Fall of Kabul, terrorist attack … The Afghan crisis seen from inside the White House

“A difficult day”. By appearing in front of the cameras last Thursday, several hours after a double suicide bombing near Kabul airport which killed more than a hundred people, including thirteen American soldiers, Joe Biden did not hide his emotion . With tears on the edge of his eyes, the 46th President of the United States paid tribute to these “heroes” who fell in the most deadly attack on the American military since August 2011. The martial tone, as if to silence accusations of weakness , he then launched to the perpetrators of this attack claimed by the Islamic State group in Khorasan (EI-K): “We will hunt you down and we will make you pay.”

Joe Biden wavered that day between weary sadness, a stern threat to “hunt down” the perpetrators of the attack, and a firm defense of his decision to end America’s longest-running conflict abroad. “Ladies and gentlemen, it was time to put an end to twenty years of war”, he reaffirmed, concluding his press conference, thus confirming the decision of his Republican predecessor Donald Trump to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan.

Before this press conference, the American Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley, had informed Joe Biden that terrorists had committed a suicide bombing at the gates of Kabul airport. The American president was then angry and dismayed, but not surprised, relate CNN in a detailed behind-the-scenes article at the White House. Joe Biden had just come down from his third-floor residence to the basement situation room, where senior national security officials crowded around the dark wooden table when the first reports of explosions were transmitted to the center command of the basement.

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“There is not much time for self-reflection at this time”

It was the nightmarish scenario Joe Biden had feared for days. An intelligence assessment – derived in part from communications interceptions – had warned that such an event was likely to occur. The group remained in the situation room for over an hour, receiving updates from commanders in Kabul and reviewing maps and images of the airport. Joe Biden then proceeded to the Oval Office, where he was briefed on the latest events by his National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Chief of Staff Ron Klain, CNN details, who interviewed more than one dozen people, including White House officials, and congressional and national security aides.

Joe Biden’s national security team, however, had little time to emotionally process the attacks, according to an official interviewed by CNN. “There is not much time for self-reflection at the moment,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed to the channel. “The focus is on the task at hand,” she added. When CNN asked to describe the tense past days, another White House official said, “It’s like a high wire without a net, and every minute you could fall.”

The Biden administration remained focused both on the airlift mission in Kabul, which is now entering its most dangerous phase, and on a new goal: the elimination of terrorists. On Saturday, in retaliation for the bombing at Kabul airport, US military drones bombarded IS-K “important targets” in eastern Afghanistan, killing two high-ranking jihadists. Washington also launched a “defensive” drone strike on a vehicle loaded with explosives in Kabul on Sunday in an effort to “suppress an imminent threat” from IS-K to the airport.

Many White House executives ready to go on vacation

As soon as Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15, U.S. and Western intelligence agencies began warning of an increased risk of a terrorist attack intended to wreak havoc among crowds of desperate Afghans wanting to escape. Dozens of ISIS terrorists had escaped from prisons across Afghanistan, fueling fears they might penetrate the security the Taliban had put in place around the airport. During the daily meetings of Joe Biden’s national security team, significant time was spent discussing what officials described as “active threat streams” from the ISIS affiliate operating in Afghanistan . The intelligence flows were “specific, serious and credible” in the days leading up to the airport attacks, a person familiar with the matter told CNN. The information the White House was receiving about a potential attack outside the airport was therefore found to be accurate.

Many members of the White House had been frustrated in recent weeks by the intelligence community’s inability to predict how quickly Kabul would fall into the hands of the Taliban, when even the most pessimistic assessments estimated it could take at least a month. By his own admission, Joe Biden did not “foresee” the speed of the collapse of the Afghan army formed, equipped and financed by Washington, and the fall of Kabul into the hands of the Taliban.

the Washington Post says that on August 13, two days before the fall of the Afghan capital, the White House began to empty in the afternoon: many senior executives were preparing to take their first vacation from the young presidency of Joe Biden. But on August 14, the fall of Mazar-e Sharif – the site of furious battles between pro and anti-Taliban forces in the 1990s – convinced U.S. officials they had to hurry to evacuate. The speed of the evacuation has been a matter of dispute between the Pentagon and the State Department.

As Joe Biden’s assistants told CNN, the American president has never reconsidered the end date of the American mission in Afghanistan. According to them, Thursday’s terror attack only reinforced his opinion that staying longer in the country would be a mistake. Joe Biden sent CIA director William Burns to Kabul to meet Taliban co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar in a meeting an official describes as “an exchange of views on what needs to be done” before August 31, deadline for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and the end of evacuations.

Biden criticized from all sides over his handling of the US withdrawal

While the Afghan crisis turns into a disaster scenario for Joe Biden, the latter is today criticized from all sides for the management of the American withdrawal in Afghanistan, and for not having organized the necessary evacuations earlier, forcing the American army to send back forces in disaster to manage a gigantic airlift in a mess. “This tragedy should never have taken place,” lamented Thursday Donald Trump, who called for his resignation last week. “Joe Biden has blood on his hands,” added Republican MP Elise Stefanik. “He is unfit to be commander-in-chief,” she hammered.

Democrats are also deeply frustrated with the way the administration handled the withdrawal from Afghanistan. While most of them support the decision to withdraw US troops, Democratic sources say Joe Biden’s team spoiled the execution, failing to prepare for the possibility that Afghan security forces would fall back quickly. Few Democrats have rushed to defend Joe Biden publicly after Thursday’s attack.

Democratic sources interviewed by CNN say they do not accept the US president’s explanation that intelligence did not predict the rapid rise of the Taliban, and blame his team for delaying the evacuation of Afghan interpreters. Ahead of Thursday’s attack, Main Democrats in Congress had urged Joe Biden to extend the August 31 deadline for withdrawing US troops, saying it was evident there was not enough time to complete the evacuations by then.

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“While it is clear to me that we cannot continue to put the US military at risk for an impossible war, I also believe that the evacuation process appears to have been extremely mismanaged,” she said. Rep. Susan Wild, a moderate Democrat from Pennsylvania. But Jen Psaki brushed aside those criticisms on Friday: “It’s easy to throw stones or be an outside critic. It’s harder to be in the arena and make tough decisions.”


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Anne Rosencher is the managing editor of L'ExpressAnne Rosencher

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