U.S. President Joe Biden’s defense of his withdrawal from Afghanistan amounted to a high-stakes bet that U.S. voters want out of a 20-year war and will forgive him for the searing images of desperate Afghans looking to flee.

But his speech to the nation on Monday also laid bare his limited ability to change events on the ground, meaning the attacks on his competence and judgment from allies and rivals alike will continue to batter his administration.

It’s a gamble that has left him with ownership of a crisis that could determine the fate of his presidency and longer-term perceptions abroad about American power and leadership.

In a speech from the East Room of the White House, Biden vowed that the U.S. can blunt any terrorist threat that emerges in Afghanistan and said America will continue to support the Afghan people. But he’s been forced to send 6,000 troops to secure the Kabul airport, left thousands of Afghans who aided U.S. forces unprotected and will soon commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks with the regime that hosted Osama bin Laden back in power.

At the United Nations, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of "chilling reports of severe restrictions on human rights” in Taliban-held territory, including against the "women and girls of Afghanistan who fear a return to the darkest days,” when they were banned from education and employment.

Biden signaled on Monday that he thinks he can weather those risks. The president said he stood "squarely behind his position” about the withdrawal despite the "far from perfect” conditions.

"This is not in our national security interest,” Biden said. "It is not what the American people want.” America’s goals were achieved, he said, when al-Qaida was routed from Afghanistan and bin Laden killed a decade ago.

But America’s mission in Afghanistan had long ago morphed into more than bin Laden, and the president’s critics said it wasn’t the withdrawal that was the problem, it was how the Biden administration bungled its departure, looking weak and incompetent on the global stage.

Many Americans on both sides of the political divide were shocked by the trauma unfolding in Kabul, where desperate Afghans tried to cling to the side of a U.S. military plane as it taxied down a runway, with some plunging to their deaths as it took flight minutes later.

The Pentagon said at least seven people died at the airport, two in a shooting by U.S. troops.

For all of his bravado, Biden also sought to shift blame — saying he was handcuffed by the withdrawal deal former President Donald Trump made with the Taliban in Qatar last year, that the Afghan army failed its most basic duty and that President Ashraf Ghani wouldn’t stand for his own country, fleeing as Kabul was surrounded.

It remains to be seen if American voters accept the explanation. The events of recent days underscored the risk for Biden of a rapid deterioration in political support at a crucial moment of his presidency.

Thousands of people mobbed the Kabul's airport on Monday trying to flee after the Taliban retook the city.  | AFP-JIJI
Thousands of people mobbed the Kabul’s airport on Monday trying to flee after the Taliban retook the city. | AFP-JIJI

Biden and other Democratic leaders are operating with razor-thin margins in both congressional chambers and must maintain their tenuous coalition for the president’s ambitious domestic spending legislation to have any chance.

On Monday, Democrats instead appeared more united in expressing dismay over the administration’s handling of Afghanistan. Tom Carper, a Democrat from Biden’s home state of Delaware, complained in a statement that "the withdrawal of U.S. troops should have been carefully planned to prevent violence and instability.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, urged the administration "to do everything possible to evacuate them and their families and deal with the bureaucracy later.”

"There is plenty that lawmakers disagree on with respect to withdrawal from Afghanistan, but we all agree that the United States must evacuate vulnerable Afghans immediately,” she said.

Republicans seized on the chaos and confusion in Kabul, saying the administration had botched the withdrawal and embarrassed America in front of adversaries from Beijing to Tehran.

Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, said he was "deeply disappointed in President Biden’s refusal to accept responsibility for this poorly planned and disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan.” Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, mocked the president’s claim that the U.S. was withdrawing civilians slowly to prevent a panic by tweeting that "Biden’s presidency is a crisis of confidence.”

"The President never addressed the real questions,” Elliott Abrams, a former official in several Republican administrations, said in an emailed statement. "Why would he not leave a few thousand troops to provide air power? Why did he not understand that his decisions would create chaos?”

What Biden made clear was that his decision reflected a long-time suspicion of the Afghanistan project, a skepticism he expressed frequently during the Obama administration. One administration official, who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations, said the withdrawal decision was Biden’s alone.

For eight years, then-President Barack Obama and the U.S. national security apparatus had rejected Biden’s recommendations to withdraw. But after all those years of being ignored, the person said, Biden was now calling the shots.

Biden seemed to signal some level of confidence as he concluded one of the most significant speeches of his fledgling presidency. He immediately departed the White House to return to the Camp David retreat in Maryland to resume his previously scheduled vacation. The actions seemed in willful defiance of criticism from Republicans, who painted him as absentee throughout the weekend.

"I know my decision will be criticized, but I’d rather take all that criticism than pass this decision on to another president of the United States,” Biden said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.