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How Republicans are slamming Biden on Afghanistan

The early contours of what could become a massive political headache for the president are taking shape

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)

President Biden’s decision to end the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan was popular with Americans, but it precipitated a disaster for Afghanistan.

What will it mean for him and his party politically? It’s hard to say, because the political lines on Afghanistan have changed so much over the past few decades. Republicans used to be the hawkish party, and many prominent lawmakers still are. But former president Donald Trump campaigned and won on a policy of ending America’s longest war.

Still, Republicans are trying to capture both chambers of Congress in elections next year, and they see an opening to attack Biden where he has traditionally been very strong — on foreign policy — and potentially reshape how Americans view his presidency.

“[T]his is going to be a stain on this president and this presidency,” said an angry Rep. Michael McCaul (Tex.), the top House Republican on foreign affairs, in a CNN interview Sunday. “I think he is going to have blood on his hands for what they did.”

We don’t yet know how the American public views leaving Afghanistan with the Taliban taking over so quickly. But Republican criticism this weekend of how Biden handled it is creating some early contours of what could be a political fallout for the president. For instance:

Argument No. 1: Biden is responsible for this

Republicans have an opportunity to turn America’s longest war into something Democrats own. They are saying — and probably will be saying for a long time — that Biden owns the fall of Afghanistan.

Biden defends himself by saying that the 20-year war came under four presidents, two of them Republican. George W. Bush started it (a decision Biden supported at the time), and Biden said it was Trump who negotiated a peace deal with the Taliban that Biden argues left it stronger.

But Biden was the president who decided to officially end the war, Republicans counter. Here’s the top House Republican, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), saying that what’s happening “falls squarely on [Biden’s] shoulders.”

Trump, who is considering a 2024 challenge to Biden, said in a statement that Biden “surrendered” to the Taliban. (Although that ignores the likelihood that the Taliban would have taken over anyway, which we discuss next.)

Argument No. 2: Biden didn’t see or didn’t prepare for what was coming

Listen closely, and you’ll hear that powerful Republican lawmakers aren’t joining Trump in blaming Biden for the Afghan government falling to the Taliban. That’s because intelligence reports warned that the Taliban could take over the country mere months after the United States left.

Few thought the takeover would happen in just days, though. And Republicans argue that Biden was not ready for the worst-case scenario. They argue that he did not make the necessary preparations to get Americans and their Afghan helpers out when the country would fall to the Taliban.

The example they hold up is the timeline: Biden announced in April that Americans would be leaving soon. By mid-August, the vast majority of Afghans who supported the United States were still in the country when the Taliban took over.

“Gross incompetence has given the Taliban a terrible opportunity to slaughter our allies,” writes Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) in the National Review on Monday. “Eighty-eight thousand of our Afghani allies have applied for visas to get out of the country, but this administration has approved just 1,200 so far. I’ve been among a bipartisan group of senators that has pushed Biden to expedite this process, but to no avail. At this point, it’s not clear how many we’ll be able to get out. Every translator and ally who stood by us is now at risk.”

Last month, Biden made the comparison himself to the end of the Vietnam War and the frenzied rush to get out Americans and their Vietnamese helpers: “There’s going to be no circumstance when you’re going to see people being lifted off the roof,” he said of Afghanistan.

Republicans are trying to turn Biden’s words against him, using the fall of Saigon to illustrate what they say is one of America’s biggest foreign policy blunders since, because of how unprepared they say Biden was for reality.

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

Defensive and defiant: A president known for empathy takes a cold-eyed approach to Afghanistan

Argument No. 3: The U.S. is less safe because of how poorly the withdrawal is going

The war in Afghanistan scrambles traditional political lines. Republicans have been split about whether the United States should have stayed in Afghanistan indefinitely or leave. Trump actually announced the United States was going to take its troops home, and Biden agreed.

But Republicans are united in arguing that the Taliban’s swift takeover of the country and the U.S.-backed government’s implosion will leave America even more vulnerable. There could have been a smarter way to leave, some of them say. (Though hindsight is always 20/20.)

“We are going to go back to a pre-9/11 state — a breeding ground for terrorism,” McCaul warned.

“We’ve now created a situation whereas we get to the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we are surrendering Afghanistan to the terrorist organization that housed al-Qaeda when they plotted and planned the attacks against us,” said Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), whose father was vice president when the United States led the invasion of Afghanistan, on ABC’s “This Week.”

“The long-term consequences for America flowing from this debacle in Afghanistan are enormous,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement. “America will be seen as weak in the eyes of our enemies and unreliable in the eyes of our allies.”

Argument No. 4: Biden seems aloof from it all

Optics matter in politics just as much, if not more, than policy.

Biden’s decision to work from Camp David rather than the White House as the Taliban decimated the Afghan government has allowed Republicans to frame him as a distant president. (Even though Biden was receiving the same briefings he would have at the White House.)

As Kabul fell Sunday and images circulated of the Taliban inside the presidential palace, some Republicans, such as Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), who served in Afghanistan, urged Biden to address Americans that night. On Monday morning, Biden said he’d return to the White House and address Americans.

What Biden is saying about this

In a sign he’s feeling the political heat, Biden issued a lengthy statement Saturday explaining why he decided to withdraw. The crux of his defense pointed the finger at Trump, whom Biden accused of negotiating a deal with the Taliban that required America to decide whether to stay and fight, or leave entirely.

When I came to office, I inherited a deal cut by my predecessor — which he invited the Taliban to discuss at Camp David on the eve of 9/11 of 2019 — that left the Taliban in the strongest position militarily since 2001 and imposed a May 1, 2021 deadline on U.S. Forces. Shortly before he left office, he also drew U.S. Forces down to a bare minimum of 2,500. Therefore, when I became President, I faced a choice — follow through on the deal, with a brief extension to get our Forces and our allies’ Forces out safely, or ramp up our presence and send more American troops to fight once again in another country’s civil conflict. I was the fourth President to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan — two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth.

While Republicans such as Cheney openly say Trump shouldn’t have set a date for a withdrawal, they argue that Biden is presenting Americans with a false choice. He’s had no problem reversing Trump’s other major foreign policy decisions, for example.

These are the early contours of a political battle that is just beginning as the war in Afghanistan is ending.