YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Terror in Afghanistan and a race against time.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.
MS. ALCINDOR: A suicide bomber kills more than 150 people, including at least 13 U.S. troops, outside Kabul’s airport. President Biden vows to go after the terrorists, but he is sticking to his August 31st deadline to withdraw U.S. servicemembers. Plus –
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): (From video.) There’s no one in the world outside of Joe Biden who thinks we can get everybody out by August 31st.
REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): (From video.) The end of the month will be on us before we know it, and I think that we need to maintain our military presence long enough to get everyone out.
MS. ALCINDOR: The president faces mounting bipartisan criticism and key questions. Will there be more attacks? What’s next for the people of Afghanistan? And what may be the political costs of the Biden doctrine? Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Yamiche Alcindor.
MS. ALCINDOR: Good evening. Welcome to Washington Week.
The crisis on the ground in Afghanistan has turned into a catastrophe. This week it entered a terrifying new phase. Thursday we saw the deadliest day for the U.S. military in Afghanistan in more than a decade. At least 13 U.S. servicemembers and more than 150 Afghans are now dead. And today the president’s national-security team warned that another terrorist attack is likely. And there are just a few days left before President Biden’s deadline to pull out troops. On Thursday, the president addressed the nation.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I bear responsibility for fundamentally all that’s happened of late. Ladies and gentlemen, it was time to end a 20-year war. Thank you so much.
MS. ALCINDOR: We’ll dig into what’s happening on the ground and how the president and top leaders are dealing with this dangerous situation.
Joining us tonight: Jane Ferguson, special correspondent for the PBS NewsHour, who joins us from Doha, Qatar; and joining me here in studio, Sahil Kapur, national political reporter for NBC News; Ayesha Rascoe, White House correspondent for NPR; and Nancy Youssef, national-security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.
Jane, I want to start with you and I have to start with you. You did such incredible reporting in Afghanistan over the last few days and weeks here. What are your sources telling you about what led to these attacks and how the situation got so dire?
JANE FERGUSON: Well, if we start with the second part of that question, it’s important to remember how vulnerable this spot was. I’ve never really seen anything like it in all my years of covering conflict. You had thousands and thousands of civilians essentially in the street. This is still an open street around the outskirt of the perimeter of the airport.
You had them initially being filtered through by Taliban checkpoints. I mean, those checkpoints weren’t really searching people. Those weren’t – they weren’t really carefully monitoring people or patting people down or anything like that. They were trying to keep the crowds from crushing in and basically causing a stampede towards the gates.
Then they would get to American, British, and other allied soldiers who were trying to sort of sort through the crowds, trying to decipher between those who had the right paperwork to come in and could board flights and those who couldn’t. It was an enormously difficult task. But they were very much so exposed and standing out in the street, effectively, surrounded by these people.
It’s also worth remembering that ISIS has been menacing Kabul for several years now. They are, of course, sworn enemies of the Taliban. They compete with the group for personnel, resources, territory, and have done for a while now. But whenever they strike the capital, it’s very much a signature move to hit as many civilians as they can. They’ve hit wedding halls. They’ve hit schools. This is very much so in keeping with them. But for them to hit American forces and kill American soldiers as well as so many Afghan civilians is a win-win for that group, from their perspective.
MS. ALCINDOR: And what’s changed? When you think about the vulnerable spot that you just described there, what’s changed in terms of people’s ability to get out? How is that impacting this desperate journey people are trying to take?
MS. FERGUSON: Well, even before the explosion took place, Yamiche, it was increasingly impossible for people to get into the airport. That was one of the reasons that you had these huge buildups of people, because it was becoming more chaotic. You know, trying to get into and on flights, it was becoming more difficult in terms of the credentials and paperwork that you needed.
By the time I left, just the day before the bombing, almost everybody was saying at the gates, the very same gates where these explosions took place, that you really needed a U.S. passport or a green card or something similar for the other nations and other militaries there to get in. So it was already difficult.
Then the Taliban said, before the explosion, that they were going to stop Afghans even going to the gates and going to the airport. So they started really trying to hold people back. We know that people continue to go. They’re still waiting there and hopeful and just desperate, really, to get out of the country.
