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The Morning Dispatch: Racing Against the Clock
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The Morning Dispatch: Racing Against the Clock

President Biden suggests the U.S. might need to stay in Afghanistan longer than he'd thought to complete the necessary evacuations.

Happy Monday! We’ll take “should have deleted those old podcast episodes” for $800, Mike.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The strongest tropical storm to make landfall in New England in more than 30 years battered the northeast United States Sunday, leaving thousands of homes without power. Coastal areas experienced gusts reaching 78 miles per hour, sustained winds of 57 miles per hour, and heavy rainfall. The governors of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York declared states of emergency in anticipation of the storm.

  • President Joe Biden said Sunday that he may extend his administration’s August 31 deadline for removing the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan, as tens of thousands of Americans and Afghan allies remain behind Taliban lines in need of evacuation. Biden added that 28,000 people have been evacuated from the country over the last week. At least seven Afghans, including a 2-year-old child, were killed in a stampede over the weekend as thousands of evacuees massed at Hamid Karzai International Airport, the British military said Sunday.

  • Countries across the Middle East and Europe will now accept evacuees from Afghanistan in transit after Qatar’s al-Udeid air base reached maximum capacity, according to the State Department. Eighteen commercial aircraft will begin assisting the evacuation effort in the coming days, the Pentagon said Sunday.*

  • The State Department imposed additional sanctions over the weekend on a handful of Russian entities involved in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but critics argue they are far from enough to stop the project, which Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday is just 15 kilometers from completion. During a visit to Kyiv, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said additional sanctions against Russia could be in play if it tries to use the pipeline “as a weapon” against Ukraine.

  • Groups representing landlords and real-estate agents have filed paperwork asking the Supreme Court to scrap the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s August 3 eviction moratorium. Chief Justice John Roberts ordered the government to respond by noon today.

  • The Biden administration has appealed to the Supreme Court a Texas federal judge’s ruling earlier this month that required the government to reinstate the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, under which migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. were obliged to remain in Mexico pending their asylum hearing. Biden had suspended the program, which the Trump administration had created in 2018, on his first day in office.

  • Record-breaking flash floods in middle Tennessee Sunday left at least 22 people dead as of Sunday night. 26 more remain missing, according to local authorities.

The Latest on Afghanistan Evacuations

(Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images.)

Having canceled a planned trip to Delaware over the weekend, President Biden spoke from the White House’s Roosevelt Room on Sunday. There, he updated reporters on two storms: A literal one—Henri—which had just made landfall in Rhode Island a few hours earlier, and a political one—Afghanistan—which has been roiling his administration for the better part of two weeks.

“My job is to make judgments no one else can or will make,” he said, responding to a question about his lagging approval numbers. “I made them. I’m convinced I’m absolutely correct in not deciding to send more young women and men to war, for a war that, in fact, is no longer warranted. … I think that history is going to record this was the logical, rational, and right decision to make.”

History will render its judgment in due time, but the federal government’s immediate responsibility—because of that decision Biden made—is to complete the evacuation of tens of thousands of Americans and Afghan allies before the Taliban decides to stop playing nice (which, according to some reports, it already has). All in all, Biden claimed his administration had—as of Sunday morning—evacuated just shy of 28,000 people in the week or so since Kabul fell, including about 11,000 in one 36-hour period. National security adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday he couldn’t provide the “precise number” of Americans who remain in the country, but added he believes it to be “several thousand.”

Biden said the White House’s “hope” is to have everyone out by his self-imposed August 31 deadline, but that there are “discussions going on among us and the military about extending.”

“The evacuation of thousands of people from Kabul is going to be hard and painful no matter when it started and when we began,” Biden argued. “There is no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss, of heartbreaking images you see on television. … We have a long way to go, and a lot could still go wrong. But to move out 30,000 people in just over a week, that’s a great testament to the men and women on the ground in Kabul and our armed services.”

It’s increasingly a group effort. The Biden administration, the president said, has reached diplomatic agreements with more than two dozen countries to allow U.S. military aircraft to drop off evacuees for processing and vetting prior to them being whisked to their final destination. On Sunday, the Pentagon activated Stage 1 of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, commandeering a total of 18 planes from six U.S. airlines to assist in shuttling these evacuees from temporary safe havens to the U.S. so the military can “focus on operations in and out of” Hamid Karzai International Airport.

