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As Taliban gain traction, Biden grapples with Saigon ghosts

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden has no doubts about his decision to withdraw the United States from Afghanistan, the White House said on Friday, even as the Taliban takeover of the country gained momentum and that critics drew parallels with the fall of Saigon.

The Defense Department said Thursday it was returning 3,000 troops to the country to help secure the removal of most of the US embassy staff in Kabul.

While the departure of embassy staff was not to present 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 to carry the same symbolism of defeat – and the risk of domestic political consequences, if Afghanistan again becomes a base for terrorist attacks against the United States.

“The president is firmly focused on how we can continue to effect an orderly withdrawal and protect our men and women serving in Afghanistan,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “You heard it earlier this week: he doesn’t regret his decision.”

Senior administration officials have repeatedly claimed they have public support on their side in defending Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan. When the president announced in April that he would withdraw all U.S. troops from the country by September 11, the move was supported by 84 percent of Democrats, two-thirds of Independents and more than half of Republicans, according to one. Morning Consult survey. .

But as polls showed strong support for Biden’s plan in the spring, that sentiment was put to the test over the summer, with a Taliban surge in Afghanistan just weeks before the 20th anniversary of the 11th attacks. September.

On Friday, the Taliban captured two major Afghan cities, Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west, scoring their biggest victories to date in a winning streak in the provincial capital in recent days. An analysis from the Long War Journal suggested that the Taliban currently controls nearly 60% of the country.

“What we are facing is the lens of mass murder,” Matt Zeller, a former CIA analyst, told MSNBC. “Everyone is talking about this helicopter image in Saigon, and that’s what the Biden administration is most afraid of, and by their own action, they spawned this moment.”

Biden insisted in July that that moment – which took place when Biden was barely starting his Senate career nearly four decades ago – was not in sight. 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 are not the North Vietnamese army, they are not,” Biden said on July 8. “They are not comparable in terms of capabilities. There will be no circumstance for you to see people being lifted off the roof of a United States Embassy from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable. . “

But Congressional Republicans have gone on the attack, accusing Biden of opening the door to yet another terrorist attack – and of grasping the parallels with Vietnam.

“The latest news of a further withdrawal from our embassy and a hasty deployment of military forces appear to be preparations for the fall of Kabul,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement on Thursday. “President Biden’s decisions send us rushing into an even worse sequel to the humiliating fall of Saigon in 1975.”

Taliban fighters along the road in Herat, Afghanistan, Friday.AFP – Getty Images

Officials in the Biden administration blamed former President Donald Trump for handling talks with the Taliban for undermining the Afghan government and empowering Taliban fighters. But while Biden has played little part in the complexities behind the violence – Afghanistan was also a quagmire for his three presidential predecessors – he now faces the political consequences of the decision those presidents before him postponed. to their successors.

“We have essentially given up on the Afghan government, not just now, but since the start of these talks,” Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Afghanistan under the Obama administration, told MSNBC. “What President Biden has done is embrace it. He owns it.

While the speed of the Taliban offensive shocked Afghans and international observers, the Taliban has been reborn for years.

When the United States and the Taliban signed a landmark deal to end America’s longest war in February 2019, militants were already controlling, influencing, or contesting nearly half of the country.

Biden did not respond to shouted questions from reporters about Afghanistan moments after the Defense Ministry said it was sending troops to help with the withdrawal of embassy staff. But days earlier, as it became clear that Kabul was in danger of falling into Taliban hands, Biden said he did not regret his decision to withdraw US troops and argued that it was up to the Afghans to defend themselves.

“We have spent over a trillion dollars, over 20 years we have trained and equipped with modern equipment over 300,000 Afghan forces, and the Afghan leadership must come together,” Biden said. “We have lost thousands of dead and injured, thousands of American personnel. They have to fight for themselves, to fight for their nation.

Saphora Smith contributed.

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