Crossing the borders on land is becoming increasingly difficult. Some people are getting across with smugglers. It’s believed that thousands of people have been gathering every day on crossings towards Pakistan, trying to get out of the country, because there’s really a sense of foreboding. Initially people were afraid of the reprisal attacks by the Taliban against them if they had been perhaps members of the security forces or associated with the government or associated with the U.S. military. Now I think you’re going to see –
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, reprisal attacks is a really concerning issue here, of course. Nancy, what are you hearing from your reporting about future attacks, about the dangers ahead, as this mission, this U.S. mission, enters its most dangerous phase?
NANCY YOUSSEF: It’s a great question and an important one because, as Jane has described in such important detail, the Taliban cannot secure the area leading up to the airport. There are security lapses, and in this case leading to catastrophic consequences earlier this week.
On top of that, you have a U.S. force that is going to start to move out. Remember, there are more than 5,000 U.S. troops based at the airport. They didn’t get there in one day and they won’t leave in one day. So now you have a tenuous security situation leading up to the airport; Afghans who know all too well that there are just days left trying to get out. And the U.S. will now try to move out. And so they will be, the U.S. forces, at their most vulnerable point at a time when you could see really challenges on them from a security perspective.
Moreover, you’ve now seen a terror group successfully launch an attack, so there might be an incentive for some of them to try again, feeling that there’s an opportunity. So there’s a lot of concern throughout Washington about what attacks could look like. Could there be attacks on airplanes going out? Could there be hostages taken? What we saw this week was an unimaginable attack, and that’s really sort of raised concerns about what else could we see in these long four days between now and when the U.S. has said it will leave on the 31st.
MS. ALCINDOR: Unimaginable is such a good way to put it, because it was so tragic. Our hearts were so heavy on Thursday as a country; as a world, in some ways. President Biden and military officials have said they’re going to go after who’s responsible. But what’s the feasibility of that as U.S. troops are withdrawing, as resources are leaving Afghanistan?
MS. YOUSSEF: So the key part of the U.S. plan to keep their eye on terror groups in Afghanistan was that they had a U.S.-backed government with a U.S.-trained army and intelligence service in the country. That’s all dissipated. That all disappeared on August 15th, when the Taliban took over. And so they don’t have those eyes and ears on the ground to tell them what are targets that they should be hitting in retaliation for this.
So the question becomes would they then depend on the Taliban to tell them the strikes that they should be doing? Moreover, there’s the obvious that they don’t have troops on the ground. They don’t have the assets to launch such attacks. And so how do you come up with a strike list when you don’t have partners on the ground, when the only partners you could use, you have a relationship that is not built on trust, and you don’t have the assets that you had on the ground or even nearby to launch an attack? It makes a retaliatory attack, an effective one, I think, very challenging.
MS. ALCINDOR: Ayesha, what are you hearing from White House officials about President Biden’s resolve to stick to this deadline? Everyone I talk to says this is the right thing to do. What are you hearing, especially as the president is taking responsibility for this while also blaming former President Trump?
AYESHA RASCOE: Yeah, he’s kind of – what he’s trying to do is say I take responsibility; the buck stops with me. But he’s also trying to offer an explanation, and he has taken some hits for that, for saying that, well, look, the former president made this deal, I had to stick to it, or basically laying it out as it was a choice between surging troops to Afghanistan for a war that’s been going on for 20 years or to bring them home, and with the risks that have been faced. And so – but they’re going to stick to this timeline. They’re saying they are getting out on August 31st. They had been saying over and over again that the risk to U.S. troops grew each day that they were there. That has obviously been borne out. I don’t think that they’re going to keep them any longer than August 31st because they don’t want – they see the risk and they don’t want more U.S. troops to be killed. But this is a rare time in Washington where you see someone making a decision, President Biden, that’s clearly not politically motivated. He’s not doing it because this is helping his poll numbers; it is not. But he clearly, fundamentally believes that the U.S. should be out of Afghanistan, and that’s what he’s doing.
MS. ALCINDOR: He does fundamentally believe that and this definitely is not polling-tested, because while a lot of Americans – and the White House says this over and over again – want to see the U.S. get out of Afghanistan, polling numbers – at least in some polls – are showing that people are not liking what they’re seeing in terms of how this is being done. Sahil, what’s this week revealed about the president’s decision making?
