President Joe Biden is confronting an extraordinary confluence of intensifying crises that are pushing a White House already mired in extreme challenges to the limit.
Washington is on edge for the tense final hours of a chaotic and tragedy-marred exit from Afghanistan, even as Biden girds for yet another domestic catastrophe after a historic hurricane slammed into Louisiana.
Hurricane Ida's maximum 150 mph winds and torrential rainstorms pummeled the Gulf Coast, sparking extensive flooding and damage, as forecasters warned that areas of Louisiana could be left uninhabitable for months. The Category 4 monster, later downgraded Sunday evening, threatened to leave a trail of devastation and human suffering and potential new damage to the economic recovery in a region crucial to the energy and shipping industries. It also offered a fateful reminder of the way mishandled natural disasters can cause political blowbacks as the storm roared ashore on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which drained the political authority from George W. Bush, another President simultaneously confounded by a foreign war, in Iraq.
Biden vowed during a visit to the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Sunday to put the "full might" of the nation into efforts to put the Gulf Coast back on its feet with scenes of terrible damage expected when darkness lifts on Monday morning.
Hurricane, Afghanistan exit and pandemic exacerbate Biden's presidency of crises
"We're going to be here. We're going to be here to help the Gulf region get back on its feet as quickly as possible, as long as it takes," he said, refusing to also answer questions about Afghanistan during the brief media appearance.
The weekend's events are further testing the leadership skills of Biden, who was left reeling by a suicide attack outside Kabul's airport last week, which killed 13 US service members and dozens of Afghans and exacerbated fierce criticism of the White House's frenetic and ill-planned retreat from America's longest war. The White House said Monday that approximately 1,200 people were evacuated from Kabul in the last 24 hours, bringing the total evacuated to approximately 116,700 people since August 14.
Yet both Ida and the messy departure from Afghanistan pale in comparison to the worst challenge facing a presidency that has never experienced a normal day. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious diseases specialist, said it was possible that a new University of Washington forecast of a possible 100,000 more US Covid-19 deaths by December 1 could be borne out.
"Unfortunately, it certainly is. You know, what is going on now is both entirely predictable, but entirely preventable. And you know, we know we have the wherewithal with vaccines to turn this around," Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday.
A somber, emotional weekend
Few presidents of the modern era have faced simultaneous emergencies of such magnitude after grueling months that stretched the new administration and a nation exhausted by the worst public health crisis in a century.
The intensity of the emotional blow of recent days was brought home to Biden on Sunday when he traveled to Dover, Delaware, to honor the US troops killed in Kabul last week, and to console bereaved relatives as the remains of their loved ones were returned home. Before the "dignified transfer" of the fallens' remains, Biden walked solemnly into the belly of a huge cargo plane for a moment of prayer alongside the transfer cases wrapped in US flags.
The Americans died in a suicide bomb blast, for which the Afghan affiliate of ISIS has claimed credit, in a packed crowd as they sought to process Afghans desperate to flee Taliban rule. The US then conducted a drone strike in Afghanistan that the Pentagon said killed two high-profile ISIS-K militants. After Biden warned Saturday that another attack at the airport was highly likely, a US airstrike on Sunday targeted a vehicle that military officials said was loaded with explosives posing an "imminent" threat to the airport.
The American combat deaths in the final days of US involvement in the war exposed Biden to fierce criticism over a withdrawal that was nothing like the safe and orderly departure after two decades of war he promised weeks ago. Among the most pertinent of questions is why the US -- shocked by the pace of the fall of Afghanistan -- ended up effectively depending on its longtime enemy to control security on access roads to the airport, from where the US has mounted a mammoth airlift that has now rescued around 114,000 people, mostly Afghans, since August 14.
But tens of thousands of Afghans who worked with US forces, diplomats and NGOs are likely to be left behind after Biden declined pleas by US allies including Britain and France to extend his deadline for withdrawal.
Evacuations of Afghans who did make it to the airport slowed markedly over the weekend, as the operation to extricate more of the 6,000 US troops rushed to Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul cranked into a higher gear.
Biden's national security adviser told CNN's Jake Tapper on "State of the Union" that efforts to save US citizens, residents and Afghans with US visas would go on after August 31, even though they will be at the mercy of the Taliban, amid fears the insurgent group will seek to execute many locals who worked with the United States and its allies over 20 years.
