Afghan leaders to meet Biden at the White House

Biden to offer assurances of support as advances by the Taliban spark alarm amid rapid US withdrawal.

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani is contending with political rivalries at home amid a US withdrawal and Taliban advances [Filer: Omar Sobhani/Reuters]

Afghan leaders Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah will meet United States President Joe Biden at the White House on Friday for a high-stake discussion likely to shape Afghanistan’s future as the US withdraws forces nearly 20 years after invading.

President Biden is expected to offer assurances of US backing for the Afghan government in Kabul and is likely to press Ghani and Abdullah to unify their rival political factions in the face of rising Taliban assaults, analysts say.

Ghani and Abdullah, meanwhile, are expected to appeal to Biden for specific and concrete pledges of financial and diplomatic support, including continued technical assistance for embattled Afghan military forces.

“The security situation is alarming and it’s deteriorating,” said Scott Worden, director of the Afghanistan programme at the US Institute of Peace, who recently returned from a trip to the Asian country.

Fighting between Afghan government forces and the armed group has accelerated as the Taliban intensified its military campaign, according to the Reuters news service and other reports. Since May, fighters have taken over areas surrounding provincial capitals, giving the Taliban control of broad swaths of territory, a top UN official warned the Security Council on June 22.

A “possible slide toward dire scenarios is undeniable”, said Deborah Lyons, head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

Biden on Thursday said he planned to discuss with President Ghani and Abdullah, head of the reconciliation council, plans for airlifting the thousands of Afghans who supported Americans out of the country.

“Those who helped us are not going to be left behind,” Biden said. “They will be welcome here just like anyone else who risked their lives to help us.”

Members of the US Congress are pushing the Biden administration to accelerate visa approvals for Afghans who helped US forces leave the country and there have been talks of evacuating large numbers of Afghans to the US island of Guam.

From left, Abdullah Abdullah, Afghan leader of High Council for National Reconciliation, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in Washington, DC, on June 24 [Tom Brenner/Reuters]

The US says it is more than halfway through withdrawing equipment and troops. The withdrawal of forces, done in conjunction with NATO troops could be completed as soon as July, before Biden’s stated September 11 deadline – the 20th anniversary of the US invasion.

Indeed, the rapidity of the US withdrawal caught political and civil society leaders in Afghanistan by surprise and has dealt a psychological blow to Afghan security forces and set back public hopes and expectations, according to Worden.

Earlier this week, the Taliban captured a key border crossing on Afghanistan’s northern border with Tajikistan at the town of Shir Khan Bandar, seizing ammunition and armoured vehicles from government forces and sending customs workers fleeing for safety, according to Reuters.

“The Taliban’s ability to take over districts has surprised a lot of Afghans, and I think the region,” Worden told Al Jazeera.

Taliban successes on the battlefield have emboldened the group’s military wing, reducing incentives to engage in peace talks. “It changes the strategic calculus in terms of the talks and the prospects for peace,” Worden said.

White House and Pentagon officials have signalled President Biden’s decision to withdraw US and NATO forces and the timeline for the departure of all US troops by September are firm.

But the Taliban offensive may cause for revisions to US plans, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told the media on June 21. “It is a dynamic situation” and “we are mindful that that schedule could fluctuate and change as conditions change”, Kirby said.

Asked about Afghanistan at a media briefing on June 23, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki insisted the Pentagon is continuing an orderly withdrawal of US troops and she emphasised the US has not seen attacks by the Taliban on US forces.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley, the US’s top military officer, have assured Congress that Afghanistan’s military will be able to withstand a challenge from the Taliban even in US forces’ absence. But they also said al-Qaeda could regain strength to attack the US within two years – the reason it invaded in 2001.

But, after the Taliban swept through northern Afghanistan last week, US intelligence agencies concluded that the Afghan government could collapse within six months after the US withdrawal is completed, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal newspaper citing officials with knowledge of the new assessment.

US military planners have been evaluating their ability to conduct air attacks in Afghanistan from distant bases elsewhere should that be necessary to protect US interests and those of its allies, once its troops have left, Centcom commander US Marine General Frank McKenzie told Voice of America earlier this month.

Biden’s timetable for withdrawal “has been much more precipitous than it needs to be” and Ghani probably hopes to convince the administration to adjust its approach, said Lisa Curtis, director of the Indo-Pacific programme at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

The Biden administration should allow contractors to stay in Afghanistan, to continue to provide support to the Afghan air force which relies on US technical assistance, Curtis said.

Biden needs “to show that the US is not simply turning tail and abandoning the country because right now that’s the narrative that’s building”, Curtis told Al Jazeera.

But under a February 2020 deal signed between the US and Taliban negotiated under Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, that mandates the withdrawal, the estimated 16,000 US contractors in Afghanistan must leave when the troops do.

The Afghan government was not part of those negotiations, and the peace talks between it and the Taliban that were supposed to be the next step have stalled.

Longer-term, the Biden administration is relying on regional powers including Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, China and Iran to help avoid an outbreak of a major civil war in Afghanistan and support a peace process, analysts say.

Biden discussed the US withdrawal and the security situation in Kabul with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he met them separately in Geneva and Brussels last week.

At the White House, Biden will be providing “reassurance” to Ghani and Abdullah that the US will continue to support the Afghan government financially and diplomatically after US forces leave, said Jason Campbell, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.

Biden is likely to lecture Ghani and Abdullah bluntly “behind closed doors” about making the tough political compromises among Afghans that will be necessary to present a united front against the Taliban, Campbell told Al Jazeera.

“We know that from previous experiences that Biden doesn’t have a problem issuing that sort of language about his expectations.”

Ghani and Abdullah represent rival parties. The two men contested the 2019 presidential elections results – finally coming to an agreement for Ghani to retain the presidency and Abdullah taking the title of the head of the reconciliation council. The two had previously ruled in a government of national unity after fighting for months in 2016, over who won that presidential election.

Source: Al Jazeera