President Biden is set to meet with Afghanistan‘s top political leaders in Washington on Friday even as Taliban insurgents score major battlefield gains and the embattled government in Kabul warns of a looming civil war.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, who chairs Afghanistan‘s High Council for National Reconciliation and is leading government negotiations with the Taliban, will visit the White House for a meeting that the administration says is designed to “highlight the enduring partnership” between the nations.
It is a fraught time for the meeting, as U.S. and NATO military forces are hastily withdrawing from Afghanistan after two decades of war. Mr. Biden imposed a Sept. 11 deadline, but the withdrawal is on track to be completed much earlier despite growing signs that Afghan security forces are ill-equipped to fend off a highly motivated and emboldened Taliban army.
Making matters much worse is that the Islamist insurgency is rebuilding its alliance with al Qaeda while capturing more Afghan territory. Under the peace deal it struck with President Trump last year, the Taliban vowed to break ties with outside terrorist groups in exchange for the U.S. military exit. But recent Pentagon and United Nations reports have concluded that the relationship is alive and growing.
“Both the Trump and now Biden administrations have a terminal case of wishful thinking when it comes to Afghanistan,” said former Defense Department official Michael Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who studies Afghanistan extensively.
“For the intelligence community and the White House to ignore that the Taliban relationship with al Qaeda remains deep is to put America at risk,” he said. “The Taliban have never compromised with opponents whom they have considered weak. Obama, Trump and Biden have collectively turned America from pit bull to poodle on the world stage.”
Mr. Rubin dubbed Friday’s meeting “the last hurrah” for the U.S. and an Afghan government that seems dangerously close to collapse. Such an outcome would represent a foreign policy disaster for Mr. Biden, who faced intense pushback from lawmakers for his decision to withdraw. Some key military officials privately opposed the move, especially given the growing evidence that the Taliban had little intention to break with Islamic extremist organizations and appeared intent on reestablishing the repressive “Islamic emirate” regime it oversaw before a U.S.-led coalition ousted it in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Beyond the political blowback for Mr. Biden, an Afghanistan back in the hands of the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies could be a major security risk to the U.S. and its allies. Even an unstable and ungovernable Afghanistan provides tempting openings for neighboring powers — including Russia, Iran, China and Pakistan — to shape an outcome to their benefit.
The pessimistic projections seem increasingly probable given the course of events since Mr. Biden announced the unconditional withdrawal.
This week, Taliban fighters took control of key districts in the Kunduz, Baghlan and Balkh provinces, along with rapid gains elsewhere in the country. Dozens of districts have fallen in the two months after Mr. Biden‘s announcement.
The Taliban now control more districts than the Afghan government, according to figures compiled by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. There are growing fears that the capital, Kabul, could fall this year, though U.S. military officials reportedly are developing plans to use drones and other means to keep the city from slipping out of government control.
With the foreign troop pullout seemingly unstoppable, Afghan officials have tried to present a brave face. They predict the Taliban will have trouble taking and holding the country’s major urban centers and that the insurgents’ propaganda is presenting a false image of the realities on the ground.
The Afghan Ministry of Interior told the local TOLOnews website that the Taliban will soon be forced to give back recent gains.
“This is propaganda. It is a temporary thing. Even the Taliban themselves do not believe that they have reached these regions,” said Naqibullah Fayeq, deputy minister of interior for security and strategy.
Mr. Ghani may strike a similarly optimistic tone during his meeting with Mr. Biden, but the cold reality seems clear to him. During a virtual Arab Center event this week, the Western-educated, English-speaking Afghan president acknowledged that the growing wave of Taliban violence threatens to tear his country apart.
“A tragedy is in the making,” he said. “That tragedy is an intense and destructive civil war. They and they alone will be responsible for the intensity, the scale and scope, of this tragedy.”
Mr. Ghani challenged the Taliban to tell the truth to the Afghan people about whether they intend to partner with al Qaeda, the terrorist network that had free rein in Afghanistan under Osama bin Laden in the years before the 9/11 attacks.
“Make a choice. Clarify that choice to the Afghan people,” Mr. Ghani said. “It is amazing that a movement that is taken seriously globally, regionally, and particularly by the government and people of Afghanistan has not offered us anything regarding what their vision for the people of the country will be.
“What is it that they envision?” he said. “What’s your policy on water? What’s your policy on minerals? What’s your policy on making friends?”
Led by Mr. Abdullah, the Afghan government has held grueling negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. But the on-again, off-again meetings — required as part of the Taliban’s peace deal with the Trump administration — have not produced a lasting cease-fire or any kind of formal power-sharing arrangement.
Mr. Ghani’s government now concedes that the Taliban have failed to live up to their commitments under that deal. The insurgent group promised to reduce the level of violence, but Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar told the U.N. Security Council this week that the Taliban are carrying out their worst violence in two decades.
The Taliban said they would never again allow terrorist groups to find haven in Afghanistan, but virtually all observers — including the Pentagon — say Taliban and al Qaeda fighters still regularly cooperate.
The Taliban promised to negotiate in good faith with the government in Kabul but now appear intent on crushing the Afghan security forces.
Specialists reported that Afghan troops are laying down arms and that warlord-led regional militias are entering the fray as the government’s authority evaporates.
“The number of videos that I am seeing of Afghan troops surrendering, conquered bases, and seized military hardware (including Humvees and artillery pieces) is staggering. The Afghan government and security forces are at risk of facing a battlefield rout,” Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies who tracks the U.S. war in Afghanistan, said Wednesday in a Twitter post.
The White House has promised to maintain the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and protect its diplomatic relationship with Mr. Ghani‘s fragile government.
“The United States is committed to supporting the Afghan people by providing diplomatic, economic and humanitarian assistance to support the Afghan people, including Afghan women, girls and minorities,” the White House said in a statement this week. “The United States will remain deeply engaged with the government of Afghanistan to ensure the country never again becomes a safe haven for terrorist groups who pose a threat to the U.S. homeland. The United States continues to fully support the ongoing peace process and encourages all Afghan parties to participate meaningfully in negotiations to bring an end to the conflict.”