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President Joe Biden speaks about Afghanistan from the White House on Aug. 16, 2021, in Washington. (AP/Vucci) President Joe Biden speaks about Afghanistan from the White House on Aug. 16, 2021, in Washington. (AP/Vucci)

President Joe Biden speaks about Afghanistan from the White House on Aug. 16, 2021, in Washington. (AP/Vucci)

Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman August 20, 2021

Joe Biden’s full flop on messages about Afghanistan withdrawal

If Your Time is short

  • President Joe Biden said in April that it was time for our troops to come home from Afghanistan.  “We’ll do it responsibly, deliberately, and safely,” he said.

  • Biden said in July that a takeover by the Taliban was not inevitable, but he put the onus on the Afghan government to maintain stability.

  • After withdrawal, Biden said on ABC, “The idea that somehow there's a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don't know how that happens.” 

President Joe Biden told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that it wouldn’t have been possible to get out of Afghanistan without "chaos ensuing." But that’s a different message from what he told Americans in the months leading up to the planned withdrawal.

Biden’s public statements in April and July included no warnings of chaos and instead portrayed U.S. plans for withdrawal as progressing smoothly. 

 

Biden’s shifting public messaging about whether withdrawal from Afghanistan would be chaotic  is now in the spotlight. We decided to see how Biden’s statements shifted over time. We put his statements on our Flip-O-Meter, in which we evaluate whether a politician has been consistent in their position, not whether any change in position makes for smart politics, which is a judgment call.

"It’s time for American troops to come home. … We’ll do it responsibly, deliberately, and safely. "

— Biden April 14, 2021

In remarks April 14, Biden said the U.S. couldn’t stay in Afghanistan forever, citing financial and human costs. 

"I have concluded that it’s time to end America’s longest war," Biden said. "It’s time for American troops to come home."

Nothing in his remarks suggested that Biden thought chaos was imminent. He said he inherited the agreement from the Trump administration to withdraw by May, but that he would not make a hasty exit. 

"We’ll do it responsibly, deliberately, and safely. And we will do it in full coordination with our allies and partners, who now have more forces in Afghanistan than we do," Biden said. "And the Taliban should know that if they attack us as we draw down, we will defend ourselves and our partners with all the tools at our disposal."

Biden acknowledged that the threat of terrorism in Afghanistan — as well as other places — remained a concern, but his remarks gave the impression that the U.S. was ready to act if needed.

"We’ll hold the Taliban accountable for its commitment not to allow any terrorists to threaten the United States or its allies from Afghan soil. The Afghan government has made that commitment to us as well. And we’ll focus our full attention on the threat we face today," Biden said. 

He added that his administration would monitor and disrupt terrorist threats in Afghanistan. But he  said it was time to focus on other challenges as well, including competition from China, cyber threats, defeating the current pandemic and preparing for a future pandemic. 

"War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multi-generational undertaking," Biden said. "We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives. Bin Laden is dead, and al Qaeda is degraded in Iraq — in Afghanistan. And it’s time to end the forever war." 

"The drawdown is proceeding in a secure and orderly way, prioritizing the safety of our troops as they depart."

— Biden, July 8, 2021

In remarks July 8, Biden portrayed the withdrawal set for the end of August as "proceeding in a secure and orderly way" and gave no indication that he expected chaos. He told reporters that a Taliban takeover was not inevitable.

But he acknowledged the strength of the Taliban, saying that the Taliban was at its "strongest militarily since 2001."

After his remarks, reporters suggested disarray would ensue when the U.S. withdrew. Biden rejected those arguments.

Reporter: "Is a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan now inevitable?"

Biden: "No, it is not."

Reporter: "Why?

Biden: "Because the Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped (forces) — as well-equipped as any army in the world — and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban. It is not inevitable."

When a reporter asked Biden if he trusted the Taliban, he said: "No. But I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more competent in terms of conducting war."

