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The Daily 202: Biden predicts history will validate his Afghanistan withdrawal

with Mariana Alfaro

Welcome to The Daily 202 newsletter! Tell your friends to sign up here. Via the Associated Press: On this day in 1973, a bank robbery that would turn into a hostage taking began in Stockholm. The hostages’ empathy with their captors gave us the expression “Stockholm Syndrome.”

If President Biden’s remarks yesterday are any guide, he plans to hit back at critics of his Afghanistan withdrawal with a defiant double claim: Pulling out Americans is the right policy and he’s executing it as well as could be hoped. 

“History is going to record this was the logical, rational, and right decision to make,” he told reporters at the White House. “When this is over, the American people will have a clear understanding of what I did, why we did it.” 

The president’s comments came as public opinion polls showed his approval rating slipping to its lowest point since January and Americans broadly supportive of leaving Afghanistan but unhappy with the way Biden has managed the operation. 

More than in other remarks since Kabul fell to the Taliban, Biden expressed personal concerns and compassion for panicked Afghans thronged outside the airport in Kabul, desperate to cram into departing U.S. military jets. 

But Biden — who promised in April “we will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit. We’ll do it responsibly, deliberately and safely” — said his evacuation plan was not at fault. 

“Let me be clear: The evacuation of thousands of people from Kabul is going to be hard and painful no matter when it started and when we began.  It would have been true if we had started a month ago or a month from now,” he said. “There is no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss, of heartbreaking images you see on television. It’s just a fact. My heart aches for those people you see.” 

That seemed like a response to some who have expressed dismay that the famous Biden empathy has been eclipsed by his calculation the United States had to get out of Afghanistan. But Biden has always made perfectly clear where he stood. 

Facing bipartisan second-guessing in Congress, the president took pains to portray the withdrawal as a remarkable logistical feat “it’s an incredible operation” and unleashed a flood of numbers: 33,000 evacuated since July. 28,000 since August 14. 11,000 over the weekend. 

The White House updated the number Monday morning: 37,000 since Aug. 14.

Still, Biden acknowledged, “we have a long way to go, and a lot could still go wrong.” 

Two factors loom large over how history will judge Biden’s withdrawal. The first one is obvious: Can the United States extract its citizens and thousands of Afghans who helped the war effort or are otherwise in danger, with no loss of American life? 

“Our determination to get every American citizen home and to evacuate our Afghan allies is unwavering,” the president promised. “Any American who wants to get home will get home.” 

But Biden also detailed the dangers on the ground: The possibility of a terrorist attack on the airport, American troops, or the crowds outside. “We are under no illusions about the threat,” which grows daily, he said. 

The second is more complicated: How much of the robust American support for getting out of Afghanistan derived from hopes the Afghan military could hold off the Taliban, and will it erode now? In other words, how many Americans supported withdrawal because they never expected the events of the past weeks. 

“My job is to make judgments no one else can or will make. I made them,” Biden said yesterday. “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.” 

His comments came two days before a classified House Armed Services Committee briefing with Pentagon officials, one of many coming congressional examinations of Afghanistan policy over the past 20 years and past 200 days. 

There were things that could have been done in the last seven months that could have made it less chaotic, and I hope that President Biden and his team take an honest look at that,” committee chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash) has said. 

Three new public opinion polls find Biden slipping somewhat, though it’s unclear how much of that is Afghanistan, and not the sharp rise in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths and the ensuing fears about the economy. 

A CBS News/YouGov poll taken Aug. 18-20 found 63 percent of adults support removing U.S. troops, but just 47 percent approve of how Biden has managed the withdrawal, down from 60 percent in July. 

Seventy-four percent of respondents including 62 percent of Democrats said the way the United States has removed troops has gone badly. 

Biden’s overall approval has slipped to 50 percent, down from 58 percent in July and 62 percent in March.  

In April, 56 percent of respondents to CBS News/YouGov called the president competent, 56 percent call him focused and 55 percent called him effective. Those numbers are down to 49 percent, 48 percent and 47 percent, respectively. 

Just 36 percent said Biden bears a lot of responsibility for the Taliban taking over, compared to 60 percent saying the Afghan government, 55 percent saying the Afghan army, and 25 percent saying former president Donald Trump. (Oddly, no option to pick “the Taliban,” who orchestrated a remarkable return to power.)

