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Joe Biden under pressure as flights from Afghanistan blocked

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Joe Biden’s administration is facing mounting pressure amid reports that several hundred people, including Americans, had been prevented for a week from flying out of an airport in northern Afghanistan.

Marina LeGree, the founder and executive director of a small American NGO active in Afghanistan, said 600 to 1,300 people, including girls from her group, had been waiting near the Mazar-i-Sharif airport for as long as a week amid confusion involving the Taliban and US officials.

That number is understood to include 19 Americans, though none are with LeGree’s group. Those waiting are being housed in various places in the city, she said.

Joe Biden under pressure as NGO says flights from Afghanistan blocked

 

It’s been seven days and nothing’s moving,” LeGree told AFP, adding that six chartered planes were waiting at the airport to evacuate what some officials are calling “the NGO group”. “The Taliban are simply not letting anything move.”

Her Virginia-based organization, which trains Afghan girls in leadership through physical activities like mountain climbing, is trying to evacuate a small group of girls and young women, aged 16 to 23, and a few family members. All are Hazara, an ethnic minority in Afghanistan that faced severe repression when the Taliban last controlled the country from 1996-2001.

LeGree, who has worked in Afghanistan since 2005 for aid groups and US agencies, expressed frustration with the role of the state department in clearing the flights. The group’s departure had seemed imminent until a few days ago, when planning suddenly stopped.

A state department spokesperson said on Monday that while the US is committed to helping Americans and at-risk Afghans leave, its resources in Afghanistan are seriously limited.

“We do not have personnel on the ground, we do not have air assets in the country, we do not control the airspacewhether over Afghanistan or elsewhere in the region,” the spokesperson told AFP.

Given these constraints, we also do not have a reliable means to confirm the basic details of charter flights, including who may be organising them, the number of US citizens and other priority groups onboard, the accuracy of the rest of the manifest, and where they plan to land.

“We will hold the Taliban to its pledge to let people freely depart Afghanistan.”

Satellite images of the airport from 3 September show six aircraft, one on a runway and others outside terminal buildings.

Biden’s Republican opposition has seized on the situation, which comes at a time when his popularity has fallen sharply amid concerns about the Afghanistan evacuation and the summer’s surge in Covid-19 cases.

Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House foreign affairs committee, suggested on Sunday that the Taliban was holding the group as part of high-pressure negotiations with Washington.

But LeGree said she would not characterise the situation that way. “Nobody is guarding the door,” she said, even if her concern has grown as the days pass. “If it isn’t resolved very soon, we’re worried for the physical safety of our girls,” she said.

Eric Montalvo, a former US Marine Corps officer and a lawyer working with groups that chartered two of the six planes, said: “The Taliban is not holding these planes hostage. The problem is the US government. All the state department has to do is make a phone call and these people will be able to leave immediately.”

The US completed its military withdrawal from Afghanistan on 31 August after weeks of chaos, after the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country.

More than 120,000 people were flown out of Afghanistan in one of the largest such aerial operations in history, though US officials acknowledged having left a few hundred Americans behind along with many vulnerable Afghans.

The Biden administration has repeatedly vowed to do everything possible to help those who want to leave.

On Monday, the state department announced that four American citizens had been able to leave Afghanistan by road, arriving in an unnamed neighbouring country without any resistance from the Taliban. They were the first officially acknowledged US departures since 31 August.

Biden to revive economic campaign and promises to pivot away from Afghanistan, aides and allies say

The White House is preparing to roll out new announcements on a number of President Joe Biden’s unrealized campaign promises this fall, even as Congress works to advance the president’s dual infrastructure proposals in hopes of final passage.

White House officials did not dispute that a number of Biden’s economic campaign promises, including pledges to alleviate student loan debt and installing a first-time homebuyer tax credit, were not included in the bipartisan or budget reconciliation infrastructure packages, which combined would account for nearly $5 trillion in new spending initiatives.

Those officials stressed to the Washington Examiner that “the president and his whole team are proud of and are fighting for the substance of his Build Back Better agenda, which is fully paid for by asking big corporations and the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share and by empowering Medicare to negotiate lower prices with pharmaceutical companies.”

