After NBC News chief legal correspondent and Today co-anchor Savannah Guthrie questioned how the Biden administration had been “so wrong” in it’s Afghanistan assessment, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan attempted to minimize the extent of the chaotic scenes in Kabul on Monday, specifically the hasty helicopter evacuation of diplomats and staff from the embassy, saying “To be fair, the helicopter has been the mode of transport from our embassy to the airport for the last 20 years.”
Referring to the U.S. pullout as a “fiasco,” Guthrie suggested that the Biden administration was not prepared for the scenes that unfolded over the last few days.
“Friends and foes alike are calling this withdrawal a fiasco, a debacle, and it is one that apparently the administration did not fully appreciate or see coming,” she told Sullivan.
She then proceeded to play a clip of President Biden only weeks ago denying the plausibility of such chaos taking place in light of a U.S. pullout.
“The likelihood that there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely,” Biden said at the July 8 press conference.
When asked if he saw “any parallels” between the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and that of what Vietnam, Biden responded confidently in the negative.
“None whatsoever. Zero,” he assured. “There’s gonna be no circumstance where you’re gonna see people being lifted off the roof of a[n] embassy of the United States from Afghanistan.”
Noting the strikingly similar parallels to Vietnam, Guthrie further questioned Sullivan.
“And yet that is precisely what we have seen over these last few days,” she said. “How do you explain getting this so wrong?”
Sidetracking, Sullivan sought to depict the evacuation of personnel from the U.S. Embassy as far less chaotic than it appeared.
“To be fair, the helicopter has been the mode of transport from our embassy to the airport for the last twenty years,” he said.
But Guthrie shot back, refusing to allow the national security adviser to avoid the point.
“But you know the larger point. It’s not the helicopter. It’s not the mechanism. No, no. It’s the last minute scramble. You know that,” she said.
“It’s the last-minute scramble when the assurances from the president himself were: ‘This was not what we were going to see,’” she said.
Sullivan admitted that “the speed with which cities fell was much greater than anyone anticipated,” but claimed that many of the analysts “who looked hard at this problem” were also stumped.
In addition, Sullivan blamed the “will” of the Afghan armed forces for the current situation.
“Despite the fact that we spent 20 years and tens of billions of dollars to give the best equipment, the best training and the best capacity to the Afghan national security forces, we could not give them the will,” he said.
“And they ultimately decided that they would not fight for Kabul and they would not fight for the country, and that opened the door to the Taliban to come into Kabul very rapidly,” he added.
The Biden administration has come under increasing fire for a lack of coordinated planning in the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the swift Taliban takeover of the country.
As a result, many conservative pundits and politicians have slammed the president for previous comments on July 8 which all but guaranteed the current scenario was impossible, having boasted of the Afghan army’s capabilities while declaring, “There’s going to be no circumstance where you are going to see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan.”
As insurgents closed in on Sunday, the capital was gripped by panic as Kabul fell to the Taliban and embattled president Ashraf Ghani fled the country as the government collapsed and the capital’s U.S. Embassy was forced to evacuate.
Fearing the Taliban would reassert their pattern of brutal rule, thousands of citizens and foreigners attempted to flee the advancing Taliban, with one official with the militant group saying it would soon announce the creation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which was the original name of the country under Taliban rule before they were ousted by U.S.-led forces after the 9/11 attacks.
In a stunning rout, the Taliban seized nearly all of Afghanistan in just over a week, despite the billions of dollars spent by the U.S. and NATO over nearly two decades to build up Afghan security forces.
The U.S. evacuation in extreme haste under pressure evoked images reminiscent of the American evacuation from Saigon during the Vietnam War, with some referring to the Kabul scenes as “President Biden’s Saigon.”
Apart from a Saturday statement blaming former President Trump for the events, Biden has been mostly quiet about Afghanistan’s fall as he continued his summer vacation at Camp David. He is expected to hold a briefing on Monday afternoon.
Follow Joshua Klein on Twitter @JoshuaKlein.