The US president’s latest appearance reflected the need for a display of leadership and control for a situation that’s developing so fast.
It has been only a week since Kabul fell, a week since President Joe Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal policy revealed all its flaws. It feels like far longer.
And so for the second time in a few days, he was back at the podium in the East Room of the White House.
On Monday, he had appeared alone with a robust defence of his decision to end the war but nothing on how he executed the withdrawal.
This time, with his top team around him – a sharing of the burden or the responsibility perhaps – he sought to show that he is grasping the urgency of the immediate challenge at Kabul Airport.
“Since I spoke to you on Monday, we’ve made significant progress,” the president said.
“We’ve secured the airport, enabling flights to resume, not just military flights, but civilian charters from other countries, and the NGOs taking out civilians and vulnerable Afghans…”
He continued with reassurances of progress: “We’ve already evacuated more than 18,000 people since July, and approximately 13,000 since our military lift began on August the 14th.”
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He confirmed that contact with the Taliban remains in place – extraordinary when you think about it, but positive too given that it is Taliban cooperation which is key to saving so many lives.
“As we continue to work the logistics of evacuation, we’re in constant contact with the Taliban, working to ensure civilians have safe passage to the airport. We’re particularly focused on our engagements on making sure every American who wants to leave, can get to the airport.”
It was important for him to deliver some concrete commitments. He pledged that all US citizens who wanted to get out would be helped out but couldn’t explain how those who are not in Kabul could be extracted.
“Any American who wants to come home, we will get you home.”
He said the commanders on the ground will get “everything they need” to do the job. The danger with that, of course, is mission creep.
At the moment the mission is confined to the airport. But he did say: “We will consider going outside the airport.” How would that impact the Taliban cooperation?
In short, on the ground in and around the airport in Kabul, his commitments come up against the reality.
Perhaps the most revealing moment came when he was asked about what impact his decision is having on US credibility among America’s allies.
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The president shot back: “I have seen no question of our credibility from our allies around the world… The fact of the matter is I have not seen that.”
The truth is, he is a president who has pledged repeatedly that with his leadership, “America is back”. Yet now he has led his allies into a crisis for them all.
He maintains he has done what’s best for America. But what’s clearer daily is the impact internationally and most urgently in Afghanistan.
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