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As the Taliban gains ground, Biden grapples with the ghosts of Saigon

While surveys indicated strong support for the president's Afghanistan withdrawal plan in the spring, that sentiment is being tested by summer setbacks on the ground.
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is not having second thoughts about his decision to withdraw the U.S. from Afghanistan, the White House said Friday, even as the Taliban takeover of the country gained steam and critics drew parallels to the fall of Saigon.

The Defense Department said Thursday it was sending 3,000 troops back into the country to help secure the withdrawal of most staff from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

While the departure of embassy staff wasn't expected to feature the same chaotic images of Americans being airlifted from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon in 1975 that marked the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, it risked carrying the same symbolism of defeat — and the risk of domestic political consequences, if Afghanistan once again becomes a base for terrorist attacks against the United States.

"The president is firmly focused on how we can continue to execute an orderly drawdown and protect our men and women serving in Afghanistan," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. "You heard him earlier this week: He does not regret his decision."

Senior administration officials have repeatedly argued that they have the public’s support on their side in defending Biden’s decision to pull U.S. troops from Afghanistan. When the president announced in April that he would pull all U.S. troops out of the country by Sept. 11, the move was supported by 84 percent of Democrats, two-thirds of independents and more than half of Republicans, according to a Morning Consult poll.

But while surveys indicated strong support for Biden’s plan in the spring, that sentiment was being tested in the summer, with a Taliban surge in Afghanistan coming just weeks before the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

On Friday, the Taliban captured two major Afghan cities, Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west, securing its greatest victories yet in a series of provincial capital wins in recent days. An analysis by the Long War Journal suggested the Taliban currently controls nearly 60 percent of the country.

“What we are facing are the optics of mass murder,” Matt Zeller, a former CIA analyst, said on MSNBC. "Everyone is talking about that image of the helicopter in Saigon, and that is what the Biden administration is most afraid of, and through their own action, they have engendered that moment."

Biden insisted in July that that moment — which played out as Biden was just beginning his Senate career nearly four decades ago — was not in the offing. And the State Department denied a parallel, saying this week that the moves did not represent an evacuation, and that the embassy remained open and some staff would remain.

“The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese Army, they're not," Biden said on July 8. "They're not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There's going to be no circumstance for you to see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable."

But Republicans in Congress have gone on the attack, accusing Biden of opening the door to another terror attack — and seizing on the parallels to Vietnam.

“The latest news of a further drawdown at our Embassy and a hasty deployment of military forces seem like preparations for the fall of Kabul,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement Thursday. “President Biden’s decisions have us hurtling toward an even worse sequel to the humiliating fall of Saigon in 1975.”

Taliban fighters along the roadside in Herat, Afghanistan on Friday.
Taliban fighters along the roadside in Herat, Afghanistan on Friday.AFP - Getty Images

Biden administration officials have blamed former President Donald Trump’s handling of talks with the Taliban for undercutting the Afghan government and empowering Taliban fighters. But while Biden played little role in the complexities driving the violence — Afghanistan was a quagmire for his three presidential predecessors as well — he now faces the political consequences for making the move those presidents before him deferred to their successors.

"We basically gave up on the Afghan government, not just now but all the way back to the start of these talks,” Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan under the Obama administration, told MSNBC. “What President Biden did was to embrace it. He owns it."

While the speed of the Taliban’s offensive has shocked Afghans and international observers alike, the Taliban has been resurgent for years.

When the U.S. and Taliban signed a landmark agreement in a bid to end America’s longest war in February 2019, the militants already controlled, influenced or contested nearly half the country.

Biden didn’t respond to shouted questions from reporters on Afghanistan moments after the Defense Department said it was sending in troops to aid in the drawdown of embassy staffers. But days before, as it became clear Kabul was in jeopardy of falling to the Taliban, Biden said he did not regret his decision to pull out U.S. troops and maintained that it was up to the Afghans to defend themselves.

“We spent over a trillion dollars, over 20 years, we trained and equipped with modern equipment over 300,000 Afghan forces, and Afghan leaders have to come together,” Biden said. “We lost thousands to death and injury, thousands of American personnel. They've got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation.”