Behind the Scenes of Biden’s First Scandal

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
President Biden Delivers Remarks On Ongoing Afghanistan Withdrawal And Evacuations
Julia Ioffe
September 1, 2021

On Monday afternoon, Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne, boarded a gray military plane in Kabul, becoming the last American soldier to leave Afghanistan. His departure, photographed in dramatic, slime-green night vision and released by the Pentagon, capped off a dramatic month in Kabul: its bloodless fall to the Taliban and the ignominious collapse of the Afghan government; the desperate scenes at the airport and the extraordinary evacuation of more than 100,000 civilians in a matter of weeks; a terrorist attack that killed 13 American service members and nearly 200 Afghans; the retaliation, in which several Afghan children were killed; and the end of a twenty-year war that killed and maimed tens of thousands of Afghans and Americans and cost trillions of dollars.

It was an emotional and fraught month in Washington, too. As I wrote two weeks ago, the city immediately responded to the mayhem by doing two things. One was to work every possible political connection—a local pastime usually reserved for getting children into Sidwell Friends—to try to rescue Afghan friends and colleagues who feared death and persecution at the hands of the Taliban. (There have since been many excellent stories about these efforts, which some have dubbed “Digital Dunkirk.”) The second was to assign blame for the chaotic images Americans saw broadcast from Kabul: Was it an intelligence failure? Did the Biden administration bungle the withdrawal? Was a heartbreaking mess inevitable or had the media overdramatized the chaos?

I won’t pretend to have the answers to all of these questions, and I doubt that anyone will for a very, very long time. But I do have a few thoughts on the end of this war, informed by my conversations with members of the Biden administration, the press, and the foreign policy establishment over the past several weeks.


Did the Biden administration bungle the withdrawal? This was the question I heard debated most frequently in Washington over the last month. There were some very loud voices on the right questioning whether America had to leave Afghanistan at all—Why not just keep a small force of a few thousand soldiers there to provide support for the Afghan military?—but in private, this wasn’t really a subject of debate, even among people who had opposed it. Donald Trump had set the timetable when he made a deal with the Taliban last year to exit Afghanistan by May 1. Biden extended the date by four months, but insisted that he was still bound by the terms of that agreement. Washingtonians saw withdrawal as a done deal and, once the Afghan government fell, an irreversible one.

Most people I talked to—administration officials past and present, think tankers, Hill staffers, and journalists—strongly favored the withdrawal, even if they were frustrated or appalled by how it played out. Many were people who had rotated through Afghanistan, either as journalists, soldiers, diplomats, or aid workers, and they knew firsthand how gruesome and largely pointless the war had become. Many had left the country deeply traumatized, and the last month reactivated that trauma. They were also being bombarded with frantic, increasingly desperate appeals from the people they had worked with and befriended in Afghanistan, begging for help.

Their critiques of the administration largely focused on three points: 1) the initial slowness of the evacuations; 2) the closing of Bagram Air Base, which might have made those evacuations easier; and 3) the bureaucratic slow-rolling of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) for Afghans who were legally entitled to U.S. residency in exchange for helping American and allied forces during the war.

The domestic fallout quickly devolved into a classic Washington game of strategic leaking. The White House believed that the intelligence community planted a story with the New York Times, which claimed that Biden had ignored their warning that Kabul was in danger of imminent collapse. They were also furious at the Pentagon for, in their view, feeding the Bagram line to the press. That anger may have been misdirected: I had heard the same complaints about Bagram earlier this summer from State Department officials who were frustrated that the closure made evacuation more difficult. Still, the White House pushed back forcefully and publicly. In closing Bagram in early July, said both the president and national security advisor Jake Sullivan, the administration had followed recommendations from the Pentagon, which understood the logistics best.

On the question of SIVs, people inside and outside the White House agreed that more could have been done. While some allies of the administration promoted the notion, repeated by the president on Tuesday, that evacuating people en masse earlier would have hastened the Afghan government’s collapse, that’s not the argument Biden officials were making in private. The decision to withdraw wasn’t made the day before it was announced, and the law allowing Afghan allies to obtain visas has been on the books since 2009. It has been backlogged ever since, a situation vastly exacerbated by Trump’s harsh immigration policies.


