President Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal — and along with it, his own political fate — now rests in the hands of the Taliban, which just spent the last two decades at war with the U.S. and now finds itself in control and better armed than ever.
The awkward embrace of Mr. Biden and the militant group born from a medieval Islamic ideology came into sharp focus Thursday after suicide bombers and gunmen struck at the remaining U.S. presence in Kabul.
The attack, which intelligence officials were blaming on ISIS-K, an offshoot of the Islamic State, was just what Mr. Biden feared and why he said he had to stick with his end-of-month withdrawal plans.
But it underscored just how much of his political future rests in others’ hands.
Richard Flanagan, a professor of American politics at the College of Staten Island, said Mr. Biden has put “all of his chips” on the Taliban.
“That must be a bad feeling because if they start shooting at these big cargo planes leaving from the city then my God it is going to be bad,” Mr. Flanagan said. “What if one of these crazy commanders gets off an anti-aircraft missile and takes down a plane?”
Speaking to reporters Thursday evening, Mr. Biden said the Taliban “are not good guys” and said he didn’t have a choice but to work with them, counting on them to secure the perimeter of the airport.
“It’s in their self-interest that we leave when we say and that we get as many people out as we can,” he said. “It’s not a matter of trust, it’s a matter of mutual self-interest.”
Mr. Biden said even amid the attacks, 7,000 people were airlifted out of the country over 12 hours Thursday.
Mr. Biden also pointed to his predecessor, Donald Trump, who he said left him few good options when he struck a deal with the Taliban to remove U.S. troops last year in exchange for their cooperation.
Gordon Adams, a professor emeritus of U.S. foreign policy at American University, said Mr. Biden was put in the tough spot. He described the president’s relationship with the Taliban as a “mutual hostage situation” where both sides have more to gain from avoiding more chaos.
“If the Taliban looks crazy there are major problems for them in terms of diplomatic recognition and willingness of the international community to work with them — and God knows there are major economic and fiscal problems” in Afghanistan, he said. “They are as capable of calculating their interest than anybody else and probably better at it than they were 25 years ago when they took power.”
Mr. Adams said Mr. Biden’s competence is being tested in the court of public opinion, and “they do not look competent yet.”
“I suspect part of the motivation to hold to the withdrawal deadline is to say we want this to be done and we want this to be done as swiftly as we can do it,” he said. “It is not as much the Taliban forcing his hand as domestic politics.”
Besides, the faster it’s done, the faster it will be forgotten by voters.
“Political memories are short,” Mr. Adams said.
Democratic activists across the country are taking a wait-and-see approach before judging Mr. Biden, saying the Trump administration put him in a no-win situation.
“The prior president is the one who set this thing up and people realize that, but they are really hoping this doesn’t turn into a debacle and we get people out safely,” said Brett Niles, chair of the Linn County Iowa Democrats. “I wouldn’t want to be in President Biden’s position, but I think it is going to be a matter of you can’t succeed.”
The danger for Mr. Biden is that anyone left behind becomes an ongoing problem — and any future attack or reprisal that leaves dead an Afghan who assisted the U.S. war effort becomes a new reminder for the public.
Even before Thursday’s attack, images of chaos at the airport, and bodies falling from the undercarriage of a U.S. military cargo jet, had shocked the country and soured a public that had previously been giving the president an extended honeymoon.
A USA Today survey released this week showed Mr. Biden’s overall job approval rating underwater, with 41% of Americans approving and 55% disapproving.
“If this withdrawal had worked out swimmingly, Biden would have been seen as a leader and he would have made great strides with independents going into 2022,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk Political Research Center. “Not only has the exact opposite happened with independents, but it has actually spilled into Democrats.”
The president also has seen what had been generally glowing coverage from the press deteriorate.
“As someone who’s covered the liberal media for multiple administrations, it’s been surreal to see so many of them hold a Democratic administration’s feet to the fire for a deadly and truly devastating humanitarian disaster,” said Curtis Houck, of the Media Research Center. “One could say that some have tried to almost will the administration to a more wholesome response that’s willing to admit failure. But thus far, their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.”
Indeed, Mr. Biden seems a man alone.
His Afghanistan decision-making has two chief components: the self-imposed Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline and the way he has managed the pullout. Even senior Democrats in Washington who agree with the withdrawal decision have questioned the president’s handling of the pullout.
“The president must now commit to making sure that every American citizen and every one of our Afghan partners who assisted U.S. troops, seeking to leave Afghanistan can do so, even if our troops must remain past Aug. 31,” said Rep. Jim Langevin, a senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tried to accentuate the positive, pointing to the more than 100,000 people Mr. Biden says have been evacuated since late July.
Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, did say Congress deserves continued briefings on the situation and also renewed her admonition to lawmakers not to visit the region, saying they would not only be a distraction for U.S. forces but a “danger.”
Republicans were far more pointed about Thursday’s events.
“Mr. President, fix the mess you created,” Rep. Dan Crenshaw, Texas Republican, tweeted Thursday in response to the attacks. “Stop running from it. We are still at war. You didn’t ‘end the war,’ you just gave the enemy [a] new advantage.”