President Biden returned from Camp David to the White House on Monday to address the nation in the wake of the shocking weekend unraveling of the situation in Afghanistan. Cities rapidly succumbed to the advances of the Taliban, the lavishly funded Afghan national army disintegrated overnight, senior officials in the government fled hastily, and aspiring refugees desperately swarmed the Kabul airport. It looked for all the world as if the U.S. had forgotten to pack up the apartment before the moving truck showed up, with dire consequences for who and what got left behind.
The context for a weary-seeming President Biden's speech today was, therefore, not just the human tragedy of longtime staff, translators and other workers abandoned to the rough justice of the Taliban, but a suddenly acute political problem for the administration. However, if Biden intended to engage in damage control, he failed. "This did unfold more quickly than we anticipated," the president conceded while trying to explain why a massive evacuation effort didn't begin sooner.
Ultimately, the president seemed determined only to reiterate the case for leaving. "I stand squarely behind my decision," he stated. And so he should, but that wasn't his job today. He needed to say why the U.S. military, an unparalleled fighting force, was unable to safely evacuate itself, the Afghans who bravely served the U.S., as well as untold numbers of refugees who wanted to flee the incoming Taliban forces, without the nightmarish scenes broadcast all around the world.
This isn't about "credibility," that most ethereal of currencies. The U.S. had none prior to the collapse of the Afghan government and it has none now. The end of the Afghanistan war was years overdue, and Biden was right to do it. But we owed our allies there an orderly exit and instead we got this. Biden will need to identify and fire the people responsible for the failure as quickly as possible or prepare for weeks of second-guessing and finger-pointing.