Gloomy and tired, Biden remains determined after the bombings
Images of the aftermath of the attacks, the deadliest day for the US military in a decade, had resonated on the cable news for hours before the president took the lectern. Mutilated Afghans. Afghan families crying. Crippled survivors transported in wheelbarrows. Grim-faced officers preparing to knock on the door of a widow or the parents of a fallen Marine, sailor, or soldier.
“It has been a difficult day,” Biden half whispered, knowing that the most lasting images of the attacks on the Kabul airport are yet to come. Thirteen coffins covered with flags. At least. That is the current number of US servicemen who lost their lives when two suicide bombers tore apart a desperate crowd trying to enter the airfield and leave the country.
Eighteen more were injured, according to Pentagon officials who warned that the death toll could rise in the coming days. Early reports indicated that more than 60 Afghans are also dead and another 140 wounded. The two explosions, one at the airport gate and one at a nearby hotel, were part of a “complex attack” coordinated by an Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan just as the United States rushes to complete its evacuation.
In the East Room of the White House late Thursday afternoon, Biden lamented and defended his decision to withdraw and vowed revenge.
“We are outraged and heartbroken,” the president said, noting how he and the first lady know the loss firsthand. Her son, Beau Biden, had returned from a tour of Iraq just to fight brain cancer at home. “And we lost,” he explained, comparing his past pain with the loss that military families are now suffering. “You have the feeling that you are being sucked into a black hole in the middle of the chest,” he told reporters and the nation. “There is no way out.”
The president had spent much of the day in the Situation Room, the command center deep in the basement of the west wing, where he said his generals “made it clear that we can and must complete this mission.” Biden said he remains committed to the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline agreed with the Taliban.
Even as the Americans continued their hasty evacuation before then, Biden promised retribution would come: “For those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: we will not forgive, we will not forget, We will chase you and make you pay. “
The portrait of George Washington, the one that Dolly Madison refused to leave before the British burned down the White House in the War of 1812, stood to the president’s right as he discussed the aftermath of America’s longest war. In particular, Biden had to explain how the Taliban, once enemies, were a critical part of the American retreat. “It’s in their own interest that we leave when we said,” he said, “and get as many people out as we can.”
Hours earlier, it emerged that administration officials had given the Taliban a list of names of American citizens and Afghan allies to come out to the outer perimeter of the Kabul airport. Given the tenuous peace with the Taliban and the fact that their henchmen are already going door-to-door in some parts of the country looking for US allies, a Department of Defense official complained to Politico: “They basically just put all those Afghans on a murder list. ”In response to a question from reporters in the East Room on Thursday, Biden acknowledged that there were“ times ”when the administration passed names, although in his account it was very different.
The president admitted that US military officials have informed the Taliban that, “For example, ‘This bus comes with X number of people on it, made up of the following group of people. We want you to let that bus or that group pass. So yes, there have been times like that.
“I can’t tell you for sure that there has actually been a list of names,” added Biden. “There may have been. But I don’t know of any circumstances. It does not mean that it does not exist, that ‘Here are the names of 12 people, they are going to come, let them pass’. It very well could have happened. “
All eyes, including those of the president, remain on the Kabul airport because it is the last and only way out of that chaotic country. Before Thursday’s attacks, administration allies repeatedly compared evacuation efforts to the Cold War Berlin Airlift. And since the flights began to depart in earnest on Aug. 14, it has been the last glimpse of Afghanistan for more than 100,000 evacuees. The problem? Many others trying to flee the country, including US citizens, have been unable to get past the Taliban and make it to the airfield.
Some critics have questioned the desirability of leaving the easier-to-defend Bagram airbase, the sprawling facility abandoned by the United States in the middle of the night last month, to the Taliban. Did the president personally reject the recommendations to hang on to or reclaim that airfield? Biden explained his thinking Thursday:
He “gathered all the important military personnel who are in Afghanistan.” He asked for “his best military judgment” on how to get the job done. “They concluded, the military, that Bagram did not have much added value and that it was much more prudent to focus on Kabul,” he said. “And so, I followed that recommendation.”
Anger over that decision, compounded by recent US casualties along with the general chaos that has accompanied the pullout, fueled a wave of Republicans calling for Biden’s resignation. Before the president even began speaking, Senator Marsha Blackburn said he, his vice president and top military advisers “should resign or face impeachment and impeachment.”
His comments did not change her mind. The Tennessee Republican later told RCP that the administration “had no plan or strategy. They put Americans directly in danger, causing American casualties. “She reiterated:” Resignations are needed. “
When asked to respond by White House press secretary Jen Psaki, she said such questions were inappropriate in the wake of the tragedy: “This is not a day for politics, and we would expect any American, whether elected. or not, you would join us in our commitment to hunt down, fight and kill those terrorists, wherever they live, and to honor the memory of service members. “
A Democratic strategist was not so cautious. Republicans are in no position to lecture the current president, the source said, given that many on the right “pressured Biden to leave in May,” that the previous administration signed a “catastrophic” peace deal with the Taliban. ” , and that, as a condition of that agreement, “forced the release from prison of 5,000 Taliban fighters.” “They are now more eager to play politics with the lives of American service members than to condemn the damned terrorists who just committed suicide vest killings, “the source told RCP.” He’s repulsive and weak. “
If the president was aware of those policies, he did not mention them in the East Room. He focused more on the country’s geopolitical concerns, noting that while he did not trust the Taliban, “it is in their own interest that we leave when we said and take out as many people as we can.” Back in the meeting room, his spokesman added that the government’s commitment to remove American citizens would not be exhausted by the end of the month.
Was Biden trying to prepare the nation for the harsh reality that some Americans might be left behind? “There are some Americans who may not have decided to leave before the 31st,” Psaki replied. “That’s possible.” However, apparently there are Americans who want to leave but report that they cannot pass through the Taliban and enter the airport.
That fact has not escaped the president, who spoke softly when he addressed reporters. He’d spent much of the day in the windowless Situation Room up to that point, taking in the bad news as it came. And later in the afternoon, like thunderstorms rumbled and lightning flashed Above the White House, a US Marine Corps guard was posted outside the Oval Office, signaling the president’s presence. When answering questions, Biden rarely raised his voice or even bristled. But an exchange clearly exhausted him.
“I am fundamentally responsible for everything that has happened lately,” Biden told a Fox News reporter. However, he continued, adding that “I would like you to one day say these things” – that his predecessor’s deal with the Taliban had exacerbated the problem. During an exchange of views on how the recall was handled, the president folded his hands around his folder and bowed his head.
He looked up when asked if he was sticking with his decision. “Yes, I do,” Biden said, explaining that his answer would have to be shortened because he had “another meeting, really.” The United States only entered Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks to capture Osama bin Laden, he said. If that terrorist had been in another country, Yemen, for example, “Would we ever have gone to Afghanistan?” And while the threat of terrorism is global, he explained, that does not require “military camps” everywhere.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Biden said, “it was time to end a 20-year war.”