The White House has been under intense pressure to explain its rationale for rushing out of Afghanistan after it emerged that U.S. forces had slipped away from Bagram in the dead of night, effectively ending the combat mission without telling the local Afghan commander.
Meanwhile the Talban have made rapid advances. A tally maintained by the Long War Journal indicates the Taliban have seized 120 districts since May 1.
The result has been a president peppered with questions about what comes next in the country every time he makes a public appearance.
On Thursday, he offered an impassioned defense of his approach, playing down security fears and quietly abandoning the 9/11 target – a date which many analysts suggested could be used for propaganda purposes by the Taliban and other extremists.
‘Our military mission Afghanistan will conclude on August 31. The drawdown is proceeding in a secure and orderly way prioritising the safety of our troops as they depart,’ he said.
A question about whether a Taliban takeover was inevitable received a sharp response.
‘No it is not because you have the Afghan troops at 300,000, well equipped – as well as any army in the world – and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban,’ he said.
‘It is not inevitable.’
The remarks addressed a number of key questions, according to Lisa Curtis, director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and a member of the Trump-era National Security Council, such as promising to continue financial support for Kabul and streamlining the special immigrant visa process.
But others remain unanswered, she said, including whether the U.S. would provide air support to the Afghan armed forces.
And changing the date of the end of the military mission was a welcome move.
‘The Taliban have already painted the U.S. withdrawal as a victory for jihadism and by having the end date be 9/11 it only fuelled that narrative of a victory for global jihadism,’ said Curtis, who is also on the Vandenberg Coalition Advisory board.
‘It was never clear why Biden picked that date.
‘I think it was ill-advised and demonstrated a lack of appreciation for how extremists and terrorists view our pull-out.’
Washington agreed to leave as part of a deal with the Taliban made by the Trump administration last year.
Military leaders wanted to leave a larger presence in the country but Biden announced in April that he wanted all U.S. troops out by Sept. 11.
In 30 minutes of comments on Thursday, Biden repeated his justification for the withdrawal – saying the U.S. had met its aims of delivering justice to Osama bin Laden for the 9/11 attacks and making sure Afghanistan did not pose a threat.
‘We achieved those objectives, that’s why we went,’ he said.
‘We did not go to Afghanistan to nation build. And it’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.’
He also offered more details on plans to move Afghan translators to third countries as they await applications to travel to the U.S. and snapped back at a reporter who asked whether or not he trusted the Taliban.
‘It’s a silly question,’ he said.
‘Do I trust the Taliban? No, but I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who are better trained, better equipped, and more competent in terms of conducting war.’
Critics once again said he had erred in setting a date for the military operation to end.
Sen. Lindsey Graham issued a series of tweets saying the decision would be Biden’s biggest mistake yet.
‘Unfortunately for us, al-Qaeda and ISIS don’t have deadlines when it comes to attacking American interests,’ he said.
The comments came as media reported that the Taliban had seized a key border crossing with Iran at Islam Qala in western Herat province, a major transit route.
Afghan government forces were battling to stop the Taliban taking their first provincial capital Qala-i-Naw, in northwestern Baghdis province.
And militants have exhibited weapons captured from Afghan forces to international journalists as they try to demonstrate their growing power.
The U.K.’s Sky News were shown a haul of 900 guns, 70 sniper rifles, 30 light tactical vehicles and 20 pickup trucks at a military base in Wardak province captured from Afghan forces.
Many were in crates labelled ‘property of USA government’ and were supplied to Afghan government troops.
Afghan troops around the country have been filmed laying down their arms to the Taliban and reports suggest they have deserted in vast numbers, with more than 20,000 fleeing across the border into Tajikistan.
The result is a growing sense of doom among Afghans and U.S. allies.
General Sir Nick Carter, head of the U.K.’s armed forces said the situation was ‘grim’ with half the country’s rural districts now controlled by the Taliban.
He said he did not believe the Taliban were strong enough to take complete control but acknowledged the danger of ‘state collapse.’
‘That’s where you would see a culture of warlordism, and you might see some of the important institutions, like the security forces, fracturing along ethnic, or for that matter tribal, lines,’ he said.
Carter briefed journalists after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said almost all British troops had left.
For now, Washington plans to leave 650 troops in the country to provide security for the U.S. embassy.
Shortly before Biden spoke, the White House admitted it was leaving without a win.
‘We’re not going to have a mission accomplished moment in this regard,’ said Jen Psaki, President Biden’s press secretary.
‘It’s a 20-year war that has not been won militarily.’
The issue has dominated Biden’s recent public appearances, with journalists shouting questions about the Taliban advances and the U.S. withdrawal.
