The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s promise to restore competence to the presidency is undercut by chaos in Afghanistan

A journalist watches a broadcast of President Biden’s remarks on Afghanistan in the White House briefing room on Aug. 16.
A journalist watches a broadcast of President Biden’s remarks on Afghanistan in the White House briefing room on Aug. 16. (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post)

Joe Biden presented voters with a core argument why he, more than anyone else, was the best choice to replace the wildly unorthodox Donald Trump: He would bring competence.

Biden said that as president he would restore calm order to the vast federal bureaucracy. He vowed to reaffirm America’s place in the world. He touted how he knew world leaders, how his deep foreign policy expertise would lend itself well to the world stage, making things right and helping to correct past wrongs.

But over the past few days, the images from Afghanistan have put on vivid display an inability to plan, an underestimation of a foreign adversary, an ineffective effort to scramble and make up for it — and, as Biden demonstrated in a brief address Monday, an attempt to deflect full responsibility.

Biden conceded that his administration was caught off guard by the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan and the ensuing chaos, and he declared that “the buck stops with me,” yet he used his remarks to cast blame in multiple directions for the bungled U.S. withdrawal.

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)

He claimed that he had to abide by agreements made by Trump. He said Afghan President Ashraf Ghani failed to live up to several commitments he made in July. He blamed Afghan forces for not fighting harder against the Taliban, recounting how much money and training the United States provided over the years.

“We gave them every chance to determine their future,” he said. “What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.”

Live updates: Biden defends decision to withdraw from Afghanistan after Taliban’s rapid return to power

Biden sought to focus largely on defending his overarching decision to withdraw from Afghanistan — a move that has been popular in public opinion polls. But the events of recent days are leading lawmakers and others to raise questions about whether the chaotic, and deadly, implementation of his decision reflects a failure by Biden at a critical moment to deliver the steady leadership and sound judgment he promised.

After working for the Americans in Kabul, Mohammad came to the U.S. on a special immigrant visa in 2018. Now he worries about the family he left behind. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Valerie Plesch/The Washington Post)

“He didn’t really spend much time on the issue that I think really concerns the American people, which is the execution of that decision. What went wrong and how it is going to be fixed?” said Leon E. Panetta, a longtime adviser to Democratic presidents who served as defense secretary under President Barack Obama. “It just struck me that they were crossing their fingers and hoping chaos would not result. And it doesn’t work that way.”

Panetta, who said he has been unsure what to tell the numerous contacts in Afghanistan calling him seeking a way out of the country, said, “Right now it just does not look like we have our act together.” He expressed surprise at the seeming lack of preparation.

“It’s not the Joe Biden that I often saw in the National Security Council raising questions about the planning involved in any decision that the president had to face,” he said. “He would be among those that would say, ‘Have we looked at all the consequences? Have we looked at all the possible land mines that we might have to face in implementing that decision?’ He was good at that. I assume he must have asked those questions. But it’s clear that, for whatever reason, those plans or strategies or precautions were not put in place.”

Afghans who helped the West left in limbo as evacuation turns chaotic

A scathing assessment of Biden’s performance came from Ryan Crocker, who served as ambassador to Afghanistan under Obama and described the unfolding drama in an interview with his local paper, the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., as a “self-inflicted wound.”

“I’m left with some grave questions in my mind about his ability to lead our nation as commander in chief,” he said. “To have read this so wrong — or, even worse, to have understood what was likely to happen and not care.”

A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues, said there had been months of planning and various contingency plans, but the administration was surprised at how rapidly the situation deteriorated. The official noted that there has not been direct engagement between U.S. forces and the Taliban, and that U.S. Embassy workers were safely evacuated. A second administration official said the administration pressed Afghan officials to adopt a military plan and consolidate their forces as the Taliban advanced, but the officials refused to do so because conceding any territory to Taliban rule was politically unpalatable.

Still, the Taliban took over the country with alarming speed. Afghans clung to airplanes in Kabul, some of them falling as American military aircraft climbed into the sky. Diplomats fled the embassy, burning paperwork on the way out.

The developments played out almost exactly as Biden had said they would not.

