US President Joe Biden on Friday assured visiting Afghan leaders Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah of sustained American support after the withdrawal of troops but made it clear that the fate of Afghanistan will now be in the hands of its people now.
“Afghans are going to have to decide their future, what they want,” he told them.
Afghan President Ghani, at the same time, sought to project confidence in the face of resurgent Taliban. He dismissed a US intelligence report that has forecast the fall of Kabul within six months of the departure of the last of US troops, scheduled for as early as July, saying much such dire prediction “turned out false” in the past.
Biden and Ghani, who was accompanied by Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation met at the White House amidst growing concerns about the fate of the current government, with continued escalation of violence by the Taliban, who have backed out of peace talks till the departure of US troops.
Surge in violence
The Biden administration has acknowledged being concerned by the violence but has shown no sign yet it might slow down the pace of withdrawal of troops or call it off. In the bluntest remarks on the issue yet, secretary of state Antony Blinken said in Paris on Thursday that the US is assessing the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and “whether the Taliban is, at all, serious about a peaceful resolution of the conflict”.
But Biden gave no indication of a shift. “Our troops may be leaving but our support for Afghanistan is not ending in terms of support and maintenance of helping maintain their military as well as economic and political support,” President Biden said, seeking to assure the Afghan leaders.
But, he added, “Afghans are going to have to decide their future, what they want, what they want”.
Ghani welcomed Biden’s decision as “historic” but did signal unease saying, “It has made everybody recalculate and reconsider.”
President Biden, who had run for White House one the promise, among others, of ending never-ending wars, did take the world by surprise when he announced that all US troops will be out of Afghanistan by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that took US-led international forced to Afghanistan in search of al-Qaeda.
The last of US troops are now expected to be out of the county as soon as July, way ahead of the schedule. And, there is growing concern that the Taliban are moving rapidly to take the country militarily and not through peaceful negotiations as envisaged under the deal they signed with the Trump administration in February 2020, which is backed by the Biden administration.
“We are entering into a new chapter of our relationship where the partnership with the United States would not be military, but comprehensive, regarding our mutual interest,” Ghani said. “And we’re very encouraged and satisfied that this partnership is taking place.”
Ghani and Abdullah had a series of meetings starting with top Biden administration officials such as defence secretary Lloyd Austin, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, CIA director William Burns and several lawmakers.
Ghani was asked about the US intelligence report forecasting the fall of Kabul in six to 12 months during his visit to the Pentagon to meet Austin. “There have been many such predictions, and they’ve all turned out false,” he said.
Husain Haqqani, former Pakistan ambassador to the US and senior fellow at Hudson Institute, says both sides gained from the Friday meetings. Biden “wanted to signal that US military withdrawal is not abandonment of Afghanistan” and Ghani and Abdullah “wanted to show that Afghans are united against the Taliban and can defend their country with US economic support and military equipment. Both achieved their goal”.
Deteriorating the security situation
But, Haqqani warned of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, which he described as comparable to what happened in Iraq in 2011, after sudden withdrawal of US troops. Arming regional militias, CIA covert ops, and support for Iraqi forces changed things around and the same is possible in Afghanistan, he said, adding, “The Biden administration needs to recognise that the Taliban are not the partners in peace they were made out to be and that it is delusional to think that they will break from al-Qaeda.”