"August 31st is not a cliff. After August 31st, we believe that we have substantial leverage to hold the Taliban to its commitments to allow safe passage for American citizens, legal permanent residents and the Afghan allies who have travel documentation to come to the United States," National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told Tapper. "We will use that leverage to the maximum extent, and we will work with the rest of the international community to make sure the Taliban does not falter on these commitments."
Republicans lash out at Biden over Afghanistan withdrawal
The political fallout from the Afghanistan withdrawal continues to mount. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy signaled he will put the events of recent days at the center of his effort to seize back the House for the GOP in midterm elections next year.
"The President is preparing to leave Americans and allies we made distinct promises to behind. Indeed, he admitted last week 'getting every single person out cannot be guaranteed,'" McCarthy said in a letter to his members Sunday.
"Frankly, this is not the tested leadership the President promised. Political decisions designed to get photo ops lead to fatal national security consequences on the battlefield. It was a political decision to act in haste days prior to the anniversary of September 11 — and our men and women in uniform died as a result," McCarthy charged. His attacks ignored the fact that the stage for the chaotic withdrawal was set by ex-President Donald Trump's deal with the Taliban last year for the exit of US troops that envisaged a final departure of May 1, even earlier than Biden's deadline.
Yet sitting Presidents carry the can for their decisions, and the current commander in chief reversed many of Trump's other most controversial foreign policy strategies but stuck with the core principle of the withdrawal. Biden's defenders argue he is being blamed for the failures of three previous administrations in Afghanistan. But the President was on the record promising that the kind of chaos that ensued in recent weeks would not occur as American troops leave.
As he turned to Hurricane Ida, the President said he had spent the weekend talking to governors of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. His White House team has been talking to state, local and federal officials in the region.
As ghoulish as it sounds, the hurricane may give the President the chance to demonstrate the organized, compassionate leadership that was so lacking as Trump all but ignored the pandemic for months in his final year in office and that was missing from his own handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal.
Biden ripped for apparently glancing at watch during ceremony for fallen troops
President Biden has come under fire for apparently glancing at his watch during a solemn ceremony at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for the 13 US troops killed in the terror attack near the Kabul airport.
But at one point, the commander-in-chief appeared to cast a furtive glance at his watch before putting his arms behind his back, prompting criticisms from veterans, Republican politicians and conservative commentators.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee wrote: “Many of us remember Pres Bush 41 checking his watch during a debate and how awful it looked (even though we all felt same way about that debate.) But this is shocking and will be remembered.”
Foreign policy analyst Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation, said that “there is nothing more important than paying your respects to America’s fallen war heroes, Mr. President.”
JOE BIDEN’S CRISIS MOMENT HAS ARRIVED
To call Joe Biden’s last few weeks a rough stretch would be an understatement. COVID, once under control, has surged. His withdrawal from Afghanistan, while broadly supported, has been a poorly-executed fiasco. A hurricane—now tropical storm—is bearing down on Louisiana with devastating consequences. And his approval ratings are slipping, with the president now polling at an average of 47 percent. Not all of the crises playing out on his watch are directly his fault; the pandemic in particular is being prolonged not by Biden administration mismanagement, but by the rise of a more infectious coronavirus mutation, vaccine holdouts, and the culture war politics of Republicans like Ron DeSantis. But the confluence of events has created a pivotal moment for the president as his administration scrambles to balance its priorities.
Of course, Biden does bear responsibility for the chaotic conclusion to America’s two-decade war in Afghanistan, which has led even some Democrats to distance themselves from him in recent days. “It is clear to me that it was long past time to end the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, and that we could not continue to put American servicemembers in danger for an unwinnable war,” Pennsylvania Representative Susan Wild said in a statement last week after a terrorist attack in Kabul left scores dead, including thirteen American troops. “At the same time, it appears that the evacuation process has been egregiously mishandled.”
Biden entered office with strong overall approval and maintained it through the first months of his presidency thanks to a series of early policy wins, an accelerated vaccine rollout that temporarily brought the pandemic to heel, and a return to more traditional U.S. leadership after four tumultuous years under Donald Trump. But a grim mood has gripped the country in the final weeks of summer, and what appeared to be stable approval ratings have been shaken by several twining crises. That has presented a political problem for some Democrats, particularly those like Wild in swing states and districts. As Axios reported Sunday, Wild, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has made a point not to blame Biden entirely for the collapse of Afghanistan, as some Republicans have; indeed, the unraveling is the result of decisions made by four presidents now. But Wild made clear in her statement last week that she expects the Biden administration to answer for “what went wrong” in the withdrawal. “Our troops deserve nothing less than a complete and unvarnished account of the truth,” she wrote.