SAHIL KAPUR: I think we are seeing a Biden doctrine come into focus on foreign policy and that begins with an emphatic rejection of the post-9/11 foreign policy consensus that the United States can and should use military power, use force to invade other countries in pursuit of exporting American democracy there. This is a Joe Biden who once believed in that when he voted to authorize the Afghanistan war, when he voted to authorize the Iraq war, and he’s come to the completely opposite conclusion that it cannot be done and it shouldn’t be done, and I think that’s why his resolve has been so steely to continue the withdrawal plan in the face of enormous criticism. That Biden doctrine also includes the idea of what foreign policy experts call soft power, using diplomatic tools, using things like economic tools and conditioning of foreign aid as a way to promote human rights and democracy in other parts of the world. And finally, this White House, this administration is much more focused on the rise of China than the issue of terrorism. They believe the rise of China presents much bigger and more long-term threats to the United States, and also focused on Russia – disinformation campaigns to meddle in democracy. That is where Biden wants to focus.
MS. ALCINDOR: The criticism that Sahil was talking about, Nancy, also is tied to this kind of coordination with the Taliban. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said we don’t trust the Taliban but we have to coordinate with them. What do we know about the risks of coordinating with the Taliban?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, as you remember, the U.S. fought a 20-year – nearly 20-year war against the Taliban and now we’re talking about working with them, and I can imagine for some of your viewers, that’s a very jarring thing to hear.
Again, their approach was contingent on the idea that for some period of time, certainly through the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, it would have a U.S.-backed government there to support them, and that hasn’t happened. The only force left is the Taliban. The Taliban is in charge of every part of the country now. They control the capital. They are in the presidential palace. And so there aren’t enough forces to secure the city; it would take tens of thousands, and so they’re using Taliban elements. These are not elements that they have trained or can tell what to do or can manage how they do these security checkpoints. The U.S. is communicating with the Taliban every day in an effort to navigate that, but it doesn’t mean that they’re working side by side or that they have a shared interest. The Taliban objective is to get the United States out and to get them out by August 31st. The U.S. objective is to do it as safely as possible with the troops that they have. But when those interests collide, we could see a real security risk to U.S. troops and to American citizens in-country.
MS. ALCINDOR: It’s a real security risk. And U.S. forces have also focused on securing the airport, but outside people have largely had to fend for themselves. Jane, you spoke to an Afghan civilian trying to leave the country.
MALE: (From video.) The Taliban thinks that my father is working with NATO and he’s a spy – foreign spy, OK? We need help. I think we don’t have time. My family is hiding.
MS. ALCINDOR: This is a humanitarian crisis in some ways playing out with so many vulnerable people. What did your reporting on the ground reveal here?
MS. FERGUSON: So many desperate people who were essentially trying to figure out what the system was. Essentially, most people in Afghanistan – it’s worth pointing out: Most people that we talk to on the ground, ordinary people, want America to withdraw from Afghanistan. Of course, there are exceptions, but most people want this war to end. They want to see foreign forces out. So there isn’t really any pushback from the doctrine that has been discussed about wanting America out of the war; what people are shocked about and frustrated with on the ground in Afghanistan is the chaotic nature, is the fact that they waited for months after President Biden came into the White to find out what’s the strategy of leaving. There have been campaigns for these Special Immigrant Visas, and that’s what the man in that video was talking about. And what many, many, many people have discussed with us who have been desperate at the gates to try to figure out is, how do we apply for these visas? Why are they taking so long? You know, can we get our applications to take less time than three to four years, whenever America’s drawdown is so rapid? So that’s the frustration there is this, what was the strategy? How do we as Afghans who have worked with the U.S. military navigate this endless bureaucratic paperwork to get out of the country and to get the visas that we are entitled to?
MS. ALCINDOR: I want to ask a quick follow-up, which is, you did this story, Jane, about children who have gone missing in Afghanistan, children that have been left behind; just talk – tell us a little bit about that because that’s such a critical part of this crisis.
