'Alternate reality:' Biden on defensive as Taliban advance, Afghanistan crumbles

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The Biden administration is scrambling this week to defend its rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan amid a string of Taliban victories that have left the nation’s fragile central government apparently barreling toward collapse.

With Taliban fighters now targeting provincial capitals as the final U.S. troops exit the country, foreign policy analysts say that President Biden and his aides have been caught flat-footed by how quickly Afghanistan has spiraled out of control without American troops and air power as a fail-safe against insurgent gains.

The Pentagon‘s insistence that it can keep an eye on developments inside Afghanistan — including the real possibility that terrorist groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State will find new bases for operations — from “over the horizon” once American and allied forces are gone is also facing a severe early test.

Messaging from the administration this week has tiptoed around the reality that, absent a major turnaround, the Taliban is on track to rout Afghan security forces within months, on pace to control key population centers, and may be eyeing an eventual assault on the capital, Kabul, where Washington will maintain an embassy protected by hundreds of Marines as part of a symbolic commitment to the country.

While it was former President Donald Trump who set the U.S. on the path to withdrawal after 20 years of war, Mr. Biden stuck to that plan despite growing evidence that the Taliban was intent on gaining power through sheer violence while also maintaining close ties with terrorist groups such as al Qaeda.

U.S. and other attempts to broker a power-sharing deal between the Islamist Taliban and the struggling U.S.-backed government in Kabul have made little progress.

Top officials in the Trump and Biden administrations were well aware of the risks of withdrawal — and powerful military commanders under both presidents argued against it — but the speed with which Afghanistan has deteriorated has left a stunned White House scrambling for answers.

“Alternate reality is the best way to put it. They don’t want to admit that the decision President Biden made has put the Afghan government on the path to collapse, and it’s happening in a time frame they didn’t expect,” said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who closely tracks the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

The administration, Mr. Roggio said, “hoped to get a decent interval … maybe the Afghan government and the Taliban, they’re fighting, but maybe there’s a slow burn. If the government collapses in a year or two, everyone can shrug their shoulders. But what’s happening now directly pins the blame on the Biden administration, assuming the Afghan government does collapse.”

“They’re spinning Afghanistan and trying to tell us that what we can all see happening isn’t happening,” Mr. Roggio said in an interview. “That’s the bottom line.”

On Wednesday, Taliban fighters entered Qala-e-Naw, the capital of northwest Afghanistan‘s Badghis province, Afghan officials told regional media. It’s the first Taliban assault on a provincial capital after months of consolidating power in more rural areas.

“The enemy has entered the city, all the districts have fallen. The fighting has started inside the city,” Badghis Gov. Hessamuddin Shams told the Al Jazeera news outlet Wednesday.

The shift toward provincial capitals suggests that the Taliban is emboldened by the American withdrawal, which the Pentagon says is now more than 90% complete. About 3,500 U.S. troops and thousands more NATO forces were in the country earlier this year before Mr. Biden‘s decision in April to proceed with the pullout.

The Taliban‘s shockingly fast advance across the country has directly coincided with the U.S. and NATO exit. The Taliban now control at least 188 districts in Afghanistan compared to just 75 under clear government control, according to Mr. Roggio, according to Mr. Roggio, who tracks the war in Afghanistan as part of FDD’s Long War Journal project. The Taliban and Afghan government are contesting another 135 districts, though many of those could also fall within the coming weeks.

While some analysts argue the Taliban insurgency will encounter trouble taking and holding major urban centers like Kabul, recent U.S. intelligence assessments have concluded that the Afghan government itself could fall within six months. In such a worst-case scenario, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley recently estimated that it would take just two years for al Qaeda to regroup in Afghanistan to the point that it could plot terrorist attacks against the U.S. and Europe.

‘Surreal expectations’

Even as the Taliban capture more territory each day, the Biden administration argues that the insurgent group’s strategy ultimately will fail. State Department spokesman Ned Price on Tuesday said the administration is urging the Taliban to continue its diplomatic talks with the Afghan government in Doha, Qatar. Holding such talks was a key part of the withdrawal agreement the Taliban struck with Mr. Trump last year, and withdrawal supporters are holding out hope the two sides will peacefully form a coalition government.

“It is absolutely true that a political solution is the only way, again, to achieve that just and durable outcome that all parties want and all parties seem to understand is the only end to 40 years of conflict,” Mr. Price told reporters. “It’s also true, again, that any government that comes to power at the barrel of a gun through force is not one that will have popular support, it is not one that will accrue assistance from the international community, it is not one that will have international legitimacy. And for all those reasons, it is almost certainly not one that will have durability.”

Pressed on why any observer would believe the Taliban is interested in international legitimacy given the violence unfolding before everyone’s eyes, Mr. Price said the administration will be watching closely to see if the group lives up to promises it made to reduce attacks and cut ties with terrorists.

“It’s the outcomes that we’re interested in, and that’s what we’ll be watching for,” Mr. Price said.

But foreign policy analysts say it’s increasingly clear the administration wasn’t prepared for the Taliban‘s recent successes. They also argue that under both Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden, it’s been foolish and dangerous to take the insurgent group at its word. 

“I do not think the Taliban have ever shown genuine interest in reform or power-sharing,” said Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “Showing up for talks helped coax us to leave militarily and may increase the odds of diplomatic recognition if they win the war. But I don’t think they are sincere, and nor do I sense the Biden administration thought through the drawdown, as evidenced by … surreal expectations, or at least statements, about the peace process and its promise.”

And there are some who argue the Taliban, who have their own ethnic and ideological divisions, will be like the dog that finally caught the car — and doesn’t know what to do with it.

“The critical thing about the Taliban is that they’ve not given much thought as to what system they actually want after a settlement or after what appears to be their strategy of military takeover,” said Ahmad Shuja Jamal, head of international affairs and regional cooperation on Afghanistan’s National Security Council, told Foreign Policy.com. “And that is a problem because it can actually bring to the fore the cleavages that are in the Taliban [that] are very easy to see.”

Meanwhile, there are other signs of chaos around the U.S. withdrawal. Afghan officials complained last weekend about the American exit from Bagram Airfield, a key logistical and symbolic site in the 20-year Afghan war. Afghan officials said they weren’t told the details of the departure from Bagram until after U.S. forces had already left, potentially creating a security vulnerability. 

Pentagon officials said that while some details around the exact date and time of the exit were kept hidden, the process was carried out in conjunction with Afghan forces.

“The transfer of Bagram was fully coordinated with the government of Afghanistan to include the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces and the Afghan Civil Aviation Authority,” said Defense Department spokesman Army Maj. Rob Lodewick. “Walk-throughs conducted mere days before our departure window identified infrastructure and associated responsibilities to be transferred to Afghan control. These included electricity and water services which, upon the final transfer of a base, become the responsibility of Afghan forces.”

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