The president, meanwhile, is sticking to last spring’s decision to withdraw U.S. combat troops, calculating that war-weary voters would rather tune out of the alarming development in a conflict they have largely ignored.
“I do not regret my decision,” Biden told reporters on Tuesday after pointing out that the United States had spent more than a trillion dollars and lost thousands of its own troops to train and equip Afghanistan’s military.
“Afghan leaders need to meet,” he said. “They have to fight for themselves, fight for their nation.”
It is a message that the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and others are now publicly emphasizing after years of private pressure on Afghan leaders, many of whom had hoped the United States would never follow up on promises to leave.
Biden administration officials say the United States has better intelligence services and other enhanced capabilities to thwart future terrorist plans against America that may emerge from Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden once planned the 9/11 attacks. They also stress that the United States will continue to offer humanitarian aid to Afghans and financial support to the Afghan military, including at least now air support.
But those promises are not entirely reassuring to many on Capitol Hill and beyond. Some critics fear a retaliation for what happened in Iraq after the United States withdrew troops in 2011: the rise of the Islamic State, which forced Washington to send troops back to ward off the terrorist group.
“No one should pretend they are surprised that the Taliban are winning now that we have left our Afghan partners,” Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska said in a statement. “No one should pretend to be surprised when girls and women are brutalized. And no one should pretend to be surprised when the Taliban once again provide a safe haven for terrorists planning international attacks. “
Some recent reports say the Taliban already control 65 percent of Afghan territory. The Islamist militia, whose oppressive, misogynistic rule in the 1990s is still fresh in the minds of many Afghans, has recently conquered several provincial capitals.
These cities include Kunduz, a price that tightened the Taliban’s grip on northern Afghanistan. The militants have traditionally had their power base in the south, and their northern progress has alarmed Afghan leaders.
Videos posted online Wednesday show Taliban fighters driving captured Humvees through Kunduz and posing next to a Mi-24 helicopter cargo ship at the airport there, after hundreds of Afghan troops fled, in yet another embarrassing battle for the government.
A new U.S. military assessment says the national capital, Kabul, could fall to the Taliban in as little as a month, a person familiar with the intelligence service told POLITICO. The person added that it could take longer to conquer the entire city, six months or more, and that the situation is “fluid.”
Details of the assessment, which included analyzes from several military and intelligence units, were first reported by The Washington Post.
According to three people who are aware of the situation, internal administration discussions have considered evacuation of the US Embassy in Kabul as an option; one person said the mission could be emptied by the end of this month.
A State Department official did not deny that an evacuation is an option under consideration and stressed that there are regular, ongoing threat assessments at the embassy. “Our posture has not changed,” the official said.
In a direct assessment, Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammed Haneef Atmar said on Wednesday that his government “is likely to experience the most massive, brutal and opportunistic military campaign of violence and terror, by the Taliban, in our country’s history.”
The United States has stepped up air strikes – at least in the short term – to include B-52 bombers and AC-130 cannon ships, which can deliver destructive precision firepower in small areas. The Afghan Air Force has also stepped up operations, though reports suggest the planes are being flown at speeds likely to prove untenable over a long period of time.
The Pentagon is authorized to continue these airstrikes through the end of the U.S. military withdrawal later this month, but it is unclear whether these attacks will continue on September 1st.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the United States “will continue to provide close air support,” to the Afghan forces on the ground, and “will continue to provide their force with food and equipment. Pay all their salaries.” “
The Afghan Air Force, consisting of 162 aircraft, is stretched by 24-hour attacks and surveillance missions from Kandahar in the south to Kunduz in the north and maintained by a skeleton crew of a few hundred Western contractors and smaller. crews of Afghans, sometimes taught by Zoom in repairing airplanes and helicopters.
The White House has indicated that it is convinced that Afghan forces will receive the support they need.
“Ultimately, our view is that the Afghan National Security Forces have the equipment, numbers and training to fight back, which will strengthen their position at the negotiating table,” Psaki said on Tuesday. “We believe that there is a political process – it is the only process that will successfully bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.”
In theory, the political discussions between Taliban leaders, Afghan government officials and the United States in Qatar continue. U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been in Doha this week in hopes of convincing the Taliban not to take Afghanistan by force.
Meanwhile, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who has said his country was facing a “moment in 1861, like President Lincoln”, appears to be preparing for a comprehensive civil war.
Ghani visited this week the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, where he met with prominent warlords. These warlords included Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek famous for his own human rights violations, who has nevertheless previously served as Afghan Vice President. The Afghan government is urging popular militias to unite to avert the Taliban’s progress.
Some analysts say the Biden administration needs to go ahead and impose financial sanctions on Taliban leaders while pushing for travel restrictions for them. It will get through the message that militia leaders risk becoming global pariahs if they try to take over the country by force, said Lisa Curtis, a former top US official who dealt with Afghanistan.
She argued that the United States needed to take such action, even though the Taliban have not shown much respect for what the world thinks of them in the past.
“Right now, there are no consequences for what they’re doing,” Curtis said. “If we want to prevent a carnage, prevent revenge killings and further atrocities against civilians, I think we need to intervene now … because the earth is moving so fast that it seems we need to to go into preventive mode. “
Some of the toughest proponents of pulling the plug on the U.S. military operation admit they are surprised at how quickly the country is unraveling when foreign troops leave.
“I guess it’s also a surprise for the Taliban,” said Will Ruger, who was former President Donald Trump’s choice to be ambassador to Afghanistan and is vice president of Stand Together, a philanthropy that supports organizations that support a non-interventionist foreign policy.
But Ruger said he is encouraged by the Biden administration’s unwillingness to give in to its critics on both sides, who want to reconsider the withdrawal. “The Biden administration should stay the course,” he said.
Others in his camp agreed.
Among them is retired Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, an Afghanistan veteran who has been lobbying for more than a decade to withdraw U.S. combat troops. He insisted that the pace at which Afghan security forces were crumbling only underscores the futile nature of banking on a corrupt government in Kabul to stabilize the country.
“Now you see the bitter fruit,” said Davis, now a senior fellow at Defense Priorities, a think tank in favor of diplomacy over military power. “We continue to lie to ourselves and perpetuate the myth that we are accomplishing something. Now it is revealed.”
Bryan Bender and Lee Hudson contributed to this report.