President Biden expressed optimism Sunday about the Afghanistan evacuation as his administration struggled to regain its footing after the chaotic military exit, his confident take coming in stark contrast with falling poll numbers and escalating concerns about his competence and credibility.
In remarks at the White House, Mr. Biden said the evacuation mission had turned the corner after a rocky start. He called it “an incredible operation” but continued to insist there was no way to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan without turmoil.
“We have a long way to go, and a lot could still go wrong,” Mr. Biden said. “But to move out 30,000 people in just over a week, that’s a great testament to the men and women on the ground in Kabul in the armed services.”
He gave his latest take about the situation after a disastrous outing Friday in which he made demonstrably false statements about the withdrawal. One claim was that al Qaeda is now “gone,” forcing administration officials to contradict him under grilling from reporters.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken defended the president’s comment by saying al Qaeda’s ability to carry about an attack on U.S. soil is “vastly, vastly diminished,” but he acknowledged under questioning that the group behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was still in Afghanistan.
“Are there al Qaeda members and remnants in Afghanistan? Yes,” Mr. Blinken said on “Fox News Sunday” after he was pressed by host Chris Wallace.
Meanwhile, a flurry of polls showed Mr. Biden’s favorability rating dropping below 50% for the first time in his 7-month-old presidency as his administration grapples with the twin crises of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the resurgence of COVID-19.
Nikki Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was among the Republicans raising red flags about the ability of Mr. Biden, 78, to handle the job. She cited the president’s Friday claims about the situation on the ground in Kabul.
“I can’t believe that Biden got it so wrong that he said that no Americans were having a hard time coming to the airport,” Ms. Haley said on the CBS program “Face the Nation.”
“He said al Qaeda is no longer in Afghanistan. He said our allies were fine with what he did. Either the people around Biden are not telling him the truth, or he is not thinking in a normal way. I mean, something is very wrong here,” she said.
The blunders, coming with thousands of Americans and Afghan allies still waiting to be evacuated, have fueled speculation that at least one administration official may be forced to step down. As far as some critics are concerned, that person should be Mr. Biden.
A dozen Republican lawmakers and prominent conservatives have called in the past week for Mr. Biden to step down or be replaced under the 25th Amendment or through other means. Those lawmakers include Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, Reps. Claudia Tenney and Lee Zeldin of New York, Rep. Jefferson Van Drew of New Jersey and Rep. Ronny Jackson of Texas.
“Somebody else has to try at this point because he’s failed miserably. He’s proved to the entire world that he’s incapable of being our commander in chief. He is not up to the job,” Mr. Jackson, a White House physician in the Trump administration, said on Fox News.
Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican, tweeted last week that “Biden’s entire defense and foreign policy team must resign.” He called the Afghanistan exit “the worst foreign policy debacle since Vietnam.”
Polls released Sunday show Mr. Biden’s approval rating dropping in some polls below 50% for the first time in his presidency. RealClear Politics and FiveThirtyEight tracking polls last week reflected that trend.
The president’s rating fell 8 percentage points from July in a CBS News/YouGov survey to 50%. His rating fell to 49% in an NBC News poll, down from 53% in April and the first time it dropped below 50% in that survey.
The polls track with a Reuters survey, which found the president’s job approval rating fell 7 percentage points in the past week.
The CBS News/YouGov poll conducted Aug. 18-20 also found that 74% said the Afghanistan exit has gone “very badly” or “somewhat badly.” Although 63% agreed in the poll with leaving Afghanistan, 53% disapproved of Mr. Biden’s handling of the pullout.
In April, that poll showed that most believed Mr. Biden was “competent,” “focused” and “effective,” but the latest survey found him underwater on all three.
Mr. Biden shrugged off Sunday a question about the polling results on his competence by saying, “I haven’t seen that poll.”
“Look, I had a basic decision to make. I either withdraw America from a 20-year war … or I end the war. And I decided to end the war,” said Mr. Biden, citing the enormous cost, the 2,448 Americans who died and the 20,722 wounded.
He confirmed the use of civil reserve flights, a rarely used program that compels the use of commercial airlines to help the military in times of national emergencies.
The program had been used only twice: during the wars with Iraq in the 1990s and 2000s.
“In a little over 30 hours this weekend, we evacuated an extraordinary number of people,” Mr. Biden said.
Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt of Hart Research Associates, who conducted the NBC News survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies, said the pandemic and the crisis in Afghanistan have produced a “summer of discontent” for Mr. Biden.
“The promise of April has led to the peril of August,” said Mr. Horwitt, whose poll was conducted shortly before the Taliban rolled into Kabul. “It is the domestic storm, COVID’s delta wave, that is causing more difficulties at this stage here at home and for President Biden.”
With the Taliban now in control of Hamid Karzai International Airport, the U.S. focus has been on evacuating Americans and Afghans who aided the U.S. military but now find themselves stranded in Afghanistan.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday that the administration is working to remove “several thousand Americans” seeking to escape. He said the precise number is unknown because not all citizens register with the U.S. Embassy when they arrive or deregister when they leave.
“We are working hard to organize groups of Americans, to bring them on the airbase, to get them on flights and get them out of the country,” Mr. Sullivan said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
He said U.S. forces and their allies have evacuated nearly 8,000 people from Afghanistan in the previous 24 hours.
Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, said the number of Americans stuck in Afghanistan is significantly greater and was among those calling on Mr. Biden to send a tougher message to the Taliban.
“Again, we have 10,000 to 15,000 Americans who are, in effect, hostages to the Taliban right now,” Mr. Cotton said on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures.” “Joe Biden needs to make it clear to the Taliban that we’re not leaving until everyone is gone, and if they’re injured, then we may do to the Taliban now exactly what we did in 2001.”
He added that “I think this illustrates very well Joe Biden‘s incompetence in handling this withdrawal.”
In his Friday speech, Mr. Biden claimed his administration had “no indication that [Americans] haven’t been able to get, in Kabul, through the airport,” an assertion that has been widely disputed.
“My office has been on the phone with hundreds and hundreds of Americans and Afghans who report Taliban gangs outside the airport beating people with sticks and pipes and chains, confiscating passports, confiscating visas,” Mr. Cotton said. “It is not a free passage situation in Kabul right now to the airport. And it remains that way today. That’s something that Joe Biden needs to stop today.”
Republicans also expressed frustration with what former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the Biden administration’s “defeatist mentality,” including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s claim that he lacked the “capability” to extend operations beyond Kabul.
“That is nonsense. I’m a veteran. I know the capabilities of our young men and women. We could deliver, just the same way the French and the United Kingdom are delivering for their people,” Mr. Pompeo said on “Sunday Morning Futures.”
Sen. Joni Ernst, Iowa Republican and an Army National Guard combat veteran who served in Kuwait, described the effort to evacuate the embassy in Kabul as “one of the biggest debacles that we have seen in the last several decades.”
“We should be doing everything possible to get Americans safely to the airport for evacuation,” Ms. Ernst said on ABC’s “This Week.” “We are the strongest military on the face of this planet, and we should be exercising those authorities to make sure that we’re flexing our military muscle, especially when it comes to evacuating Americans.”
• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.