Behind closed doors, I’ve heard both Biden officials and their most vocal public defenders agree with critics that the administration could have quietly ramped up processing visas and paroling applicants to third countries while waiting for their paperwork to go through. These were people who have been in the SIV pipeline for years and had nothing to do with the withdrawal. That process could have begun in April, when the president announced the withdrawal, or even in late January when the president was sworn in. As for whose fault it was that it didn’t happen, people in the White House blamed the State Department, and State people blamed the White House. In Kabul, Pentagon and State staffers were sniping openly. (A spokesperson for the White House, speaking on background, emphasized that Americans were given multiple opportunities over more than two weeks to leave, and detailed the lengths to which the government went to evacuate civilians.)

And everyone, it seemed, was annoyed by the privileged Washingtonians lobbying anyone they knew in government to get their chartered planes in and “their” Afghans out. It had started as a virtuous and selfless moment. This town banded together to save innocent people from a grisly fate half a world away. But from the vantage point of people actually running the evacuations, it looked very different. Government officials told me that these requests ate up precious time and resources. Officials in Washington tried to be responsive to friends and NGOs and to their very genuine pleas for help, but it often contributed to confusion and disorganization on the ground in Kabul as groups of Afghans with influential D.C. sponsors would suddenly get bumped to the front of the line—bumping other Afghans back toward an uncertain future. Like so many problems that originate in this town, the outcome fell short of its authors’ good intentions.

How long will this scandal, the most significant of Biden’s presidency, last in political terms? The big papers still led with Afghanistan this morning, but the White House is betting that, soon enough, none of this will matter. Americans will move on. There is plenty else for them to worry about: the pandemic, Hurricane Ida, the economy, climate change. And given that Americans have historically not cared much about foreign policy, it’s a pretty shrewd bet to make. A majority of Americans favored the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the polling on this question has been rather extraordinary. Even veterans had come to feel the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting, and a plurality of voters favored leaving Afghanistan, even if al Qaeda reconstituted itself there.

With the exception of extraordinary events like 9/11, foreign policy traditionally ranks at the bottom of the public’s political priorities. Only one third of Americans have a valid passport. “To the extent that Americans even care about foreign policy, they primarily care about things that could cross the border, like imports taking their jobs, illegal immigrants, narcotics, or cybercrime,” said Dan Drezner, who teaches at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts. “It’s our splendid isolation. If you’re related to someone in the military or in the foreign service maybe you care, but that’s not a large number of people. Most Americans, if they so choose, can live their lives free of thinking about the rest of the world.”

Of course, Americans’ detachment from global affairs is partly by design. “It’s too easy to blame the public for indifference in the face of what, in the last 80 years, has become foreign policy built by a tiny number of people in the executive branch, through the seizure of power and intimidation and secrecy,” said Christian Appy, who teaches history at Amherst. “The growing imperial power of the presidency was founded not just on keeping information from the public, but on carrying out secret operations abroad. You can’t really blame the public for not knowing that the U.S. government secretly overthrew the government in Iran and Chile. Historically, the public has been less militaristic than our leaders, especially when they have some time to get some knowledge of the issue.”


Leaving Afghanistan, then, may prove to have been a smart political move, especially as the dramatic withdrawal fades from the headlines. Historian Joshua Zeitz pointed out that past presidents’ foreign policy decisions, like Jimmy Carter’s handover of the Panama Canal, have hurt members of their party down ballot. House Republicans may yet launch Benghazi-style investigations to hurt Democrats in the midterms. But 40 percent of Republican voters actually supported Trump’s negotiations with the Taliban at the time, and the next election is more than a year away—a century in political time. Moreover, according to Dina Smeltz of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, polling data from the last decade indicates that the American public made up its mind years ago about the war in Afghanistan as not worthwhile. The Council’s polling indicates this going as far back as 2012. “In future years, this measure might be the most enduring indicator of the war’s impact,” Smeltz told me.

