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Speed of Afghanistan collapse puts burden on Biden

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

WASHINGTON — Here are some of the headlines Americans woke up to Friday about the situation in Afghanistan:

“Taliban sweep across Afghanistan’s south; take 4 cities” — The Associated Press.

“U.S. to evacuate most staff from embassy in Kabul as Taliban sweep across Afghanistan” — NBC News.

“U.S. Asks Taliban to Spare Its Embassy in Coming Fight for Kabul” — The New York Times.

“Afghanistan’s rapid collapse is part of a long, slow U.S. defeat”— The Washington Post.

“Joe Biden’s ‘fall of Saigon’” — Politico.

It’s hard to overstate how badly the situation in Afghanistan appears to be deteriorating. And one major surprise is just how quickly it’s happening.

There’s been a new headline each day this week about the Taliban seizing provincial capitals and key territory, all by repelling Afghan government forces America has spent almost $89 billion to train over the last two decades.

How quickly the Taliban is carving up Afghanistan calls into question whether America has been overstating its progress in Afghanistan over the years, if it could all be unraveled this quickly. It’s been just one month since President Biden told the nation the withdrawal was “proceeding in a secure and orderly way,” even as he cautioned it would be up to Afghanistan to decide the fate of their country.

It’s long been a goal of presidents in both parties to finally leave Afghanistan, and it was the Trump administration that originally promised a full withdrawal. But in the words of Ryan Crocker, the seasoned diplomat and former ambassador to Afghanistan who minced few words on Thursday’s MTP Daily, Biden has “taken complete ownership” of how America is withdrawing.

It “started to unravel as soon as Trump decided that he would negotiate with the Taliban without the Afghan government in the room. That, frankly, was the beginning of the end,” Crocker said, but “what President Biden did was to embrace it … he owns it.”

Biden remains resolute on ending America’s “Forever War.” He laid out his rationale thoroughly last month, arguing that America achieved its goals in Afghanistan — “to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11, and deliver justice to Osama bin Laden and to degrade the terrorist threat.”

“When I made the decision to end the U.S. military involvement Afghanistan, I judged that it was not in the national interest in United States of America to continue fighting this war indefinitely.”

The withdrawal opens the door to a slew of foreign policy questions. But the political question is how the American public will respond.

It’s possible that a war-weary public just wants to wash its hand of the nation’s longest war, regardless of the impact in the region. After more than 2,000 American lives lost, and tens of thousands more injured, they may agree there’s nothing more to be gained from staying.

But at the very least, it will make for an awkward 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, if, in the words of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Taliban and al-Qaeda “celebrate the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks by burning down our embassy in Kabul.”

And if a Taliban-led Afghanistan emboldens terrorism or becomes, yet again, a hotbed of human rights atrocities, the calculus could change quickly.

The reconciliation ad wars have begun

With the House and Senate heading home before Democrats sprint to pass a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill next month, liberal and conservative groups are gearing up for an expensive ad war during the recess.

Progressive umbrella group Climate Power and the League of Conservation Voters are buying another $4 million in TV and digital spending this month in 23 districts with ads touting the bill’s climate components.

The move comes on top of $10 million in already planned ad spending for August. It’s designed to counter a $5 million ad blitz by conservative group American Action Network that targets 39 districts, blasting the plan as wasteful spending and linking it to inflation and tax increases.

An ad in Cindy Axne’s Iowa district that was shown to NBC News rebuts attacks on the bill by arguing the bill’s clean energy investments will create jobs in growing industries, drive down utility costs, and “take on climate change.”

John Podesta, an adviser to the climate effort and veteran of the previous two Democratic administrations, said the criticism Democrats face now isn’t the same as the attacks the party faced during the pivotal August recess before the Affordable Care Act’s passage.

“Every single element is popular, so they can’t really go after the individual elements,” Podesta said. “It’s not really a barrage of —to use the health care analogy — ‘death panel’-style making up stuff in the bill attacks. Instead, they’re saying A) it’s socialism and B) it’s just too big overall and somehow that will be bad for you.”

Both Democratic polls and independent surveys so far show the plan is relatively popular for now (a Fox News poll this week found 56 percent support). But there’s increasing unease among Democrats that recent price increases, which the White House argues are temporary and pandemic-related, will make voters nervous about inflation. Podesta said the goal is to answer those concerns directly by emphasizing its economic benefits heading into September.

“The reality is these are investments, if they’re paid for they’re not inflationary, and they’re going to power a lot of innovation and job creation, '' Podesta said. “It’ll have a dramatic effect on lowering emissions.”

Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

52 percent: The share of counties in America that saw a population decrease, per the new Census data released Thursday.

9 percent: How much American metro areas grew by between 2010 to 2020.

8.6 percent: The decrease in America’s “white alone” population since 2010.

276 percent: The increase in America’s multi-racial population since 2010.

36,450,299: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 135,691 more than yesterday.)

623,449: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far, per the most recent data from NBC News. (That’s 1,084 more than yesterday.)

353,859,894: The number of vaccine doses administered in the U.S., per the CDC. (That’s 654,350 since yesterday.)

50.4 percent: The share of all Americans who are fully vaccinated, per the CDC.

61.3 percent: The share of all American adults at least 18 years of age who are fully vaccinated, per CDC.

Tweet of the day

Shameless plug: "Justice for All"

Dateline tonight airs a special episode at 10 p.m., as NBC's Lester Holt reports on a Philadelphia murder case that sowed distrust across the criminal justice system. The episode is part of the NBC News "Justice for All" series on criminal justice and wrongful convictions.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

The Food and Drug Administration has authorized immunocompromised people to receive a third dose of Covid-19 vaccines. Independent advisors to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention meet today to discuss it.

The Supreme Court blocked part of New York state’s eviction moratorium Thursday and rejected a challenge to Indiana University’s Covid vaccination requirement.

The GOP-controlled Texas Senate passed its new voting bill, but state House Democrats are delaying its passage there by not showing up.

Some New York Democrats are still pushing to impeach Gov. Andrew Cuomo instead of acquiescing to his decision to resign.

The New York Times Magazine has a deep dive into the “poison in the system” of military sexual assault.

Colorado’s secretary of state is blaming a local GOP election official, who recently appeared at a conference making baseless claims of election fraud, after leaked county election passwords appeared online.