‘This Is Actually Happening’

But by Thursday morning in Washington, more population centers were falling to the Taliban by the hour, including the provincial capitals of Ghazni and Badghis.

In the Situation Room, Austin was now recommending that Biden send in troops to evacuate the embassy and protect the main international airport in Kabul. Sullivan asked each Cabinet member in the meeting to weigh in. They unanimously agreed.

That was the “oh, shit” moment, said the U.S. official. It was now officially a crisis.

Sullivan walked into the Oval Office just before 10 a.m. to report to the president. Biden picked up the phone and told Austin to send in the prepositioned troops.

Across Washington, Congress was also growing increasingly alarmed by the deteriorating situation. In some cases, lawmakers took it upon themselves to learn more about what was happening, absent guidance from the Biden administration.

A day earlier, as the Senate shifted to an hours-long, overnight series of votes on a top domestic agenda item for Biden, senators spearheading the effort were pulled out of meetings and off of the Senate floor where they were briefed on disturbing reports coming out of Afghanistan. Some of those terrifying stories and images began to emerge in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, when senators remained on the floor past 4 a.m.

One of the few lawmakers actively talking about the Afghanistan developments at the time was Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a longtime advocate for withdrawing U.S. troops. He had taken to the Senate floor on Tuesday to pre-emptively defend Biden and assert that the Taliban’s surge was in fact a reason to stay the course with the pullout.

“The complete, utter failure of the Afghan National Army, absent our hand-holding, to defend their country is a blistering indictment of a failed 20-year strategy predicated on the belief that billions of U.S taxpayer dollars could create an effective, democratic central government in a nation that has never had one,” Murphy said.

Lawmakers began discussing the Taliban’s gains among themselves on the Senate floor late into Wednesday, but neither party allowed it to overshadow their economic policy efforts.

Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), the first Green Beret to serve in Congress and one of the earliest and loudest voices pushing for evacuations of Afghan allies, was in constant communication with officials tied to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Even as the Taliban were taking huge swaths of territory by Wednesday, Waltz said Afghan forces believed “they could turn it around” as long as the U.S. kept providing air support.

That support wasn’t enough as the Afghan military laid down their arms en masse. In an interview, Waltz described the tepid air support as “putting a band-aid on a sucking chest wound.”

Later on Thursday, around lunchtime, a White House official called Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), a member of the Armed Services and Intelligence committees, to provide an update on the deteriorating situation.

Crow, a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan, was among a bipartisan group of lawmakers that had been urging the Biden administration for months to move faster to evacuate Afghans who assisted the U.S. war effort.

Both Crow and Waltz believed by then that, absent a dramatic acceleration of the evacuations, it was unlikely that the U.S. would be able to safely take every American and Afghan ally out of the country before Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline.

By Thursday evening, the Pentagon announced that 3,000 additional troops were being rushed in to secure Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport and help get the remaining Americans, as well as Afghan and NATO allies, safely out of the country.

“Kabul is not right now in an imminent threat environment, but clearly … if you just look at what the Taliban has been doing, you can see that they are trying to isolate,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters.

Biden had weeks earlier approved all of Austin’s recommendations to position naval assets and thousands of troops in the region in case of an evacuation, including the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and three infantry battalions.

But almost immediately, it became clear it wouldn’t be enough.

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