MS. FERGUSON: It speaks to the kind of chaos that has played out at the airport because you have – it’s important to remember that these are people coming with their families. There are so many women and children. We’ve seen so many babies, many pregnant women. But to get to the gates is simply a massive, dangerous, physical, and arduous task because you have to push through panicked crowds. Many people are being beaten by Taliban fighters as they walk past. Many people are having to push through the crush, deal with sometimes momentary stampedes. Last weekend seven people died in the crush. So essentially, it’s very easy to see, when you’re standing on the ground there, how someone could lose a small child, and once they’ve been separated, it’s extremely difficult to find everybody. I mean, there’s no cell phone service. It’s chaotic. And so, you know, for the soldiers, the American soldiers there trying to find – and I saw this with British soldiers as well – finding children at the gate alone and just trying to take care of them, but there’s a language difference; these are upset children, tiny tots sometimes. It’s something that, I’m sure, very few soldiers have ever had to deal with before.
MS. ALCINDOR: Nancy, we’re also – when you talk about what soldiers are having to deal with and what Jane’s talking about, there was this new generation of soldiers who have died, people who were one or two years old at the time of 9/11. What toll is this taking on the military when they look at this humanitarian crisis and also when they look at what one person, an Afghan security official said, Afghanistan turning into the Las Vegas of terrorists, given all the lives that were lost in Afghanistan?
MS. YOUSSEF: So, as you know, that we haven’t officially gotten names but families are starting to come out and we’re hearing stories about 20, 21-year-olds who died at that gate. Even before Thursday’s horrific events, you would talk to service members who were really traumatized by the withdrawal and asking themselves, what did I go for – to go to battle for? What did my comrades die for? Why did my family make the sacrifices? Why did I miss all those birthdays and anniversaries and life events to see the country come apart so quickly? I think you can have debates about whether the U.S. should have stayed or gone, and those debates certainly happen within the veteran community, but the – there is a connective thread in their frustration with how quickly things fell apart. I don’t think people had the imagination to think that in a matter of days, the very government that they spent 20 years trying to build up would just disappear. And then to have these events happen on Thursday, the tragedy, the scale of it, I think has just made this an already tough period really hard for military families, veterans, Gold Star families, because it – the undercurrent is, what was this for?
MS. ALCINDOR: A critical question. A critical question that so many are asking: What was this for?
Now, on July 8th, I questioned President Biden specifically about comparing Vietnam to Afghanistan.
MS. ALCINDOR: (From video.) Do you see any parallels between this withdrawal and what happened in Vietnam, with some people feeling –
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) None whatsoever. Zero. The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese army. They’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a(n) embassy of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.
MS. ALCINDOR: “Not at all comparable.” Now, Ayesha, how worried is the White House about this being a stain on President Biden’s legacy and these comparisons that some are making?
MS. RASCOE: Right now they’re trying to brush it off by putting and using really an old-school, what I would call – this is a 20-year war – an old-school argument basically saying the troops are fighting right now. It’s not time to be critical. It’s time to focus on the troops. This is for the troops, and when they get home, we’ll figure out all this other stuff, which is kind of what you heard going into this war, just focus on the troops. But I think there’s no way in the world that they can’t be concerned about this being a stain. This is a huge crisis. Lives were lost, and they will have to answer for what happened. I do think this is an American tragedy, though. This is 20 years. This is four administrations. This is not just on the Biden administration.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, it’s a key point to make, because I think in all of these conversations over the last 20 days we have to remember about the Afghanistan papers and the fact that this spanned multiple presidents.
Now, Republicans and some Democrats, though, have criticized the Biden administration’s decisions in Afghanistan. On Friday House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy slammed President Biden.
HOUSE MINORITY LEADER KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): (From video.) To be commander in chief, you need the faith, the trust, and the confidence of the American public. President Biden lost all three of those yesterday.
MS. ALCINDOR: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, a Democrat, released a statement saying, quote, “I am disappointed that the Biden administration clearly did not accurately assess the implications of a rapid U.S. withdrawal.”
Sahil, we’re talking about Congress; have to come to you. How expected is the GOP response to this? And also how concerned are Democrats about the political fallout of what’s happening?
