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Biden Says He Will Get Americans Out of Afghanistan

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 8/20/2021 Catherine Lucey, Andrew Restuccia
a group of people sitting at a table using a laptop © Adam Schultz/White House/Zuma Press

WASHINGTON—President Biden promised to evacuate every American who wants to leave Afghanistan and said he would seek to extract Afghan allies, but he cautioned that the mission is dangerous and didn’t rule out losses, following days of chaos at Kabul’s international airport.

“I cannot promise what the final outcome will be or that it will be without risk of loss, but as commander in chief, I can assure you that I will mobilize every resource necessary,” Mr. Biden said during a speech in the East Room of the White House Friday.

The speech came at the end of Mr. Biden’s most tumultuous week as commander in chief, with the problems unlikely to go away soon. They were his first public comments in several days, and it was also the first time Mr. Biden took questions from White House reporters since the fall of Kabul, aside from a television interview this week.

Mr. Biden is facing bipartisan criticism for the chaotic U.S. exit and frenzied evacuation process, as thousands of Afghans crowd outside the perimeter of the Kabul airport. To reach the airport, Afghans and foreigners have to get past Taliban checkpoints, where Taliban fighters have been firing in the air and using violence to hold back crowds. Troops used tear gas in an effort to control the chaotic crowds Friday.

“This is one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history, and the only country in the world capable of projecting this much power on the far side of the world with this degree of precision is the United States of America,” Mr. Biden said.

Mr. Biden said the U.S. has made progress in speeding up the pace of evacuations in recent days. The U.S. has helped evacuate 18,000 people from the country since July, including 13,000 since Aug. 14, when the military’s airlift operation began, according to Mr. Biden. In the past 24 hours, the U.S. evacuated 5,700 people, according to the White House.

The military briefly paused evacuations to make sure officials could properly process evacuees, but Mr. Biden said the extractions had resumed.

Mr. Biden said the Taliban has promised safe passage to the airport for Americans, saying “to the best of our knowledge at the Taliban checkpoints, they are letting through people showing American passports.” But in a private briefing with House lawmakers, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that some Americans had been beaten by the Taliban in Kabul, according to a person on the call.

Mr. Austin said that he hasn’t ruled out, and hasn’t ruled in, going to get people who can’t make it to the airport. And Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers that the Biden administration was working on options to “go outside the wire” to retrieve people, the person said. Pentagon officials acknowledged that American forces at the Kabul airport had left the airport security perimeter briefly to escort 169 Americans into the airport.

U.S. troops in three Chinook heavy-lift helicopters flew about 660 feet beyond the airport perimeter Friday to the Baron Hotel to rescue 169 Americans, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters late Friday. U.S. commanders determined that a large crowd gathered between the hotel and the airport gate rendered it unsafe for the Americans to attempt to reach the airport on foot, Mr. Kirby said. It was the first such known airlift operation outside the perimeter of the airport.

Mr. Biden said the administration is considering all options to ensure that any Americans who are stuck behind Taliban checkpoints can reach the airport. He said expanding the U.S. military security perimeter beyond the airport, however, would have unintended consequences.


Video: Biden will get ‘any American who wants to come home’ out of Afghanistan (The Washington Post)

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Mr. Biden again defended his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan as part of last year’s peace deal between the Trump administration and the Taliban. “There’s no way in which we’d be able to leave Afghanistan without there being some of what you’re seeing now,” he said.

Mr. Biden made his comments amid the chaos that came with the rapid Taliban takeover of Afghanistan as the U.S. approached Mr. Biden’s deadline to withdraw troops.

Lawmakers are calling for hearings into the administration’s handling of the withdrawal of U.S. troops and are asking why more Americans and Afghans who worked with the U.S. weren’t evacuated beforehand. The coming anniversary of the Sep. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks will highlight the Taliban’s swift takeover of the country 20 years after the U.S. invasion.