On Friday, an appearance to talk about COVID-19 and the Fourth of July holiday ended with journalists questioning him about the future stability of the Afghan government.
‘Look, we were in that war for 20 years. Twenty years,’ he said, before saying that the Afghans were going to have to take care of things themselves.
He brushed off follow-up questions by saying: ‘I want to talk about happy things.’
He previously justified the withdrawal by saying the country no longer represents a threat to the U.S. people.
‘It is not in America’s interest for the Taliban to take over Afghanistan. If the Taliban takes over part of Afghanistan, I fear that al Qaeda and ISIS will reemerge, and we will be paving a way for another 9/11,’ said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, on Tuesday.
What does the future hold for Afghanistan after the US-led coalition quit?
With the United States military presence in Afghanistan effectively over, the country faces an uncertain future with Taliban attacks rampant and the threat of civil war looming.
Fears are growing that the loss of vital American air cover – massively curtailed by the closure of Bagram air base – will knock the Afghan government’s ability to hold power, as multiple players circle to take advantage of the power vacuum.
Here are some of the scenarios at play:
– Will the US pullout end the war? –
While Washington’s withdrawal ends America’s longest war, the conflict in Afghanistan continues, with no obvious signs of a ceasefire.
The insurgents appear focused instead on a total military victory and the overthrow of President Ashraf Ghani.
They have recently made huge advances across the country, claiming control of dozens of new districts, but Afghan security forces remain in firm control of major cities.
‘For now, the fighting will intensify and Afghan forces will have a hard time sustaining militarily on their own,’ Afghan security analyst Bari Arez said.
A leaked internal US intelligence assessment reportedly said the Taliban could take Kabul within six months of the US departure.
Government forces and the Taliban regularly claim to have inflicted enormous
casualties on each other, but independent verification is impossible.
However, the number of targeted assassinations of educated Afghans, and sticky bomb attacks against civilians, has dropped in recent weeks.
– Can Afghan forces provide security? –
That remains to be seen, with an all-out civil war looming.
US air power had been a key factor in the ongoing fight, offering vital support to Afghan security forces when they risked being overwhelmed.
In a sign of possible growing desperation, the Afghan government has made calls for civilians to form militias to fight the Taliban – a move some analysts say could only add fuel to the fire.
‘This strategy has to be well-led, well-orchestrated and well-controlled or else it might backfire,’ said a foreign security analyst who did not want to be named.
With warlords re-emerging, there is a risk of Afghanistan falling back into a state of civil war as security deteriorates, with armed factions entering the fray in a free-for-all power grab.
– Could there be a political settlement? –
President Ghani wants a ceasefire with the Taliban ahead of a presidential election where voters will choose a ‘government of peace’. He has refused calls for an unelected interim government that includes the Taliban.
The United States favours such a caretaker government, pushing for a consensus between the warring sides at landmark talks in Doha, which have stalled.
While loose on specifics, the Taliban insist Afghanistan should return to being an emirate, run along strict Islamic lines and led by a council of religious elders.
Afghanistan has seen four presidential elections since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, and millions of Afghans have embraced a plural, democratic system – though voting was fraught with corruption.
Now that the stage is set for the insurgents to return, analysts fear the democratic gains of the past two decades could be lost.
‘The Taliban for now seem to be convinced they can take power forcefully,’ political analyst Ramish Salehi said.
‘This is a fight that will determine… whether democracy will prevail against ideological forces.’
– What about Afghanistan’s women? –
There is palpable fear that hard-fought women’s rights will be lost.
Before being deposed in 2001, the Taliban banned girls from studying and stoned to death women accused of crimes such as adultery.
With the Taliban out of power, Afghan women have become prominent politicians, activists, journalists and judges.
The Taliban insist they will respect women’s rights in accordance with Islamic law, but activists note the multiple interpretations of that across the Muslim world.
‘There is a general feeling of insecurity among women who think that the extremists would again imprison them in their homes,’ said activist Hosay Andar.
‘But they would not give up this time… there would be resistance this time.’
With the security situation deteriorating, development work will become increasingly hard to carry out across the impoverished country.
– What are the economic prospects? –
Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries, deeply indebted and utterly reliant on foreign aid.
While the nation boasts lucrative mineral reserves that neighbours including China and India are keen to exploit, the security situation has never been stable enough for revenues to boost state coffers.
In November, global donors pledged to offer aid to Afghanistan up to 2024, but there are concerns that with the imminent exit of foreign forces, the donors might not follow up on their commitments.
‘The economy is already in a steep decline… and the already terrible unemployment rate will again hit the skies,’ said analyst Salehi.