At a White House press conference on Sunday, President Joe Biden quadrupled down on his decision to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, arguing that “history” would judge him kindly and that “there is no way to evacuate this many people [from Kabul] without pain.”
And when a reporter cited a new CBS poll, published on Sunday, saying it found “a majority of Americans… no longer consider you to be competent, focused, or effective at the job” amid the humanitarian crisis, Biden laughed it off and grinned widely.
“Look, I had a basic decision to make,” the president replied, before reciting stats on the number of Americans killed and wounded in Afghanistan before the withdrawal, and the money and resources spent there.
“And I decided to end the war,” he said.
Headed into this summer, Biden and his senior staff were preparing to declare at least a modest victory, with hopes of an ebbing pandemic and a rejuvenating U.S. economy, aided by huge federal stimulus.
But as the administration has continued to struggle with COVID-19 surges around the country, and as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan devolved into a devastatingly fast Taliban takeover, recent polling has shown Biden’s job approval rating sag beneath the 50 percent mark for the first time since his inauguration.
Still, Biden is sticking with the political calculation that he and some of his top advisers had settled on at the very start of his presidency: that the American public will ultimately have his back on the decision to withdraw.
“My job is to make judgments no one else can, or will, make,” Biden said on Sunday. “I made them. I’m convinced I’m absolutely correct in not deciding to send more young women and men to war—for a war that in fact is no longer warranted.”
Much of the criticism, particularly from within Biden’s own party and from Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill, hasn’t been about simply ending the war, but about the execution of the withdrawal and the dramatic shortcomings of the administration’s efforts to evacuate Afghan allies and their families who are facing likely brutal reprisal from Taliban fighters.
During the press conference, Biden announced that “11,000 individuals” had been evacuated out of Kabul in a roughly 30-hour period this weekend, and promised—after days of reports of Americans experiencing difficulties getting out—that “any American who wants to get home will get home.” Even as Biden commented on the “heartbreaking images” that Americans have been seeing on their TV screens, in their newspapers, and online, and the suffering and chaos erupting in Afghanistan, he did not waver from his conviction that the Biden plan was the right plan.
And asked by a reporter about the Aug. 31 deadline for American troops to exit Afghanistan, Biden said that an extension is possible, depending on the situation on the ground and the rate of U.S.-led evacuations by the end of the month. “There’s discussions going on among us,” Biden responded. “Our hope is we will not have to extend.”
When pressed on what American operations or rescue missions he had authorized outside of Kabul’s international airport, Biden remained coy. “What I’m not going to do is talk about the tactical changes we’re making to make sure we maintain as much security as we can,” he said, referring to the broader effort as a “dangerous operation.”
Throughout his Sunday appearance, Biden made sure to keep returning to his primary message, one that has been front and center in his string of updates and addresses on the situation in Afghanistan this month: “If we didn’t leave Afghanistan now, when do we leave?” he asked again, promising American viewers that he is no longer willing to send “your son or your daughter” to fight or die in America’s longest war.
In the past week, some of Biden’s most prominent Republican antagonists—including the former president who continues on as leader of the GOP—have lined up to relentlessly trash, and to fundraise off of, Biden’s withdrawal. During his four years in office, former President Donald Trump was one of the noisiest public advocates for a speedier withdrawal from America’s foreign wars—even though he ultimately didn’t end the Afghanistan war as promised, and had even escalated the U.S. war effort early in his term.
But by this weekend, that didn’t matter: Trump smelled blood in the water and political vulnerability, and was ready to harangue Biden—even if that meant advocating a possible re-invasion of Afghanistan that he supposedly deplored.
“You know what, we have to go in and we should go in when it’s right, and we now may have to be forced to go in [to Afghanistan] because this person that is running our country made a horrific decision of taking all of our powerful military out,” the twice-impeached former president rambled at an Alabama rally on Saturday night. “We may be forced to go in, and we may not be forced, but we may be forced to go in. And if you’re not prepared to go in, you’re never going to see those 45,000 people again. That I can tell you. If they don’t think you’re prepared to go in, you’re never going to see… them again.”
During that same rally, Trump also made a point of describing the Taliban as “tough fighters” and “great negotiators.”