A new NBC News poll, conducted Aug. 14-17, found Biden’s approval ratings among registered voters dropped since April, when it was 51 percent approve, 43 percent disapprove, to 50 percent approve and 48 percent disapprove. 

Additionally, the poll finds 53 percent of Americans approve of the president’s handling of the coronavirus (which is a 16-point drop from April) and 47 percent approve his handling of the economy (a five-point decline from the spring). 

Arguably the bigger political danger to Biden can be found in other numbers: Approval of his pandemic response stood at 69 percent in April but is now 53 percent. On the economy, he has gone from 52 percent approval to 47 percent. 

A Gallup poll taken mostly before the Taliban fully took over Afghanistan had Biden’s approval at 49 percent, down from 50 percent in July. 

Afghanistan’s staying power as a political issue as well as its importance in news media coverage is unclear. In 2016, Hillary Clinton and Trump never got a question on the war when they faced off in their three presidential debates. 

What’s happening now

The Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine won a full FDA approval, potentially persuading the hesitant to get a shot. “The Food and Drug Administration action marks the first licensing of a vaccine for the coronavirus,” Ben Guarino, Laurie McGinley and Tyler Pager report. “In the end, the vaccine approval was the fastest in the agency’s history, coming less than four months after Pfizer-BioNTech filed for licensing on May 7.”

Following the FDA announcement, the Pentagon mandated the vaccine for all U.S. troops, per the AFP.  

New York City also mandated coronavirus vaccines for all public school teachers, with no opt-out option, per the AP

A third Pfizer dose significantly lowers the risk of infection in seniors, Israeli data shows. “The level of protection was five to six times higher against serious illness and hospitalization, according to the study published Sunday, which looked at protection provided 10 days after a third dose. Israel approved booster shots for people 60 and older late last month, and lowered the age of eligibility to 40 last week. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, 49, received his third Pfizer shot on Friday,” Adela Suliman, Bryan Pietsch and Brittany Shammas report

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Lunchtime reads from The Post

  • Corporate America’s $50 billion promise,” by Tracy Jan, Jena McGregor and Meghan Hoyer: “After the murder of George Floyd ignited nationwide protests, corporate America acknowledged it could no longer stay silent and promised to take an active role in confronting systemic racism. ... Now, more than a year after America’s leading businesses assured employees and consumers they would rise to the moment, a Washington Post analysis of unprecedented corporate commitments toward racial justice causes reveals the limits of their power to remedy structural problems.”
  • At least 21 dead, 20 missing after ‘catastrophic’ flooding in central Tennessee, officials say,” by Hannah Knowles and Shammas: “The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) called the torrential rain and flooding ‘catastrophic.’ One observation site recorded 17 inches of rain in 24 hours, blowing past the state’s nearly 14-inch record set in 1982, a meteorologist said. A flash flood watch issued Friday quickly became a ‘flash flood emergency’ Saturday as some people yelled for help from their rooftops while others found themselves trapped in vehicles.”
  • Heavy rains swamp eastern U.S. as Henri moves inland,” by Aaron Gregg, Jason Samenow and Julianne McShane: “Tropical Storm Henri weakened as it washed over Northeast coastal communities Sunday, but its winds were still strong enough to knock spectators off their feet and cut power from more than a hundred thousand homes. And it was heavy rains that ultimately became the most significant weather hazard across the eastern United States this weekend. By Sunday afternoon, Henri had dumped four to nine inches of rain between central New Jersey and New York City, including a record 1.89 inches in a single hour in New York on Saturday, triggering flash-flood warnings.”

… and beyond

  • What an adult tricycle says about the world’s bottleneck problems,” by the New York Times’s Jeanna Smialek and Madeleine Ngo: “Catrike has 500 of its three-wheeled bikes sitting in its workshop in Orlando, Fla., nearly ready to be sent to expectant dealers. The recumbent trikes have been waiting for months for rear derailleurs, a small but crucial part that is built in Taiwan. ... The company’s problems offer a window into how supply-chain disruptions are rocking companies in the United States and around the world, pushing inflation higher, delaying deliveries and exacerbating economic uncertainty. It is unclear when the snarls will clear up — and it’s possible they will get worse before they get better.”
  • New declassification reforms are classified,” the Federation of American Scientists’ Steven Aftergood: “Legislative measures to improve the process of declassifying classified national security information were introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden in the pending intelligence authorization act for FY2022. But they were included in the classified annex so their substance and import are not publicly known. ‘I remain deeply concerned about the failures of the Federal Government’s obsolete declassification system,’ Sen. Wyden wrote in a statement that was included in the new Senate Intelligence Committee report on the intelligence bill. ‘I am therefore pleased that the classified annex to the bill includes several amendments I offered to advance efforts to accelerate declassification and promote declassification reform.’ But the nature of those amendments has not been disclosed.”

