U.S. President Joe Biden remains defiant in the middle of a political storm triggered by the swift Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and chaotic end of America’s longest war.
Defending Afghan withdrawal plans that he announced in April, Biden told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos on Wednesday that the military exit was a “simple choice” and could not have been carried out more effectively.
The president insisted no one could have foreseen the swift Taliban takeover, a possibility that he has repeatedly dismissed since announcing the drawdown.
“The idea that the Taliban would take over was premised on the notion that somehow the 300,000 troops we had trained and equipped were going to just collapse, they were going to give up. I don’t think anybody anticipated that,” Biden said.
Still, the failure to evacuate U.S. personnel and Afghan partners in an orderly manner and the rapid collapse of the American-backed Afghan government have raised doubts about the calculations behind his foreign policy, supposedly an area of expertise for Biden, who spent many years serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“It was a failure of leadership. It was mostly a failure of proper thought and planning,” said Michael O’Hanlon, senior foreign policy fellow at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution.
In just a few days, Biden's approval rating dropped by 7 percentage points, to its lowest level in his presidency. A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted on Monday found that only 46% of American adults approved of Biden's performance in office, down from 53% in a similar Reuters/Ipsos poll that ran Friday.
Public support for ending the war, which administration officials often referred to as the basis for the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, has also tumbled. Forty-nine percent of voters now back the withdrawal of U.S. forces, down 20 points since April, according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll conducted after the messy pullout.
Congressional backlash has been swift and bipartisan. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called it an “unmitigated disaster” and a stain on America’s reputation.
"Every terrorist around the world, in Syria, in Iraq and Yemen, in Africa, are cheering the defeat of the United States military by a terrorist organization in Afghanistan," McConnell said.
Democrats criticized the drawdown’s disorganization even as they pointed out that Biden was carrying out the timeline set by his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, a Republican, who wanted to exit by May 1.
“I am disappointed that the Biden administration clearly did not accurately assess the implications of a rapid U.S. withdrawal,” Senator Bob Menendez, Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “We are now witnessing the horrifying results of many years of policy and intelligence failures.”
Lawmakers vowed to investigate the administration’s botched pullout.
Can Biden bounce back?
Afghanistan is no doubt the biggest foreign policy crisis in Biden’s young presidency, but some analysts said he could weather it.
In the immediate term, Biden’s political standing will depend on the safe and orderly evacuation of Americans, Afghans and third-country citizens, as well as the management of the flood of Afghan refugees. Even before the Taliban took power, U.N. 2020 data showed there were 2.6 million Afghan refugees, the third-largest group in the world.
“The practice on the ground over the days and weeks ahead is going to be very important for rebuilding credibility,” said Earl Anthony Wayne, a former deputy ambassador to Afghanistan who is now with the Wilson Center, a global policy research organization in Washington.
The next phase is ensuring that Afghanistan does not become a terrorist breeding ground and upholds some basic measure of human rights, including in how they treat women and other minorities.
“The United States and other members of the international community have to agree on a set of messages, clear messages for the Taliban about what their new government should do,” Wayne said.
Administration officials have confirmed that on Sunday the U.S. froze nearly $9.5 billion of Afghan government reserves held in American bank accounts. These assets will become important leverage in negotiations with the Taliban.
US credibility undermined
Critics, including House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, said Biden’s disorderly withdrawal would create “long-term damage to America's credibility,” undoing what they said was the sacrifice of American blood and treasure poured into Afghanistan during the past 20 years of conflict.
“President Biden’s poor judgment produced the worst possible outcome in Afghanistan in only a matter of weeks,” McCarthy said.
The Pentagon said U.S. military operations in Afghanistan have cost $824.9 billion since 2001. Brown University’s researchers put the total cost of operations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan at nearly $2.3 trillion. A total of 2,442 American soldiers and 3,846 U.S. contractors have been killed in the war.
Analysts said the withdrawal would impact U.S. credibility, just as the collapse of South Vietnam did in 1975, but that the damage could be repaired.
"The Russians and Chinese will certainly make a meal out of the mess in Afghanistan,” said Daniel Fried, the Weiser Family distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, a global affairs think tank in Washington.
"But also like in Vietnam, the collapse of U.S. policy in Afghanistan does not mean that U.S. security commitments and support – toward NATO, Asian or Middle Eastern allies – are worthless,” Fried added.
Allies including the U.K., which was the second-largest supplier of troops to Afghanistan, have expressed disappointment with the handling of the withdrawal.
“The real question is whether they will take from this the conclusion that we are now unreliable, inconsistent, hypocritical and unable to fulfill our commitments,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“I don't think that it translates that way,” Miller said, predicting that the Afghanistan experience would not fundamentally alter U.S. core alliances.
Other analysts maintained that history would judge Biden’s decision to be one that could ultimately strengthen American credibility.
"Washington in the end of the day had the good sense to make a tough judgment call,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a foreign policy think tank headquartered in New York.
“This effort in nation building wasn't working,” Kupchan said. “It's time to end it despite the short term hit to American credibility.”
Jesusemen Oni and Keida Kostreci contributed to this report.