When President Joe Biden appeared in the White House East Room on July 8 to stress that the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan was proceeding apace, he declared that a Taliban takeover of the country was not inevitable.
Five weeks later, the Taliban is in charge, scenes of chaos at the Kabul airport from the evacuation of Americans and U.S.-aligned Afghan citizens has transfixed the world, and Biden is scrambling to defend himself from a series of miscalculations that have damaged U.S. credibility.
While insisting that “the buck stops with me,” Biden has doled out blame to others over America’s humiliating end to the 20-year involvement in Afghanistan that included missteps by four administrations – two Republican and two Democratic.
He has assailed the Afghan military for refusing to fight, denounced the now-ousted Afghan government and declared he inherited a bad withdrawal agreement from his Republican predecessor Donald Trump.
“I made a commitment to the American people when I ran for President that I would bring America’s military involvement in Afghanistan to an end. And while it’s been hard and messy – and yes, far from perfect – I’ve honored that commitment,” Biden said in a speech on Monday.
Biden came to office promoting himself as an international statesman with a steady hand on the tiller after Trump’s four storm-tossed years in office.
He quickly rejoined international agreements abandoned by Trump and sought to rejuvenate traditional alliances that Trump had spurned.
But his first big international challenge is generating an intense political backlash as Democrats and Republicans alike raise questions about his strategy.
A prediction by U.S. intelligence that the Taliban could be held off for three months following U.S. withdrawal proved to be wrong. U.S. military commanders who sought a more deliberate approach to the withdrawal were dismissed.
Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan took the White House podium on Tuesday to offer a broad defense of Biden’s actions. He said that signaling support for the Afghan government “was a considered judgment” that did not save it, however.
“When you conclude 20 years of military action in a civil war in another country, with the impacts of 20 years of decisions that have piled up, you have to make a lot of hard calls. None with clean outcomes,” Sullivan said.