Biden's meeting with Afghan leaders must be more than a photo op

The Taliban are taking ground at an alarming rate, but the US still plans to withdraw soon
epa09295166 Afghan civilians show arms as they stand by Afghan security forces to defend their regions, in Guzara district of Herat, Afghanistan, 23 June 2021. Around 500 residents of Guzara district of Herat province took arms to defend their areas against militants attack and violence. President Ashraf Ghani will travel to the United States on Thursday and seek military assistance amid surging violence and territorial loss to the Taliban.  EPA/JALIL REZAYEE

In 2001, Afghans saw an end to five years of Taliban rule over 90 per cent of their country when the militants were removed by a US-led coalition. In a matter of days, western forces turned the extremist group from national rulers into an insurgency on the back foot.

Now, as the Biden administration and its allies push ahead with plans for a near total withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban are the closest they have been in 20 years to seizing power again.

Tomorrow, US President Joe Biden will meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the head of Afghanistan's high council for national reconciliation, in the White House to discuss America's withdrawal in light of this new surge, and will probably seek to reassure them that history will not repeat itself. According to the UN, the Taliban have already seized more than 50 districts in Afghanistan. With Afghan forces already struggling to contain the group's surge, the case for a US departure – planned for September 11 – seems weaker by the day.

epa09295168 Afghan civilians show arms as they vow to fight side by side with the Afghan security forces to defend their regions, in Guzara district of Herat, Afghanistan, 23 June 2021. Around 500 residents of Guzara district of Herat province took arms to defend their areas against militants attack and violence. President Ashraf Ghani will travel to the United States on Thursday and seek military assistance amid surging violence and territorial loss to the Taliban.  EPA/JALIL REZAYEE
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Self-styled local defence forces, a new generation of militias, are on the rise

The US is estimated to have spent more than $2.2 trillion on its Afghan military campaign. A Taliban takeover would be a tragedy for citizens and for the international community, which has invested staggering amounts of money and the lives of thousands of troops in what was a flawed, but ultimately noble mission to keep tyranny and terrorism at bay.

None of today's decline was inevitable; it is as much the product of mistakes made by Afghanistan's foreign security guarantors as it is a product of mismanagement within the government they helped to create. Stepping away from America's "forever wars" is winning domestic support for Mr Biden. But if Afghanistan becomes another base for international terrorists – the Taliban focus primarily on ruling domestically, but have been happy to welcome groups whose targets are abroad – a short-term vote winner might start to seem like a rash and lethal mistake. And it will look positively wasteful if the US and its allies return prematurely.

Mr Biden has said he will reaffirm his government's commitment to offering economic, diplomatic and humanitarian support. The Afghan delegation will probably be wondering what exactly this means. All too often in the history of western campaigns, military withdrawal is a precursor to political disengagement, too. Without a serious assessment of today's realities, the meeting could become nothing more than a photo opportunity. There is little time for that now.

A Taliban takeover, moreover, will not be a singular catastrophe. Many citizens will not tolerate returning to the oppression of old. Their readiness to defend themselves through the use of force, when the fragile state could not, may have irreversible consequences. Self-styled local defence forces, a new generation of militias, are on the rise. Having dozens of new armed groups would make a tough situation impossibly complex to solve.

Afghanistan's stability contributes to regional, even global security. It is also home to almost 40 million people who have the greatest interest in a stable country. The atrocities and horror of Taliban rule more than 20 years ago have been well documented. If the international community allows Afghanistan to slip, Afghans will be denied the chance to prosper and tell the world of the promise their country holds.