More on Afghanistan

The Taliban warned the U.S. would be crossing a “red line” if the Biden administration keeps troops in Afghanistan past the Aug. 31 deadline.
  • “If they extend it, that means they are extending occupation. … It will create mistrust between us,” Suhail Shaheen told Sky News in an interview from Doha, Qatar, that aired this morning. “If they are intent on continuing the occupation, it will provoke a reaction,” the Taliban spokesman said, Rachel Pannett, Ellen Francis and Haq Nawaz Khan report.
  • “Biden has said the United States may push back its Aug. 31 deadline to facilitate more evacuations, adding that ‘our hope is we will not have to extend.’ The United States and its allies have evacuated about 37,000 people since the militants swept through the country this month on the heels of the U.S. military withdrawal.”
  • Meanwhile, “British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will ask Biden to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the White House’s Aug. 31 deadline because of the significant challenge of evacuating large numbers of foreign nationals and vulnerable Afghans seeking to flee the Taliban by that date. Johnson will lobby Biden on Tuesday at a virtual gathering of Group of Seven leaders.”
  • U.N. agencies are calling for humanitarian aid to enter Afghanistan through the U.S.-held airport. “The agencies said aid could no longer get into the country where an estimated 18 million people need it, including 300,000 who were uprooted in the past two months,” Francis reports. “The WHO said it had enough emergency stocks inside the country to last only about a week and a half, while 500 tons of supplies for Afghanistan were trapped in Dubai, including surgical tools, as well as medicine for childhood pneumonia, malnutrition and chronic diseases."
  • Dozens of veterans’ services organizations are urging Biden to complete evacuations and promise to counter hate against Afghans. In a letter sent this morning, the groups “asked for a meeting online with the president to discuss the escalating humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, the evacuation effort and the granting of humanitarian parole status to ‘at-risk Afghans without a visa who must be evacuated,’ ” Dan Lamothe reports. “The groups also promised to back Biden in urging Congress to support efforts to assist Afghan evacuees. They further pledged to help educate Americans on the importance of keeping battlefield commitments to allies.”
Vice President Harris said there “will be, and should be, robust analysis” of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
  • Still, “she maintained that the Biden administration’s focus is on evacuating Afghan nationals, particularly those who are vulnerable and those who worked with Americans,” Shibani Mahtani reports. “ ‘That has to be our primary focus and on where we are placing our attention on the issue of Afghanistan,’ she said in Singapore on Monday. ‘The focus has to be on the task at hand.’
  • “Harris’s trip to Singapore and Vietnam this week was meant to be a show of U.S. commitment to the Indo-Pacific region broadly and to the countries of Southeast Asia, strategically located in China’s backyard. But she faced questions and concerns about Washington’s ability to lead — as well as counter Beijing’s influence — in the wake of the problems in Afghanistan.”
The Taliban insists it will not shelter al-Qaeda in Afghanistan this time around. 
  • “The Taliban has dismissed fears that it would provide al-Qaeda with a safe haven in Afghanistan, 20 years after the United States launched a war to crush the extremist network behind the 9/11 attacks,”  Francis reports.
  • “‘They are not present in Afghanistan in the first place,’ a Taliban spokesman, Mohammed Naeem, said in an interview with Saudi’s al-Hadath TV that aired late on Sunday. When pressed, he insisted that al-Qaeda now had no foothold in the country and no relationship with the Taliban — while noting there may be ‘family ties’ between members of the two organizations.”
  • “This comes after back-and-forth comments from top U.S. officials in recent days about whether al-Qaeda remained in the country nearly two decades after American troops helped topple the Taliban for its role in sheltering al-Qaeda.”
About 10,400 people were evacuated from Kabul on U.S. military flights over a 24-hour period. 
  • “The White House did not provide a breakdown of how many of those evacuated were U.S. citizens. With the latest evacuations, the U.S. military has now flown out about 37,000 people since Aug. 14, the White House said,” John Wagner reports. “The number evacuated during the recent 24-hour period exceeds what the military recently said was a capacity of 5,000 to 9,000 per day.”

