White House to media: we want our props on Afghanistan

“It’s not a changing message. This is the transition, this is what is happening on the ground. It’s a change of circumstances, ”said Philippe Reines, a longtime Hillary Clinton aide who worked in the State Department under the Obama administration and alongside some of Biden’s foreign policy hands.

The administration, starting with Secretary of State Tony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, said Reines, has been working “at an incredible pace” to bring the situation under control.

“They are in this phase where it is unclear,” he said. “You don’t come home before 11 o’clock, you get up at 5 o’clock. You are facing a significant jet lag. It’s a shock to the system, you don’t have a period to decompress and think for a while.

The White House’s new stance comes as U.S. personnel scramble to expel U.S. citizens and Afghan officials before the last U.S. troops leave the country on August 31. In the past 10 days, Biden said on Tuesday, the United States had evacuated 70,700 people. and over 75,000 since July. All of this happened amid confusion over the troop withdrawal deadline and reports of a blocked entry at Kabul airport following the rapid takeover of the country by the Taliban.

“We are moving thousands of people every day out of Afghanistan and to safety, in what is one of the largest airlifts in world history,” a senior administration official said Tuesday at the meeting. ‘a briefing with journalists.

Armed with the number of evacuations, aides and allies have gone from feeling under siege to galvanized, turning to social media and the airwaves to voice grievances over the media coverage they have had in private since the start of the crisis, and to argue that the White House’s accomplishments should get more credit and attention. They noted that evacuation figures exceed estimates initially issued by the administration and that the press said it was possible.

“In fact, it didn’t take 2 weeks to evacuate 50,000. It took 10 days,” Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) Tweeted in response to a CNN reporter questioning the capacity of the United States to evacuate 50,000 people in two weeks. “A lot of work remains to be done, but it might be time to do a bit of media reassessment of this operation given the actual results.”

Among those who have played the most aggressive game to reshape media coverage of the current situation in Afghanistan is White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, who took to Twitter to amplify the praise the president and the army’s evacuation efforts. He retweeted Murphy’s comment as well as MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell calling it “America’s best escape from a lost war”. It also shed light on lesser-known figures including RT-ing, a retired IBM executive who compared the current mission to the Berlin Airlift, the post-war operation that was one from largest humanitarian aid missions in history.

Picking up the theme later on Tuesday, the Democratic National Committee issued a press release titled, “President Biden Defies Expectations (Again), Delivers Results in Afghanistan.”

For critics of the administration, and neutral foreign policy observers also, the evacuation efforts are laudatory but do not lessen their criticism of the botched end of a 20-year war. If the president had planned the pullout more carefully, they note, he wouldn’t need to rush out to bring out U.S. citizens and allied Afghans now. And if he wants to stick to his August 31 deadline, they warn, he’ll likely leave thousands behind.

“In reiterating that he will end US evacuation operations before the August 31 deadline, he communicated a message to those most at risk in Afghanistan: ‘This White House’s preferred policy option is to abandon you. to your fate, ”said Paul O’Brien. , executive director of Amnesty International USA. “Right now, the Taliban are stalking and targeting people because of their beliefs, associations or identity, gender, religious affiliation, ethnic and linguistic group. “

For Biden’s defenders, however, the evacuation looks like a truly concrete achievement and underscores a new reality that deserves wider recognition: After coming under heavy criticism over the collapse of Kabul, the president now has a success story. to tell.

“The nature of the withdrawal has undermined American prestige, particularly in Europe where it is seen as a total and quite shocking debacle. And it will be difficult to recover from it,” said a foreign policy official who has been in contact with the administration. . But, added the agent, “I don’t think [the current] the spin is wrong.

“Tuesday of last week, it looked like the Taliban was going to start murdering people anytime,” the agent added. “It looked like a total, total disaster… people are going to be left behind. But we get tens of thousands of people and it looks a lot better.”

To that end, the revised White House PR campaign not only aimed to strengthen Biden’s position nationally, but also attempted to restore global confidence in the United States, two former diplomats said. Notably, Biden has repeatedly highlighted his conversations with world leaders and international bodies in recent days – after not speaking to any foreign leaders in the hours following the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.

Yet there is an inherent danger in the administration’s efforts to portray the evacuation as a historic and shattering success. As Biden himself admitted on Tuesday, the situation around the airport is unpredictable, with Taliban leaders insisting that US forces leave no later than the 31st and the threat of an attack by the terrorist group ISIS-K persists. . And in talking points the White House sent to fellow Democrats on Tuesday night, the same point was made.

“With each day of operations on the ground, we have increased the risk to our troops with increasing threats from IS-K, and that the completion of the mission by August 31 depends on continued coordination with the Taliban, including continued access by evacuees to the airport. “

But for Democrats who felt under siege last week, Biden’s new message – even acknowledging the risks – is a welcome tactic.

“They’re not trying to coat anything,” said Josh Schwerin, a Democratic strategist. “It’s the truth and it’s refreshing – even when it’s bad news.”

Sam Stein contributed to this report.

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