Afghanistan’s Ghani to seek assurances from Biden as US rushes to end its longest war

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell called on the Biden administration to slow the US withdrawal

epa09299240 President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani (C) is hosted by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (L) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) on Capitol Hill, in Washington, DC, USA, 24 June 2021.  EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS
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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani arrived in Washington on Thursday ahead of his summit with President Joe Biden, seeking assurances on America's commitment to Afghanistan ahead of the looming September deadline for a full US withdrawal.

Accompanied by his former political rival Abdullah Abdullah, who is now overseeing stalled peace talks with the Taliban, Mr Ghani met with top lawmakers including Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.

A long-time opponent of plans to withdraw from Afghanistan, Mr McConnell warned of a Taliban takeover if the pace of the pull out is not slowed.

“The Taliban, emboldened by our retreat, is rolling back years of progress, especially for the rights of Afghan women, on its way to taking Kabul. Increasing indications that this collapse could come soon after US withdrawal is complete are as tragic as they are avoidable,” Mr McConnell said.

“I hope the Biden administration will delay the withdrawal, address these concerns, and reconsider its misguided retreat,” he added.

There's no indication this will happen, and the Pentagon has already completed more than 50 per cent of its withdrawal as it rushes to end America's longest war.

The Associated Press reported on Thursday that most of the withdrawal will be completed within the next fortnight, though several hundred US troops will remain at the Kabul airport and the Pentagon will leave about 650 American forces in Afghanistan after September to protect diplomats.

Democrats in Congress are also expressing fears over Taliban gains.

Bob Menendez, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said his meeting with Mr Ghani discussed steps “to protect women and girls given recent Taliban military advances and how the US can support stability in Afghanistan.”

The White House is emphasising the need for political dialogue among different Afghan factions.

The Biden administration “continues to fully support the ongoing peace process and encourages all Afghan parties to participate meaningfully in negotiations to bring an end to the conflict,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week.

But talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban that started in Doha last year have made almost no tangible progress and observers worry the insurgents are running down the clock until the US departure from Afghanistan,

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is planning on relocating an unspecified number of Afghans who assisted the US military's invasion and occupation of the country before American forces finish their withdrawal later this year, administration officials said on Thursday.

“We are identifying SIV applicants who served as interpreters, as well as translators, to be relocated outside of Afghanistan before we complete our military drawdown,” State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter told reporters, referring to Special Immigrant Visa applicants.

The move comes as the White House and top Biden administration officials are increasingly under pressure to say how they intend to aid Afghan allies who could face retaliation after American forces leave in the coming months and the Taliban seek to take control of the war-torn country.

Republican and Democrats on Capitol Hill have criticised the administration for not having a plan in place.

President Joe Biden said that “those who helped us are not going to be left behind,” but he added he didn’t know which country would host them if they aren’t sent to US territory.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, said he expected a tepid White House summit.

“It’s going to come down to a series of conversations, many of them quite glum,” he said.

Mr Ghani, he said, “will be looking for reassurance from President Biden that the US remains committed to providing diplomatic support for the peace price and financial assistance for the Afghan military.”

But Mr Kugelman argued it “won’t be a happy conversation. While Kabul has accepted the fact that US forces are leaving, it’s tough to swallow given that the withdrawal is playing out against an unprecedented Taliban offensive.”

Asked about calls to slow the pace of the withdrawal, Mr Kugelman said “there’s little the Americans can do. They’re on their way out, and an agreement with the Taliban limits their options for targeting the insurgents on the battlefield.”

At most, Mr Biden can assure Mr Ghani that the withdrawal won’t be complete until September.

“It will give Kabul and Afghan security forces some breathing room, and it will help strengthen morale, at least for a short period,” the expert said.

Bloomberg contributed to this report.