US President Joe Biden is braving a serious loss of face and political capital following some of his assertions on Afghanistan proving misplaced, His own administration, the US military and ground realities belie a lot many of his claims.
Fumbling time and again during the White House press conference on 20 August, Biden claimed that the US mission in Afghanistan was essentially over since Osama bin Laden had been killed and al Qaeda was “gone” from the country. However, Pentagon officials said soon after that al Qaeda, as well as ISIS, remain entrenched in Afghanistan.
In a report released in June, even the UN had said Taliban and al Qaeda remained closely aligned and showed no indication of breaking ties. “Member States report no material change to this relationship, which has grown deeper as a consequence of personal bonds of marriage and shared partnership in struggle, now cemented through second generational ties,” the UN report had said.
Administration officials subsequently tried to spin the president’s remarks, saying he had meant that al Qaeda had been degraded to the point where it longer presented a threat to the homeland. However, critics heckled Biden for a verbal overreach. They said he unduly justified the haste in the US withdrawal, which was not part of the commitment of the Donald Trump administration.
Biden also suggested that Americans stranded in Afghanistan could get to the Kabul airport for evacuation without much difficulty and that the Taliban was cooperating in letting them through, but ground reports spoke of obstacles on this count, with sporadic attacks on Americans trying to reach the airport.
In fact, the US Embassy on 20 August explicitly asked its citizens to avoid travelling to the airport because of potential security threats outside the gates “unless you receive individual instructions from a US government representative to do so”.
In the middle of the chaos in Afghanistan, his detractors are panning the president for returning to his vacation although aides say he remains on top of the situation, pointing to his return to the White House on Friday and the fact that his home state Delaware where he repaired to on Saturday is barely an hour away from the capital.
On Saturday, the president convened an online national security meeting and was joined by, among others, vice-president Kamala Harris, who is also being criticized for embarking on a trip to south east Asia amid the crisis in Afghanistan.
A political brawl is also brewing at home over the refugee issue with some right-wing commentators stoking nativists fears over the influx of Afghan refugees even though many moderate Republicans support giving asylum to Afghans who helped US forces during its mission. Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson was among those who suggested the Biden administration was opening the flood gates to refugees to change the demographic balance of the country.
The US State Department has approved 34,500 Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, for Afghans who assisted the US military over two decades, and another 20,000 were in the pipeline waiting for approval. But the process of evacuating them has been slow amid demands at home that airlifting Americans should get first preference and calls for a proper vetting of Afghans. Many Afghans are being evacuated to third countries in the Gulf for processing their entry to the US.
The withdrawal fiasco has cast a shadow on Biden’s reputation as a foreign policy guru. Right wing pundits are savaging him, calling him senile, and not up to the White House job, with some going as far calling for his resignation, impeachment, and replacement by invoking the 25th amendment which allows for removal of an incapacitated President.