By Kevin Liptak, Kaitlan Collins, Jeremy Herb and Phil Mattingly, CNN
When Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley informed President Joe Biden just past 9:15 a.m. on Thursday that terrorists had detonated a suicide bomb at the Kabul airport gates, the President was angry and dismayed — but not surprised.
Biden had just walked down from his third-floor residence to the basement Situation Room, where top national security officials were milling around the dark wooden table when first reports of explosions were transmitted into the basement command center. It was the nightmare scenario Biden had been fearing for days, one intelligence assessments — derived partly from communication intercepts — had warned was likely to happen.
Yet the complexity of the situation on the ground, the urgency of the evacuation mission and the unlikely partnership with the Taliban to control security around the airport had left US troops dangerously exposed, and offered Biden and his team limited options to protect them.
The group remained in the Situation Room for more than an hour, receiving updates from commanders in Kabul and poring over maps and images of the airport. Biden eventually decamped to the Oval Office, where he was updated by his national security adviser Jake Sullivan and chief of staff Ron Klain.
As the day wore on, the situation grew progressively grimmer. Reports of American casualties eventually turned into confirmation of American deaths, news that reached the White House by midday. The death toll went from 4 to 10 to eventually 13, a devastating figure for a President who had yet to preside over a single US combat death. The Marines who were killed were believed to be conducting security screenings of those entering the airport; one military official said they were so close to the crowd, “the breath of the person you are searching is upon you.”
Biden’s national security team had little time to emotionally process the attacks, one official said, as they remained focused both on the airlift mission in Kabul, now entering its most dangerous phase yet, and a new objective to take out the terrorists. (On Friday night, the US military announced it had conducted a successful drone strike against an ISIS-K planner in eastern Afghanistan.)
For a commander-in-chief known to occasionally flash his temper, multiple aides who spoke to CNN described Biden as consistently calm and level-headed in the aftermath of the attack. Still, by the time Biden emerged into the White House East Room after most of Thursday behind closed doors, the strain of the moment was evident.
“Been a tough day,” he said as he began a set of remarks he and his speechwriters had spent the previous hours honing. Biden wavered between weary sadness, a stark threat to “hunt down” the attack’s perpetrators and a staunch defense of his decision to end America’s longest overseas conflict.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it was time to end a 20-year war,” Biden said before walking away from the podium and onto what he said was another meeting.
Thursday was the deadliest day for American combat troops in almost a decade, and for Biden amounted to the worst day of his nascent presidency. A war that is almost over after 20 years is concluding in blood, anguish and — for the President who is ending it — fierce recrimination. Interviews with more than a dozen people, including White House officials, national security and congressional aides and others close to the situation, reveal an administration consumed by events in Afghanistan, driven by the President’s unmovable desire to withdraw troops while also struggling to contain the chaos of war.
Biden’s aides argue he is exactly the man for such a moment: a foreign policy veteran, a renowned empath, a military dad. Yet a legion of critics, including some Democratic allies, is now questioning whether his decades of foreign policy experience add up to sound policy or competent leadership at a moment of crisis.
As Biden’s approval ratings already show signs of slipping, fears are rising among Democrats that mistakes made in Afghanistan could derail the party’s ambitious domestic agenda. While Democrats were attempting damage control, Republicans attacked what they viewed as clear and devastating missteps.
A team of longtime Biden hands now faces scrutiny for not sufficiently preparing for what the President has said was inevitable chaos in the war’s final days. Biden is currently focused on completing the mission in Kabul, aides said, but many of them expect he’ll eventually hold someone responsible for what has happened.
“I do believe some people on his national security team should resign. That’s up to them and it’s up to him,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican who has sharply disagreed with Biden’s Afghanistan policy even as he has served as a regular critic of his own party.
The White House says Biden isn’t planning to ask any of his military leaders to resign in the wake of Thursday’s deadly attack, and press secretary Jen Psaki said the President maintained confidence in Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has faced particularly harsh criticism for his department’s role in coordinating the evacuation of Americans and Afghans who worked for coalition forces over the past two decades.
Still, Psaki acknowledged there had been little time inside the White House to contemplate anything beyond the current evacuation mission, especially as Biden was warned during a Friday morning briefing that further attacks are likely as the military winds down its operations.
“There’s not a lot of time for self-reflection right now,” Psaki said when asked about the current state-of-affairs in Afghanistan, in which the US is forced to coordinate with the Taliban in the final days of the war. “The focus is on the task at hand.”
Asked to describe these final tense few days, another White House official said, “It’s like a high wire with no net, and every single minute you could fall off.”
‘A ticking time bomb’
From the moment Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15, American and western intelligence agencies began warning of a heightened risk of a terror attack meant to create mayhem among the throngs of Afghans desperate to escape.
Scores of ISIS terrorists had escaped from prisons across Afghanistan, fueling fears they could penetrate the security the Taliban had set up around the airport.
In daily meetings of Biden’s national security team, including through last weekend, a sizable amount of time was spent discussing what officials described as “active threat streams” coming from the Islamic State affiliate operating in Afghanistan.
The intelligence streams were “specific, serious, and credible” in the days leading up to the attacks at the airport, a person familiar with the matter said. And while US forces had been conducting counterterrorism operations around Kabul to try to mitigate the threat, officials were worried that it was “a ticking time bomb,” this person added.
By Tuesday and Wednesday, the threat had become so acute that US officials began informing other western nations who were executing their own evacuation missions it was too dangerous to continue. At one point, US intelligence officials had access to communication intercepts directly tied to a potential suicide vest attack, one US official said.
Finally, on Wednesday night, the State Department issued an ominous and highly specific warning to Americans to stay away from the airport gates until further notice. It was a last resort in a situation where the Biden administration already had extremely limited options, an official said.
The warnings did little to disperse the crowds of Afghans desperately seeking a way out of the country. When the blast went off, bodies were scattered into fetid drainage canals, the survivors left to escape in a daze of horror.
Many in the White House had been frustrated in recent weeks with the intelligence community’s failure to predict how fast Kabul would fall to the Taliban — even the most pessimistic assessments estimated it might take at least a month.
This time, the intelligence the White House was receiving about a potential attack outside the airport was tragically spot on. One official who spent hours on Thursday in meetings and calls described finally getting a moment of respite, only to find himself staring at a TV tuned to the graphic cell phone video of bodies strewn across the scene of the attack.
“It was a direct punch in the gut,” the official recalled.
‘God forgive me if I’m wrong about that’
Some national security officials viewed Thursday’s attack as the worst case scenario for Biden, given his political calculation that the withdrawal would likely have little negative impact on his standing with most Americans unless US troops were killed
“No one’s being killed right now,” Biden said in an interview with ABC News last week, knocking on a wooden table as he defended the execution of the withdrawal. “God forgive me if I’m wrong about that, but no one’s being killed right now.”
In Congress and at national security agencies, scrutiny has increased over Biden’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan and the subsequent execution of the withdrawal. Several sources familiar with internal discussions at the White House and on Capitol Hill about Afghanistan over the last several months, including meetings that have taken place in recent days, told CNN that much of the blame for the chaotic withdrawal has come to rest on Biden and the White House, rather than the military or intelligence agencies.
Others pointed to Sullivan, Biden’s 44-year-old national security adviser, and what one official characterized as an indecisive White House-led deliberation process on Afghanistan, including the evacuation, describing it as “paralyzing.”
Some White House allies said Biden appeared to be driven by his desire to get out, rather than focusing on how to do so.
The acrimony is shared among some of top foreign allies of the United States. Biden spent much of the week preceding the attack explaining to his critics why he was so adamant about getting US troops out of the country.
On Tuesday morning, he sat in on a high-level videoconference call as skeptical American allies beamed in from foreign capitals to voice frustration at his withdrawal plan.
When it was French President Emmanuel Macron’s turn to speak, he pressed Biden to extend the date after telling him in a phone call last week the US had a “moral responsibility” to vulnerable Afghans now exposed to Taliban reprisals. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel made similar entreaties.
