- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2021

President Biden on Wednesday offered perhaps the clearest signal to date that U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan past a tentative May 1 deadline and blamed his predecessor for crafting what he described as a shoddy deal with the Taliban that so far has failed to produce a path to a lasting political settlement.

Mr. Biden’s blunt remarks, one of the first true glimpses into his thinking on the path forward in Afghanistan, come at a crucial moment. Violence continues at a shockingly high rate across Afghanistan, and top American officials warn that the U.S.-backed government in Kabul still has little hope of defeating a 20-year Islamist insurgency on its own.

Key officials from the U.S., Taliban, the Afghan government, and other stakeholder nations will meet in Russia Thursday in a last-ditch effort to try and save the badly stalled peace process. Mr. Biden on Wednesday seemed to downplay expectations ahead of that meeting and suggested that even under a best-case scenario, meeting the May 1 date for a full U.S. withdrawal will be exceedingly difficult.

“Could happen, but it is tough,” Mr. Biden said in an interview that aired Wednesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “The fact is that was not a very solidly negotiated deal that the former president worked out, and so we’re in consultation with our allies as well as the government and that decision is in process now.”

Mr. Biden also said former President Trump and his deputies at the Pentagon failed to cooperate with his incoming transition team, making it difficult to fully develop an Afghanistan strategy ahead of Inauguration Day.

“For example, we didn’t realize how bad things were in terms of lack of vaccines — we were not able to get access to this information,” Mr. Biden said. “That’s one of the issues we’re talking about now in terms of Afghanistan.”

The U.S.-Taliban deal — which did not include the Afghan government — struck in February 2020 calls for the remaining 2,500 American troops in Afghanistan to exit the country by May 1. In exchange, the Taliban agreed to a major reduction in violence, to engage in direct power-sharing negotiations with Kabul, and to divorce itself from outside terror groups such as al Qaeda and never allow the country to be used as a home base for extremist groups.

Al Qaeda famously plotted the 9/11 attacks from sanctuaries inside Afghanistan when the Taliban last controlled the country.

The U.S. has steadily reduced its troop presence in Afghanistan over the past year even as virtually all military officials and international observers agree that the Taliban has not fully held up its end of the bargain. The Taliban has, however, insisted that Washington stick to the deal and remove its troops on schedule.

Although U.S. and allied forces are no longer targeted, violence still grips much of the country. Last weekend, at least eight people were killed and 47 wounded in a car bomb attack in the western province of Herat. United Nations officials said the incident was the latest in an “alarming” series of attacks targeting civilians.

On Tuesday, a gunman opened fire on a minibus in Baghlan province, killing two and wounding six others. The Taliban denied involvement with the attack. The Islamic State terror network — which has been blamed for a string of horrific assaults in recent years — also did not claim responsibility.

U.S. officials fear that the violence would only grow worse if the U.S. military and some 11,000 troops from NATO and allied countries abruptly pack up and leave. Despite 20 years of American military presence and logistical support for Afghan forces, the Taliban controls as much territory now as it did in the run-up to the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

Officials said that the country could fall apart without U.S. backing.

Afghanistan “may be fighting for its very survival,” John Sopko, the Defense Department’s special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, told a House hearing this week.

His testimony came in conjunction with the release of a new oversight report that paints yet another bleak picture of Afghanistan and its future prospects.

This week’s meeting in Moscow offers perhaps the last, best opportunity for the U.S. and other parties to salvage the Afghan peace process. The Taliban and Afghan government have held periodic negotiations in Qatar, but so far they have not produced a lasting cease-fire.

In addition to the U.S., Russia, the Taliban and the Afghan government, representatives from China, India and Iran also will participate in this week’s conference.

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