Speed of Taliban Advance Surprises Biden Administration, Dismays U.S. Allies
When President Biden this spring announced the decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan, his administration expected the Afghan military to defend key cities and perhaps battle the Taliban to a stalemate.
Before the current Taliban offensive, U.S. officials said they didn’t expect the takeover of any provincial capital until fall at the earliest.
Instead, a carefully planned strategy carried out by the Taliban has produced swift battlefield advances, allowing insurgents to seize a succession of provincial capitals since Friday. Three more fell Tuesday, bringing the total to nine, including several major cities.
The latest U.S. intelligence assessment said Kabul could fall to militants in as soon as a month, officials said. U.S. officials now worry that Afghan civilians, soldiers and others will flee the city ahead of a Taliban assault.
The rapid collapse of regular Afghan forces has dismayed allies, including those that have contributed troops to the U.S.-led coalition, and revived worries about the value of U.S. commitments overseas. India closed a consulate and sent a plane to retrieve its citizens this week. The U.S. military and State Department this week accelerated plans to evacuate the well-staffed American embassy if the situation in Kabul dictates it, U.S. officials said.
Afghan Foreign Minister Haneef Atmar said Tuesday the Taliban offensive violates an agreement it reached with the U.S. last year that set the stage for the American withdrawal. He urged the U.S. and others to respond with military force and sanctions.
Mr. Biden appears to be sticking to the plan to withdraw all forces by Sept. 1. “I do not regret my decision.” he told reporters Tuesday.
Some allies, foreign policy specialists and critics of the Biden policy fear that Afghanistan’s chaos will open the door for extremist groups to again flourish there and provide an opportunity for China and Russia to expand their influence.
Mr. Biden “knows from long experience that America’s actions abroad matter, but he is willingly ignoring the far-reaching consequences of America’s withdrawal in Afghanistan,” said Bradley Bowman, an Afghanistan veteran and senior director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies Center on Military and Political Power, a hawkish think tank in Washington.
“We can expect Chinese and Russian diplomats to ramp up with new credibility a whisper campaign in capitals around the world that Washington is an unreliable partner who will abandon its friends sooner or later,” he said.
The Biden administration has said that after two decades in Afghanistan, the U.S. has expended enough money and lives there, and that U.S. priorities are shifting to rebuilding at home and dealing with China and Russia.
The administration said it aimed to prevent the emergence of new terrorist threats by maintaining warplanes and counterterrorism capabilities at bases in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere outside of Afghanistan. Mr. Biden has pledged diplomatic, financial and other assistance to the Afghan government.
“Afghan leaders have to come together,” Mr. Biden said Tuesday. “They’ve got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation.”
Others in the administration challenged the notion that a small U.S. force of several thousand could have stalled or stopped the Taliban advance.
The Taliban’s swift takeover of swaths of Afghanistan, plotted for years, hinged on staging forces around the country ready to move on provincial capitals as soon as the U.S.-led coalition announced its exit, according to Pentagon officials.
After May 1, when the U.S. withdrawal began, those Taliban forces that had been lying in wait began fighting Afghan forces and intimidating local leaders in an effort to control district centers, the nation’s basic administrative units. In April, the Taliban controlled 73 districts—out of 421 nationwide. By August, insurgents controlled 222 and were contesting another 114.
With the districts in their hands, the Taliban surrounded many provincial capitals and began tightening the noose, the U.S. officials said. Among the major centers that have fallen since Friday’s offensive is the northern city of Kunduz. Others appeared vulnerable to collapse.
Afghanistan moved some of its special forces to fend off attacks on Lashkar Gah, Herat and Kandahar last week, a diversion that allowed the Taliban to take control of other provincial capitals, U.S. defense officials said.
Each time a provincial capital falls, the Taliban gain a psychological victory, the defense officials said. They also pick up arms and equipment left behind or won from Afghan national security forces, and open prisons, freeing inmates to join their cause, the officials said.
“Every Afghan, they are really up to here with Americans,” said Ahmad Wali Massoud, a former Afghan ambassador to London and the brother of a legendary mujahedeen commander who fought Soviet troops. “You came to Afghanistan to root out terrorism. What happened?”
The U.S. invaded Afghanistan to drive out the al Qaeda operatives who plotted the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The mission soon expanded to rebuilding the country and propping up a government and military aligned with U.S. security interests. That objective, however, foundered.
As the Taliban gained ground, Mr. Biden’s predecessors considered leaving. President Donald Trump reached an agreement with the Taliban on withdrawal early last year that stipulated the Afghan government release up to 5,000 of its prisoners. That included Taliban who rejoined the fight.
Afghan security forces relied heavily on firepower and support from the U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as well as on thousands of U.S.-funded contractors to repair and maintain their fleet of aircraft, armored vehicles and other equipment.
With allied forces and contractors now gone, the meager pay to Afghan soldiers and police fighting the Taliban isn’t enough to sustain their loyalty in the face of a Taliban onslaught.
U.S. officials said divisions inside the Afghan government over how to counter the Taliban emerged after Mr. Biden’s announcement in April.
Some civilian national security leaders close to President Ashraf Ghani argued early on, against the advice of the American military, that government forces should cede no ground to the Taliban. The decision left troops and special forces stretched thin across the country, unable to defend more strategic cities and districts now under siege or already taken.
On Monday, a small group of senior national security and foreign policy officials met at the White House to discuss removing personnel from the embassy in Kabul, U.S. officials said.
State Department officials and others argued for as large a presence as possible, the officials said, but military officials warned that the more Americans who remained, the fewer options there would be to retrieve them.
A top U.S. envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, arrived in Doha on Monday for talks with Afghan government officials and Taliban representatives. which are flailing with the Taliban advance, according to U.S. officials.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday said the talks were “the only process that will bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.”
Afghanistan policy specialists and former officials see them as futile.
“It should be very clear by now that the Taliban are not interested in negotiating a peaceful solution to Afghanistan,” said Lisa Curtis, who served as an Afghanistan policy adviser to Mr. Trump. “They are going toward a military solution and anyone who can’t see that is blind, deaf and dumb.”
European allies in the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan are critical of the way the withdrawal is being handled but haven’t called on the U.S. to change course or offered to contribute their own troops. Some say they understand there is no desire within the Biden administration to reconsider the decision. “It’s done,” one European official said.
Instead, they are asking for U.S. help to evacuate their embassy personnel should the Taliban sweep through Kabul, one European official said.
U.S. allies worry about the consequences of the withdrawal, including the rise of terrorism, a blow to democracy and women’s rights and the erosion of Western influence around the world. For Middle East allies Saudi Arabia and Israel, shifting U.S. priorities compound concerns about how much they can rely on Washington’s support to counter the influence of Iran, China and Russia in the region.
Mr. Biden in late January froze the sale to Saudi Arabia of precision-guided munitions that have caused widespread civilian casualties in Saudi-led air assaults in Yemen. The U.S. also is removing some military capabilities and troops from the Gulf region, part of a global realignment of forces.
After the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, other countries in the region may also be more vulnerable to China and Russia, said Yaacov Amidror, a former national security adviser in the Israeli government.
“We cannot be sure that when the Americans will be needed they’ll be here to help,” said Mr. Amidror, now a fellow for the Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security of America