While it is unclear how long the dip in approval will last—or how much of the waning support has to do with the Afghanistan exit—the fallout could have implications for the rest of Biden’s agenda, as the Washington Post’s Philip Bump noted last week. “If you’re a moderate Democrat looking to be reelected in a purple district, a drop in Biden’s approval rating means you may feel compelled to start using that as your lens for making decisions about how you vote on legislation,” he observed. Moreover, as Politico observed on Monday, the month of August was supposed to be devoted to promoting Biden’s economic agenda included in Congressional Democrats’ $3.5 trillion bill: In early August, a White House official touted to us “a massive push throughout the month to promote President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda and highlight the success of the President’s first six months in office.” Cabinet officials would be fanning out across the country to sell the plan. Over the last two weeks that’s gone as one would expect, with high-profile visits knocked off front pages and TV news coverage of the events reframed around Afghanistan coverage.
All this presents a problem for Biden—and potentially for his party—as midterm elections approach. But of course, what’s playing out right now in Afghanistan is far more than a political problem; it’s a humanitarian crisis 20 years in the making that has the administration, lawmakers, and others scrambling to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies as Tuesday’s withdrawal deadline approaches. Some have urged the president, who acknowledged last week that it may not be possible to rescue everyone before the exit date, to remain as long as it takes to finish. “We must complete this mission, regardless of any arbitrary deadlines,” Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire said last week. But Biden has remained resolute, and the administration has shifted focus from evacuations to completing the exit, as Politico reported Monday. “The hardest part is just the sense of helplessness,” Democratic Representative Eric Swalwell told the Associated Press last week. “We’re seeing all of this, you know, anxiety, and we can’t do enough.”
Is Joe Biden repeating the mistakes of the past in Afghanistan? Catholic commentators weigh in.
President Biden’s speech on Aug. 26, hours after an attack by suicide bombers at the airport in Kabul, was an opportunity for Catholics to reflect on the past 20 years of American involvement in Afghanistan. Reactions to the speech were mixed, with one veteran saying that the president rose to the occasion at a time of national mourning but a former America editor expressing discomfort with Mr. Biden’s promise to “hunt down” those associated with the attack.
While several academics agreed with Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, one lamented that we seem to be living a “rerun” of the end of the Vietnam War, and another said that Mr. Biden was not improving on President Donald Trump’s “clumsy efforts” to end U.S. military involvement.
Some praised the president for the speech overall. Peter Lucier, a Marine veteran and writer, said he was grateful for Mr. Biden’s words in tribute of the U.S. troops and Afghans killed during the effort to evacuate people from Kabul, saying, “They did not go to fight a war. They went to save lives.” Of Mr. Biden’s speech, he said, “In a time of national mourning, his invocation of Isaiah captured perfectly what I had struggled to put to words: These men and women said ‘Send me.’ There are no better words to capture the heroism of those who gave their lives to assist in this mission.”
But Daniel Philpott, a professor at Notre Dame University, while describing the speech as an “emotional and solemn tribute to the American soldiers who died in Kabul,” painted the challenge that nevertheless will persist after the United States withdraws its troops: “The Taliban will continue to harbor terrorists who will pursue attacks upon U.S. soldiers and civilians. It will continue to repress the religious freedom of Afghanistan citizens, including that of Muslims, Christians and members of other faiths. It will continue to deny women the opportunity to develop their talents. Religion will continue to matter in international affairs. Therefore, we will have to develop new strategies to defend our security and protect human rights.”
Phil Klay, a Marine veteran, professor at Fairfield University and writer, agreed that Afghanistan will continue to be an important focus of U.S. military.... He wrote to America: “I have concerns about the shift in the war that Biden is signaling, and it is more correct to call the withdrawal a shift in the nature of the war than an end of the war, since he made absolutely clear that the counter-terror mission will continue. I did support the withdrawal, and still support it. But the way that America wages war now, in which we heavily rely on drones and special operators, in which we reserve the right to kill people around the world with extremely limited congressional oversight and very little transparency to the American public, disturbs me. These are long-running concerns for me, though, and [they] cross administrations.”
