by Sebastian Smith
Agence France Presse
WASHINGTON, United States (AFP) — President Joe Biden is being called everything from reckless to incompetent over the panicky retreat from Afghanistan, but the White House has a different portrayal: a leader who simply dared to make the tough calls.
The Democrat is taking a pounding, including from some in his own party, for the extraordinary meltdown in Kabul.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, facing journalists for the first time on Tuesday since the debacle began, called the scenes at Kabul’s airport “heartbreaking.”
But, he said, Biden knew there was simply no tidy way to wrap up a bad war.
“When you conclude 20 years of military action in a civil war in another country, with the impacts of 20 years of decisions, you have to make a lot of hard calls,” Sullivan said.
“When a civil war comes to an end, with an opposing force marching on the capital, there are going to be scenes of chaos, there are going to be lots of people leaving the country. That is not something that can be fundamentally avoided,” he said.
Biden, who came into office boasting decades of a foreign policy experience, is facing the gravest crisis of his presidency, with critics rounding on what they describe as a humiliating national blunder.
The White House, however, is betting that the US public will ultimately forgive him because he had the courage to call time on the unpopular conflict.
Biden said in a speech Monday that while the speed of the Taliban march on Kabul took US commanders by surprise, the rationale for his decision was firm.
“How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight?” he asked.
Sullivan said Biden, a leader renowned for his public displays of empathy, was moved by terrible scenes in Kabul, including Afghans clinging, then falling, from a departing US military plane.
“The images from the past couple of days at the airport have been heartbreaking,” Sullivan said.
But he added: “President Biden had to think about the human costs of the alternative path as well, which was to stay in the middle of a civil conflict.”
– Sinking poll approval –
The US mess in Afghanistan is two decades in the making and both Republicans and Democrats are heavily involved. But Biden is taking the heat for the traumatic finale.
Even Democrats in Congress went after Biden this week, saying the administration had failed to prepare for getting Americans and allies in Afghanistan to safety in the event of a Taliban takeover.
“What was needed was an immediate evacuation. And that has been my distinct, clear call to the administration for several months now,” Representative Seth Moulton, a Marine veteran, told CNN.
“You need to evacuate our allies. Sort out the paperwork once you get these heroes to safety. And they have not heeded that call.”
“The rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan reveals a failure to prepare,” Democratic Senator Mark Kelly said Monday.
Republicans were even harsher.
“He failed those who counted on him most,” Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy said Tuesday, while Senator Mitt Romney called the withdrawal “disastrous.”
According to a poll out Tuesday, Biden may also be damaged where it matters most to him — with voters.
A Politico-Morning Consult survey of nearly 2,000 people found that only 49 percent approve of the Afghanistan pullout, compared to 69 percent in April, when Biden announced his plan.
© Agence France-Presse