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Biden’s shaky defense of his government’s evacuation plan for Afghans

President Biden addressed the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan during remarks on Aug. 16. Here’s his speech in less than 3 minutes. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated.

Missing in President Biden’s defense of Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban is a clear-eyed look at what appears to be one of his administration’s biggest miscalculations these past few months: How and when to get Afghans who helped Americans out of the country.

Tens of thousands of interpreters, fixers and other Afghan allies and their families are still in the country, and in grave danger. Many may not make it out. Many may lose their lives for their work with the Americans. Some may have died trying to hang onto planes taking off Monday, they were that desperate to get out.

That has Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill asking why the Biden administration didn’t get these people out sooner.

On Monday, Biden essentially said they just got caught off guard and were stopped by the Afghan government from making mass evacuations earlier. That’s unlikely to satiate his critics on both sides of the aisle.

“I think he is going to have blood on his hands for what they did,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Sunday.

“These past few days have been difficult to process, and not because the Taliban’s progress was surprising,” Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.), an Air Force veteran, told CNN on Monday. “In fact, the opposite. We sounded the alarm, and our dire warnings fell on deaf ears.”

“Cut the crap about 1,800 relocations when there are tens of thousands who are stranded,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said in a statement in response to Biden’s address.

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) called it a “failure:” The rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan reveals a failure to prepare for a scenario where the Afghan government and military would refuse to fight the Taliban’s advances when put to the test," he said in a statement late Monday after Biden spoke.

The conclusion that a number of people on Capitol Hill have reached for now is that the administration thought it had more time. Biden announced in April that he would stay with President Donald Trump’s plan to leave the country. The deadline he set was the end of August. At the time, U.S. intelligence was warning that the Taliban could overtake the country in six months to a year. Democrats and Republicans in Congress said they worried it could be sooner.

Some Democrats privately expressed concern that the Biden administration was going on faulty intelligence. The Biden team put together a plan to evacuate Afghans this summer that seemed reasonable, but it failed to update it as the Taliban gained ground and conditions in Afghanistan deteriorated significantly, according to a Democratic congressional staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly. As the Taliban felled provinces with stunning speed, the Biden administration barely made a dent in the backlog of special immigrant visa applicants that the Trump administration had left.

In his remarks to the nation Monday, Biden agreed with his critics that he got caught off guard. “We planned for every contingency, but I always promised the American people that I would be straight with you,” Biden said. “The truth is this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.”

In addressing why Afghanistan fell more swiftly than he could have imagined, Biden directed plenty of blame at others, noted The Fix’s Aaron Blake.

The same could be said for how he defended his evacuation policy. Essentially, Biden said Monday, the Afghan government stopped him from getting people out sooner.

“I know there are concerns about why we did not begin evacuating Afghan civilians sooner,” he said. “Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country, and part of it is because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, a crisis of confidence.”

Except, for the past four months, House and Senate lawmakers were regularly asking the administration for updates on how it planned to get people out of the country.

“We have a moral imperative to act now — before it’s too late — and fulfill our promise of safety for the Afghans who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with our troops,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said in a statement in July. (Her bill to fix problems with the special immigrant visa program got signed into law earlier this month.)

“I have been asking for months for answers on how the Biden administration planned to execute this withdrawal,” Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), a military veteran who lost both his legs in Afghanistan, said in a statement Monday. “And now they’ve showed us: Be so unprepared that all those who worked with us are going to be executed.”

Reuters reports that the U.S. military also wanted Biden to start evacuations sooner and that officials are frustrated that didn’t happen.

Now, while Republicans tear into Biden for leaving Afghan allies behind, Democrats are also (more gently) asking for answers to Biden’s evacuation policy.

Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), a member of the Senate’s committees that oversee the military and security, said in a statement Monday that she wants Congress and the administration to start looking into why they missed the warning signs for such a rapid deterioration and did not get Afghan allies out sooner.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) is chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and said he will ask “tough questions” about how this happened, too. “We owe those answers to the American people and to all those who served and sacrificed so much," he said.

This is a question that will continue to haunt Biden in the weeks and months ahead.