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Afghans’ suffering is ‘heartbreaking’ but unavoidable, Biden says

President Biden gives an update on the situation in Afghanistan at the White House on Sunday.
President Biden gives an update on the situation in Afghanistan at the White House on Sunday. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)

President Biden, beset by challenges to his credibility and facing the biggest foreign policy crisis of his administration, sought on Sunday to reassert his claim to competent governance while looking ahead to twin crises in coming days: the emergency evacuation of Americans in Afghanistan and a tropical storm pummeling the Northeast.

Speaking at the White House after a weekend meeting with advisers instead of traveling to Delaware, Biden touted the recent success of U.S. forces in ramping up evacuations, suggesting the military might make additional efforts to retrieve Americans and allowing for the possibility of extending the Aug. 31 deadline for the pullout.

The president also gave a more direct response to criticism that he is showing little empathy for vulnerable Afghans while potentially paving the way for dangerous refugees to enter the United States. He emphasized that all refugees would be fully vetted, and he made a point of voicing compassion for those seeking to flee.

On Aug. 22 President Biden announced the use of commercial aircraft to aid evacuations, adding that the U.S. would welcome Afghan allies to American soil. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Let me be clear: The evacuation of thousands of people from Kabul is going to be hard and painful no matter when it started or when we began,” Biden said. “It would have been true if we started a month ago or a month from now. 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.”

Still, he emphasized that in his view, “history is going to record this was the logical, rational and right decision to make.”

Live updates from Afghan pullout

Biden’s remarks capped the most tumultuous week of his presidency, one in which his decisions were harshly criticized at home and abroad and some of his optimistic assertions were undermined in real time by deteriorating conditions on the ground. He has sought to focus on his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan — which has broad support — rather than on how the withdrawal has been carried out.

Suneeta’s husband, an interpreter for U.S. forces, disappeared in 2013. She made it to Albany, N.Y., as a refugee, but her four children are stuck in Kabul. (Video: Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)

“At the end of the day, if we didn’t leave Afghanistan now, when do we leave? Another 10 years, another five years, another year?” Biden said Sunday after reading out the number of war dead. “I’m not about to send your son or your daughter to fight in Afghanistan.”

He added: “My job is to make judgments no one else can or will make. I made them. I’m convinced I’m absolutely correct in not sending more young women and men to war for a war that in fact is no longer warranted.”

While addressing the increased evacuation efforts — saying that about 11,000 people were evacuated within 36 hours — Biden cautioned, “We have a long way to go. And a lot could still go wrong.”

Biden’s presidency has been full of crises — some inherited, others created and still more appearing by surprise. At the moment, he is dealing with a collision of almost all of them at once. Coronavirus numbers are again on the rise, aspects of his legislative agenda are in jeopardy, and the Afghanistan withdrawal has become nearly all-consuming.

Biden has also had to address natural disasters, including wildfires and hurricanes. Federal resources are being mobilized to respond to Tropical Storm Henri, which made landfall Sunday afternoon in Rhode Island. And in central Tennessee, rescuers on Sunday were searching for about 20 missing people after record-breaking rain and flash flooding left at least 21 dead.

Live updates from Tropical Storm Henri

From his first days in office, Biden has tried to project calm in the face of natural disasters, often calling governors as fires or storms approach and meeting with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials along the way. Before Henri’s arrival, Biden on Saturday signed emergency declarations for Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York and convened a call with seven Northeastern governors.

“We don’t know the full impact of the storm today, but we’re acting quickly,” Biden said, providing practical advice for those in the path of the storm: “Make sure you have supplies for your entire household . . . in case of power outages.”

Amid the collision of crises, Biden also changed his own plans. After several times last week attempting to spend time at his home in Wilmington, Del., he scrapped them for good on Saturday and remained at the White House.

Last year, there were more storms strong enough to warrant a name than any year on record, and Biden — who has been in Washington for 10 presidencies — has been determined not to be caught off guard by natural disasters.

But it has been his preparation for the withdrawal from Afghanistan that has come under harsh light in recent days.

