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Week In Politics: President Biden Defends Decision On Afghanistan

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And in Washington, D.C., yesterday, far away from those agonizing and chaotic scenes at the airport in Kabul, President Biden again defended his decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan and shut down the embassy. However, for the first time, he took questions, and here's how the president replied to NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow, who pressed him on why these evacuations didn't take place before the troop drawdown and before the Taliban took control.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The overwhelming consensus was that - this was not - they were not going to collapse, the Afghan forces. They were not going to leave. They were not going to just abandon, put down their arms and take off. So that's what's happened.

SIMON: The president, to ultimately set those recent events in motion, also expressed sympathy with the people of Afghanistan and described the images we all see now as gut-wrenching. NPR senior correspondent Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: The president says, so that's what happened - no wavering from the president.

ELVING: Not really. He said again that the buck stops here. He said he made the decision, said he relied on what he called this overwhelming consensus that we'd have time to get all these people out. Now, it's not clear there was such a consensus. It may exist in the same realm as the notion that there were 300,000 Afghan soldiers ready and willing to fight the Taliban. At this point, the U.S. is simply not calling the shots in Kabul, not even to the extent we ever really did. The Taliban can control who gets to the airport, and they don't mind how bad this makes the U.S. look as we leave. And it's not going to stop soon. It will be a long-running disaster. We can't call it anything else.

SIMON: The president says the buck stops here. He takes responsibility for his actions, but there will be consequences others will bear.

ELVING: The buck does stop with Biden in terms of accountability, but not in terms of consequences. There will be consequences for the president's party, which has a lot of issues hanging fire and has to defend historically narrow margins in Congress next year. Now, that may not be fair in a political sense, given the way former President Trump cut his own deal with the Taliban 18 months ago, ignoring the Afghan government and promising we would get out. But we're not seeing that on TV this morning, are we? What is on TV is the suffering of Afghan people. And that will continue, and it will be televised.

So forget who's actually responsible for where we are. Biden is president. It's his watch. He takes the heat for it at a time he'd much rather be talking about the war at home, if you will - the fight against COVID, the need to get people vaccinated and to beat back this idea that taking the pandemic seriously is somehow a personal option. But for now, it's all about Kabul, Scott.

SIMON: There seems to be a perceptible rift within the Republicans about taking in more Afghan refugees. Some, like the governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, said, of course, more would be welcome. And yet, you have other Republican voices - I think of Wisconsin Representative Tom Tiffany - saying that that might be a threat to national security.

ELVING: Yes. And you have such people as Tucker Carlson and some of the other Fox News personalities already questioning whether or not we want large numbers of Afghan refugees coming here. You know, Scott, in 1975, when Saigon fell and the Vietnam War ended, Republican President Gerald Ford made sure that there were more than 100,000 and more Southeast Asians who could come to the United States and become citizens of the United States. And as I'm sure you know, that population has long since become part of the American immigrant success story.

SIMON: Quickly, House come back next week - $3.5 trillion infrastructure package passes.

ELVING: That's number one. That's the first thing they have to do. And, you know, that got through the Senate on Democratic votes alone. So Speaker Pelosi needs all her House Democrats together on this. And right now, they're not all together on this. So it's going to take all her powers and all her skills.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.