President Joe Biden will break his silence Monday on the US fiasco in Afghanistan with an address to the nation from the White House, as a lightning Taliban victory sent the Democrat's domestic political fortunes reeling.
Cutting short his planned vacation, Biden helicoptered back to Washington from the Camp David presidential retreat. His speech on Afghanistan was due at 3:45 pm (1945 GMT).
A spokesman said that before returning to the White House, Biden was briefed by top national security officials on the situation at the Kabul airport and "ongoing efforts to safely evacuate American citizens, US Embassy personnel and local staff... and other vulnerable Afghans."
Through the weekend, the one-time Democratic senator, who took office with more foreign policy experience than any new president in decades, stayed hunkered down at the secluded Camp David.
As stunning images emerged from Kabul, where the frantic US evacuation echoed the 1975 fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, Biden was virtually invisible.
His only statement came in written form on Saturday, insisting that the sudden US withdrawal from Afghanistan, triggering a total Taliban takeover of the war-wracked country, had been the only possible choice.
Then as pressure mounted Sunday for Biden to demonstrate he was in charge, the White House issued a single photograph, showing the president in a polo shirt seated alone at a table while listening to advisors on a large monitor screen.
Biden was elected last year on a promise to restore expertise and responsibility to the Oval Office after the turbulent Donald Trump years.
The chaos in Afghanistan threatens to torpedo that image.
Among the many questions that Biden is under pressure to answer in his speech is how the Afghan army -- created by the United States at the cost of more than $80 billion over 20 years -- could have folded so quickly against the ragtag Taliban.
Equally, critics want to know why the administration didn't prepare better for an evacuation which on Monday was hampered by scenes of mass panic, with footage showing Afghans clinging to US military airplanes in an effort to get out.
Just a month ago, Biden confidently insisted that any similarities to the end of the Vietnam War, when people tried to cram into the last US helicopters, could never happen.
"It is not at all comparable," he said in the White House.
And on Sunday, his Secretary of State Antony Blinken told ABC: "This is manifestly not Saigon."
- Who gets the blame? -
Biden had been on a political roll until this last week.
Defying those who said Washington had become too dysfunctional for bipartisan dealmaking, Biden was celebrating the passage by the evenly divided Senate of his $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. His Democrats were starting to work on a second, mind-bogglingly ambitious $3.5 trillion bill.
And it was only a few weeks ago that Biden was congratulating Americans for their Covid vaccination rates -- a seeming victory over the coronavirus that the emerging Delta variant has now put in peril.
Like the pandemic, Afghanistan was a crisis that Biden inherited.
The US public has long lost interest in the fighting there and Trump tapped into powerful isolationist sentiment with a drive to extricate the country from "stupid" post-9/11 wars.
Unlike on most other matters, Biden agreed with his Republican predecessor.
In fact, Biden's pullout is based almost entirely on a plan set in motion by Trump himself, who ordered negotiations with the Taliban and, if reelected, had been teeing up an even earlier exit.
Now beset by accusations of incompetence and betrayal, the White House is doubling down, insisting that the chaos in Kabul is actually the best of all the bad available options, because it at least stops an unwinnable war.
"What the president was not prepared to do was to enter a third decade of conflict, throwing in thousands more troops -- which was his only other choice," National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told NBC.
"The president had to make the best possible choice he could and he stands by that decision."