“Planes taking off from Kabul are not flying directly to the United States,” Biden said, seemingly confirming reports that he is concerned about the political ramifications of refugee resettlement. “They’re landing at U.S. military bases and transit centers around the world. … At these sites where they’re landing, we are conducting thorough security screenings for everyone who is not a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident. Anyone arriving in the United States will have undergone a background check.”

“Once screened and cleared, we will welcome these Afghans, who helped us in the war effort over the last 20 years, to their new home in the United States of America,” he added. “Because that’s who we are.”

Biden appeared flustered at times during his remarks on Sunday, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s not much of an exaggeration to claim the fate of his presidency is in the hands of the Taliban, a group that he admitted yesterday he does not trust. “So far, the Taliban has not taken action against U.S. forces,” Biden said. “So far, they have, by and large, followed through what they said, in terms of allowing Americans to pass through. … We’ll see whether or not what they say turns out to be true.”

Those “so far,” “against U.S. forces,” and “by and large” qualifiers are masking some pretty serious transgressions. An Afghan Deutsche Welle reporter who now lives in Germany reported Thursday that Taliban members—conducting a house-by-house search looking for the reporter—shot multiple members of his family still in Afghanistan, killing one of them. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reportedly told lawmakers on Friday that the military is aware of some Americans being harassed and beaten by the Taliban. On Saturday, the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan blasted out a security alert advising U.S. citizens to avoid traveling to the airport due to “potential security threats outside the gates.” 

Asked yesterday by CBS News’ Major Garrett whether the Biden administration has resorted to begging the Taliban for permission for American citizens to leave, Secretary of State Antony Blinken didn’t dispute the premise of the question. “They are in control of Kabul,” he said. “That’s the reality that we have to deal with.”

Several Biden administration officials hinted on Sunday at U.S. forces venturing beyond the established Kabul airport perimeter to reach Americans still in the country and provide them safe passage to the airport. On Friday, for example, three Chinook helicopters collected 169 Americans waiting at a hotel near the airport.

“I’m not going to speak to the operational parameters of what is happening at the airfield right now,” Sullivan told CNN yesterday. “For the American citizens right now who are sitting at home, we will be reaching out and contacting you. … We have secured the capacity to get large numbers of Americans safe passage through to the airport and onto the airfield.”

Sen. Ben Sasse, speaking with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, made the case for a more aggressive approach. “We have a lot of people in danger right now,” he said, arguing the U.S. should blow past Biden’s “stupid, arbitrary” August 31 deadline if need be. “We need to push out the perimeter well beyond Karzai Airport. We need to have an urgent meeting of the National Security Council and the president’s DOD team to figure out if we should be retaking Bagram [Air Base].”

“We need the president to make absolutely clear that we will finish the mission, we will save all of our people,” Sasse continued.  “The president’s plan is to leave Afghanistan, but he needs the Taliban to know—and al-Qaeda, and the Haqqani network, and al-Qaeda allies, and ISIS to understand—that he may well change his mind on the departure if any fire comes down on Americans as we’re evacuating our people.”

Tom Joscelyn and Bill Roggio report at Long War Journal that Taliban social media accounts claim the group’s special forces Badri 313 unit is providing “security” at the airport, and Sullivan on Sunday described the threat of an ISIS attack at the airport as “real,” “acute,” “persistent,” and “something that we are focused on with every tool in our arsenal.”

Worth Your Time

  • Dexter Filkins’ articles on Afghanistan are always worth your time. “In recent weeks, the United States’ hasty, ill-planned withdrawal did the Taliban one last favor,” he writes in The New Yorker. “By bringing chaos to the capital and abandoning those who had risked their lives to aid the U.S., it surely inspired many Afghans to wish for someone to restore order. … As the Biden Administration recklessly departed Afghanistan, it left behind the chance of a deeper calamity, not just in the country but in the region. The President’s embarrassing speech last week, in which he blamed the debacle on everyone but himself, serves as a fitting end to America’s twenty-year endeavor. As Biden withdrew his forces, he urged Afghans to fight for their country’s future. It seems alarmingly possible that they will have to.”

