Biden meets Afghan president for talks ahead of US withdrawal
Afghan president Ashraf Ghani with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in the US Capitol in Washington on Friday. Photograph: EPA/Shawn Thew
While the world continues to take stock of Joe Biden’s recent meetings with EU, G7 and Russian leaders during his trip to Europe, the US president’s meeting on Friday with his Afghan counterpart Ashraf Ghani may be his most important to date.
Biden hosted Ghani in the Oval Office for talks at a critical point in the US’s engagement in Afghanistan.
In April, the US president announced that all remaining US troops would withdraw from that country by September 11th – the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 2001. A few hundred troops will remain to protect the US embassy in Kabul, but the US’s military presence – which once topped 100,000 – will come to an end after almost 20 years of what has become known as the “forever war”.
Biden was acting on the February 2020 agreement signed with the Taliban in Doha following months of talks. Under the agreement, the US promised to reduce its troop presence culminating in complete withdrawal by May 2021, in exchange for a ceasefire by the Taliban and a pledge by it to work with the Afghan government.
While the date for withdrawal has now been pushed back a few months – though it has already started – the risks of that decision are the same.
The US withdrawal is seen as a win for the Taliban. The increase in targeted attacks by the insurgents against government-affiliated officials, journalists and other citizens that began last autumn is continuing. In recent weeks the group has moved into two provincial capitals in the northern part of the country and has taken control of dozens of districts, killing local Afghan forces in the process.
American troops have already moved out of the big military bases such as Kandahar, which at one point housed more than 26,000 personnel. Afghan troops, left without US back-up, are struggling in the face of the resurgent Taliban, while human rights watchers are concerned about the implications of Taliban ascendency on basic freedoms and women’s rights in particular. The Taliban has also maintained its ties with the al-Qaeda terror group, in breach of the Doha deal.
The appalling vista facing Afghanistan was laid out in a US intelligence assessment that predicts the Afghan government could fall within six months of the American military departing, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. The Pentagon did not deny the report and a spokesman acknowledged that security in some parts of Afghanistan “is certainly deteriorating, and that’s of concern”.
Following pressure from members of Congress, Biden announced on the eve of Ghani’s visit that the US would begin relocating thousands of Afghan drivers, interpreters and other contractors who worked for US forces to locations outside the country for their safety while they applied for visas to enter the US.
“Those who helped us are not going to be left behind,” said Biden.
As many as 100,000 people could be relocated, possibly to the US island territory of Guam in the western Pacific.
This follows a concerted effort by a bipartisan group of US Congress members – some of them former military members – who called for the visa process to be expedited for Afghans who have worked for the US and are now concerned for their safety.
Biden was expected to assure Ghani during his meeting that the US would continue to provide financial support to Afghanistan after it completes its withdrawal, including $3.3 billion (€2.8 billion) in security assistance.
But given the internal politics of the country and the worsening security situation, it is unclear if it will be enough to help Afghanistan become a stable functioning democracy.
The deteriorating situation is unlikely to change Biden’s mind about the withdrawal. Announcing his decision in April he said: “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result.”
For the people of Afghanistan, the US incursion two decades ago seems to have yielded few benefits.