Watch CBS News

U.S. grapples with fallout from Afghanistan withdrawal with Taliban back in control

U.S. races to evacuate Americans in Afghanistan
U.S. races to evacuate Americans stranded in Afghanistan 02:24

Washington — The collapse of the Afghan government and rapid takeover of the country by the Taliban ahead of the U.S. withdrawal of the last troops there has led to finger-pointing across the federal government, with members of both parties blaming their political opponents for the chaos that unfolded over the weekend.

In his first remarks since dramatic scenes in Kabul showed desperate Afghans attempting to flee the country at its main airport, President Biden on Monday defended his decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan and said he inherited the situation from former President Donald Trump, whose administration negotiated a deal with the Taliban and pledged all U.S. forces would be out of the country by May 1.

"I stand squarely behind my decision," Mr. Biden said in remarks at the White House, after which he returned to Camp David in Maryland. "After 20 years, I've learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces."

But the president also cast blame on Afghanistan's political leaders and military for the Taliban's swift return to power, saying they failed to fight as the group seized nearly all of the country in just over a week. 

"If anything," Mr. Biden said, "the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision."

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the nation Sunday, and White House press secretary Jen Psaki  told reporters Tuesday she was not aware of any U.S. officials who have been in contact with him.

The president's remarks on the crisis in Afghanistan were met with prompt criticism from Republicans, who said Mr. Biden detailed a false choice between a hasty departure from Afghanistan or remaining in the country forever.

U.S. soldiers stand guard at the Kabul airport on August 16, 2021. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

"The decision to place a higher priority on a political promise than on the lives of innocent men, women and children is a stain on America's reputation and undermines our credibility around the world," GOP Senator Mitt Romney of Utah said in a statement.

Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, also a Republican, said Mr. Biden "failed to rise to the occasion." 

But criticism of Mr. Biden's execution of the withdrawal from Afghanistan has also come from Senate Democrats, including Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

"I am disappointed that the Biden administration clearly did not accurately assess the implications of a rapid U.S. withdrawal," he said in a statement. "We are now witnessing the horrifying results of many years of policy and intelligence failures."

Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said he will ask "tough but necessary questions about why we weren't better prepared for a worst-case scenario involving such a swift and total collapse of the Afghan government and security forces." 

While the U.S. drawdown was set to be completed by the end of the month, Mr. Biden authorized 6,000 troops to deploy to Afghanistan to help with getting U.S. personnel and Afghan allies out of the country. The U.S. embassy in Kabul, the capital, was evacuated to the airport Sunday. The U.S. charge d'affaires in the country, Ross Wilson, said he is remaining in the city to help American citizens and "vulnerable" Afghans. There are an estimated 11,000 people in Afghanistan who "self-identify" as Americans, Psaki said.

Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, declined Tuesday to say whether U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan after August 31 if Americans and Afghan allies are still in the country.

"I'm not going to comment on hypotheticals," he told reporters at the White House press briefing. "What I'm going to do is stay focused on the task at hand, which is getting as many people out as rapidly as possible."

An uneasy calm has descended on the capital, with the Taliban pledging to allow women to continue working and girls to go to school, while offering amnesty to those who worked in the ousted government. But many Afghans view those promises with suspicion, fearful of what moves the Taliban will make once U.S. personnel are fully evacuated.

In his first press conference from Kabul, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the group will recognize women's rights within Islamic law, and said Afghanistan has been "emancipated."

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told ABC News on Tuesday that operations at the airport in Kabul have continued, and the military moved more than 700 people — 165 of which are American citizens — out of Afghanistan in the last 24 hours. The Defense Department plans to house up to 22,000 at-risk Afghans who aided the U.S. during the 20-year war at military installations, he said.

"We plan on being on the ground there in Afghanistan for the next couple of weeks," Kirby told ABC. "It's not just about moving out Americans, it is very much about meeting our moral and sacred obligations to those Afghans who helped us over the last 20 years, getting as many of them out as we can."

Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon that there have been "no hostile interactions" by the Taliban with American forces or operations, and said the U.S. is in discussions with Taliban commanders on the ground outside the airport.

Army Major General Hank Taylor said that within the next 24 hours, the U.S. plans to ramp up to at least one evacuation flight leave Kabul per hour, with between 5,000 and 9,000 passengers departing per day.

"The speed of evacuation will pick up," he said.

The Biden administration has relocated one round of roughly 2,500 Afghans and their families to the U.S. through the Special Immigrant Visa program, and the U.S. continues to process visas for vulnerable Afghans who helped American troops.

Late Monday, Mr. Biden authorized $500 million for Afghan refugee resettlement, including applicants for Special Immigrant Visas, and the governors of Maryland and Virginia have said they are "ready and willing" to take in Afghan allies and their families.

Former President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush, too, said they "stand ready as Americans to lend our support and assistance in this time of need."

"The United States government has the legal authority to cut the red tape for refugees during urgent humanitarian crises. And we have the responsibility and the resources to secure safe passage for them now, without bureaucratic delay," they said in a statement. "Our most stalwart allies, along with private NGOs, are ready to help."

U.S. intel warned of Afghan military collapse 01:11

While Mr. Biden returned to Camp David following his remarks Monday, Sullivan, the national security adviser, told reporters the president spoke Tuesday with military commanders for an operational briefing on security at the Kabul airport. Sullivan said Mr. Biden met remotely with his national security team on the situation in Afghanistan, including evacuations of U.S. citizens, Special Immigrant Visa applicants and at-risk Afghans.

Sullivan echoed the president's defense of his decision to pull out of Afghanistan, but said all members of the Biden administration, starting with the commander in chief, are "contending with the human costs of these developments."

"When you conclude 20 years of military action in a civil war in another country, with the impacts of 20 years of decisions that have piled up, you have to make a lot of hard calls, none with clean outcomes," he said.

Sullivan said the administration planned for all potential contingencies and was "clear-eyed" about the possibility the Taliban could regain control of Afghanistan once the U.S. withdrew. 

The U.S. does not have a "complete picture" of where all American defense materials have gone in Afghanistan, but Sullivan said a "fair amount of it has fallen into the hands of the Taliban."

"Obviously we don't have a sense that they are going to readily hand it over to us at the airport," he added.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.