At the White House
72 HOURS AT CAMP DAVID: President Biden left for Camp David on Friday, commencing a long-planned vacation, only to return on Monday afternoon to address the biggest foreign policy crisis of his presidency. Our colleagues Ashley Parker, Tyler Pager, and Annie Linskey are out with a ticktock of those three days that left the U.S. scrambling to evacuate Americans and Afghan nationals out of Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover.
- “One close Biden foreign policy ally, who is in regular contact with the White House and State Department, said the president's team would never have let him leave for Camp David had they known just how quickly Afghanistan would implode amid the president's decision to withdraw all U.S. troops by Sept. 11,” Ashley, Tyler, and Annie report.
“One early sign of growing urgency came in a photograph. On Saturday, the White House released an image of Biden, seated alone in a secure conference room at Camp David, showing him conferring with Vice President Harris and his national security team via video conference about what it described as ‘the ongoing efforts to draw down our civilian footprint in Afghanistan.'”
“By Saturday night, shortly after 8 p.m., Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer's team invited lawmakers to a 10:30 a.m. Sunday phone briefing with top administration officials — including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, [Secretary of State Antony] Blinken, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley — according to one Democratic aide familiar with the emails,” per Ashley, Tyler, and Annie.
- “The briefing lasted for about an hour, according to one person familiar with it, and the officials took questions from senators, which ranged from ‘supportive to antagonistic,’ according to another person who was on the call, who like others requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.”
🚨: “Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said two details from the briefing stood out to him: That the officials said there were as many as 60,000 people eligible to be evacuated from Afghanistan, and that they were revising their June assessment that the threat to the U.S. homeland from militant groups like al-Qaeda operating from Afghanistan was a medium risk and could begin in as few as two years.”
- "Clearly, they were flat-footed," Graham said. "People are concerned about the evacuation and people are concerned about the threat to the homeland. There's a bipartisan concern about leaving people behind who helped us and there's growing concern about this on our foreign policy writ large."
“By Monday, as the Taliban descended on Kabul, Americans woke up to harrowing images from the Afghanistan capital: Chaos engulfed Kabul international airport, as desperate Afghan nationals ran alongside a U.S. military airplane while it taxied for takeoff, some clinging to its wings and wheels,” per Ashley, Tyler, and Annie.
After the White House initially offered a public schedule void of any events, Biden returned to the White House later Monday afternoon to address the country:
- "I am President of the United States of America, and the buck stops with me," Biden said in his speech Monday. "I am deeply saddened by the facts we now face. But I do not regret my decision to end America's war fighting in Afghanistan and maintain a laser-focus on our counterterrorism missions there and in other parts of the world."
“A White House official said Biden's decision to withdraw troops was rooted in his long-articulated conviction that he would not be the commander in chief to send more U.S. troops to die in an endless war in a faraway nation whose own citizens were unwilling or unable to fight for themselves, and that the past 72 hours had only underscored the wisdom of his decision.”
- “This person argued that the administration had planned for every contingency and always knew that Kabul could fall to Taliban control - albeit not necessarily as quickly as it did. They also pointed to the 6,000 U.S. troops that have been deployed to Afghanistan to help secure the airport and assist with the evacuation of American citizens and Afghan nationals.”
- “A senior administration official, requesting anonymity to share sensitive details, said the National Security Council met 36 times at both the deputies and principals level since Biden's announcement in April that the country planned to fully withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Those meetings, this person said, included discussions on everything from relocating Afghan allies and securing the American embassy in Kabul.”
- “An Aug. 6 exercise, led by the Pentagon, looked at ‘significantly negative case scenarios,’ including ‘a noncombatant evacuation operation’ of the sort the administration has been carrying out in recent days, this person said. This person added that while the security situation in Afghanistan unraveled with stunning speed that officials did not anticipate, the administration has not faced a true worst-case scenario of having to fight its way in or out of the U.S. Embassy compound to evacuate government officials.”
“…even some Democrats and Biden allies expressed concern, not about the president's decision to leave Afghanistan – a policy position launched under Trump and favored by most Americans – but about the administration's poor execution of the strategy,” Ashley, Tyler and Annie report.
- "There'll be a lot of time to be asking the tough questions, and I will be as a member of the Armed Services Committee," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). "Right now, my focus is on protecting the Afghan interpreters, guards, and others who have a target on their backs."
