport, Ward said, "We had trouble." The Taliban outside the entrance were hitting people indiscriminately, he said. "Anyone who says Americans can get in here ... you technically can, but it's incredibly difficult and it's dangerous," Ward said in a telephone exchange.

Domestically, the withdrawal from Afghanistan had sparked debate over the timing and consequences of Biden's decision. Donald Trump's administration had reached an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020. At that time, he had promised the release of 5000 Taliban fighters and set the date of withdrawal for May 2021. Biden wants to be fully withdrawn by September of this year. Meanwhile, the Taliban's rapid advance on Kabul had taken his administration by surprise. Now representatives of both parties are accusing Biden of chaos. Several Republican governors, such as Kevin Sitt in Oklahoma and Kim Reynolds in Iowa, said Afghan refugees were welcome. Many of their party colleagues combined this new openness with spikes against the president. Senator and Trump supporter Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, for example, said, "While our allies are being disastrously abandoned in Afghanistan, I'm glad some will find safety here in the U.S."

Biden's insistence that withdrawal was the right decision at the time also drew much criticism in the U.S. media in recent days. The decision showed his stubbornness and a certain inability to accept criticism, Politico magazine commented. "Almost Trumpist" is what its author Rachael Bade called the president's behavior: "This is exactly what Trump's fans loved him for: no apologies, no remorse. And Biden has basically been striking that tone all week."

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