Another political calculation that Biden seems to be struggling with is how many Afghan refugees to let in and how quickly. Trump’s rise and continued relevance has proven that if Americans don’t care about foreign policy, they have very strong feelings on immigration. From what I’ve heard, there is tension between the foreign policy staffers of the Biden administration, who want to let in more refugees, and those on the political side, who worry that voters won’t distinguish Afghan SIV holders from migrants at the southern border. And though allowing in Afghan refugees seems to be a rare bipartisan issue for now, the political wing of the White House worries that Republican efforts to gin up fear will be effective with voters as refugees trickle in over the coming year.

In case there wasn’t enough going on, coverage of the withdrawal was also dominated by coverage of the coverage, which was really just the angry squabbles between Washington and New York journalists. “D.C. media loves war,” one friend, a prominent journalist based in New York City, messaged me.

For me, though, it symbolized a lot of the fury the left has aimed at the media (especially the D.C. media), claiming that American journalists have been overly emotional about the fallout of the withdrawal and, in so doing, were effectively advocating for a continued military presence in Afghanistan. Why weren’t journalists putting the current chaos and heartbreak in the context of the chaos and heartbreak of the last twenty years? Why were they suddenly focusing on Afghanistan now, after, as many claimed, barely covering the issue for a decade?

I can understand why critics are conflating concern with advocacy, but this is a reductive analysis of an incredibly complex topic. For one, “the media” is not a monolith. There is opinion journalism and hard news reporting, right-wing media, left-wing media, and everything in between. It’s hard to take seriously, for instance, a critique that equates a segment on Fox News, featuring a former military figure slamming Biden, and an Afghan journalist reporting on daily life in Kabul for the New York Times.


Some of this backlash was in response to the conversation on Twitter, where many reporters have been sharing messages from Afghan friends as well as their own feelings about what America’s withdrawal means for those left behind. Some of these statements were taken as editorializing, but much of what I saw came from people who had a personal connection to the story and the people of Afghanistan. They were not necessarily against the withdrawal; in fact, many were for it. Many had seen the horror of war firsthand and had no wish to extend it.

Moreover, there is no contradiction between feeling heartsick knowing that Afghan women are now at the mercy of the misogynistic Taliban and thinking that no amount of American nation building could fix that; or that the Biden administration could’ve done a better job managing the logistics of the evacuation, while being glad the war is ultimately over. You can believe both, and many journalists do.

The media, like every other institution in American life, can and should be held accountable. But is that really what’s going on here? To me, and to a growing number of observers, the anger over much of the reporting on Afghanistan was driven by activists and opinion journalists parroting the Biden administration’s talking points that there was no middle ground between occupation and withdrawal, no marginal improvements to be made, even if that meant saving thousands more people; that, in the words of Times White House correspondent Peter Baker, it was either “all in or all out.”

But there’s a difference between fair criticism of the media, and being angry at journalists for disagreeing with a president you like. It’s not our job to agree or disagree with him. And despite what the age of Trump seems to have taught many, journalists don’t have to be on a team. In fact, it’s better if we aren’t. And it’s better when we’re skeptical of those in power, whoever they may be.

Also, all the major networks, print outlets, and wires have had a robust presence in Afghanistan for the last two decades. They’ve churned out endless stories about all the ways the war had gone right and the many, many more ways the war had gone terribly wrong. The issue hasn’t been the coverage, but whether it has broken through to the front pages or leading the nightly news. And there’s no doubt that, for much of that twenty years, it hasn’t. “More bad news” isn’t exactly interesting every single night—nor is it, really, news. (I don’t know that anyone thought the war was going well just because they weren’t seeing detailed coverage of it.)

What happened in the last month, however, was new. It was a dramatic new development, and a big change from the drip-drip-drip of the-war-is-still-going-terribly of the last decade. The scenes at the Kabul airport, the stories of women and former interpreters going into hiding, of the Taliban bursting back into power brandishing bazookas—these are stories. They’re made for story-telling in print and for the television screen. How can you ignore this story? Are you not going to show a desperate Afghan parent passing an infant to a U.S. soldier over barbed wire? And does reporting on or showing this make you a warmonger? I’m not sure that it does. News is news is news.