SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mitt Romney says he can't think of a bigger "mess up" than the way the Biden administration has handled the evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies from Afghanistan — and that includes what happened at the end of the Vietnam War.
The Utah Republican referenced "Saving Private Ryan" as a quintessential American ideal.
"To leave before we get our Americans out and our partners in Afghanistan out is hard to contemplate and hard to square with what we are as a nation," he told the combined Deseret News and KSL editorial board Tuesday.
"I'm fearful that if we literally have to have our military out by the 31st that means we will be leaving some people behind," Romney said. "I would have far preferred saying, 'Well, we have some news for you, Taliban. We're going to be bringing over whatever number of troops it takes and if we have to go into conflict, we are not going to leave Americans and our friends behind.'"
President Joe Biden said Tuesday that the U.S. is on track to finish the evacuation by Aug. 31. He acknowledged that he does not plan to keep American troops in the country any longer even as Romney and others worry some people might not get out.
The president recognized the success of the mission will depend largely on cooperation from the Taliban. He said he's asked military leaders to be ready with contingency options to "adjust that timetable" if necessary.
"We are currently on a pace to finish by Aug. 31. I am determined to complete our mission," Biden said in a speech at the White House.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said there's "no way in the world" the U.S will get everyone out by that date.
"And with the Taliban saying, 'That is a red line for us, we will not allow you to continue the operation beyond that,' ... that is, of course, the great concern that we have right now," he said Monday on Fox News.
Romney said it is a "very sad day" when the possible outcome is leaving people behind because the United States has a long history of doing whatever it takes, "even if it results in loss of life," to save others.
"These Afghan partners of ours that have been translators and working with us, to leave them behind to be slaughtered is an extraordinary breach of trust," he said.
Romney, who opposed pulling U.S. troops from Afghanistan, said both the Biden and Trump administration share blame for the current chaotic withdrawal.
Former President Donald Trump was wrong to negotiate with the Taliban and set a date for the withdrawal at the beginning of the fighting season, Romney said. He said the Trump administration should have started processing Afghans with special visas immediately.
"President Trump negotiated from a position of weakness and President Biden is pulling out our personnel from a position of weakness as well," Romney said.
Biden, he said, should have planned the evacuation, including knowing where Americans were living and how to contact them. The administration should have established exit routes and not given up the Bagram Air Base.
"I can't think of a bigger mess up, at least during my life, and one which has led to a humanitarian disaster, which has led to the loss of credibility for America around the world, and other nations that depend on America," Romney said.
My statement on the President's decision to keep the August 31 deadline in place to withdraw from Afghanistan: pic.twitter.com/f16YWrAQOT— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) August 24, 2021
Images of Afghans trying to escape the country clinging to an Air Force cargo plane have drawn comparisons to the evacuation of Saigon after the city fell to the North Vietnamese at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese civilians clambered for seats on what became the largest helicopter evacuation in history.
Romney said there was time in Vietnam to get people out and Americans weren't left behind. The Biden administration, he said, is evacuating people "on the fly."
The mistakes so far are "astounding" and the U.S. might never regain the confidence of its allies around the world, he said.
"I don't know that we will ever restore fully the credibility lost in this debacle," Romney said.
Stewart said he agrees with Biden about the U.S. withdrawal but the execution has been a "disaster." He has called for Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to resign.
"It will literally take a generation for the U.S. to rebuild trust among our allies, particularly in the region, and, honestly, among the American people as well," he said on Fox News.
The Taliban, he said, is dictating to Biden that the U.S. will adhere to the Aug. 31 deadline.
"And, if he doesn't, they are making threats against Americans — they say that we will pay a price," he said. "That clearly indicates the potential for this to get ever worse."
President Biden's August 31 deadline is not arbitrary...— Rep. Chris Stewart (@RepChrisStewart) August 24, 2021
That's when the Taliban are demanding U.S. troops leave Kabul.
This should go without saying, but the U.S. Commander in Chief should not take orders from terrorists.
Romney said the U.S. should leave a residual force of about 5,000 troops in Afghanistan like it has in other parts of the world such as Germany, Japan and South Korea after wars. Having troops in those places stops future conflicts, he said.
"We get these political slogans that get some currency but don't have a lot of meaning. 'End the endless war.' Should we say that about the troops in South Korea? End the endless war. Bring home the troops in South Korea. Come on, guys. We're not at war in South Korea. We're there to prevent a war," Romney said.
Romney scoffed at the notion that Russia and China are sad about the U.S. leaving Afghanistan because more attention would focus on them.
"They don't look sad to me," he said. "They're using this as propaganda around the world. 'Look at America, it can't even organize getting their own people out, abandons their friends.'"