Biden Sends Dueling Messages on Afghanistan

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WASHINGTON – To listen to the White House and Pentagon, the withdrawal of the last American combat troops from Bagram Air Base is not the end of the mission in Afghanistan. At least that was the signal to the Afghans.

The US military will continue to assist the Afghan armed forces, only via teleconference from a distance. Armed air force drones will continue to hunt terrorists from Al Qaeda and Islamic State, only from bases eight hours away on the Persian Gulf. The Biden government is still planning to provide more than $ 3 billion in security aid to the Afghan government, only with less oversight in the country to prevent corruption.

In reality, however, much has changed in the three months since President Biden ordered most of the 3,500 American troops to evacuate by September 11th. There are no longer any Americans on the ground who advise and support Afghan troops. Few of the 18,000 Pentagon contractors will be left to repair the Afghan Air Force and its fleet of US-supplied Black Hawk helicopters. Only two other NATO military allies remain – Turkey and Great Britain – and most of their troops will be hidden in fortified embassy buildings or secure Kabul International Airport, the country’s last great gateway.

In his speech on Friday, Mr Biden underscored the dueling messages of his administration, which sought to reassure the American public that their so-called Eternal Wars are at least coming to an end militarily, while at the same time trying to convince the beleaguered Afghans to leave the United States not leaving the country at a moment when intelligence analysts estimate the government could overturn a resurgent Taliban in just six months.

When asked if the troop withdrawal he ordered in April was almost complete, Biden said that some troops would remain – mainly to secure the US embassy in Kabul – but that “we are right where we are we expected ”. Retreat.

When asked about the risks of the withdrawal, Mr. Biden said, “Look, we’ve been in this war for 20 years. 20 years. “He added,” Afghans must be able to do it themselves with the air force that they have. “

This was the same message Mr Biden conveyed to President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan during his visit to the White House last week. Pentagon officials said Friday that a few hundred contractors would stay through August – a few months longer than expected – but after that they would remotely fix maintenance issues or bring planes to Persian Gulf countries for major repairs as needed.

Urged by reporters to elaborate on Afghanistan, Mr. Biden interrupted a questioner and said, “I want to talk about happy things,” later citing Friday’s optimistic job report.

Mr. Biden remains determined in his election, say top aides. According to an Associated Press / NORC poll last year, only 12 percent of Americans said they were listening closely to news related to the US presence in Afghanistan.

His decision to withdraw American troops by September 11th is one of the most significant of his presidency to date, a deeply personal calculation that “comes from the gut,” as one official put it. And despite the specter of dire intelligence reports and the likelihood of horrific images of human suffering and loss facing the White House in the coming weeks and months, Mr Biden has vowed to move forward regardless of the conditions on the ground.

Administrative officials said at least three main factors influenced Mr. Biden’s calculation. First, there was a good chance that the peace talks in Doha, Qatar, between the Taliban and the Afghan government would not be successful. This was largely predetermined by the Trump administration’s failure to hold the Taliban accountable to the terms of an agreement signed in February 2020, government officials said.

The second important factor was that if the United States failed to honor the peace accord and abandoned it, all remaining US forces would be attacked – a result that the Taliban had generally avoided since the deal was signed. Under the new scenario, the American Air Force could keep the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Islamic State in check, but there would be no clear political end in sight to a campaign that American commanders had long since decided that could not be won alone military power.

Eventually, American intelligence officials told Biden that the threat posed by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to the United States’ homeland has greatly decreased – and that it will likely take at least two years to re-establish.

Updated

July 2, 2021, 3:38 p.m. ET

To keep this threat at bay, the Pentagon has already deployed armed MQ-9 Reaper drones on bases in the Persian Gulf to keep watch. But the long distances they have to travel are costly and risky. “It will be extremely difficult, but it is not impossible,” General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., head of the military’s central command, told Congress in April.

Conditions in Afghanistan continue to deteriorate, leading to dismal assessments from intelligence analysts and current and former commanders.

“Afghanistan’s army and police will be operational for a certain period of time with material support,” said Karl W. Eikenberry, who commanded the American armed forces in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007 and later served as US ambassador to Afghanistan. “But eventually, when the central government splinters and warlordism returns and Afghanistan’s neighbors begin to support their own favorite militias, the Afghan security forces will collapse.”

Mr Biden’s decision is fraught with political risks at home as well. The president tried to defuse one of the more politically sensitive issues when he announced last week that his administration would begin moving thousands of Afghan interpreters, drivers, and others who have worked with American forces out of the country to assist them during the Application to protect entry into the US.

“Those who have helped us are not left behind,” Biden told reporters at the White House last week.

The White House has come under severe pressure to protect Afghan allies from Taliban revenge attacks and to accelerate the lengthy and complex process of providing special immigrant visas. Officials said the Afghans may be relocated to Guam or some other location with close ties to the United States to await processing of their visa applications to enter the United States. Many other logistical details still have to be ironed out, officials said on Friday.

The withdrawal of troops from Bagram has been criticized by Republican lawmakers who have warned that America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is a strategic mistake as the Pentagon faces new security threats from Beijing, Moscow and Tehran.

“As our only base between China, Russia and Iran, it is a tremendous strategic advantage,” said Representative Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican who served as the Army Green Beret in Afghanistan, in a Twitter message late Thursday. “Why are we just giving it away?”

“It is by far the greatest symbol of our 20 years of blood and treasure that we have spent on all of the veterans who have served there,” Waltz said in what is likely a common refrain for Republicans going to the midterm elections next year.

However, some current and former military commanders questioned how popular Afghanistan would be with voters.

Jeffrey J. Schloesser, a retired two-star Army general who commanded US forces in eastern Afghanistan from 2008 to 2009, contemplated a conflict that involved three generations of his family. His father, a veteran, worked as a Defense Ministry contractor in Afghanistan. His son served there as an officer in the Army Special Operations Forces.

General Schlösser, the author of the new book “Marathon War: Leadership in Combat in Afghanistan,” expressed disappointment at Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw American troops and predicted that Afghanistan would turn into civil war. But he acknowledged that his views may not be widespread.

“The general population in America has forgotten Afghanistan, unless they have lost someone they know there,” said General Schlösser. “The vast majority of Americans don’t pay attention.”

In the end, it could be what Mr Biden is betting on.