The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden to reassure Afghan leaders nervous about U.S. withdrawal

Lawmakers and advocates have demanded greater action to ensure the safety of people whose work made the two-decade U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan possible. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

American presidents used visits to NATO headquarters over the past 20 years to talk up the military and moral imperatives in Afghanistan, where U.S. and allied forces fought side by side.

But President Biden pivoted at NATO last week, focusing on China and cyber threats. As the last U.S. forces prepare to leave Afghanistan, the conflict was almost a footnote.

“Our troops are coming home, but we agreed that our diplomatic, economic and humanitarian commitment to the Afghan people and our support for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces will endure,” Biden said on June 14.

That shift was one tangible sign that the United States has already moved on from the war born of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. A potentially awkward meeting Friday at the White House is another.

The visit is a show of solidarity with Afghan officials as they face steady military gains by the Taliban and deepening questions about the government’s future.

The troop withdrawal Biden ordered in April could be substantially complete early next month, far ahead of his Sept. 11 deadline for ending the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. Other aspects of the wind-down are expected to continue over the summer.

Biden has requested $3.3 billion for security assistance to Afghanistan next year, a slight increase over current funding, but the administration has announced few specifics about how its ongoing support will work.

There is no guarantee that the weak central government can preserve the hard-fought advances in Afghanistan, including for women, or that it can hold on to power at all. U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that the Afghan government could fall in six months once the U.S. withdrawal is complete.

A Taliban offensive across northern Afghanistan has exposed the vulnerabilities of local security forces, which will face militants without foreign air power and combat support for the first time in coming months.

“The president can guarantee that we will continue to support humanitarian assistance, support for progress, human rights progress, that’s been made on the ground, and a range of investments the United States has made that we’ve already committed to continuing,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday.

Biden aims to reset global agenda with Afghanistan withdrawal

The Biden administration is seeking to address one consequence of the withdrawal, saying Thursday that the U.S. government is working to evacuate thousands of Afghans who were hired as interpreters, drivers and other staff.

The emergency relocation would help protect those former U.S. employees, often threatened by the Taliban, while they navigate a years-long process of seeking permanent residence in the United States.

“We’ve already begun the process. Those who helped us are not going to be left behind,” Biden said Thursday.

It is not clear how many people would be eligible or where they would go. But the effort acknowledges that the Afghan government cannot fully step in to protect the vulnerable former employees.

Lawmakers and advocates have demanded greater action to ensure the safety of people whose work made the two-decade U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan possible.

More than 18,000 applicants to receive so-called special immigrant visas remain in Afghanistan, according to the International Refugee Assistance Project.

“We have for some time been quietly but intensively planning to relocate a significant number of Afghans associated with our presence out of the country while their applications are being processed,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the White House. Other officials separately requested anonymity to describe plans that have not been officially unveiled.

The senior official said the relocations would initially focus on interpreters and translators whose visa application processes are already underway.

President Donald Trump had set the military withdrawal in motion, saying U.S. forces had become little more than “policemen” and that it was time for the Afghan government to look after itself. It was among a handful of Trump foreign policy decisions that Biden supported, although on somewhat different grounds.

Americans overwhelmingly approve of the decision to pull out, but the stakes for Biden could rise if Afghanistan implodes and he is seen to have taken his eye off the ball, analysts said.

Trump left Biden “a poison chalice” in the form of a weak and unenforceable agreement with the Taliban, the main insurgent force fighting the Afghan government and U.S. troops, said Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Trump also erred in announcing a deadline to withdraw, while Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had their own strategic failings over the course of the war, Cordesman said.

“That doesn’t mean we aren’t going to have a highly partisan contest as to who lost Afghanistan” that may come to bear during the midterm elections next year or the presidential contest in 2024, he said.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) has called Biden’s withdrawal plan “dumber than dirt” and an invitation to another Sept. 11-style attack on the United States.

Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal at the conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said a collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul would reflect poorly on Biden, but he doubts it would be a liability in the next election.