MR. KAPUR: The GOP response was quite expected, I think. The White House was a little more caught off guard by how forceful some of the Democrats were; not only Bob Menendez, but Representative Gregory Meeks in the House, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, promised an investigation, the two of them.
And as far as McCarthy’s comments, there’s a bifurcated dynamic here where, in the short term, they smell blood in the water politically. They sense this is a moment of possible weakness for President Biden, and they want to use that to weaken the president politically.
But then there’s the bigger, more complicated question of what McCarthy and his allies would do instead. And that is where we saw him get a little tripped up on Friday when he got asked questions about, for instance, the troop presence. Does he want a longer and more permanent troop presence? He kind of waffled around that; did not have a clear answer.
The issue of negotiating with the Taliban, which experts seem to think is inevitable now – they are a very powerful force, like it or not, in Afghanistan – he faulted President Biden for doing that negotiation but didn’t fault former President Trump for initiating that negotiation to begin with; so a very complicated set of dynamics.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, the GOP is doing some back flips here in some ways. What you’re describing is this idea that they supported President Trump when he was saying that he wanted to be out by May 1st but are criticizing President Biden.
I also see this thing that’s going on with the GOP when it comes to immigration in particular. And Sahil, I want to ask you about it again and direct it to you. There’s this real issue about immigration. I can almost feel it coming around the corner of where are these refugees being put and what local communities are they coming to? How do you see this connecting to the larger debate we’ve been having about immigration in this country?
MR. KAPUR: This is going to be a big, big debate in Congress, and it’s absolutely tied to the larger issue of immigration, because right now everyone is focused on the withdrawal of these people. There’s a unanimous, you know, feeling in Congress that this is what the administration needs to be focused on.
But once they get out, what happens next? Where do they go? There’s currently a limit, about 62,000, that the president has pursued of refugees. That is several days’ worth of evacuees at this point. That’s not going to be enough for all the people who want to come here.
There are already about 70 House Democrats who have signed a letter calling on the president to more than triple that cap to 200,000. That is not going to go over well with a lot of conservative Republicans who are pressuring the Biden administration to get those people out right now. This is a big debate coming around the bend, and it ties into immigration very much so.
MS. ALCINDOR: Quickly, Jane, in 30 seconds, what are the biggest questions around the corner? We’re only four days out. What are the questions when you think about August 31st and September 1st?
MS. FERGUSON: Pushing forward, we’re going to need to see if Afghanistan can be secured, if the capital can be secured by the Taliban. It’s hard to believe that we’re even having this conversation, but are the Taliban going to form a government? There’s lots of meetings about that right now. Will they be able to provide any semblance of security? And will any of the other people who had been hoping to get out, including American citizens, be able to get out of the country at this point?
MS. ALCINDOR: Nancy, what are your biggest questions as we look around the corner at what’s next, when we think of what’s going on? Again, we’re running up on time, but I want to ask you.
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, just to pick up on what Jane said, I think some people think of August 31st as the end, but it’s actually a new beginning, not only for Afghanistan but for how the U.S. combats terrorist groups around the world. And what are the lasting effects of this withdrawal, of leaving people behind, of working with the Taliban, of groups like the Islamic State able to launch attacks so soon after the Taliban took over?
MS. ALCINDOR: Last point to you; 10 seconds. You talked about what’s next around the corner in the briefing room today at the White House. What’s next?
MS. RASCOE: Well, they didn’t have a really good answer. They said that they can’t guarantee that people will be able to get out after August 31st, and they’re trying to set up a process. So that’s what we’ll be looking for.
MS. ALCINDOR: It’s a complicated situation that, of course, took 20 years to get here. So there’s a lot of things that we’re going to continue to talk about on this program. And, of course, we’re going to continue to report on it.
We’ll have to leave it there tonight. Thank you so much to Jane, Sahil, Ayesha and Nancy for sharing your reporting.
Thank you for joining us, of course, all our viewers. And tune in Monday to the PBS NewsHour for more from Jane Ferguson, my colleague at the PBS NewsHour, as she offers a behind-the-scenes look at the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Our conversation will also continue on the Washington Week Extra. Find it on our social media and on our website. This week’s topic: The latest on the COVID-19 surge.
I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night from Washington.