Reporter: "Your own intelligence community has assessed that the Afghan government will likely collapse."

Biden: "That is not true. … They did not reach that conclusion."

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A White House spokesperson, Vedant Patel, said Biden alluded to security concerns in part of his answer to a question by a reporter, which was, "So what is the level of confidence that they (the U.S. intelligence community) have that it will not collapse?" 

Biden: "The Afghan government and leadership have to come together. They clearly have the capacity to sustain the government in place. The question is: Will they generate the kind of cohesion to do it? It’s not a question of whether they have the capacity. They have the capacity. They have the forces. They have the equipment.The question is: Will they do it? ​"

So Biden put the onus on Afghan leaders, but he didn’t make a clear warning about chaos. 

A reporter told Biden that the U.S. top general in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller, "told ABC News the conditions are so concerning at this point that it could result in a civil war. So, if Kabul falls to the Taliban, what will the United States do about it?" 

Biden acknowledged in his answer to the reporter that there could be problems, but suggested it wasn’t America’s problem.

"There’s a number of countries who have a grave concern about what’s going to happen in Afghanistan relative to their security," Biden said. "The question is: How much of a threat to the United States of America and to our allies is whatever results in terms of a government or an agreement? That’s when that judgement will be made."

Biden said he saw no parallels between our withdrawal and Vietnam, although we found in August that were some similarities — and some differences.

"This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated."

— Biden, Aug. 16, 2021

Biden’s brief remarks Aug. 14 didn’t indicate that he thought chaos would break out. But in remarks two days later he acknowledged that the situation on the ground surprised him.

Biden said he stood behind his decision and that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.

"That’s why we were still there. We were clear-eyed about the risks. We planned for every contingency," Biden said. "But I always promised the American people that I will be straight with you. The truth is: This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated. So what’s happened?  Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight."

Biden didn’t flat out say chaos was inevitable, but he suggested the same outcome would have happened no matter when the U.S. pulled out.

"The events we’re seeing now are sadly proof that no amount of military force would ever deliver a stable, united, and secure Afghanistan — as known in history as the ‘graveyard of empires,’" Biden said.

"The idea that somehow there's a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don't know how that happens. I don't know how that happened."

— Biden, Aug. 18, 2021

In an Aug. 18 interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Biden shifted his message to state that chaos was bound to break out.

Stephanopoulos: "Back in July, you said a Taliban takeover was highly unlikely. Was the intelligence wrong, or did you downplay it?"

Biden: "I think there was no consensus. If you go back and look at the intelligence reports, they said that it's more likely to be sometime by the end of the year."

Biden then suggested chaos was inevitable.

Biden: "The idea that somehow there's a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don't know how that happens. I don't know how that happened."

Stephanopoulos: "So for you, that was always priced into the decision?"

Biden: "Yes. Now, exactly what happened is not priced in. ... Look, one of the things we didn't know is what the Taliban would do in terms of trying to keep people from getting out, what they would do. What are they doing now? They're cooperating, letting American citizens get out, American personnel get out, embassies get out, et cetera. But we're having some more difficulty in having those who helped us when we were in there" leave the country.

Our ruling

In his April speech, Biden said it was time to leave Afghanistan, and he did not make any statement to warn Americans that he thought withdrawal would lead to imminent chaos. 

In remarks in July, Biden said the withdrawal planned for August was "proceeding in a secure and orderly way" and gave no indication that he expected chaos. He told reporters that a Taliban takeover was not inevitable.

But after withdrawal in August, Biden said on ABC, "The idea that somehow there's a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don't know how that happens." That statement was very different from his earlier remarks in which he did not indicate to Americans that he thought chaos was part of the deal of withdrawing from Afghanistan

We found that his shifting remarks on whether withdrawal from Afghanistan would be chaotic constitute a complete change in position: Full Flop.


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Joe Biden’s full flop on messages about Afghanistan withdrawal

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