“Inside the White House and across the nation's national security apparatus in recent days, officials were stunned at how quickly the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan, as well as frustrated by what many viewed as the country's misguided intelligence and failed execution of evacuations.”
- “Officials at the State Department, Defense Department and the National Security Council are currently laser focused on safely transporting American troops and allies out of the country, according to three people in contact with officials. But these people also described the mood inside the White House as grim, as officials came to grips with their failures and watched a tragedy unfold in real time.”
“The recriminations were bipartisan,” our colleague Shane Harris notes.
- “Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a former Marine Corps officer who served four tours in Iraq, wrote Sunday of Afghanistan’s breakneck implosion: ‘To say that today is anything short of a disaster would be dishonest. Worse, it was avoidable.’”
- “Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said the Taliban’s rapid takeover stemmed from ‘an intelligence failure,’ echoing concerns across the political spectrum that the Biden administration appeared to have been taken by surprise by how quickly and easily the militants overran a national security force that the United States spent decades and hundreds of billions of dollars training and equipping.”
“There is plenty of blame here,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who led a review of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan for President Barack Obama in 2009, told Shane. “The most egregious is the complete failure of strategic planning and diplomacy.”
- “Biden ‘stuck by a poorly constructed deal’ negotiated last year by President Donald Trump and signed off on by Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, even keeping their lead negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, whom Riedel derided as ‘inept.’”
- “The hasty and precipitous withdrawal was begun in the start of the fighting season instead of the winter. The evacuation was poorly planned. It cries out for accountability,” Riedel said.
- “For years, military officers also harbored private doubts that Afghan forces could ever stand on their own, despite rosier public predictions, according to documents obtained for the forthcoming Washington Post book ‘The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War.’”
THE HALLMARK OF A REFUGEE CRISIS: “Desperate and defeated, Naqibullah Laghmanai was calling everyone he could think of Monday morning in Houston, trying to get his family out of Afghanistan,” the Wall Street Journal’s Elizabeth Findell, Sara Randazzo and James Fanelli write. “He was on hold with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for at least the 10th time in recent weeks, he said. He was crafting a plea to the Canadian Embassy, though his family never worked for the Canadians. He was calling members of Congress.”
- “On Monday, after the Taliban took Kabul, Taliban fighters searched his aunt and uncle’s home, looking for the men of the family, his mother told him.”
- “Their only hope is on me to get them out and I can’t,” Laghmanai, 31, said of his parents and siblings.
- “Laghmanai, who worked as an interpreter for U.S. armed forces starting in 2007 in Kandahar, joins other Afghans currently living in America who have spent the past 48 hours feverishly trying to save their family members who are left behind.”
- “I helped the U.S. for reasons, but I didn’t mean that it would turn against me and my family,” Laghmanai told Findell, Randazzo and Fanelli. “I’m proud to be part of that mission with the U.S. armed forces, but I’m regretful that after doing all those things, the government is not taking that into consideration.”
On the ground, “the change in atmosphere in Kabul was as swift as it was frightening for many who thought that they could build a life under the protection of their American allies,” the New York Times’ Carlotta Gall, Marc Santora and Ruhullah Khapalwak write.
- “Some in the city said the Taliban had already visited government officials’ homes. They entered the home of one former official in western Kabul and removed his cars and took over the home of a former governor in another part of town.”
- “Residents of Kabul began tearing down advertisements that showed women without headscarves for fear of upsetting the Taliban, whose ideology excludes women from much of public life.”
- “Some police officers were taken into custody by Taliban fighters, while others were seen changing into civilian clothes and trying to flee.”
- “The Taliban declared an “amnesty” across Afghanistan and urged women to join their government Tuesday, seeking to convince a wary population that they have changed a day after deadly chaos gripped the main airport as desperate crowds tried to flee the country,” AP reports.
Priority #1: “There will be time yet to puzzle over the woeful frailty of the Afghan government and military, which caved before the resurgent Taliban’s advance. So, too, to litigate the expedient politics and tactical missteps that underlie President Biden’s decision to announce earlier this year the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan,” our Post colleague Ishaan Tharoor writes.
- “For now, though, the focus squarely remains on the human tragedy playing out at Kabul’s airport and in other parts of the country, as reports come in of Taliban fighters going house-to-house in various cities in search of people on their target lists.”