“It is unlikely that he will pay a political cost, however, as the American public and a significant part of Congress has tired of Afghanistan and largely supports his withdrawal-at-all-costs strategy.”

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani could not persuade Biden to keep even a small force of up to 3,000 in the country, as U.S. military leaders had recommended. U.S. officials said Biden will not change his mind.

That means the joint visit Friday by Ghani and his onetime political rival, peace envoy Abdullah Abdullah, is part a show of unity, part a warning to Ghani and Abdullah to put aside their differences and part negotiation over support.

“There will be a message that’s going to be delivered both publicly and privately about the need for unity, cohesion and focus on the key challenges that the Afghan government faces,” the senior U.S. official said.

“I think the president will be underscoring the importance of that, the importance of bringing all the country’s political factions to bear on the threat posed by the Taliban and deteriorating security situation.”

He added that Biden would endorse peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, which have sputtered. “It’s the only durable solution that we think exists,” the official said. “And obviously there’s going to be challenges with that, but that’s how this conflict someday is going to end.”

Biden has retained Trump’s envoy, veteran Afghan-born diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, but it is not clear how much leverage Khalilzad will have once U.S. forces are gone.

A U.S. official said that a force of 650 U.S. military personnel will remain to guard the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. ​

A defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss security plans, said the deteriorating security was alarming. “The Afghans are going to need to arrest the Taliban’s momentum soon or it’s going to become self-sustaining,” he said.

The White House invitation “would demonstrate that the United States is not simply turning tail and abandoning the country, which I think is a growing narrative,” said Lisa Curtis, director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “We see the Taliban making gains; we see the peace process going nowhere.”

The two leaders will greet Biden in the Oval Office after meetings at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. They are not expected to hold a news conference alongside Biden.

Ghani’s spokesman, Waheed Omar, said Thursday that Ghani’s mission in Washington is to meet with a variety of elected officials and other influential figures to discuss the “new chapter in bilateral relations and how it can be strengthened.” He declined to address specific issues that Ghani might raise.

Afghanistan’s quarreling leadership reaches a truce

The uptick in fighting, in which local militias have stepped up to fill a gap left by Afghan military forces, offers a stark illustration of the challenges the country’s leaders face at the close of two decades of U.S. military involvement.

Even as officials explore options for conducting surveillance and occasional airstrikes against groups such as al-Qaeda from outside Afghanistan, military leaders have said the United States will not continue air support to local forces. That cuts off an element of foreign assistance that has been a key check on the Taliban.

“What the visit reflects is the Biden administration’s recognition that at this particular moment there needs to be some clear demonstration of support for the Afghan government,” said Laurel Miller, who served as a senior official for Afghanistan in the Obama and Trump administrations. “A cloud hangs over whether the system of government the U.S. helped set up can even last.”

Ghani faces political challenges and a dearth in confidence that raises questions about the cohesion of the security forces.

It is not clear what new commitments the White House might make.

“There is some dissonance between the public rhetoric of the administration and what’s actually happening on the ground,” said Laurel Miller, who served as a senior official for Afghanistan in the Obama and Trump administrations. “It’s well and good to say, ‘We’re standing with you, the Afghan government and the Afghan people, and we value the preservation of the gains for women and others,’ but there’s not much the administration can say about what it would do to ensure those outcomes. That time has passed.”

Already, major U.S.-run facilities that were mainstays of the war have closed, including Kandahar airfield in the country’s south. Bagram, the chief U.S. air hub, has been expected to be transferred to Afghan control in coming weeks.

Carter Malkasian, who served as an adviser to Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and has written several books about Afghanistan, said there would be additional tests of the Biden administration in coming months and years.

Those could include whether and how to respond if the Taliban captures a major Afghan city or if extremist groups such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State regain strength.

“All of those hurdles we have to clear to really show we’re out of Afghanistan,” he said.

Pamela Constable contributed to this report from Kabul.