“There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States in Afghanistan,” Biden declared about five weeks before that scenario unfolded.

“The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely,” he said, also about five weeks before the Taliban took over and Ghani fled.

The images beamed around the globe Monday of the U.S. military struggling to evacuate Americans simply underscored the administration’s failure to plan, analysts said.

“They just seem to have succumbed to a massive dose of wishful thinking,” said Eliot A. Cohen, a military historian and professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

“This is very bad. It’s a moral disaster, first and foremost. It is a disaster in terms of American reputation. It’s a disaster in terms of our relationship with our allies,” he added. “The sheer incompetence is terribly distressing.”

Biden’s presidential campaign was largely premised on making a rapid departure from Trump’s presidency. He often showcased his experience and his preparedness. He carried notecards and briefing packets so he could stay on task, and on message. His transition team spent months preparing for his presidency, much of which was aimed at restoring faith in the institutions that Biden had spent so many years serving in and building up.

But he has had some rocky moments.

He celebrated the end of mask-wearing in May, only to see his government reverse its recommendations amid the spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus. He has played down problems at the U.S.-Mexico border, even as illegal crossings reached their highest point in two decades.

Biden and his advisers have often blamed those problems on the hand he was dealt by Trump. On Afghanistan, Trump set in motion the American withdrawal — a policy goal that Biden shared — but it has been the Biden administration guiding the process.

It’s true that Trump complicated the situation. He negotiated an agreement with the Taliban that called for U.S. troops to leave by May 2021. Trump withdrew troops more rapidly than necessary, which some foreign policy experts say helped strengthen the Taliban.

But Biden also wanted the withdrawal. And while he reversed many of Trump’s policies, the Afghanistan exit was not among them.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who opposed the withdrawal plans under both Trump and Biden, said there was nothing forcing Biden to follow Trump’s timeline.

“Simply the fact that President Trump announced we were going to leave in May didn’t mean President Biden had to do that,” he said.

The fact that Biden has been tripped up by Afghanistan has baffled some who have watched his career. He was the longtime chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

As vice president-elect, Biden went to Afghanistan with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) to demonstrate American political unity and resolve at another tenuous point amid a resurgent Taliban.

Biden came back from that trip worried that the mission was ill-defined, and he continued to be a voice inside the Obama administration skeptical of increased military presence. It would take a dozen years, however, before he would be in a position to have the sole authority to bring troops home.

And Graham, his onetime ally who met for hours with then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai, was critical of Biden’s actions.

“If you knew you were going to leave, why didn’t you plan for it better than this? If you knew you were going to leave, why didn’t you give yourself enough time to get people out who helped us?” Graham said to reporters in South Carolina on Monday.

“This goes back to President Biden. He made the decision to get out,” Graham added. “As a result of that decision you’re going to have thousands of people slaughtered in Afghanistan who helped America. . . . It was all avoidable.”

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was concerned about how underprepared the U.S. government was for handling the dire situation in Afghanistan as forces withdrew.

“Intelligence officials have anticipated for years that in the absence of the U.S. military the Taliban would continue to make gains in Afghanistan. That is exactly what has happened,” he said. “I hope to work with the other committees of jurisdiction to ask tough but necessary questions about why we weren’t better prepared for a worst-case scenario involving such a swift and total collapse of the Afghan government and security forces.”

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), an Iraq War veteran who endorsed Biden’s 2020 presidential primary campaign after Moulton folded his own bid, called the situation a “moral and operational failure” and said that referring to it as “anything short of a disaster would be dishonest.”

“Worse, it was avoidable,” he said. “The time to debate whether we stay in Afghanistan has passed, but there is still time to debate how we manage our retreat.”

Biden last year was asked if he would bear some responsibility for the outcome if the Taliban regained control.

“No, I don’t,” he said in an interview with CBS News’s “Face the Nation.” “Do I bear responsibility? Zero responsibility. The responsibility I have is to protect America’s national self-interest and not put our women and men in harm’s way to try to solve every single problem in the world by use of force. That’s my responsibility as president. And that’s what I’ll do as president.”