Quote of the day

“The reason I am here is because the United States is a global leader, and we take that role seriously,” Harris said in a joint news conference with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long. The initiatives, Harris added, “speak, I believe, volumes in terms of the integrity of the relationships the United States has around the world.”

On the Hill

House Democrats are battling over priorities and politics. 
  • House Democrats end their summer break today, but the finger-pointing continues. “The divisions emerging over an arcane budget measure needed to shield a $3.5 trillion social policy bill from a filibuster are exposing deep strains in the Democratic Party over ideology, generational divides and the fruits of power and incumbency,” the Times’s Jonathan Weisman reports. “The stalemate by now is well known: Nine moderate or conservative Democrats have rebelled against their party’s leaders and say they will block consideration of the budget blueprint necessary to allow the social policy measure championed by the party’s left flank to pass this fall with only Democratic backing unless the House immediately votes on the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill. A broader coalition of 19 Blue Dog Democrats also want the infrastructure vote to come as soon as possible.”
  • “The clamor for a quick victory on infrastructure, both for congressional Democrats and President Biden, has only grown louder amid the anguish over Afghanistan. Democratic leaders hope to pass a rule on Monday night for debating the budget measure, the infrastructure bill and an unrelated voting rights bill, with final votes scheduled for Tuesday.”
  • “But Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and dozens of progressive Democrats are equally adamant that the infrastructure vote will happen only after the Senate approves an ambitious bill that includes universal preschool, two years of free community college, paid family leave, federal support for child care and elder care, an expansion of Medicare, and a broad effort to convert the fossil fuel economy to one based on renewable, clean energy.”
“Let’s do infrastructure first,” a group of Democratic lawmakers wrote in a Post op-ed.
  • “The challenge we face right now is that there is a standoff with some of our colleagues who have decided to hold the infrastructure bill hostage for months, or kill it altogether, if they don’t get what they want in the next bill — a largely undefined $3.5 trillion reconciliation package. While we have concerns about the level of spending and potential revenue raisers, we are open to immediate consideration of that package. But we are firmly opposed to holding the president’s infrastructure legislation hostage to reconciliation, risking its passage and the bipartisan support behind it,” write Carolyn Bourdeaux, Ed Case, Jim Costa, Henry Cuellar, Jared Golden, Vicente Gonzalez, Josh Gottheimer, Kurt Schrader and Filemon Vela, all Democrats who represent Georgia, Hawaii, California, Texas, Maine, New Jersey and Oregon. 

Hot on the left

Andrew Cuomo’s dog, Captain, was left behind at the Executive Mansion. “Cuomo, who has been staying with one of his sisters in Westchester County in the final days of his third term, recently has asked staff members at the Executive Mansion if anyone would like to keep his dog, Captain, who has remained at the state-owned residence after the governor moved out last week,” the Albany Times-Union’s Brendan Lyons reports. “Captain — a high-strung mix of shepherd, Siberian and malamute — has nipped a few people since Cuomo adopted him in 2018, the sources said, and a mansion staffer recently took the dog home for a few days but decided he was too much. Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser and spokesman for the governor, lashed out at the allegation that the governor has been looking for someone to care for the canine. He said the arrangement was only ‘temporary’ because the governor, who is scheduled to resign from office at 11:59 p.m. Monday, is planning to take a vacation.”

Hot on the right

House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) faces a speakership test on the infrastructure vote, Politico’s Olivia Beavers reports. “With the House voting this week on advancing the infrastructure legislation, a $3.5 trillion Democratic spending framework plus an election reform bill, Republicans are still waiting to receive guidance on whether the GOP leader will whip against or withhold his influential fire on the bipartisan plan. ‘You can't really develop a whip strategy until you know what votes are going to be called,’ said Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), the top Republican on the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee overseeing highways and transit. Speaker Nancy Pelosi can pass the bipartisan bill and the broad Democratic spending plan without Republican votes, but she’s staring down warring factions in her own caucus and could use any breathing room GOP votes could offer.”

Appalachian Trail pandemic popularity, visualized

The pandemic has transformed the world’s longest hiking-only footpath from a bucolic refuge to a linear version of Costco on a Saturday. The 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail was hiked by more than 3 million people yearly before the worst public health crisis in a century, Lizzie Johnson reports.

Today in Washington

Biden will welcome the Seattle Storm to the White House at 3:30 p.m. to celebrate its 2020 WNBA championship.

In closing

John Oliver said the situation in Afghanistan will stain Biden's legacy, but the extent of that damage is up to him: