White House seeks to regain control on Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (thehill): The White House is trying to regain control of the narrative on Afghanistan by staging more public appearances for President Biden and highlighting the way in which evacuations have ramped up significantly over the past week.

As of Tuesday, Biden had delivered three speeches in five days on the evacuation efforts and twice took questions from reporters. White House press briefings restarted this week following a brief hiatus, with national security adviser Jake Sullivan appearing alongside press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday. Senior officials have also been dispatched to appear on leading cable news programs.

Daily and sometimes twice daily, the White House has sent updates to reporters on the numbers of individuals evacuated from Afghanistan, with the highest tally in a 24-hour period recorded Monday as U.S. military flights transported 12,700 people out. All of this comes in addition to regular State Department and Pentagon briefings during which officials offer updates on the evacuation effort.

The full-court press comes as Biden has endured harsh criticism, including from some Democrats, for how his administration handled the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The president spent the early days of the withdrawal after Kabul fell to the Taliban at Camp David, prompting criticism he was away from Washington, D.C., at a pivotal time.

Last week, the widespread impression was also that Biden officials were caught flat footed by the speed at which the Taliban overran the war-torn country.

“They’re definitely trying to regain some control over the narrative,” said one Democratic strategist close to the White House. “This past week was a bit of a nightmare situation.”

The first six months of the Biden administration were largely defined by a projection of competence from the White House, as career officials worked to clearly communicate government guidance on the pandemic; work alongside Congress to pass an economic stimulus package; and bring back D.C. norms like bipartisan meetings and daily press briefings that were jettisoned under former President Trump.

Afghanistan threatened to shatter that trust, and it had provoked worries in Democratic circles.

“It’s pretty clear they had to rebuild their trust with the public and regain their footing but it appears they are doing that,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “Obviously it would have been good if they had done this at the time of the Taliban offensive but they recovered and figured out their best message and their best communicators. They made the best of a bad situation. They’ve recovered pretty well.”

Biden on Tuesday sought to project confidence in the administration’s ability to complete the mission while also acknowledging the risks to troops on the ground.

“The sooner we can finish the better. Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops,” he said.

Part of the problem for the White House, some Democrats say, has been that officials didn’t prepare the public for the current state of affairs. Polls have consistently shown broad public approval for withdrawing from Afghanistan.

“I think most Americans believed that we should have pulled out,” said Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist and guest lecturer at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. “What I think has been problematic is that the president, the administration did not necessarily prime the voters prior to the withdrawal about what they should expect.”

Officials, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, have said that assessments did not anticipate the Afghan government would collapse so quickly.

Biden and members of his team have also faced criticism for refusing to engage with the idea that the withdrawal has been chaotic or was poorly executed in the early stages, when images circulated of massive crowds around the airport and Afghans clinging to a military plane as it rolled down the runway.

Former officials say the administration is wise to be putting Biden front and forward on the issue.

“It’s certainly better that the president is at the White House in the Situation Room briefing and that there is an effort to obviously deal with a massive mess that they created,” said Brett Bruen, a former Obama administration official who has been critical of the Biden administration’s handling of Afghanistan.

Yet Bruen also said a defensiveness on the part of Biden and his team has not been helpful.

“But I have to say, it’s also not helpful from a communications standpoint that they’re just not acknowledging a whole array of errors. In some ways it harkens back to Trump. I think a lot of people are having flashbacks to this refusal to acknowledge some of the basic facts and realities,” he said.

Eric Schultz, a spokesman under President Obama, argued that the media criticism of the withdrawal has been unfairly harsh and that the White House is doing the best it can to message a challenging situation.

“Whenever you have a complicated foreign policy operation, it’s going to be challenging to communicate about it in the domestic political environment and this situation is more complex than most. But the most important thing they can be doing is going out and making their case, which they have been,” Schultz said.

He pointed to regular cable appearances by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Sullivan and others.

Still, even staunch supporters of the Biden’s questioned the response and the administration’s inability to get on the offensive.

“It’s been very sloppy,” said one Democratic donor in touch with the White House. “The execution was particularly poor. There’s nothing more I can say about it.”

As flights out of Kabul have ramped up, the sheer number of evacuees has become a major focus for White House officials looking to amplify the progress amid reports of gunfire at Kabul’s international airport and poor conditions at overseas facilities housing Afghan refugees. Still, the U.S. is likely to leave thousands of Afghans behind as Biden sticks to plans to withdraw troops by Aug. 31.

The entire White House press shop has taken to tweeting out from their official accounts the latest updates on evacuation totals each time they are shared with reporters, flooding social media with coordinated messages touting the progress in getting Americans and Afghan allies out of Kabul.

White House chief of staff Ron Klain, who frequently uses Twitter to amplify favorable messages or offer his own perspective, has shared posts criticizing the media coverage and declaring the mission a success. He recently retweeted a message likening the current evacuation operation to the Berlin airlift and also shared a message from Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) calling for “a bit of a reassessment by the media of this operation given the actual results.”

“This is the best run evacuation from a war America lost,” MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell tweeted in a message shared by Klain to his nearly 500,000 followers.

Decisions by Biden to take questions at the conclusion of public addresses have had mixed results. Biden, who didn’t take questions following Tuesday’s speech, has shown that he’s able to field tough questions, but some of his assertions last week were inaccurate or contradicted by reporting on the ground.

Fox News anchor Chris Wallace subsequently pressed Blinken on Biden’s assertions during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” asking him why Biden had said things that are “flat out wrong.”

 “He doesn’t always need to be the messenger. I think he should allow the experts to step forward a little bit more to explain to the country what is happening on the ground,” said Smikle. “He needs to look like the executive and not the spokesperson.”

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