United States President Joe Biden met with Afghan leaders Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah at the White House on Friday to demonstrate a continuing US commitment to Afghanistan as US troops withdraw.
“The partnership between Afghanistan and the United States is not ending,” Biden said in an Oval Office meeting with Ghani and Abdullah.
“It is going to be sustained, and you know, our troops are going to be leaving, but our support for Afghanistan is not ending,” Biden said.
The bulk of about 4,000 US soldiers now in Afghanistan will be moved out in the next two weeks, and the US expects to remove American and coalition commanders by July 4, ahead of schedule, according to The Associated Press.
In brief remarks in front of media at the top of the meeting, Biden praised Ghani and Abdullah for their “difficult jobs” and their efforts to “bring about unity among Afghan leaders across the board”.
“The Afghans are gonna have to decide their future, what they want. And it won’t be for a lack of us being help,” Biden said.
Ghani offered thanks to American troops and their families for sacrifices in the Afghanistan over the past 20 years but suggested the war-torn country now stands on the precipice of civil war.
“It is a choice of values, the values of an inclusionary system or exclusionary,” Ghani said, adding that Afghan government forces were pushing back Taliban fighters from contested areas.
“We’re determined to have unity, coherence, a national sense of sacrifice and will not spare anything,” Ghani said.
“You will see that with determination, with unity, and with the partnership, we will overcome all odds.”
Ghani and Abdullah had met earlier on Friday with House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and officials of the CIA to discuss the hand-off from US forces and future contingency plans.
“We’re very encouraged and satisfied that this partnership is taking place,” Ghani said at the White House.
Amid heightened security, Ghani was scheduled to give remarks at a media conference in Washington, DC, after the White House meeting with Biden.
Biden had set a formal deadline for the withdrawal of US and foreign forces from Afghanistan by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the US invasion following the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, DC.
About 650 US soldiers will remain in Afghanistan to provide security for the US and international diplomats in Kabul after the main American military contingent completes its withdrawal, US officials told the AP.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen has told Al Jazeera in an exclusive interview that the armed group has the “right to react” if the US keeps troops in Afghanistan after September 11, when the withdrawal is due to complete.
“If they stay here, then I think it is a kind of continuation of the occupation. They have violated and we fully have the right to react,” Shaheen said.
Several hundred additional US troops will remain at the Kabul airport, potentially until September, to assist Turkish troops providing security there in what the US officials described as a temporary move until a more formal Turkey-led security operation is in place.
Turkey has 500 soldiers in Afghanistan already as part of the NATO deployment and they will be reassigned to protect the airport, Turkey’s defence minister has said.
Biden and Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had discussed the airport security arrangement when the two met in Brussels on the sideline of the NATO summit earlier in June.
Biden holds a “fundamental belief” that “after 20 years, it’s time to bring our troops home”, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday in advance of the meeting.
“We are doing that in an orderly and timely fashion,” Psaki told reporters at the White House.
Fighting between Afghan government forces and the Taliban has increased in recent weeks as the Taliban intensified attacks on Afghan security forces and police raising prospects of a renewed civil war.
Since May, fighters affiliated with the armed group have taken over swaths of territory surrounding provincial capitals. The Taliban advances have raised alarms at the UN and among top US officials.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meeting his French counterpart in Paris on Friday, said the Taliban’s attacks are not in keeping with the framework for peace negotiations the US had agreed with the armed group.
“We’re looking very carefully at the situation on the ground in Afghanistan,” Blinken told reporters at a media conference in Paris.
“We’re also looking very hard at whether the Taliban is at all serious about a peaceful resolution of the conflict,” Blinken said.
“We continue to be engaged on the diplomacy but actions that would try to take the country by force are of course totally inconsistent with finding a peaceful resolution,” he said.
As the withdrawal nears conclusion, the Biden administration is preparing to evacuate potentially thousands of Afghan translators, drivers and aides who worked for the US.
“We have identified a group … who have served as interpreters and translators – as well as other at-risk categories – who have assisted us. They will be relocated to a location outside of Afghanistan before we complete our military drawdown by September,” Psaki said on Friday.