WASHINGTON — Under withering criticism from Republicans and some in his own party, President Joe Biden clarified Monday what he has been reluctant to articulate about the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan: He’s much more concerned about the blood and treasure of his own country.
“I will not repeat the mistakes we’ve made in the past — mistake of staying and fighting indefinitely in a conflict that is not in the national interest of the United States, of doubling down on a civil war in a foreign country,” Biden said in a speech televised from the White House.
For Biden, the war in Afghanistan has long yielded diminishing returns for the U.S., and he stood firmly by the withdrawal decision Monday.
“It’s the right one,” he said. “I am president of the United States of America, and the buck stops with me.”
But the question for many elected officials, policy experts and political strategists is whether the operation could have been executed more deftly.
Could the U.S. have predicted the Taliban takeover of Kabul?
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A swift Taliban takeover of Afghanistan — faster, Biden said, than he had expected — forced the country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, to flee Kabul. Thousands of U.S. troops are now headed back to Afghanistan to provide security for U.S. citizens and allies who are desperate to get out. And much of the world watched in horror as people tried to cling to a departing U.S. military jet at Kabul’s international airport.
“It’s not that we left Afghanistan,” former President Donald Trump said in a statement after Biden’s remarks. “It’s the grossly incompetent way we left!”
Biden framed his options as binary: either the current situation — spurred by Trump’s May 1 deadline for a withdrawal — or a forever war.
“The choice I had to make as your president was either to follow through on that agreement or be prepared to go back and fight the Taliban,” Biden said. “I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth president.”
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the 2012 Republican nominee for president, slammed Biden, saying he had presented a false choice.
“Contrary to his claims, our choice was not between a hasty and ill-prepared retreat or staying forever,” Romney said. “The decision to place a higher priority on a political promise than on the lives of innocent men, women and children is a stain on America’s reputation and undermines our credibility around the world.”
Biden may be right that history will judge his overall decision as prudent. But even some of his fellow Democrats have been highly critical of the operation. Some Democrats see a tragic failure to plan for the aftermath.
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Before Biden spoke, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., said he would demand to know “why we weren’t better prepared for a worst-case scenario involving such a swift and total collapse of the Afghan government and security forces.”
Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis, who visited Afghanistan as a Senate aide in 2011, said Biden should clean house.
“President Biden’s team failed him across the board,” Kofinis said. “Not only should his national security adviser and his secretary of state be fired immediately, but anyone who let this national disgrace happen should be fired. … Biden either makes immediate changes or he may not have much of a presidency left after this.”
White House officials, aware of frustration among Democrats, circulated talking points to members of Congress before Biden’s speech. Lawmakers, who will face voters before the next presidential election, keep a close eye on polls. And there are some indications that once-overwhelming support for a withdrawal among the public has dissipated.
A Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted Friday through Monday found that backing for a withdrawal had fallen from 69 percent to 49 percent among registered voters since April, with only 25 percent saying the removal of U.S. forces is going well.
Even as he said he took responsibility for the decision, Biden blamed the outcome of the Taliban takeover on political leaders in Afghanistan and its military.
“Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves,” he said, arguing that the U.S. shouldn’t sacrifice any more lives in their defense.
Such an America-first approach has proved popular with voters in recent elections, but Biden’s execution of the withdrawal has left him open to criticism of the competence he campaigned on. And not just from the usual suspects.