But during his own seven-minute remarks in the meeting, Biden revealed his decision: he was sticking to August 31, in large part due to heightened security risks, noting that each day the threat level was increasing. The risk of an attack, Biden gravely told his counterparts, was “very high.”
Throughout the week, Biden never reconsidered the end-date, according to aides, who said Thursday’s terror attack only cemented his view that remaining in the country any longer would be a mistake. He dispatched CIA Director William Burns to Kabul to meet face-to-face with the top Taliban leader in a meeting one official describes as “an exchange of views on what needs to happen to be done” by August 31. His determination was that staying past then would be impossible.
On Wednesday evening, Biden spent 35 minutes huddled in intense conversation with a small group of lawmakers who’d come to the White House for a pair of bill signings, including Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat who once worked in President George W. Bush’s White House as an intelligence briefer.
After the signing, Biden invited Slotkin and a few others to stay for a “frank conversation” about the situation in Afghanistan, she said afterward — including next week’s deadline.
“It’s clear the President is deeply engaged on the situation in Kabul,” she wrote on Twitter, saying she brought up her concerns about what happens after the United States withdraws its troops next Tuesday. “We did not always agree, but the President clearly has Afghanistan at top of mind.”
Even before Thursday’s attack, Republicans had been pummeling Biden over Afghanistan, charging that a delay in evacuations in the spring had contributed to the last minute chaos.
Lawmakers had voiced frustration over the lack of information coming from the administration in recent days as its public messaging has stood in stark contrast to the reality on the ground. Earlier this week, Biden officials refused to answer questions about Burns’ meeting with the Taliban during a classified briefing on Afghanistan, with one source familiar with the closed door session calling it a “glorified press briefing.”
The briefers also would not say how many Americans were left in the country despite being repeatedly pressed for specific numbers, the source said.
After the attack, the political implications began to ripple around the Hill immediately, with GOP condemnation of Biden coming almost immediately after the first reports emerged that US service members had been injured. The calls for resignations and impeachment of Biden and his top advisers only escalated as more grim details were learned about the extent of the US casualties.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tamped down the GOP demands for Biden to leave office, but he declared on a call convened for House Republicans Thursday evening that Biden would face a “reckoning” on Afghanistan, saying it was an “absolute disgrace” that the Taliban were dictating the US withdrawal, according to a source. McCarthy’s committee leaders dashed off quick requests for agencies to preserve documents — a sign of how Republicans will make investigations into the administration’s Afghanistan decision-making one of their priorities should they retake the majority next year.
McCarthy reached out to the White House Thursday to set up a call after the attack, and the President called McCarthy back, according to a source familiar with the call, in which McCarthy pressed Biden on the Americans still in Afghanistan.
Democrats, too, have deep frustrations about how the administration handled the Afghanistan withdrawal. While most Democrats support Biden’s decision to remove US troops from the 20-year war, Democratic sources say they feel Biden’s team bungled the execution, failing to prepare for the contingency that the Afghan security forces would quickly fold. Few Democrats rushed to defend Biden publicly after this week’s attack, which did not go unnoticed in the West Wing.
Democratic sources say they don’t buy Biden’s explanation that the intel didn’t predict the Taliban’s quick rise to power, and they fault Biden’s team for delaying the evacuation of Afghan interpreters. Before Thursday’s attack, top congressional Democrats had been urging Biden to extend the August 31 deadline to withdraw US troops, saying it was obvious that there wasn’t enough time to finish evacuations by then.
“Although it is clear to me that we could not continue to put American service members in danger for an unwinnable war, I also believe that the evacuation process appears to have been egregiously mishandled,” Rep. Susan Wild, a moderate Pennsylvania Democrat, said Thursday, in one of the harshest criticisms of Biden coming from within his party.
Psaki, during her briefing on Friday, said that criticism was easily made from outside the White House.
“It is easy to throw stones or be a critic from the outside,” she said. “It is harder to be in the arena and make difficult decisions.”
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CNN’s Natasha Bertrand, Zachary Cohen and Melanie Zanona contributed to this report