Eyes closing, voice cracking, Joe Biden physically reflected the terrible blow to his presidency from the slaying of 13 US service members during the desperate Kabul evacuation.
Addressing the nation from the White House, Biden bowed his head for a moment of silence before taking questions from journalists pressing him on the bloody twist in the already tragic operation to shut down the 20-year war in Afghanistan.
He appeared occasionally close to tears as he spoke of the dead “heroes.” And when he promised the attackers “we will hunt you down,” there was steel in his voice.
No doubt that Biden’s presidency has been shaken to the core by the bombing at Kabul’s airport.
Now Biden’s been left with a mountain to climb if he’s to persuade the nation and America’s partners that either goal remains achievable.
“It’s a day that Biden was very worried about,” said FRANCE 24’s Washington correspondent Kethevane Gorjestani. “It’s why Biden wanted to get out as fast as possible.”
The deaths of at least 13 US troops marked the first casualties among active US servicemembers in Afghanistan in a year and a half, and made Thursday the deadliest day for US troops there in a decade.
The only attack to kill more Americans in Afghanistan came on August 6, 2011, when insurgents shot down a helicopter, killing 30 US troops and eight Afghans.
Worst fears realised
Biden was already reeling from the almost overnight collapse of the US-backed government and US-created army, leaving the handful of remaining US troops and many thousands of US citizens and allies at the Taliban’s mercy.
Working around the clock for 10 days, his administration had thought perhaps it could still pull triumph from disaster.
The airlift was going far better than predicted, with the US military performing flawlessly and the Taliban more or less keeping its end of the bargain in securing Kabul.
Early Thursday in Washington, the White House proudly rolled out the latest remarkable figures: more than 95,000 people safely flown out since Kabul’s fall to the Taliban.
Then the bombs went off.
Shutting himself away with aides in the Situation Room, Biden canceled a meeting of state governors and told visiting Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that their planned meeting in the Oval Office would have to wait until Friday.
Throughout a day of meetings with national security staff, Biden was “somber” and “outraged,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.
“Any day where you’ll lose service members is maybe the worst day of your presidency.”
‘The buck stops with me’
Biden didn’t start the Afghan war. That was a Republican, George W. Bush.
And Biden was the first of four presidents actually to follow through on promises to end the disaster.
But as Biden himself said, the “buck stops” with him.
That means he will not be able to escape fury and horror back home over the deaths of the servicemen—or the political fallout.
“Joe Biden has blood on his hands,” Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik said. “This horrific national security and humanitarian disaster is solely the result of Joe Biden’s weak and incompetent leadership. He is unfit to be commander-in-chief.”
Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn tweeted that Biden and all his top national security staff “should resign or face impeachment and removal from office.”
The Republican outcry was predictable. But the wider damage reflected in opinion polls will be more worrying for Biden.
While a USA Today/Suffolk University poll this week found overwhelmingly that Americans believe the Afghan war was not worth fighting, Biden isn’t getting thanked. The poll found his overall approval at just 41 percent, with 55 percent disapproving.
“I don’t know if Biden will be permanently damaged,” Mark Rom, a professor of government at Georgetown University, told AFP. “But the Republicans will do everything in their power to see that he is.”
Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll, said that given the unpopularity of the Afghan war, Biden may yet ride the disaster out.
“The political question, once we have completely withdrawn, is whether the majority will be glad we aren’t there anymore. If so, then the issue is likely to fade,” he said.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)