President Joe Biden met Afghanistan’s leaders at the White House on Friday at a precarious moment for their country: US troops are withdrawing, the coronavirus is raging, the Taliban are making territorial gains and American intelligence assesses the government they run could fall in a matter of months.
The talks, wedged into Biden’s schedule on a Friday afternoon before he departed for Camp David, weren’t likely to change those dynamics. The President is intent on ending America’s longest war and the White House says his timeline for a troop withdrawal isn’t changing.
Instead, Biden hoped to reassure President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, head of the Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, that American humanitarian and security assistance will continue even when the war finally concludes.
“Our troops may be leaving, but support for Afghanistan is not ending,” Biden said, sitting next to Ghani in the Oval Office.
He acknowledged the fragile circumstances – “every time I think I have a tough job, I think ‘Mr. President …’ ” he said, gesturing toward Ghani – but offered no indication he was second guessing his decision to bring troops home.
“Afghans are going to have to decide their future, what they want,” he said.
“The senseless violence has to stop. It’s going to be very difficult,” he went on. “We’re going to stick with you, and we’re going to do our best to see to it you have the tools you need.”
Biden was set to offer new assistance to fight the coronavirus, which has spread quickly at the US Embassy in Kabul, including a shipment of 3 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. And the administration is finalizing a plan to relocate Afghan interpreters and other workers who aided American forces to third-party countries as they await visas to come to the United States.
“Those that have helped us are not going to be left behind,” Biden said Thursday of Afghan workers awaiting US visas. “They’re welcome here just like anyone else who risked their lives to help us.”
But there is little Biden can say or do that will reverse the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan less than three months before his September 11 deadline for withdrawing US troops.
The Taliban say they have taken control of 90 districts across the country since the middle of May. The United Nations special envoy on Afghanistan, Deborah Lyon, put the figure lower, at 50 out of the nation’s 370 districts, but told the Security Council on Tuesday that she feared the worst was yet to come.
“Most districts that have been taken surround provincial capitals, suggesting that the Taliban are positioning themselves to try and take these capitals once foreign forces are fully withdrawn,” Lyon said.
After peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban proceeded in fits and starts, the negotiations have stalled, with little expectation of progress in the coming months.
Ghani headed into his meeting with Biden with a number of requests as the US troop withdrawal is ongoing and the Taliban’s territorial gains continue to surge, according to sources familiar with the plan.
Ghani has considered asking that the US and Afghanistan work on a six-month security transition plan that could be implemented immediately in an effort to stabilize the country, one source said. As part of this plan, Afghanistan would like to see the US commit to providing air support which could be done from a country in the region – such as the UAE – when the US withdrawal is complete, the source said.
Ghani has also considered urging the US President to put pressure on the Pakistanis and Qataris to cease providing military and political safe havens for the Taliban, the source said.
Speaking after Biden, Ghani thanked the US for its support during the war, and called Biden’s withdrawal decision “historic.”
“It has made everybody recalculate and reconsider. We are here to respect it and support it,” he said.
“In moments of great transition, things happen,” he said. “We will overcome all odds.”
In recent days, US officials have recognized the threats of violence and instability posed by the Taliban. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has repeatedly said that the US will continue to provide Afghanistan with diplomatic and economic support after the military withdrawal is complete, but the US also recognizes “that there’s a real danger that the Taliban insists on trying to take the country by force, that we’ll see a renewal of civil war or possibly worse,” Blinken said on Thursday. “That’s a hard reality,” he added.
Approximately 650 US troops will remain in Afghanistan after the official US withdrawal to protect the American diplomatic mission, according to two defense officials.
Ghani was expected to press the US for more Covid-19 vaccines during the meeting, according to two sources familiar with the plans. Afghanistan’s ask comes weeks after a Covid-19 outbreak at the US embassy in Kabul which impacted more than 100 people and forced the embassy to go into lockdown.
Afghanistan has struggled to get the vaccines it needs to cover its population of more than 30 million people and has experienced a surge in Covid-19 cases in the last month. Earlier this month, Afghanistan received 700,000 doses of a Covid-19 vaccine from China. Those doses were a much-needed boost after a March influx of 486,000 doses of AstraZeneca from the COVAX global vaccine effort – which the US is a part of – were not enough to keep down new cases.
Biden announced earlier this year he planned to bring US troops home from Afghanistan, 20 years after the war began. Military advisers warned the absence of the American military would likely allow for a Taliban takeover and the civilian government to fall.
Since then, intelligence assessments have accelerated the estimated timeline for when the Taliban would regain control of the country, potentially months after the last US troops leave.
The White House acknowledged Wednesday that Taliban attacks on Afghan forces have scaled up as the US draws down its troops but suggested security would be worse had the President not decided to withdraw.
“We have not seen an increase in attacks on our military presence since February 2020,” press secretary Jen Psaki said. “We also assess that had we not begun to draw down, violence would have increased against us as well after May 1, because that was what the Taliban was clearly conveying. So the status quo, in our view, was not an option.”
Psaki declined to comment on intelligence reports indicating Kabul could fall within months but said the US timeline for withdrawal was “not going to change.” She also wouldn’t speculate on whether an increase in Taliban attacks might prompt the US to reassess its diplomatic posture in Kabul.
“That’s certainly something that our State Department and our team takes very seriously and assesses whether there is a need to take any additional action,” she said.
Pressed whether Biden would be able to guarantee in his meeting with Afghan leaders that hard-fought gains on human rights over the course of America’s two-decade engagement would not be lost, she demurred.
“The President can guarantee that we will continue to support humanitarian assistance, support for human rights progress,” she said.
CNN’s Kate Sullivan contributed to this report.