A CBS News/YouGov poll released Sunday found that 63 percent of Americans supported withdrawing from Afghanistan, but only 47 percent approved of Biden’s handling of the pullout. That is a 13-point drop from the 60 percent who supported his handling of the withdrawal a month ago. His overall approval rating, which has been consistently in positive territory and last month showed a net-positive of 16 points, has also dropped considerably and is now at 50-50.

“I haven’t seen that poll,” Biden said with a laugh when asked Sunday about the falling numbers.

As his top administration officials blitzed the Sunday talk shows, they focused most closely on their actions over the past week, attempting to highlight their response to a chaotic situation rather than answer for anything they could have done to prevent it.

“There always will be accountability, but there is a time and place for everything,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on “Fox News Sunday.” “In the time and place right now is this mission. And I’m seeing people around this country rally to it. I’m seeing allies and partners around the world rally to it.”

A White House official said Sunday that the previous day saw 23 U.S. military flights evacuate nearly 3,900 personnel and an additional 35 flights from coalition partners evacuate another 3,900. Biden said that since April 14, about 28,000 people have been evacuated.

“It’s an incredible operation,” Biden said, though he made a point of acknowledging the chaotic images of the withdrawal, which have included stark visuals of crowds around the airport and Afghans clinging to a transport plane and falling to their deaths.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Biden, who days earlier seemed to dismiss such images. “We’re all seeing it. We see it, we feel it, you can’t look at it and not feel it. Nothing about this effort is easy.”

He also appeared to address concerns that unscreened refugees could flood the country, noting that Afghans will be flown to processing centers abroad, not directly to the United States.

“Everyone arriving in the United States will have undergone background checks,” he said. “Once screened and cleared, we will welcome these Afghans who helped us in the war effort over the last 20 years to their new home in the United States of America. Because that’s who we are.”

Biden, who has said previously that he does not trust the Taliban, said that so far the group has largely kept its word. And he suggested that the Taliban has been cooperative in extending some of the airport perimeter.

“So far, the Taliban has not taken action against U.S. forces,” he said. “So far, they have by and large followed through on what they said in terms of letting Americans pass through and the like. And I’m sure they don’t control all of their forces. It’s a ragtag force.”

Biden said he remains committed to evacuating all Americans who wish to leave, along with Afghans who helped in the war effort and qualify for a special immigrant visa. While he said that he hoped the mission could be completed before the Aug. 31 deadline, he added that there were ongoing discussions about a possible extension.

To date, top U.S. officials have encouraged those wishing to evacuate to make their way to the airport, and some have urged U.S. troops to instead make a greater effort to go into Kabul and elsewhere to retrieve Americans. Biden suggested on Sunday that more was being done to ensure safe passage to the airport.

“For security reasons, I’m not going to go into detail what these plans entail,” Biden said. “But any American who wants to get home will get home.”

Biden has placed calls over the past few days to European leaders, but criticism has been simmering from that quarter. Biden on Tuesday is planning to participate in a virtual meeting with leaders of the Group of Seven industrial countries, in which they will discuss Afghanistan policy.

The chaotic exit from Afghanistan has opened the avenues for criticism from even strong Biden allies, with Democrats in the Senate promising to probe how the withdrawal was handled.

It has also diverted from the fact that Biden’s initial decision to remove troops was widely popular.

On Sunday, Mike Mullen, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Barack Obama, said that in retrospect, Biden had been right in saying at the time that the United States should start preparing to exit Afghanistan after killing Osama bin Laden.

Mullen acknowledged that he himself had made the faulty assumption that the United States could train Afghan forces and build an effective, modern army.

“What I thought we could do, and I advised President Obama accordingly, is I thought we could turn it around,” he said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “Obviously, I was wrong.”

Asked whether the mission has turned out to be a failure, Mullen said that history will judge it somewhere in the middle.

“I think complete failure, no,” he said, adding: “Clearly, taking out bin Laden was a huge impact in terms of al-Qaeda and what was represented there. I’m not inclined to just lay it on, yes, it was a success or it was a failure. I think we’re somewhere in between.”