Images from the aftermath of the bombings, the single deadliest day for the United States military in a decade, had reverberated on cable news for hours before the president stepped to the lectern. Maimed Afghans. Crying Afghan families. Crippled survivors carted off in wheelbarrows. Grim-faced officers preparing to knock on the door of a widow or parents of a fallen Marine, sailor or soldier.
“Been a tough day,” Biden half-whispered, knowing that the most enduring images from the attacks on the Kabul airport are yet to come. Thirteen flag-draped coffins. At least. That is the current number of U.S. service members who lost their lives when two suicide bombers tore apart a desperate crowd trying to enter the airfield and exit the country.
Eighteen more were wounded, according to Pentagon officials who warned that the death toll could grow in the coming days. Early reports indicated that more than 60 Afghans are also dead with another 140 wounded. The two blasts, one at the airport gate and another at a nearby hotel, were part of “complex attack” coordinated by an Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan right as the United States races to complete its evacuation.
In the East Room of the White House late Thursday afternoon, Biden mourned and defended his decision to withdraw and promised vengeance.
“We are outraged as well as heartbroken,” the president said, noting how he and the first lady know of loss first-hand. His son, Beau Biden, had returned from a tour in Iraq only to battle brain cancer at home. “And we lost,” he explained, likening his past pain to the loss that military families are now enduring. “You get this feeling like you’re being sucked into a black hole in the middle of your chest,” he told reporters — and the nation. “There’s no way out.”
The president had spent much of the day in the Situation Room, the command center deep in basement of the West Wing where he said his generals “made it clear that we can and we must complete this mission.” Biden said he remains committed to the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline agreed upon with the Taliban.
Even as Americans continued their headlong evacuation ahead of that date, Biden vowed that retribution would come: “To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive, we will not forget, we will hunt you down and make you pay.”
The portrait of George Washington, the one that Dolly Madison famously refused to abandon before the British torched the White House in the War of 1812, was to the right of the president as he spoke about the consequences of America’s longest war. In particular, Biden had to explain how the Taliban, once the enemy, were a critical part of the U.S. retreat. “It is in their self-interest that we leave when we said,” he said, “and that we get as many people out as we can.”
Earlier in the day, news broke that administration officials had given the Taliban a list of names of American citizens and Afghan allies to wave into the outer perimeter of the Kabul airport. Given the tenuous peace with the Taliban and the fact that their minions are already going door-to-door in some parts of the country hunting U.S. allies, one Defense Department official complained to Politico, “Basically, they just put all those Afghans on a kill list.” In answer to a reporters’ question in the East Room Thursday, Biden acknowledged there were “occasions” when the administration passed along names, although in his telling it was very different.
The president conceded that U.S. military officials have informed the Taliban that, “For example, ‘This bus is coming through with X number of people on it, made up of following group of people. We want you to let that bus or that group through.’ So, yes, there have been occasions like that.
“I can’t tell you with any certitude that there’s actually been a list of names,” Biden added. “There may have been. But I know of no circumstance. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, that ‘Here’s the names of 12 people, they’re coming, let them through.’ It could very well have happened.”
All eyes, including those of the president, remain on the Kabul airport because it is the last and only exit from that chaotic country. Before Thursday’s attacks, administration allies repeatedly compared the evacuation efforts to the Berlin Airlift of the Cold War. And since flights began leaving in earnest on Aug. 14, it has been the final glimpse of Afghanistan for more than 100,000 evacuees. The problem? Many others trying to flee the country, including U.S. citizens, have not been able to get past the Taliban and to the airfield.
Some critics have questioned the wisdom of leaving the more easily defended Bagram Air Base — the sprawling facility abandoned by the U.S. in the middle of the night last month — to the Taliban. Did the president personally reject recommendations to hold onto that airfield or to recapture it? Biden explained his thinking Thursday:
He “gathered up all the major military personnel that are in Afghanistan.” He asked “for their best military judgement” about how to do the job. “They concluded, the military, that Bagram was not much value-added, and it was much wiser to focus on Kabul,” he said. “And so, I followed that recommendation.”
Anger over that decision, compounded by recent American casualties along with the general chaos that has accompanied the withdrawal, fueled a wave of Republicans calling for Biden’s resignation. Before the president even began speaking, Sen. Marsha Blackburn said that he, his vice president, and top military advisers “should all resign or face impeachment and removal from office.”
His remarks did not change her mind. The Tennessee Republican told RCP afterwards that the administration “had no plan and no strategy. They put Americans directly into harm’s way, causing American casualties.” She reiterated, “Resignations are needed.”
When White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked to respond, she said that such questions were inappropriate in the wake of tragedy: “It’s not a day for politics, and we would expect that any American, whether they’re elected or not, would stand with us in our commitment to going after and fighting and killing those terrorists, wherever they live, and to honoring the memory of service members.”
A Democratic strategist wasn’t as guarded. Republicans are in no position to lecture the current president, the source said, given that many on the right “pushed Biden to leave in May,” that the previous administration signed a “catastrophic” peace deal with the Taliban,” and that, as a condition of that agreement, “forced the release of 5,000 Taliban fighters from prison.” “Now they’re more eager to play politics with the lives of American service members than they are to condemn the f—— terrorists who just committed murder with suicide vests,” the source told RCP. “It’s repulsive and weak.”
If the president was aware of those politics, he made no mention of them in the East Room. He was more focused on the geopolitical concerns of the country, noting that while he did not trust the Taliban, “it is in their self-interest that we leave when we said and that we get as many people out as we can.” Back in the briefing room, his spokeswoman added that the government’s commitment to get U.S. citizens out would not run out at the end of the month.
Was Biden trying to prepare the nation for the harsh reality that some Americans might be left behind? “There are some Americans who may not have decided to leave by the 31st,” Psaki responded. “That is possible.” Yet, there are apparently Americans who want to leave but report that they can’t get past the Taliban and into the airport.
That fact hasn’t escaped the president, who was softspoken when he addressed reporters. He had spent much of the day in the windowless Situation Room until that point, taking in the grim news as it came. And later in the afternoon, as thunderstorms boomed and lightning flashed over the White House, a U.S. Marine guard was posted outside the Oval Office, signaling the president’s presence. When he fielded questions, Biden seldom raised his voice or even bristled. But one exchange clearly left him exhausted.
“I bear responsibility for fundamentally all that’s happened of late,” Biden told a reporter from Fox News. He continued, though, adding that “I wish you’d one day say these things”: that his predecessor’s agreement with the Taliban had compounded the issue. During a back-and-forth about how the withdrawal was handled, the president folded his hands around his binder and bowed his head.
He looked up when asked if he stood by his decision. “Yes, I do,” Biden said, explaining that his answer would have to be abbreviated because he had “another meeting, for real.” America only went into Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks to get Osama Bin Laden, he said. Had that terrorist been in another country, Yemen, for example, “Would we have ever gone to Afghanistan?” And while the threat from terrorism is global, he explained, that does not require “military encampments” in every location.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Biden said, “it was time to end a 20-year war.”