WASHINGTON – With the final stream of U.S. cargo planes soaring over the peaks of the Hindu Kush, President Joe Biden fulfilled a campaign promise to end America’s longest war, one it could not win.
But as the war ended with a chaotic, bloody evacuation that left stranded hundreds of U.S. citizens and thousands of Afghans who had aided the American war effort, the president kept notably out of sight. He left it to a senior military commander and his secretary of state to tell Americans about the final moments of a conflict that ended in resounding American defeat.
Biden, for his part, issued a written statement praising U.S. troops who oversaw the airlift of more than 120,000 Afghans, U.S. citizens and allies for their “unmatched courage, professionalism, and resolve.” He said he would have more to say on Tuesday.
“Now, our 20-year military presence in Afghanistan has ended,” Biden said in his statement.
The muted reaction was informed by a tough reality: The war may be over, but Biden’s Afghanistan problem is not.
The president still faces daunting challenges born of the hasty end of the war, including how to help extract as many as 200 Americans and thousands of Afghans left behind, the resettlement of tens of thousands of refugees who were able to flee, and coming congressional scrutiny over how, despite increasingly fraught warnings, the administration was caught flat-footed by the rapid collapse of the Afghan government.
Through the withdrawal, Biden showed himself willing to endure what his advisers hope will be short-term pain for resisting bipartisan and international pressure to extend his Aug. 31 deadline for ending the American military evacuation effort. For more than a decade, Biden has believed in the futility of the conflict and maintained that the routing of Afghanistan's military by the Taliban was a delayed, if unwelcome, vindication.
Turning the page on Afghanistan is a crucial foreign policy objective for Biden, who repeatedly has made the case for redirecting American attention toward growing challenges posed by adversaries China and Russia — and for shifting America's counterterrorism focus to areas with more potent threats.
But in his effort to end the war and reset U.S. priorities, Biden may have also undercut a central premise of his 2020 White House campaign: a promise to usher in an era of greater empathy and collaboration with allies in America's foreign policy after four years of President Donald Trump's “America first” approach.
“For someone who made his name as an empathetic leader, he’s appeared ... as quite rational, even cold-hearted, in his pursuit of this goal” to end the war, said Jason Lyall, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College.
Allies — including lawmakers from Britain, France, and Germany — chafed at Biden's insistence on holding fast to the Aug. 31 deadline as they struggled to evacuate their citizens and Afghan allies. Armin Laschet, the leading conservative candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as Germany's chancellor, called it the “biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding.”
At home, Republican lawmakers have called for an investigation into the Biden administration’s handling of the evacuation, and even Democrats have backed inquiries into what went wrong in the fateful last months of the occupation.
And at the same time, the massive suicide bombing in the final days of the evacuation that killed 13 U.S. troops and more than 180 Afghans is raising fresh concern about Afghanistan again becoming a breeding ground for terrorists.
Biden blamed his predecessor, Trump, for tying his hands. He repeatedly reminded people that he had inherited an agreement the Republican administration made with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. forces by May of this year. Reneging on the deal, Biden argued, would have put U.S. troops — who before Thursday had gone since February 2020 without a combat fatality in the war — in the Taliban's crosshairs once again.
The Democratic president’s advisers also complained that the now-ousted Afghan government led by Ashraf Ghani was resistant to finding a political compromise with the Taliban and made strategic blunders by spreading largely feckless Afghan security forces too thinly.
Republicans — and even a few Democratic allies — have offered withering criticism of the administration’s handling of the evacuation, an issue that the GOP is looking to weaponize against Biden.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Monday the withdrawal date set by Biden was a political one designed for a photo op. Absent from McCarthy’s criticism was any mention that it was Trump’s White House that had brokered the deal to end the war.
“There was a moment in time that had this president listened to his military, there would still be terrorist prisoners inside Bagram, we would be getting every single American out, the military would not have left before the Americans," McCarthy said. "Every crisis he has faced so far in this administration he has failed.”
It remains to be seen if criticism of Biden's handling of Afghanistan will resonate with voters. An Associated Press-NORC poll conducted earlier in August found that about 6 in 10 Americans said the war there was not worth fighting.
An ABC News/Ipsos poll conducted Aug. 27-28 found about 6 in 10 Americans disapproving of Biden’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan. That poll also found most said the U.S. should remain in Afghanistan until all Americans and Afghans who aided the U.S. had been evacuated. The poll did not ask whether people approved of withdrawal more generally.
After backing the 2001 U.S. invasion, Biden became a skeptic of U.S. nation-building efforts and harbored deep doubts about the Afghan government’s ability to develop the capacity to sustain itself.
His opposition to the 2009 “surge” of U.S. troop deployed to Afghanistan when he was vice president put him on the losing side of conflicts with the defense establishment and within the Obama administration. Biden, in recent weeks, told aides that he viewed his counsel against expanding the American involvement more than a decade ago to be one of his proudest moments in public life.
But his tendency to speak in absolutes didn't help his cause.
In July, Biden pushed back at concerns that a Taliban takeover of the country would be inevitable. Weeks later, the group toppled the Afghan government.
The president also expressed confidence that Americans would not see images reminiscent of the U.S. evacuation from Vietnam at the end of that war in 1975, when photos of helicopters evacuating people from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon became gripping symbols of U.S. failure.
In fact, they saw images of desperate Afghans swarming the Kabul airport — at least one falling to his death after clinging to a departing U.S. aircraft.
Biden told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos during an Aug. 18 interview that the U.S. military objective in Afghanistan was to get “everyone” out, including Americans and Afghan allies and their families. He pledged American forces would stay until they accomplished that mission.
But Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday that there was “a small number of Americans, under 200, likely closer to 100, who remain in Afghanistan and still want to leave.”
The swift military evacuation now yields to a murkier diplomatic operation to press the Taliban to allow Americans and their allies to depart peacefully by other means.
Biden believes he has some leverage over the Taliban, former U.S. enemies turned into pragmatic partners, as Afghanistan faces an economic crisis with the freezing of most foreign aid. But U.S. commanders say the situation in Afghanistan could become even more chaotic in the coming weeks and months.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Aamer Madhani has covered the White House for The Associated Press since 2019. Zeke Miller has covered the White House since 2012.
Associated Press writers Calvin Woodward, Kevin Freking and Emily Swanson contributed to this report.