US President Joe Biden (REUTERS)

Biden defends Afghanistan withdrawal

Mr. Biden addressed the nation from the White House Tuesday, a day after the final plane carrying American troops departed Afghanistan, formally marking the end of the nation’s longest war. The president said his administration would continue to work to help remaining Americans exit the country and pushed back against criticism of the withdrawal.

“Leaving Aug. 31 is not due to an arbitrary deadline,” Mr. Biden said. “It was designed to save American lives.”

After campaigning on completing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Mr. Biden and top administration officials have been confronted by images of chaos as Afghans seek to flee the country and the deaths of 13 service members and dozens of Afghans in a terrorist attack attributed to ISIS-K at the Kabul airport.

Republicans were divided on continuing the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, but many say the administration’s handling of the withdrawal undermines the president’s promise to provide competent leadership and serve as a steady hand on foreign policy.

“Joe Biden had exactly one advantage on foreign policy and that was a promise of stability and predictability. This looked neither stable nor predictable nor strong,” said Brad Todd, a Republican strategist advising Senate candidates in battleground states next year.

New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, chairman of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, said voters from both parties supported leaving Afghanistan and would understand the difficulty for Mr. Biden in going through with the withdrawal.

“Doing hard things is hard, and sometimes you pay a short term price, but I think that’s what leadership looks like, and I think he’s got the big thing right on Afghanistan,” Mr. Maloney said. “Most Americans want the hell out of Afghanistan and every other argument is some version of let’s stay longer.”

A poll conducted by Pew Research Center between Aug. 23-29 found that 42% of those surveyed said the Biden administration had done a poor job in handling the situation in Afghanistan. About 26% said it had done an excellent or good job, and 29% said it had done a fair job. The same poll found that 54% said the decision to withdraw was the right one, while 42% said it was wrong.

Mr. Biden is preparing for key votes in Congress after the Labor Day holiday—a period that could help shape voter perceptions ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

Democrats are seeking to steer a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and a broader $3.5 trillion healthcare, climate and education package through a narrow House majority in September.

Congress will also be tasked with raising the federal borrowing limit, called the debt ceiling, before the government runs out of money to pay its obligations.

And lawmakers face the expiration of the government’s current funding by the end of September—a deadline that will require them to either pass new spending bills or extend current funding levels to avoid a partial government shutdown.

Mr. Biden will need to keep his party aligned at a time when some Democrats have joined most Republicans in expressing frustration with his decision to withdraw by the Aug. 31 deadline instead of seeking more time, even with an estimated 100 to 200 Americans still trying to leave the country.

“Leaving any American citizen behind is unacceptable, and I will keep pushing this administration to do everything in its power to get our people out,” Sen. Mark Kelly (D., Ariz.) said in a statement Monday evening.

Rep. Cori Bush (D., Mo.), who has supported ending the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, said she is concerned about people who will be at risk under Taliban rule.

“The idea that everybody didn’t get out horrifies me,” she said.

Michael McAdams, spokesman for the House GOP’s campaign arm, said Mr. Biden and Democrats “own one of the biggest foreign policy blunders in our country’s history, leaving hundreds of Americans behind enemy lines and equipping dangerous terrorists with billions in U.S. military equipment. You can be sure voters are going to hold them accountable for this debacle.”

Mr. Biden has said that his decisions will ultimately be vindicated. White House officials said Mr. Biden’s move to end the war remains popular with the public, even as surveys have shown disapproval for the president’s handling of the withdrawal, which has led to the revival of Taliban leadership in the country.

Mr. Todd, the GOP strategist, predicted that while the focus of the 2022 midterms may hinge on the economy and the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Biden’s handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal could still play a role in the minds of many voters.

“Big moments define executives: Governors are defined by how they handle hurricanes and natural disasters, and presidents are defined by how they handle foreign policy crises,” he said.

Mr. Biden hasn’t made changes to his national security team in the wake of the withdrawal.

“It’s going to be extremely difficult to turn the page without the president holding individuals accountable for this debacle,” said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist and former chief of staff to Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.).

Mr. Biden’s administration now will need to help the remaining Americans find safe passage from the country and attempt to help thousands of Afghans who once helped American forces and could face reprisals from the Taliban.

The White House will also face the challenge of resettling thousands of Afghan refugees who have left the country, putting another potential hot-button immigration issue on the Biden agenda.

Other factors also will make it difficult for the White House to shift the focus away from Afghanistan.

Members of Congress have discussed holding hearings on the administration’s handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal.

In addition, Mr. Biden will soon mark the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which will bring more attention to the war’s aftermath. And U.S. allies such as Italy have been pressing for a special Group of 20 meeting on Afghanistan.

Italy will host this fall’s G-20 summit in Rome, which is expected to be Mr. Biden’s first foreign trip since the fall of Afghanistan to Taliban rule.


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