President Joe Biden’s self-imposed Sept. 11 deadline to unconditionally withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan is nearly three months away, but the political and humanitarian fallout from his decision is already rattling his administration.
In recent days, the U.S. has completed more than half the troop withdrawal, and the Taliban have seized dozens of Afghan districts amid warnings that the government in Kabul could fall in a matter of months once the U.S. leaves. Military leaders also are warning that terrorist groups such as al-Qaida could regroup in Afghanistan within two years.
U.S. lawmakers, even those who support withdrawing, are demanding that Biden protect Afghans who helped the U.S. in the two-decade war, and the Biden administration is now hurriedly unrolling an evacuation plan for those Afghans. On Friday, Afghanistan’s president will visit the White House, where he has an opportunity to ask Biden to rethink his approach.
Biden risks being seen as the president who lost Afghanistan — and Republicans know it.
GOP lawmakers are having an I-told-you-so face-off with Biden, suggesting that the president will own the consequences of an Afghan debacle — both political and otherwise. Some compared it to former President Barack Obama’s decision to pull out of Iraq in 2011, which helped create the conditions for the rise of the Islamic State. Others pointed to older analogies.
“This may be the ‘Saigon moment’ where you’ve got the helicopter leaving and that’s what everybody associates with [Biden’s] policy,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “It’s eerily similar [to Iraq]. We withdrew from Iraq on a politically motivated timeline to fulfill a campaign promise, and then we have chaos on the ground, a caliphate emerges.
“From the moment some dumb White House staffer decided we’re going to make 9/11 the date and thereby give the Taliban this propaganda victory in addition to surrendering territory, is the moment we realized this was a political effort, not a serious geopolitical effort,” he added.
The developments in Washington and Afghanistan are not surprising given the trajectory of the conflict and the fragility of the Afghan state. Nonetheless, they highlight the political risk Biden took in choosing to leave Afghanistan, without conditions, so early in his tenure.
Asked for comment, a senior administration official said the White House remains committed to the Afghan people, and that, in Friday’s meeting with top Afghan officials, Biden “will emphasize the need for unity, cohesion, and for the Afghan government to focus on key challenges Afghanistan faces.”
On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. intelligence officials believe the Afghan government may fall as soon as six months after the American withdrawal.
Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, predicted that the U.S. Embassy in Kabul could fall, too. “The crown jewel is going to be the embassy at the end,” McCaul said in a brief interview.
Most of Biden’s Democratic allies on Capitol Hill are standing by his decision to withdraw, even as the situation on the ground deteriorates.
“It’s been proven to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that our military can’t solve the problem,” House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said. “So it was never going to be a great situation. But I think [withdrawal is] the best decision among a bad series of options.”
Since Biden announced his withdrawal plans in mid-April, the Taliban have made territorial gains. According to a United Nations official, the group has captured more than 50 of 370 Afghan districts since the start of May. Afghan national forces have sometimes barely put up a fight against the Taliban.
The militants are supposed to be engaged in peace talks with the Afghan government, but those negotiations appear to be in a holding pattern.
The U.S. had 2,500 to 3,500 troops in Afghanistan earlier this year, but has since pulled out more than half, and the rest are likely to be gone well before Biden’s Sept. 11 deadline. But Biden has insisted that although the U.S. is pulling out its troops, it is not abandoning Afghanistan.
Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other top administration officials have pledged that the U.S. will keep supporting Afghanistan through economic, diplomatic and humanitarian assistance. That includes financial support for the Afghan military. Pentagon officials have not committed to continuing the training mission for Afghan forces in a third country, but the NATO alliance has said it is working on doing just that. U.S. officials also say it is possible to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan to threaten the U.S. even without American troops on the ground.
A senior Biden administration official on Thursday confirmed that the U.S. is planning to evacuate Afghans who have been waiting for “special immigrant visas” because they aided Americans. The plan is to relocate these people — potentially thousands or tens of thousands of individuals if their families are included — to a country outside Afghanistan so they can complete the visa process there. The goal is to evacuate them ahead of the Sept. 11 deadline, the official said, specifically noting these Afghans have served as interpreters or translators.
“These are individuals who are already in the [special immigrant visa] pipeline,” the official said in a statement to POLITICO, confirming a New York Times report. “We would undertake any relocation in full compliance with U.S. consular law and in full coordination with Congress.”
Adding to the administration’s obstacles is a serious outbreak of Covid-19 at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, with more than 100 employees affected. The post has been put on lockdown, making it even harder for staffers to process visas for Afghans who need protection.
Biden’s political allies note that the administration is working through various proposals aimed at maintaining support for the Afghan government in a way that protects American interests without having U.S. troops on the ground.
“My constituents are not persuaded that holding off the Taliban is a wise expenditure of U.S. taxpayer money, if we believe there are other ways to protect the nation against a terrorist attack,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a Foreign Relations Committee member.
“We’ve all been very clear that there’s going to be bad news out of Afghanistan. But, you know what? There’s been tons of bad news out of Afghanistan while we’ve been there. Every single year the Taliban has gained more territory. Every single year the government remains completely inept and corrupt,” he added.
Biden on Friday meets with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, chair of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation. The two Afghan leaders were meeting with members of Congress on Thursday.
For Ghani, the visit is a crucial opportunity to convince Biden to adjust his approach to the U.S. drawdown, said Lisa Curtis, who served as a senior National Security Council aide to former President Donald Trump.
Despite entreaties, Biden is unlikely to keep U.S. troops in the country, but Ghani could influence him to find ways to leave U.S. contractors there as well as prioritize continued U.S. air support to Afghan troops, Curtis said. Without that air support in particular, Afghan forces are likely to struggle to keep territory from falling to the Taliban. The contractors, meanwhile, provide essential services, including maintaining Afghan military assets.
The notion of providing air support from third countries or the sea — the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier is en route to the region from Japan — is something military officials have struggled to explain. The capability exists, but it is expensive, time-consuming and dangerous. Fighter planes would be in the air longer and have to conduct aerial refuelings, adding to the risk and expense.
Curtis said that in her conversations with Biden administration officials, she hasn’t heard people express remorse about the president’s withdrawal plans, but there’s plenty of cynicism.
“Some people are making the assumption that the Taliban is destined to come back to power,” Curtis said. “That’s just too cynical. We’ve invested so much in the last 20 years. We really owe it to the Afghans … to give them a fighting chance.”
Afghans have been fighting in some form or fashion for decades, enduring a Soviet occupation, clashes among warlords — some backed by the United States — and the violence of life under the rule of the Taliban’s ultra-conservative Islamists. The country was a major base for al-Qaida, including its leader Osama bin Laden, ahead of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, The attacks prompted the U.S. invasion of the country, toppling the Taliban government.
The Taliban had drawn international opprobrium for their human rights abuses, including banning girls and women from school and work. Over the past 20 years, Afghan women have made significant gains in education and in the workplace, while minority groups, such as the Hazaras, have found greater freedom and opportunity.
“That’s why I was disappointed in the decision to withdraw as rapidly as the president suggested,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), one of the few Democratic detractors on the Afghanistan decision, said of her concerns about the rights of women and girls in the country.
A State Department official said U.S. diplomats have “tremendous trepidation” that as the Taliban gain more power in Afghanistan, all of those human rights gains could be wiped out. But no one in the Biden administration appears able or willing to change course, the official said.
“Everyone can see the cliff up ahead and everyone, all the way to the top, agrees cliffs are bad to drive over, but no one knows how to brake,” the State Department official said.
Paul McLeary contributed to this report.
View original post