“We need to cut prescription drug costs, take on climate change, and help families afford childcare, care for older Americans, and education; and extend the biggest middle class tax cut in American history,” one official explained in a statement. “Think of all the ways that will cut costs for families. And importantly, Build Back Better and the bipartisan infrastructure bill will reduce inflation by making our economy more efficient, making it easier to move goods, and making it easier to enter the labor force — without adding to the deficit.”

The official maintained that “these are complex processes, but as recent weeks have demonstrated, leaders in Congress and the president know how to move them forward.”

However, both senior Democratic and Republican officials suggested to the Washington Examiner that while the administration would always have continued to push Biden’s unrealized campaign pledges, the White House is urgently looking for new narratives to focus on following America’s Afghan troop withdrawal and the humanitarian evacuation that ensued.

Just look at the polling on the president’s agenda. The majority of Americans approve of his economic proposals, especially the family care provisions,” one Democratic strategist wrote. “Now look at the president’s own approval numbers after Kabul fell. It’s kind of obvious what the White House would rather be talking about.”

A veteran Democratic congressional aide stated that “when messaging around progressive economic ideas, the White House knows exactly where the battle lines are drawn.”

Democratic leadership will line up behind Biden and whip the necessary votes. Meanwhile, you can expect Republicans to basically fall into lockstep opposition,” the aide continued. “But on Afghanistan, you’re seeing members from both parties criticizing Biden’s handling of a situation. Democratic senators are calling for hearings. That’s not a winnable battle.”

A senior GOP aide also stated that Republicans will do everything they can to keep the media focused on Afghanistan, but waved off the strategy as political sabotage.

This isn’t about hamstringing Biden’s socialist policies, although there is a double-sided benefit there,” the aide told the Washington Examiner. “The American people were lied to for 20 years about what was happening in Afghanistan. Now that the war is over, they deserve to know the truth.”

Since the fall of Kabul, the Biden administration has announced a number of new economic initiatives.

On Aug. 19, the Department of Education waived all student debt for payees with permanent disabilities. The measure impacted nearly 400,000 individuals with nearly $6 billion combined in student debt.

We’ve heard loud and clear from borrowers with disabilities and advocates about the need for this change, and we are excited to follow through on it,” Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement accompanying the announcement. “This change reduces red tape with the aim of making processes as simple as possible for borrowers who need support.”

The White House also took new action to expand affordable housing, a core Biden-campaign promise, on Wednesday.

“The large and long-standing gap between the supply and demand of affordable homes for both renters and homeowners makes it harder for families to buy their first home and drives up the cost of rent. Higher housing costs also crowd out other investments families can and should make to improve their lives, such as investments in education,” White House officials said in a statement at the time. “President Biden is committed to using every tool available in government to produce more affordable housing supply as quickly as possible, and to make supply available to families in need of affordable, quality housing — rather than to large investors.”

Specifically, those actions relaunched the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Risk Sharing Program and the Federal Financing Bank, boosting the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Investment Cap offered by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and allocate Capital Magnet Fund money for Affordable Housing Production and Community Development Financial Institutions.

Biden himself also lobbied heavily for both the infrastructure bills and his economic proposals from the White House on Friday.

“We’re going to pass these measures. We’re going to build an economy from the bottom up and the middle out, not from the top down,” the president reiterated in televised remarks. “Just think about it: Throughout our history, when the middle class has done well, when it prospers, has there ever been a time the wealthy and corporate America doesn’t do well? I can’t think of one.”

“We have to put ourselves on track to accomplish extraordinary things: a strong, inclusive, historic economic growth; landmark investments to create even more good jobs and deliver breathing room to millions of families; a giant step forward in the fight against climate change — the crisis made more evident than ever by the death and destruction caused by extreme weather just these past few days,” he continued. “My agenda, I believe, is one that every American, if they understand it, they can get behind. And because of the work we’ve all put in, not just here in Washington, but in communities across the country, every one of those goals is now within our reach.”

Biden’s standing among Americans nosedives in wake of rocky Afghanistan exit, COVID surge

Biden’s approval underwater in surveys following turbulent Afghanistan withdrawal, delta variant-fueled COVID spike
As Labor Day marks the traditional close to summer, President Biden’s poll numbers are taking a hit.

