Under-pressure Biden to speak to nation on Afghanistan

Under-pressure Biden to speak to US on Afghanistan as Taliban consolidate power
4 min read
20 August, 2021
President Joe Biden will speak on the US evacuation from Afghanistan, as he tried to navigate the biggest crisis of his administration and prevent the Kabul debacle from derailing his ambitious agenda.
The world is concerned about Afghanistan [Getty]

President Joe Biden was to speak Friday on the US evacuation from Afghanistan, as he tried to navigate the biggest crisis of his administration and prevent the Kabul debacle from derailing his ambitious agenda.

The Democrat's entire brand, from the election campaign to his first half year in office, has been based on restoring competency at home and respect for the United States abroad.

With the desperate and chaotic exit from Afghanistan challenging both those goals, Biden is scrambling to change the political narrative -- while also managing the life-or-death situation unfolding at Kabul's airport.

Later Friday Biden was scheduled to make televised remarks from the White House.

This will be only his second speech on the crisis since the Taliban capture of Kabul last weekend, in addition to an ABC News interview where he defended his administration, saying some "chaos" was inescapable in ending the Afghan war.

Critics are piling on, attacking Biden not just for being caught unaware by the rapidity of the Taliban takeover but his low profile ever since.

When the Taliban were pouring into Kabul, Biden remained at the Camp David presidential retreat, invisible except for a single official photo where he appeared alone at a table in front of a video monitor, wearing a polo shirt.

Other than the ABC News interview, he has not taken questions from journalists all week.

The White House, however, is clearly banking on a strategy of trying to separate the military-humanitarian crisis from the political arena.

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The Pentagon and State Department are in charge of giving detailed, daily press conferences, where the focus on logistical details helps polish the administration's tarnished claims to competency.

By contrast, Biden's usually omnipresent press secretary, Jen Psaki, has held only one briefing this week.

Biden, whose daily meetings with top national security staff have all been behind closed doors, will play it even cooler by departing Friday for a weekend at his home in Wilmington, Delaware, rather than remaining at the White House and its Situation Room.

- Domestic agenda in peril -

It remains unclear what went wrong in the Biden administration's calculations in Afghanistan.

However, the 78-year-old president appears adamant that US voters will eventually forgive him for a terrifying and at times tragic few days in Kabul, instead remembering him as the president who ended 20 years of futile war.

White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield on Friday echoed Biden's comments about the impossibility of avoiding a messy exit and said that, rather than being caught flat-footed, the administration had in fact "prepared for every contingency."

afghanistan map

There was "going to be a chaotic situation whether it happened five months ago, whether it happened five weeks ago or whether it happened this week," she told MSNBC News.

The evacuation flights, secured by several thousand hastily deployed US troops, are not evidence of failure but of "foresight and planning," she said.

The evacuation on the other side of the world and Biden's political fortunes back home both remain perilously in the balance as the weekend starts.

Biden's previously successful management of the Covid-19 response faces growing threat from the Delta variant and ever fiercer politicization of mask and vaccine policies.

And his signature legislative success -- getting trillions of dollars in infrastructure spending plans through a divided Senate -- risks losing crucial momentum in the House at a time when his allies and advisors are consumed by the Afghan mess.

Polls show that a large majority of Americans do not support war in Afghanistan, giving the White House confidence that eventually Biden will be able to say he was proven right.

But for now, the daily diet of shocking images from Kabul and relentless attacks on Biden by Republicans, as well as open disenchantment among some of his own Democrats, are taking a heavy toll.

This was the first week where the average approval ratings for Biden dipped below 50 percent.

According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, the reasons were clear: that dramatic weekend where the Taliban swept into Kabul.

The poll on Monday found only 46 percent approval for Biden, compared to 53 percent on the previous Friday.