- “We need to stop overthinking this,” Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a Marine Corps veteran who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, told Politico’s Sarah Ferris, Heather Caygle, Olivia Beavers and Nicholas Wu. “Cut the bureaucratic b.s. Put people on planes, land them at bases and deal with the paperwork later.”
In the agencies
ANOTHER CLIMATE CHANGE FALLOUT: “Low water in the Colorado River’s largest reservoir triggered the first-ever federal declaration of a shortage on Monday, a bleak marker of the effects of climate change in the drought-stricken American West and the imperiled future of a critical water source for 40 million people in seven states,” our colleagues Karin Brulliard and Joshua Partlow report.
- “We are seeing the effects of climate change in the Colorado River basin through extended drought, extreme temperatures, expansive wildfires, and in some places, flooding and landslides,” Tanya Trujillo, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for water and science, told reporters Monday. “And now is the time to take action to respond to them.”
The announcement comes nearly a week after the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its landmark assessment linking greenhouse gases to extreme weather events. The panel warned that if the world continued business as usual, the effects of climate change would be disastrous.
- “It’s a revelation shocking to read and perhaps painfully obvious for the countless people who are already feeling the effects,” Time Magazine’s Justin Worland writes.
- “In the U.S. the nascent climate crisis appears most dramatic in the West, where a combination of drought and extreme heat has created life-threatening conditions.”
- “Heat has evaporated the water supply for farmers and ranchers — not to mention local communities. States have reported hundreds of excess deaths as bodies collapse without air-conditioning in unmanageable temperatures. And heat has led to drought, which has dried up forests and created tinder for wildfires.”
Preparing for a drier, hotter future. Last week, lawmakers passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that includes provisions for climate change. They also advanced a $3.5 trillion budget bill with investments in climate solutions.
- The bipartisan infrastructure bill includes “$1 billion in water recycling, $250 million in desalination, and nearly $1 billion for programs such as environmental restoration and water use efficiency projects” that would help the Colorado River and Lake Mead, per Politico’s Annie Snider.
- But “even if Congress passes bills with big climate provisions, regulations from the Biden administration are vulnerable to being reined in by federal court judges appointed by Trump and the most conservative Supreme Court in a generation,” our colleagues Dino Grandoni and Brady Dennis write.
- “And the fate of many of the administration’s climate initiatives could depend on the Democratic Party retaining control of Congress — and on how Biden himself fares if he runs again in 2024.”
Speaking of the budget bill … House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “remains committed to [the] two-track plan she has laid out, despite threats from some centrists to try to tank resolution unless speaker brings up bipartisan infrastructure bill,” Politico’s Heather Caygle tweeted.
- “There is no way we can pass those bills unless we do so in the order that we originally planned,” Pelosi said during a leadership call Monday night.
- “Biden’s agenda needs to show the results that we know it can produce.”
CUOMO BROTHERS FACE TWIN BACKLASH: “Reversing course, the New York State Assembly will continue its broad investigation of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and issue a report with its findings, lawmakers said on Monday, following fierce bipartisan backlash over the decision to suspend the inquiry,” the New York Times’ Luis Ferré-Sadurní reports.
- FYI: “The reversal on Monday does not mean that lawmakers will move to impeach Cuomo; [Speaker of the Assembly Carl E. Heastie (D)] had cited a six-page legal memo on Friday that argued that lawmakers lacked the constitutional authority to impeach an official who was out of office.”
Meanwhile, “Chris Cuomo, who has triggered ethical concerns for CNN by serving as an unofficial adviser to his brother rebuffed such criticism Monday night while acknowledging that he had advised his brother to resign,” per our colleague Elahe Izadi.
- Cuomo told viewers that as “Andrew Cuomo was embroiled with the growing scandal in late February and March, ‘I tried to be there for my brother. I’m not an adviser. I’m a brother. I wasn’t in control of anything. I was there to listen and offer my take.’ His eventual counsel: ‘While it was something I never imagined ever having to, I did urge my brother to resign when the time came.’”
- “For some, CNN’s current backing of [Chris] Cuomo isn’t just another celebrity avoiding consequences; it symbolizes the worrying shift in American cable television news away from news reporting in their prime time hours,” the Guardian’s Alice Hutton writes.
- “Indicative of a broader trend accelerated by the arrival of [former president] Donald Trump, cable networks have shifted toward highly profitable ‘infotainment’ posing as news. It is now a sector where big-name hosts on big salaries bring in big audiences and are subject to different journalistic standards.”