WASHINGTON - Marine One lifted off Friday at 1:36 p.m. for Camp David bearing a leader headed on a long-planned August vacation: President Joe Biden, clad in a black baseball cap and a light-blue short-sleeved shirt, carried a lone piece of luggage and was accompanied by his wife and a small retinue of staff.
But when the president’s official helicopter touched back down 72 hours later in Washington, the leader who emerged was preparing to address the biggest foreign policy crisis of his presidency - a rapidly devolving catastrophe in Afghanistan that has left the administration scrambling to evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghan nationals before the Taliban’s stunningly swift takeover of the nation is complete.
One close Biden foreign policy ally, who is in regular contact with the White House and the State Department, said the president’s team would never have let him leave for Camp David had they known just how quickly Afghanistan would implode amid the president’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops by Sept. 11.
That assessment was buttressed by the words of Biden and his top foreign policy officials in the weeks leading up to the crisis. In June, for instance, Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee that he did not expect an “immediate deterioration in the situation” when U.S. forces began to draw down over the summer.
“Whatever happens in Afghanistan, if there is a significant deterioration in security - that could well happen, we have discussed this before - I don’t think it’s going to be something that happens from a Friday to a Monday,” Blinken said.
But that’s almost exactly what happened, as the situation unraveled with quicksilver speed over the first three days of Biden’s trip to Camp David, which he curtailed Monday to return to the White House to address the nation. He had not spoken publicly about the crisis in six days.
“I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden said during his address in the East Room. “After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.”
But, Biden conceded, Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in a way his team had not fully fathomed.
“The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” Biden continued. “So what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.”
‘They were flat-footed’
One early sign of growing urgency came in a photograph. On Saturday, the White House released an image of Biden, seated alone in a secure conference room at Camp David, showing him conferring with Vice President Harris and his national security team via video conference about what it described as “the ongoing efforts to draw down our civilian footprint in Afghanistan.”
By Saturday night, shortly after 8 p.m., Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s team invited lawmakers to a 10:30 a.m. Sunday phone briefing with top administration officials - including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Blinken, and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - according to one Democratic aide familiar with the emails. The briefing lasted for about an hour, according to one person familiar with it, and the officials took questions from senators, which ranged from “supportive to antagonistic,” according to another person who was on the call, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said two details from the briefing stood out to him: that the officials said there were as many as 60,000 people eligible to be evacuated from Afghanistan, and that they were revising their June assessment that the threat to the U.S. homeland from militant groups like al-Qaida operating from Afghanistan was a medium risk and could begin in as few as two years.
“Clearly, they were flat-footed,” Graham said. “People are concerned about the evacuation and people are concerned about the threat to the homeland. There’s a bipartisan concern about leaving people behind who helped us, and there’s growing concern about this on our foreign policy writ large.”
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who was also on the call, was similarly alarmed.
“The thing that struck me, having been with all those guys over the years, was the amount of ‘ums, uhs, and you knows,’ " Barrasso said. “This is a group that usually speaks in complete sentences, and they all sounded, especially Blinken, less confident in what he was saying.”
Later Sunday, the White House pushed out another photo showing Biden, again alone at Camp David, meeting by video with Harris and their national security team to discuss the Afghanistan withdrawal, evacuations for Afghan allies and what it described as “the ongoing security situation in Kabul.” Administration officials Sunday also began discussing the possibility of having Biden return to the White House as early as Monday to deliver a speech on the unfolding crisis.
By Monday, after the Taliban had swept into Kabul, Americans woke up to harrowing images from Afghanistan’s capital: Chaos engulfed Kabul international airport, as desperate Afghan nationals ran alongside a U.S. military airplane while it taxied for takeoff, some clinging to its wings and wheels. At least one person appeared to fall from the sky as the plane roared to safety, and the Associated Press reported that at least seven people at the airport were confirmed dead.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki had planned to spend the week away from Washington with her family, but after spending the weekend working remotely - including helping to try to get U.S. journalists out of Afghanistan - she returned to the White House on Monday to help manage the evolving situation, according to a person familiar with the situation. And after initially offering a schedule for Biden devoid of any public events, the White House announced Monday morning that the president would speak to the country in the afternoon.
“I am president of the United States of America, and the buck stops with me,” Biden said in his speech Monday. “I am deeply saddened by the facts we now face. But I do not regret my decision to end America’s war fighting in Afghanistan and maintain a laser-focus on our counterterrorism missions there and in other parts of the world.”
Criticism of Biden’s handling of the exit came from all sides. Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, a global risk consultancy, described the situation as a “failed execution on a foreign policy issue that is bigger than anything I’ve seen as a political scientist in decades,” and said he was “deeply surprised and disappointed with how badly they mishandled this.”
