As the dust settled from the chaotic U.S. troop pullout, the politics of war and withdrawal revved up in Washington with President Biden declaring the end of the 20-year mission an “extraordinary success” and Republicans ripping his decision to leave Americans behind in Afghanistan.
The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the tumultuous evacuation and the deaths of 13 U.S. service members in a suicide bomb attack at the Kabul airport all lay at Mr. Biden’s doorstep.
The president was already dealing with a surge in COVID-19 as schools began to reopen, renewing polarizing debate over masks and vaccination holdouts, and raising broader concerns about the economy.
His administration also has struggled with a flood of migrants jumping the southern border.
Seeking to regain his footing, Mr. Biden on Tuesday defended his decision on Afghanistan. He said it boiled down to a choice between “leaving or escalating” the war.
He made it clear that he thinks American voters are on his side.
Republicans on Capitol Hill said the commander in chief had violated the “no man left behind” credo of the armed forces — a jab expected to echo in Washington for months to come and likely in next year’s midterm election campaigns.
The lawmakers said the president’s poor decision-making bolstered America’s adversaries and unnerved its allies.
Speaking at the White House, Mr. Biden praised the armed services and intelligence agencies for “the incredible skill, bravery and selfless courage” in evacuating over 120,000 people by a self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline.
“The bottom line is 90% of Americans in Afghanistan who wanted to leave were able to leave, and for those remaining Americans, there is no deadline,” he said. “We remain committed to getting them out if they want to come out.”
Mr. Biden said the administration reached out 19 times since March to the Americans in Afghanistan “with multiple warnings and offers to help them leave” the country.
The president said he had delivered on his promise to end a war that left 2,461 service members dead and 20,000 more injured and cost taxpayers over $2.3 trillion.
“I refused to continue a war that was no longer in the service of the vital national interest of our people,” he said. “I refused to open another decade of warfare in Afghanistan.”
He vowed to continue to hunt down terrorists in Afghanistan and around the globe “without American boots on the ground, or very few if needed.”
James Carafano, a leading expert in national security and foreign policy at The Heritage Foundation, said public opinion will turn sharply against the pullout decision if Afghanistan again becomes a sanctuary for Islamic terrorists.
“There is a question of how popular it will be in the future if the consequences of leaving result in bad things, including terrorist attacks and more destabilization,” Mr. Carafano said on C-SPAN. “So the assumptions the American people are with the American president on this, I think, is a very open question.”
What is clear is that Mr. Biden and other Democrats are taking lots of criticism, including from some parents of fallen soldiers.
Shana Chappell, the mother of Kareem Nikoui, one of the Marines killed in the suicide bombing in Kabul, used social media to call Mr. Biden a “traitor.” She said the president bristled when she criticized him to his face at a “dignified transfer” ceremony Sunday at Dover Air Force Base.
“You are no leader of any kind! You are a weak human being and a traitor!!!!” she said on Facebook. “You turned your back on my son, on all of our Heros!!! you are leaving the White House one way or another because you do not belong there! MY SONS BLOOD IS ON YOUR HANDS!!!”
In Washington, Republicans said Mr. Biden did the unthinkable by leaving American civilians and Afghan allies behind and providing safe harbor to a “fundamentalist Taliban regime.”
“What is the plan to get Americans out?” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said at a press conference. “Never in my lifetime would I ever believe America would have an administration knowingly make a decision to leave Americans behind.”
House Republicans tried and failed to get Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, to allow a vote on a bill that would require the Biden administration to detail how it plans to evacuate the remaining American citizens, account for the military equipment left behind and bar funding for the Taliban.
Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said it was “sickening” that the Biden administration greenlit an “unconditional surrender” to the Taliban.
“Now they are celebrating their victory over the United States of America,” Mr. McCaul said. “I never thought I’d see this in my life. It is embarrassing, it is shameful and it is wrong to our veterans who served so well.”
Mr. McCaul said Mr. Biden owns the mess after ignoring the advice of his top generals and members of the intelligence community.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week that over 123,000, including roughly 6,000 American citizens, were flown out of Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover.
Mr. Blinken told reporters Monday that fewer than 200 Americans were still in Afghanistan.
Mr. Biden and congressional Democrats are hoping the American public will ultimately agree with his decision.
Mr. Biden‘s net approval rating has sunk about 10 percentage points over the past month, according to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker.
The website’s analysts said Mr. Biden‘s slide started with the uptick in COVID-19 cases. Even though most voters agreed with winding down the war, they panned the way the withdrawal was carried out.
That helps explain why Democrats are eager to shift the focus back to the president’s domestic agenda, which includes infrastructure, a massive spending push and his coronavirus mitigation efforts.
Republicans say the bungled withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is among many failed responses from the Biden administration that deserve more oversight from Congress.
Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee said Tuesday that the situation is so dire that Democrats should put the brakes on the president’s proposed $3.5 trillion expansion of America’s social safety net. They said lawmakers should instead address the nation’s mounting foreign and domestic problems.
“This week is not the time for the committee’s majority to be advancing partisan wish lists,” the Republicans said in a letter.
They said thousands of Afghan refugees are arriving daily, hurricanes and wildfires are wreaking havoc, and a “humanitarian, public safety and environmental crisis continue to rage as a result of this administration’s failure to secure our southern border.”
Republicans are confident that the frenetic nature of the Afghanistan withdrawal is boosting their hand ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, when Democrats will be defending control of the House and Senate.
“Voters know that Joe Biden and House Democrats’ failures in Afghanistan have made America less safe, and they will hold them accountable for that,” said Michael McAdams, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Mr. McAdams said the NRCC is experiencing a “tremendous amount of interest from veterans” who want to run for public office and turn the clock back on the “failed policies of House Democrats.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm for House Democrats, did not respond to requests for comment.
Christopher Preble, a foreign policy analyst at the Atlantic Council, said the political fallout from the end of the war in Afghanistan is messy.
“It is predictable that Republicans will use this to score points, and if the shoe were on the other foot, the Dems would almost certainly do the same thing,” Mr. Preble said. “The problem for many of them is that, well, they were on the record, less than a year ago in many cases, arguing in favor of withdrawal. And now, if they change their mind, someone is going to call them on it.”
To his chagrin, Mr. Preble said, the public doesn’t pay much attention to foreign policy, and the Afghanistan issue is far from a slam-dunk for Republicans.
“First, if they try to make it a political issue, they are running into the headwinds of public opinion that believe the decision to withdraw was correct. And second, if they try to make the focus on this August, they and any others have to account for the 19 other Augusts that came before it,” he said.
Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute who served as a Marine in Afghanistan, said the withdrawal will go down as one of the best decisions of the entire war.
“I think the American people are capable of understanding that the withdrawal was the right decision, but maybe the evacuation didn’t go as planned, and I think the American people understand the dysfunction we saw in this evacuation over the last week is an extension of the dysfunction we saw over the last 20 years,” he said on C-SPAN.
• Haris Alic contributed to this report.