US President Joe Biden received a briefing “on the ongoing efforts to safely draw down the civilian footprint in Afghanistan” from the comfort of his home in Wilmington, Delaware, on Friday.
He then flew to the presidential retreat Camp David for the weekend even as the Taliban took control of two thirds of the country and half its provincial capitals as the US military withdrawal continues.
The dire humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan has provided ample fodder for the president’s Republican opponents, while members of his own party remain largely silent.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that “Afghanistan is careening towards a massive, predictable and preventable disaster” and he called on Mr Biden to provide close-air support to the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces following the US withdrawal.
“The Biden administration has reduced US officials to pleading with Islamic extremists to spare our embassy as they prepare to overrun Kabul,” Mr McConnell said. “Unless President Biden adjusts course quickly, the Taliban are on track to secure a significant military victory."
Mike McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also lambasted the Biden administration for putting “all their hopes in peace negotiations” with the Taliban “that have not delivered any results".
“He will be abandoning our Afghan partners and the women of Afghanistan to be slaughtered — and he will own the horrific images that come from it,” Mr McCaul said.
Publicly, the Pentagon has blamed Afghan security forces for the situation even as the Biden administration sent 3,000 additional troops to enable a diplomatic drawdown from the embassy in Kabul — 500 more than the 2,500 US soldiers that Mr Biden initially withdrew.
James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, also criticised the president for the withdrawal but endorsed the latest troop deployment, urging the administration to “move as swiftly as possible to get both American civilians and Afghans who have aided us out of the country as quickly as possible".
For their part, Democratic leaders in Congress have mostly refrained from commenting on the crisis, except for House Armed Services Committee chairman Adam Smith, who had previously endorsed the president’s withdrawal announcement in April as “the right policy decision".
“The reduction of our embassy staff in and the relocation of the embassy from Kabul is a pragmatic step given the ongoing security situation in the country,” said Mr Smith. “The deployment of additional US troops to facilitate this reduction is similarly prudent.”
Mr Biden ignored the official recommendations and warnings of the congressionally mandated Afghanistan Study Group when he ordered the withdrawal in April. The report cautioned against leaving the country without placing conditions on the Taliban.
Still, Scott Worden, director for Afghanistan and Central Asia at the US Institute of Peace — which hosted the Afghanistan Study Group — noted that the speed at which the Taliban have rapidly seized territory on the road to Kabul has surpassed even the most dire assessments.
“The underlying causes of the Taliban’s rapid advance were discussed [in the Afghanistan Study Group report],” Mr Worden told The National. “Those include an unconditional and accelerated withdrawal of US forces, ethnic divisions within the Afghan Republic and continued support for the Taliban by outside powers.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby argued that the Afghan security forces still maintain the advantage despite their drastic losses, noting that they outnumber their opponents, with 300,000 fighters to the Taliban’s 75,000.
“That the Taliban have moved with the speed that they have, that the resistance they have faced has been insufficient to stop those advances does not mean that these advantages are still not there,” said Mr Kirby. “You have to use it, you have to be able to apply it.”
“They have an air force, a capable air force, which by the way is flying more air strikes than we are every day. They have equipment. They have an organisational structure.”
But Mr Worden argued that while the Afghan security forces are better equipped on paper, “the X factor has been psychological".
“The fact that President Biden ordered a complete withdrawal of US troops surprised a lot of political actors in Afghanistan and Afghan citizens,” said Mr Worden. “They were not expecting that.
“And the accelerated pace of the withdrawal caused them to really doubt whether there would be future financial assistance to the military and government.”
Still, the State Department maintains the White House’s messaging that it will continue to stand behind the embattled Afghan government, fiercely denying reports that Secretary of State Antony Blinken had asked Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to resign.
“The United States has not asked President Ghani to resign and rumours indicating we have done so are completely false,” a State Department representative told The National. “Decisions about who leads the country are for Afghans to make.”
But whether Mr Ghani even has much of a role to play in Afghanistan’s future appears largely up to the Taliban at this point.
“Kabul is under serious threat from Taliban advances,” said Mr Worden.
“The fundamental question is will the Taliban agree to a deal where they achieve a dominant role in an interim government in exchange for a ceasefire and not attacking Kabul by force or do they calculate that they can achieve total power over the country through continuing a military advance?”