Bremmer said the United States failed in four major ways in drawing down its military presence in Afghanistan: intelligence, coordination, planning and communication. He said the Biden administration overestimated the Afghan military’s capabilities, failed to work with American allies to formulate an exit strategy, did not seem to have contingency plans in place for a rapid collapse of the Afghan government and failed to communicate effectively with the American people.
“This is the sort of thing you would have expected under Trump but not under Biden - the unilateralism,” Bremmer said, referring to former president Donald Trump. “We were fighting alongside our allies for two decades and this is a team operation, but the policy review that the Biden team did to make these decisions, they did by themselves. They didn’t do with the allies at all, which I think is a huge mistake.”
A White House official said that Biden’s decision to withdraw troops was rooted in his long-articulated conviction that he would not be the president to send more U.S. troops to die in an endless war in a faraway nation whose own citizens were unwilling or unable to fight for themselves, and that the past 72 hours had only underscored the wisdom of his decision.
This person argued that the administration had planned for every contingency and always knew that Kabul could fall to Taliban control - albeit not necessarily as quickly as it did. They also pointed to the 6,000 U.S. troops that have been deployed to Afghanistan to help secure the airport and assist with the evacuation of American citizens and Afghan nationals.
A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share sensitive details, said the National Security Council met 36 times at both the deputies and principals level since Biden’s announcement in April that the country planned to fully withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Those meetings, this person said, included discussions on everything from relocating Afghan allies and securing the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
An Aug. 6 exercise, led by the Pentagon, looked at “significantly negative case scenarios,” including “a noncombatant evacuation operation” of the sort the administration has been carrying out in recent days, this person said. The person added that although the security situation in Afghanistan unraveled with stunning speed that officials did not anticipate, the administration has not faced a true worst-case scenario of having to fight its way in or out of the U.S. Embassy compound to evacuate government officials.
Now the administration is focused providing security to the airport in Kabul and helping with evacuation flights, both for Afghan nationals who are at risk and for American citizens who live in Afghanistan, the senior administration official said.
White House talking points blasted out by the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Monday underscored the administration’s perspective.
“The president was not willing to enter a third decade of conflict and surge in thousands of more troops to fight in a civil war that Afghanistan wouldn’t fight for themselves,” read one bullet point, while another lamented that although Biden believed the Afghan military had the capability to fight the Taliban, “they also had to demonstrate the will.”
“Sadly, that will did not materialize,” the talking points read.
Yet even some Democrats and Biden allies expressed concern, not about the president’s decision to leave Afghanistan - a policy position launched under Trump and favored by most Americans - but about the administration’s poor execution of the strategy.
“There’ll be a lot of time to be asking the tough questions, and I will be as a member of the Armed Services Committee,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “Right now, my focus is on protecting the Afghan interpreters, guards and others . . . who have a target on their backs.”
Blumenthal, who participated in the Sunday morning briefing with Biden administration officials, added, “There was very deep concern and worry about the unfolding horror and human tragedy.”
Referring to the Sunday call with top Biden officials, Barrasso said that a number of Democrats pressed the administration about the poor execution and bloodshed over the weekend.
“These are Democrats who have been supporters of the president and wanted us out of Afghanistan,” Barrasso said. “And the criticism was about the execution, as opposed to the political decision to bring everybody home, and how poorly it was being executed.”
When Biden met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Washington earlier this year, the U.S. president asked him to establish political unity among various factions in the country and find a way to demonstrate that he had done so, according to a senior administration official. The United States also asked the Afghans to adopt a strategy that avoided “trying to fight everywhere” and instead to “focus on areas of concern to consolidate their forces and themselves,” the official said. The Afghans did not ultimately adopt any of the suggestions, the official said.
Inside the White House and across the nation’s national security apparatus in recent days, officials were stunned at how quickly the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan, as well as frustrated by what many viewed as the country’s misguided intelligence and failed implementation of evacuations.
Officials at the State Department, Defense Department and the National Security Council are laser-focused on safely transporting American troops and allies out of the country, according to three people in contact with officials. But these people also described the mood inside the White House as grim, as officials came to grips with their failures and watched a tragedy unfold in real time.
One senior administration official on Monday said the photos that the White House tweeted over the weekend - showing Biden sitting alone at Camp David as he was being briefed about the situation - were, in retrospect, not particularly helpful. But the same official said Biden’s speech Monday felt like a reset.
Shortly after his address, Biden left the White House - headed again for Camp David. He landed at 5:29 p.m., this time with Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president and a longtime trusted adviser, in tow.
- - -
The Washington Post’s Anne Gearan contributed to this report.