Joseph Capizzi, professor of moral theology at Catholic University of America, told America that, “Whatever one thinks of America's 20 years in Afghanistan, it is both a moral and political truth [that] our time there created obligations to Afghan allies who bravely assisted all aspects of our lengthy mission in their country…. No one could possibly be reassured by [President Biden’s] claim that upon our departure ‘we will find them and get them out.’ We're witnessing in slow motion the colossal failure of evacuating thousands absent sufficient American and allied forces to guarantee civilian safety. How could this get better when the few remaining troops are gone?”
Scott Appleby, a professor and dean at the Keough School of Global Affairs at Notre Dame who has worked with military and intelligence agency officials for over 20 years, wrote, “One view that I have heard consistently across the years, whoever the president was at the time, is frustration with the lack of clarity about our mission in Afghanistan, beyond the immediate response to the attacks of 9/11—its concrete goals and its precise role within U.S. grand strategy globally.”
For Tom Reese, S.J., political scientist, a senior analyst for Religion News Service and another former America editor-in-chief, the situation in Afghanistan “looks like a rerun.” Father Reese argues that the United States made “the same mistakes that we made in Vietnam…. We did not understand the history and culture of the country, we allied ourselves with corrupt political elites, we trained an army that could not stand up by itself, our generals and politicians lied to Congress and the American people about progress being made, and while we talked about winning minds and hearts, our military tactics [and] arrogance alienated the locals.”
Father Reese’s comments articulate a common view that the evacuation in Afghanistan, while not reflecting well upon Mr. Biden, speaks to broader patterns in U.S. history. Mr. Appleby, for instance, wrote America that while “Joe Biden consistently criticized this approach to Afghanistan as a Senator; as President, he surprised few close observers by following through on Trump's clumsy efforts to end our military presence in the country.” But he also argued: “That our withdrawal has been marked by chaos of its own, unnecessary loss of innocent lives, and the crippling of the hopes of millions of Afghan women and men, says less about the wisdom of Biden’s basic decision to withdraw, and more about the moral hazards and self-defeating hubris of American military overreach. Sadly, our nation has fallen into the trap identified by Clausewitz’s dictum that ‘War is the continuation of politics by other means.’”
Father Christiansen also noted the challenge of peace and reconciliation, and said of Mr. Biden’s speech: “I must confess one line troubled me. Patriotically, it is quite understandable. Rhetorically, it may have been the most memorable passage in the speech. But, for a Catholic in the time of Pope Francis, for a president who receives counsel from this pope, it was jarring. ‘We will not forgive. We will not forget,’ Mr. Biden promised. ‘We will hunt you down and make you pay.’”
Father Christiansen pointed out, “As a practical matter, the U.S. is already dealing with the Taliban, relying on it to police the approaches to the airport and to permit the safe evacuation of our troops and others.” He told America that he hopes “a de facto truce” can be the “threshold to a new relationship.”
Biden breaks promise to 'stay' in Afghanistan until every American evacuated
President Biden appears to have broken his promise to stay in Afghanistan until every American is evacuated.
Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. announced Monday evening that the last of the U.S. troops stationed at the Kabul airport had left, completing the military’s drawdown in the country, even though hundreds of Americans likely remain.
McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, said some American citizens who wanted to leave Afghanistan remain in country.
"We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out," he said.
President Joe Biden told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos during an interview on Aug. 18 that the U.S. military objective in Afghanistan was to get "everyone" out, including Americans and Afghan allies and their families.
"That's what we're doing now, that's the path we're on. And I think we'll get there," he said. "If there's American citizens left, we're gonna stay to get them all out."
A senior State Department official told Fox News on Monday that there is still a "small number" of Americans who are in Afghanistan.
That official put the number of Americans at "below 250," adding that some additional Americans have departed Afghanistan in recent hours. The official added that the State Department is also committed to evacuating "those who worked with us," referring to Afghan "partners.
The announced end of the withdrawal comes less than a day before the official deadline agreed to by the Taliban, which was 3:29 p.m. EST Tuesday – 11:59 p.m. local time in Kabul, U.S. defense officials told Fox News.
The Taliban has said they will allow normal travel after the U.S. withdrawal is completed on Tuesday and they assume control of the airport.