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Biden struggles to address the most volatile crisis of his presidency

President Biden on Aug. 26 spoke about terrorist attacks in Kabul that killed multiple U.S. service members and dozens of Afghans. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

President Biden on Thursday confronted the most volatile crisis of his young presidency, the deaths of at least 13 Americans in Afghanistan that threatened to undermine his credentials as a seasoned global leader and a steady hand.

In emotional comments at the White House, Biden made clear that the attack would not cause him to rethink his strategy. Rather, he said, it reinforced his belief that the war must end and that the evacuation must proceed. He framed the deaths as the sacrifice of heroes performing a noble mission, and he suggested that any move to cut short the evacuation of Americans and their Afghan supporters would amount to caving to the terrorists.

“I bear responsibility for, fundamentally, all that has happened,” Biden said, addressing the nation hours after the deadly attack. His voice broke as he invoked Scripture, history and personal loss to decry the double suicide bombing at the entrance to the Kabul airport, which stands as the last small acreage controlled by the United States in Afghanistan nearly 20 years after the war began.

Biden promised to track down the killers responsible for the massacre, who he suggested were members of the terrorist group ISIS-K. “To those who carried out this attack: We will not forgive,” he said. “We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”

World leaders condemn attacks

Still, the mass killing immediately opened Biden up to criticism, especially from Republicans, that he was responsible for the deaths of the young Americans, either because of the hurried pace of the evacuation or, more fundamentally, because his decision to pull out of Afghanistan was a mistake in the first place.

Critics also seized on the tragedy to challenge one of the central messages of Biden’s presidency — that he is a competent, seasoned leader who, unlike his predecessor, knows how to protect Americans. Public support for the president had already been falling in many polls, and it may take time to show whether he can maintain his image as an able president with solid instincts.

At least two Republican senators quickly called for Biden’s resignation or impeachment. “It’s time for accountability, starting with those whose failed planning allowed these attacks to occur,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said in a statement. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) added, “It is now painfully clear he has neither the will nor capacity to lead. He must resign.”

The most vocal criticism on the Democratic side came from Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who wondered whether Taliban guards had failed by allowing the ISIS bombers get so close to the Kabul airport. “One thing is clear: We can’t trust the Taliban with Americans’ security,” Menendez said.

The killings clearly marked a pivotal moment in Biden’s presidency and an episode that is likely to be part of his legacy. Biden keeps a tally of U.S. service members who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan on a card in his breast pocket, and now, for the first time, that tally will include some who lost their lives on his watch.

Biden directly blamed ISIS-K for the attack, suggesting that the United States could quickly identify individual leaders and punish them.

How Taliban takeover could affect ISIS-K

He spoke from the East Room of the White House toward the end of a day that will go down as the darkest of his early presidency, as a 78-year-old president whose life has been repeatedly marked by tragedy was now taking responsibility for another tragedy. The deaths marked the realization of the worst-case scenario that has hung over the president’s order for the military to withdraw from the United States’ two-decade war in Afghanistan.

“It’s been a tough day,” Biden said as he came to the lectern.

He stressed that it was always clear the mission would be dangerous, and he acknowledged that there might be further attacks. That is why he wants to end the evacuation by Aug. 31, he said, even while many Republicans and Democrats are urging him to extend the deadline.

Under questioning from reporters, Biden forcefully reiterated his rationale for pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan after 20 years.

He noted that President Donald Trump had negotiated a deal with the Taliban to withdraw American forces. If he had reversed that agreement, Biden said, he would have had to pour thousands more American troops into Afghanistan to secure the country.

“I have never been of the view that we should be sacrificing American lives to try to establish a democratic government in Afghanistan, a country that has never once in its entire history been a united country and is made up — and I don’t mean this in a derogatory way — of different tribes who have never, ever, ever gotten along with one another,” Biden said.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it was time to end a 20-year war,” he added.

The deadly attack immediately ratchets up the pressure around the Kabul airport for the next few days, as the U.S. military works feverishly to finish the evacuation by Aug. 31. Some U.S. allies announced Thursday that they were ending their own evacuation efforts, and Democrats and Republicans have called on Biden to extend the exit deadline beyond Aug. 31.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials expect ISIS-K to try to launch further attacks and are counting in part on the Taliban to help thwart such assaults. After Thursday’s attack, some critics questioned the notion of trusting the Taliban, the fundamentalist group that now controls the country.

Biden responded that he does not trust the Taliban but is counting on its leaders’ desire to help American forces finish their mission by month’s end so that the United States will leave the country.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration remains committed to extracting from Afghanistan all Americans who wish to leave. The State Department suggested on Thursday that fewer than 1,000 such Americans remained in the country.

Unlike the numbing crisis of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 630,000 Americans, the shock of Thursday’s attack was acute and appeared to take many Americans by surprise.

And it is tied more closely to decisions made by Biden. Biden’s Afghanistan pullout plan had already spiraled into chaos this month when the Taliban quickly ousted the U.S.-backed government, blindsiding a White House that prides itself on orderly planning.

Thursday’s carnage, which also killed dozens of Afghan civilians, further isolated Biden from global and domestic allies, many of whom have been critical of the speed of the withdrawal and of the president’s sticking to an Aug. 31 deadline that many of them regard as artificial.

The attack was a striking moment for Biden in part because he has been at the center of U.S. foreign policy and national security decisions for decades. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as President Barack Obama’s vice president, he had a seat at the table for some of the most consequential triumphs and tribulations in recent history.

He supported the invasions of Afghanistan and in Iraq, although he later said those wars were mistakes. He argued unsuccessfully against the expansion of the Afghanistan war that Obama ordered in 2009, saying that the conflict had run its course. He was in the room with Obama as they monitored the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, after expressing strong misgivings about risks of the operation.

But until Thursday, Biden had always held a supporting role in the national security firmament. Now, the president who likes to end his speeches by saying “May God protect our troops” is left explaining how a mission he ordered went so bad so quickly.

The most urgent question may be whether this will be the last deadly attack on Americans as the U.S. military pushes to wrap up the evacuation in coming days. Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., who heads the U.S. Central Command, told reporters Thursday that there continue to be “extremely active threat streams” against the Kabul airport.

Those threats, McKenzie said, are “very, very what we would call tactical — that is, imminent, could occur at any moment.”

Biden campaigned as an ally of the military, portraying himself as the antithesis of Trump. Where Trump said U.S. forces in Afghanistan had been reduced to “policemen” and mocked the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for becoming a prisoner of war in Vietnam, Biden stressed that he would be a leader who understood and appreciated the sacrifices of those in uniform.

Biden’s son Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015, had served with the Army in Iraq, and Biden has suggested that exposure to toxic burn pits may have caused the illness.

The president has long prided himself on his ability to console the grieving, drawing from his own personal tragedies. Decades before Beau’s death, Biden’s wife and young daughter were killed in a car accident.

As the grim news of the bombing trickled out of Afghanistan on Thursday, the scene at the White House complex became chaotic. Biden had been scheduled to meet with new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, but the White House abruptly postponed the summit without a specified new time, before eventually shifting the meeting to Friday. A group of Israeli reporters congregated in a driveway in front of the West Wing, left in limbo by the schedule change.

The White House’s daily news briefing also was postponed, and reporters shuffled in and out of the White House press office during the afternoon seeking information. Aides shuttled in and out of meetings, wearing somber expressions.

For hours, there was no word from the president. As the Pentagon provided updates on the situation on the ground, Biden and his aides were mostly silent. It was not until well after 5 p.m. that Biden spoke.

“Any day where you lose service members is maybe the worst day of your presidency,” Psaki said. “And hopefully there’s not more.”