- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Biden administration launched a full-court press Thursday to convince allies and warn adversaries that the U.S. will remain engaged in Afghanistan moving forward, even as the U.S. and its NATO allies begin preparations to last Western troops from the country after two decades of war.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a surprise trip to Kabul to sell skeptical Afghan leaders on President Biden’s controversial plan to end the longest war in U.S. history by Sept. 11 and to assure them that while America is backing away militarily, it is not abandoning the nation as it battles an increasingly aggressive Islamist insurgency.

“We’ll intensify our diplomacy with the government of Afghanistan, the Taliban, countries in the region and around the world that have a stake in Afghanistan’s future. We’ll stand with the Afghan people, including through economic investment and development assistance, as they work toward a more prosperous future,” Mr. Blinken said during a press conference in Kabul. “We’ll continue to support civil society and to advocate for equal rights for women, including their meaningful participation in the ongoing negotiations and their equal representation throughout society.”

“The United States will remain Afghanistan’s steadfast partner. We want the Afghan people, countries in the region, and the international community to know that fact,” he said.

The secretary of state met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and other top Afghan officials during the trip, and also spoke to diplomatic staff at the U.S. embassy, many of whom will continue their mission even after all 2,500-plus American troops — along with another 7,500 NATO forces from dozens of other nations — exit the country by the fall.



Mr. Ghani, meanwhile, said his government is “adjusting our priorities” in light of the U.S. and NATO decisions. The Afghan leader also has stressed that he believes his nation’s security forces — which have received years of training from the American military — will be capable of fending off Taliban insurgents without foreign backing.

Back in the U.S., many critics disagree. A host of Republican lawmakers, for example, fear the Taliban will quickly defeat Afghan security forces and the country eventually will once again become a safe haven for terrorist groups such as al Qaeda. The U.S. invasion 20 years ago drove the Taliban from power in Kabul precisely because they allowed Osama bin Laden to establish an outpost in the country.

Pentagon officials said this week they will reorganize counterterrorism capabilities to ensure extremists can’t plot terrorist attacks from Afghan soil, while the White House insisted that the U.S. still has plenty of tools at its disposal.

“We believe we have the means to keep our eye on any terrorist threats or any sign of al Qaeda’s resurgence without having a persistent footprint on the ground,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.

But the Taliban appears ready to ramp up violence across Afghanistan even before U.S. troops leave. Leaders of the Islamic insurgent group on Thursday again warned that American forces will become targets after May 1, the original deadline for a U.S. military withdrawal laid out by former President Donald Trump in a deal he struck with the Taliban in February 2020.

Mr. Biden has chosen to disregard that deadline, potentially setting up another round of clashes during America’s final weeks in Afghanistan.

“Now as the agreement is being breached by America, it in principle opens the way for the Mujahideen of Islamic Emirate to take every necessary countermeasure, hence the American side will be held responsible for all future consequences, and not the Islamic Emirate,” the Taliban said in a statement on its official website.

Some foreign policy analysts, however, believe the Taliban could hold its fire for now and allow the U.S. and NATO to exit without further bloodshed.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, said that a likely scenario going forward is that “the Taliban grumbles and blusters about the U.S. staying on beyond May 1 but it refrains from attacks [on] U.S. forces.”

“Instead it simply waits out the U.S. until it’s gone,” he told reporters on a conference call. “It intensifies its battlefield activities in order to strengthen its bargaining position in talks with the Afghan government so that it can push for the types of concessions that it would want, like the restoration of an Islamic system of government. And then it enters talks with the government and sees what it can get, and if it gets the major concessions that it seeks, it will keep pushing on with negotiations.”

The U.S.-Taliban peace deal, signed in February 2020, calls for direct talks between the Afghan government and Taliban, though so far those negotiations have not led to a lasting cease-fire or power-sharing arrangement.

 — Guy Taylor contributed to this report.

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