  • Mike Pompeo has, for good reason, been exceedingly critical of the Biden administration’s handling of the United States’ Afghanistan withdrawal. What he hasn’t mentioned is that the Biden administration is more or less following the blueprint he mapped out as secretary of state. In a piece for Slate, William Saletan details Pompeo’s flip-flop on the subject. “The Biden administration misjudged how quickly the government would fall, and Biden misled Americans about what could happen. But nobody has lied more about the Afghan collapse than Pompeo,” he writes. “A year ago, in Pompeo’s words, the Taliban was represented by a ‘gentleman,’ was ‘working diligently to reduce violence,’ and was ‘sincere in wanting what’s good for the Afghan people.’ Now he calls the Taliban ‘butchers.’ ‘We never trusted them,’ he insists. ‘We always knew that what they were telling us was almost certainly a lie.’”

  • The current spike of COVID cases driven by the Delta variant is driving a hard truth home for many: It simply doesn’t seem likely we’ll ever truly put this disease behind us the way we did, for instance, SARS. So what happens as COVID slowly transitions from pandemic to endemic—a disease that’s always with us, but for which risk has fallen low enough through natural or vaccine immunity that we largely simply tolerate it? While cautioning that we’re not there yet—many people still lack any immunity to COVID whatsoever—The Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang offers some insights into what the growing pains of that transition are likely to be. “When everyone has some immunity, a COVID-19 diagnosis becomes as routine as diagnosis of strep or flu—not good news, but not a reason for particular fear or embarrassment either,” she writes. “That means unlearning a year of messaging that said COVID-19 was not just a flu. If the confusion around the CDC dropping mask recommendations for the vaccinated earlier this summer is any indication, this transition to endemicity might be psychologically rocky. Reopening felt too fast for some, too slow for others.”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In addition to his remarks on Afghanistan yesterday, President Biden addressed reporters on Friday as well. Alec and Khaya took him to task in a Dispatch Fact Check over his false claims that al-Qaeda is “gone” from the country and that no Americans have been unable to get to the airport.

  • In his Sunday French Press, David contemplates a hard question: In the wake of our ignominious scramble out of Afghanistan, how should we view the sacrifices of the Americans who fought and died in service of a cause we now seem to be turning away from? Those men and women, he argues, did not sacrifice in vain. “A virtuous sacrifice is transcendent. It’s an expression of duty and faith that has enduring power, and that power is often not fully perceived within our lifetimes. … [Afghanistan] tells the story of men and women who loved each other and died for each other. It tells the story of people who chose to leave hearth and home and place themselves in harm’s way to confront a terrible evil. It also tells the story, time and again, of American men and women who died to protect Afghan men and women.” 

  • Meanwhile, Thomas Joscelyn’s Friday Vital Interests(🔒) was a little more glum, taking President Biden to task for his over-cheerful proclamations that al-Qaeda is gone from Afghanistan. “Al-Qaeda is likely in Kabul right now, according to two U.S. counterterrorism officials,” he writes. “They point to the large footprint of the Haqqani Network, an integral part of the Taliban, inside the Afghan capital. As I’ve stressed for years, the Haqqanis are so close to al-Qaeda that they are often indistinguishable … The Haqqanis and al-Qaeda now share their victory in the Afghan War as well.”

  • We’ve leaned on Tom’s expertise a lot over the last few weeks, for very good reason—there aren’t many who know the war in Afghanistan better. On Friday, he joined David and Steve on the Dispatch Podcast to discuss the timing of the administration’s evacuation of Kabul, the intelligence failures that caught the U.S. with its pants down as the Taliban swept in, and the state of the fragmented Afghan military.

  • In a piece for the website, James Capretta and Kieran Allsop look into the status of our vaccine supply and how approving a third shot for all eligible Americans will make it harder for us to donate doses to countries in need.

  • Joe Biden’s approval is below 50 percent, and the disastrous Afghan withdrawal isn’t going to make things better. Chris Stirewalt writes about what that means for the midterm elections.

Let Us Know

Beatlemania started in earnest on August 23, 1963 when the upstart band released its hit song “She Loves You,” which remains its best-selling single in the United Kingdom.

Our question for you: What’s the best Beatles song of all time?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Correction, August 23, 2021: An earlier version of this newsletter said the 18 commercial aircraft activated by the Pentagon will arrive in Kabul. They will not be flying into Hamid Karzai International Airport, but rather “used for the onward movement of passengers from temporary safe havens and interim staging bases.”