- The Washington Times - Monday, August 23, 2021

The Taliban on Monday threatened violence against any American troops who remain in Kabul past Aug. 31, while President Biden faced questions about whether the U.S. could or should be aiding thousands of Afghan resistance fighters now preparing for their own potentially bloody showdown with Taliban insurgents.

The two developments renewed pressure on a White House already up against withering criticism over its hasty Afghanistan withdrawal and the chaotic scramble it created to evacuate tens of thousands of civilian personnel and Afghan allies from the hard-line Islamist group now ruling the country.

Mr. Biden over the weekend expressed an “unwavering commitment” that U.S. forces would stay at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul as long as it takes to complete that mission, even if it means remaining in Afghanistan past his self-imposed Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline.

But the Taliban‘s tolerance for the American presence and rescue mission has already worn thin. Top leaders of the militant group made clear Monday that they expect Mr. Biden to stick to his original timetable and warned of “consequences” if he does not.

“It’s a red line. President Biden announced that on 31 August they would withdraw all their military forces. So if they extend it that means they are extending occupation while there is no need for that,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in an interview with Sky News. “If the U.S. or U.K. were to seek additional time to continue evacuations, the answer is no. Or there would be consequences.”

However, several Democratic lawmakers emerged from a Monday evening briefing skeptical that such a deadline could be met. Rep. Adam Schiff, California Democrat and House intelligence panel chairman, said he thinks “it’s very unlikely.”

“Given the number of Americans who still need to be evacuated, the number of [Special Immigrant Visa holders], the number of others who are members of the Afghan press, civil society leaders, women leaders. It’s hard for me to imagine all of that can be accomplished between now and the end of the month,” Mr. Schiff added.

Troops under fire

The evacuation mission at the Kabul airport is growing increasingly dangerous. U.S. forces are operating inside the airport while Taliban fighters run checkpoints on the streets around the facility, often aggressively managing crowds trying to reach the entrances.

Elements of the former U.S.-trained Afghan military were also involved. Although the military collapsed as the Taliban took over Kabul last week, a small contingent of Afghan security forces remained to assist the U.S. military-run mission inside the airport.

U.S. and Afghan troops early Monday engaged in a shootout with a man who opened fire on forces guarding the airport entrance, Pentagon officials said. At least one member of the Afghan security forces was killed.

“The incident appeared to begin when an unknown hostile actor fired upon Afghan security forces involved in monitoring access to the gate,” Navy Capt. William Urban, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said in a statement. “The Afghans returned fire, and in keeping with their right of self-defense, so too did U.S. and coalition troops.”

It’s not clear whether the gunman was a member of the Islamic State group or another terrorist organization. The State Department warned Americans in Kabul over the weekend to stay away from the airport because of threats from Islamic State affiliates operating in Afghanistan.

Against that chaotic backdrop, the U.S. has dramatically ramped up the pace of evacuations. Over a roughly 24-hour period from Sunday to Monday, about 10,400 people flew out of Kabul aboard U.S. military flights. Thousands more were evacuated on non-U.S. aircraft.

It appears the vast majority of the evacuees are not Americans. Citing a government document it obtained, Yahoo News on Monday reported that only about 3,300 Americans had been flown out of Afghanistan since the evacuation effort began Aug. 15.

Pentagon officials did not confirm that number Monday but said “several thousand” Americans had been evacuated.

The Biden administration also has struggled to offer a clear estimate of exactly how many Americans are still in Afghanistan. Pentagon officials said about 37,000 people had been evacuated since the mission began.

The rapid pace Monday stood in stark contrast with the scene a week ago, when mobs of Afghans clung to the side of an American C-17 as it tried to take off and large crowds on the tarmac temporarily shut down all flights. Biden administration officials say communication between the U.S. and Taliban officials has led to a more stable scene at the airport.

“What we’ve seen is this deconfliction has worked well in terms of allowing access and flow as well as reducing the overall size of the crowds just outside the airport,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday.

Indeed, the U.S. evacuation effort relies heavily on cooperation from the Taliban, which is operating numerous checkpoints outside the airport perimeter.

But it appears that some Americans can’t reach the airport. Mr. Kirby on Monday confirmed a second instance in which U.S. troops used helicopters to rescue Americans trapped elsewhere in Kabul.

He did not provide details on the operation or how many Americans were rescued. During the first such mission last week, at least 169 Americans were flown into the airport by helicopter from a hotel just outside the outer security walls.

‘A shot worth taking’

While Afghan civilians swarm the Kabul airport, thousands of Afghan resistance fighters have converged north of Kabul in Afghanistan‘s Panjshir Valley, which has become the headquarters for a well-organized anti-Taliban movement.

Regional experts say the resistance fighters represent Afghanistan‘s last hope to avoid a second round of full-blown Taliban rule. Analysts caution that the resistance fighters face steep odds of taking down a Taliban army now equipped with a cache of captured U.S. military equipment.

“It’s a long shot, but it’s certainly a shot worth taking,” Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Washington Times on Monday.

Mr. Roggio, who closely tracks the war in Afghanistan, estimated that the anti-Taliban forces could number as high as 10,000.

The growing resistance movement is led by Amrullah Saleh, who served as Afghanistan‘s vice president until the U.S.-backed government in Kabul collapsed two weeks ago. Another key player is Ahmad Massoud, whose father fought the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s and later joined the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

Mr. Saleh, who remained in the country when President Ashraf Ghani fled during the Taliban‘s advance on Kabul, now claims to be Afghanistan‘s acting president.

If the Biden administration wanted to aid the anti-Taliban movement, then formally recognizing Mr. Saleh as the Afghan president would be a concrete first step, Mr. Roggio said.

“If we had a government that actually wanted to help the Afghan people not live under the Taliban, first of all, we would have never done what we did” with the chaotic withdrawal, he said. “But if we did … we would have recognized Saleh as the president, as the legitimate president of Afghanistan. We would honor treaty obligations, provide him with access to the funds of the Afghan government that are currently frozen. They would provide him with whatever they could to keep his forces in the field.”

But Mr. Roggio acknowledged that there is “zero political will” in the U.S. for such an effort.

“I recognize these are options no one wants,” he said.

The White House National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment on whether the administration was considering any formal recognition or support for resistance fighters.

Meanwhile, anti-Taliban forces early Monday claimed to have taken control of three districts in Afghanistan‘s Andarab Valley.

The Taliban claimed later in the day to have retaken the areas. Taliban officials have said they are hoping for a “peaceful solution” to the standoff between the two sides.

Mike Glenn contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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