“President Biden is clearly disconnected from the reality on the ground in Afghanistan,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said on Fox News after Mr. Biden’s speech. Referring to a viral image from Afghanistan, he said: “There’s clearly no plan. If there were a plan, do you think a mother would be handing their baby over the wall to a Marine?”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D., Conn.) said on Twitter that Mr. Biden made a strong statement, saying, “Everybody should probably wait a beat before casting final total judgment on the effort.”

Mr. Biden campaigned on his foreign-policy experience and pledged to be a stabilizing force in the world, casting himself as a contrast to the unpredictable foreign policy of the Trump administration. His handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has been generally well received by the public and the economy appears strong. Last week, the Senate voted to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill that is a central piece of his economic agenda.

But the erratic exit from Afghanistan—punctuated by scenes of desperate Afghans trying to get on evacuation flights—has prompted questions from lawmakers in both parties, as well as among world allies who have long relied on U.S. leadership and were looking to the Biden administration to lead an orderly exit from Afghanistan.

“You can’t ignore it, but for whatever reason, I feel like the president is trying to distance himself from this,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R., Iowa), a combat veteran. “I feel like he should be out there every single day saying, ‘This is what’s going on right now. God bless these men and women that are trying to get our Americans out safely.’ ”

White House spokesman Andrew Bates said Mr. Biden is deeply focused on the evacuation effort. He also added: “This week also saw a new record low in unemployment numbers since the pandemic began, and today over one million Americans received vaccine doses.”

It isn’t clear how the images coming out of Afghanistan will affect the public view of Mr. Biden’s actions or what the week’s events will mean for his presidency. Nearly two-thirds of Americans said the war in Afghanistan wasn’t worth fighting, according to a new poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The poll, conducted Aug. 12-16, found that 52% approved of Mr. Biden’s handling of national security matters and 47% approved of his handling of foreign affairs.

The administration has been seeking to balance monitoring the situation in Afghanistan with work in its other priority areas that just a week ago dominated the news. The president held a virtual meeting with Democratic lawmakers Thursday to discuss his infrastructure and antipoverty plans and gave remarks Wednesday on Covid-19 booster shots. Moving forward, he must grapple with the Afghanistan fallout, as well as a rise in Covid-19 hospitalizations and recent Democratic squabbling over how to enact Mr. Biden’s agenda.

At times, top officials have struggled to explain how the administration ended up in this position, while insisting they are handling it.

As the Taliban takeover accelerated over the weekend, Mr. Biden was at Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains, and was expected to be away from Washington all week. The White House released a photo of him sitting alone in a conference room for a virtual briefing on the situation in Afghanistan.

He returned Monday to address the nation, focusing on the reasons for exiting the 20-year conflict, which he said should no longer require U.S. ground troops. He largely didn’t address criticism that his administration executed the exit in a haphazard way and cast much of the blame for the quick fall of the Afghan government on its American-trained military. After the speech, he returned to Camp David for another night, but by Tuesday evening, he was back in Washington.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said at the White House’s only briefing this week that the administration didn’t expect the Afghan government to fall so quickly, but he also said it was prepared for all scenarios. Amid reports that Afghans couldn’t access the airport and were being beaten at checkpoints, he said that large numbers of people were getting to the airport and that they would hold the Taliban to a commitment to allow safe passage.

At a Pentagon briefing Wednesday, Mr. Austin and Mr. Milley said they were working to fly people out of Kabul, but they couldn’t say how the U.S. would get Americans and Afghans past the Taliban and to the airport.

Democrats and Republicans are calling for hearings to probe how the withdrawal unfolded. “There are numerous questions that demand answers on the lead-up to this crisis,” tweeted Rep. Bob Gibbs (R., Ohio), who is among a group of Republicans on the House Oversight Committee seeking a hearing.

Write to Catherine Lucey at catherine.lucey@wsj.com and Andrew Restuccia at andrew.restuccia@wsj.com

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