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White House ramps up Afghan policy defense as criticism mounts

President Joe Biden's remarks Monday did little to blunt criticism from some allies and former national security officials, amid deafening silence from many Democrats in Congress.

WASHINGTON — The White House pushed back on growing criticism over the chaos unfolding in Afghanistan, as administration officials grappled with fallout from the biggest foreign policy crisis of the Biden presidency.

President Joe Biden's remarks Monday did little to blunt the criticism coming from some allies and former national security officials, amid deafening silence from many Democrats in Congress. European leaders also began expressing frustration and distancing themselves from the tumult.

With Biden at Camp David for much of Tuesday, it was left to administration officials to mount the defense back in Washington. In the first White House news briefing since the Taliban takeover, national security adviser Jake Sullivan defended the administration's policy, saying it was doing the best it could to respond to a rapidly evolving situation that unfolded quicker than officials had anticipated.

“When a civil war comes to an end with an opposing force marching on the capital, there are going to be scenes of chaos, there are going to be lots of people leaving the country. That is not something that can be fundamentally avoided,” Sullivan said.

But he defended the U.S. troop withdrawal timeline, saying decisions were “made based on the information we had at the time, while preparing for the alternative contingency.”

At the Pentagon, officials said they would soon be bringing as many as 9,000 Americans and eligible Afghans out of the country each day via air. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. had been given assurances from the Taliban that those trying to get to the airport to leave the country would be given safe passage.

Tuesday brought a new wave of disturbing images for the administration to contend with, including scenes of Taliban fighters seizing U.S. weapons and Afghan women pleading for help.

Democrats in Congress continued to criticize the administration's handling of the withdrawal, with few allies coming to Biden’s defense. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he would hold several hearings on the situation in Afghanistan, including a review of U.S. policy toward that nation and the Biden administration’s “flawed execution of the U.S. withdrawal.”

"Our nation’s reputation is on the line, and our whole government must be making every effort to achieve this objective," Menendez said. "There were clear policy execution and intelligence failures associated with our withdrawal and its aftermath."

President George W. Bush, who has largely refrained from publicly criticizing his successors, called on Biden to speed up the visa application process to help Afghans trying to flee their country.

"The United States government has the legal authority to cut the red tape for refugees during urgent humanitarian crises," Bush and former first lady Laura Bush said in a statement late Monday. "And we have the responsibility and the resources to secure safe passage for them now, without bureaucratic delay."

Former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta said there was no question that the Taliban would provide a safe haven for Al Qaeda, the Islamic State group or other terrorist groups.

"This is a national security threat," Panetta said Tuesday on MSNBC.

European leaders increasingly let their frustration show and sought to distance themselves from the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the situation “bitter, dramatic, terrible” and said “we all made the wrong assessment.”

“Nobody wants Afghanistan, once again, to be a breeding ground for terror,” U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson had said Sunday. “It’s fair to say the U.S. decision to pull out has accelerated things.”

Biden spoke to Johnson on Tuesday evening, his first call to a foreign leader to discuss the situation. The White House said the pair discussed the need for continued coordination on Afghanistan policy going forward, including ways to provide humanitarian assistance and support for refugees.

The White House said it would hold a virtual G-7 leaders meeting next week to discuss a common Afghan strategy.

At the White House briefing Tuesday, Sullivan blamed Afghan leaders for the visa delay, saying officials there “made a passionate case” that a mass U.S. evacuation could hurt confidence in the government.

"My heart goes out to Afghan women and girls in the country today," Sullivan said. "Under the Taliban, we've seen what they've done before. And that's a very hard thing for any of us to face. But this wasn't a choice just between saving those women and girls and not saving those women and girls. The alternative choice had its own set of human costs and consequences."

Administration officials sounded a hopeful note Tuesday that with the airport running again and the Taliban holding their fire, Americans would start to see images of a more orderly withdrawal — but made no guarantees.

“This is an hour-by-hour issue,” Sullivan said. “And it's something we are clear-eyed about and very focused on holding the Taliban accountable to follow through on its commitment.”