Facing a barrage of bipartisan criticism for weeks over his handling of the turbulent U.S. withdrawal and evacuation from Afghanistan, and with a surge in new COVID cases due to the spread across the country this summer of the highly infectious delta variant, the president’s approval ratings are slipping.

Biden’s approval rating hovered in the low to mid 50s since taking office in late January. But his numbers started sliding last month, as the crisis in Afghanistan dominated media coverage and mask mandates started returning in certain spots across the country as coronavirus cases rose.

The president stands at 45%-49% approval/disapproval in an average of the latest surveys compiled by RealClearPolitics, and at 46%-48% in a compilation by the polling and analysis website FiveThirtyEight.

Forty-four percent of Americans questioned in an ABC News/Washington Post poll released this weekend said they approved of the job Biden’s doing in the White House, down six points from June. Just over half of those polled (51%) gave the president a thumbs-down on how he’s handling his duties, a jump of nine points from June.

Gary Langer, the longtime director of polling at ABC News, highlighted that in data dating back to the Harry Truman administration, “only two presidents have had a lower approval rating at this point in their terms: Donald Trump, at 37% in August 2017, and Gerald Ford, also 37%, in March 1975.”

The ABC News/Washington Post poll, conducted Aug. 29-Sept 1, is among the latest national surveys to indicate that the rocky exit from Afghanistan, ending a two-decade U.S. military presence in the war-torn Central Asian country, is taking a toll on the president’s political standing.

The poll’s release followed by a day an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist national survey that indicated Biden at 43%-51%, the president’s lowest approval in Marist polling since taking office. The president stood at 46%-48% in an Ipsos national survey conducted Sept. 1-2.

Marist Poll director Lee Miringoff highlighted last week that “the end of this chapter of American involvement in Afghanistan has taken a significant toll on Biden’s standing with Americans.”

Similar to the Marist poll, the drop in Biden’s overall approval rating in the ABC News/Washington Post survey was fueled by a 14-point plunge in support among independents since late June and a significant slip among Democrats, from 94% approval to 86%. Republican disapproval of Biden – at 89% – was little changed from June.

Biden has been pilloried for his handling of the hastily organized evacuation efforts in Afghanistan. While the president has repeatedly declared the withdrawal and evacuation a successthe U.S. airlifted roughly 120,000 people, including more than 5,500 Americans, after the fall of Kabul through the end of August – he’s been accused by Republicans and some Democrats for underestimating the Taliban and overestimating the strength of the now-collapsed, U.S.-backed Afghan government and military.

Biden’s approval of handling the situation in Afghanistan stood at 30%-60% in the ABC News/Washington Post poll. Among the vast majority of Americans questioned in the survey who supported the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, by a two-to-one margin they disapproved of the way the president handled the withdrawal.

And with serious concerns that ISIS or al Qaeda may use the war-torn Central Asian country as a platform to launch terrorist attacks on the U.S. mainland or U.S. forces overseas, 44% say the withdrawal made America less safe from terrorism. Just eight percent said the U.S. is safer as a result of the Afghanistan exit.

Biden touted his foreign policy prowess and his competence in running an administration as he challenged former President Trump in the 2020 election. And while the chaotic exit from Afghanistan is the major culprit in the president’s approval rating plunge, it’s not the only issue that’s fueling the fall.

One of the issues that vaulted Biden to the presidency was the coronavirus, the worst pandemic to sweep the globe in a century. Biden vowed to do what Trump seemingly couldn’t do – get COVID cases under control, bring back a sense of normalcy to Americans and boost an economy that was severely battered by the pandemic.

But the late-summer COVID surge due to the Delta variant is another gut punch to the president. Biden’s approval rating on handling the coronavirus in the new ABC News/Washington Post poll stands at 52%-41%. The president’s approval is down 10 points from June, when Biden stood at 62%-31%.

 

And with rising consumer prices this summer raising economic concerns, the president has also seen his approval on the economy slip, from 52%-41% in an ABC News/Washington Post poll in April to 45%-49%. The poll was conducted before Friday’s dismal unemployment report, which was another key indicator that the spread of the delta variant is hampering the economic recovery.