Biden set to meet Afghan leaders as drawdown moves forward

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is set to meet Friday with top Afghanistan leaders in a show of support for their government amid escalating Taliban violence and as the U.S. speeds up its withdrawal of troops to end America’s longest war.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, chair of the High Council for National Reconciliation, met at the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin before their sit down with Biden at the White House later in the afternoon. Ghani also paid a visit on his own to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday.

“The decision of President Biden has been a strategic decision,” Ghani told reporters during his visit to the U.S. Capitol ahead of meeting with Pelosi. “We respect that decision in dealing with the new chapter of our friendship.”

The Afghan leaders’ visit to Washington comes as the Biden administration is stepping up plans for withdrawal ahead of the president’s Sept. 11 deadline to end a nearly 20-year old war that has come with a breathtaking enormous cost.

More than 2,400 U.S. troops have been killed and 20,000 wounded in the war since 2001, according to the Defense Department. It’s estimated that over 3,800 U.S. private security contractors have been killed. The suffering has been even greater for Afghanistan with estimates showing more than 66,000 Afghan troops killed and more than 2.7 million forced to flee their homes — mostly to Iran.

Roughly 650 U.S. troops are expected to remain in Afghanistan to provide security for diplomats after the main American military force completes its withdrawal, which is set to be largely done in the next two weeks, U.S. officials told The Associated Press.

Moreover, several hundred additional American forces will remain at the Kabul airport, potentially until September. They’ll assist Turkish troops providing security, a temporary move until a more formal Turkey-led security operation is in place, the officials said Thursday.

Overall, officials said the U.S. expects to have American and coalition military command, its leadership, and most troops out by July Fourth, or shortly after that, meeting an aspirational deadline that commanders developed months ago.

The officials were not authorized to discuss details of the withdrawal and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.

The departure of the bulk of the more than 4,000 troops that have been in the country in recent months is unfolding well before Biden’s Sept. 11 deadline for withdrawal. And it comes amid accelerating Taliban battlefield gains, fueling fears that the Afghan government and its military could collapse in a matter of months.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking Friday in Paris, noted the increased violence and cited “a real danger” that if the Taliban tries to take the country by force, “we’ll see a renewal of a war or possibly worse.”

But, Blinken said, the Biden administration came to the conclusion that not removing U.S. troops, as the Trump administration had promised the Taliban in February 2020, would have been a bad choice. The administration believes the Taliban would have resumed attacks on U.S. forces, prompting an escalation of the war.

Blinken added that a continued U.S. presence “certainly would have helped significantly” the Kabul government. “But what is almost certain is that our military would have come to us and said, well, the situation has changed, we need more forces. And we would have repeated the cycle that we’ve been in for 20 years. And at some point, you have to say this has to stop.”

Still, Biden faces strong criticism from some Republicans for pulling out of Afghanistan, even though President Donald Trump made the 2020 deal with the Taliban to withdraw all U.S. forces by May 2021.

McConnell on Thursday charged Biden has “chosen to abandon the fight and invite even greater terrorist threats” and urged the president to delay the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki pushed back on Friday that Biden inherited an untenable situation from Trump, marked a relatively small coalition troop presence and an agreement brokered by the Trump administration and the Taliban to draw down all U.S. forces.

“That’s the hand we were dealt,” Psaki said. “The president made a decision which is consistent with his view that this was not a winnable war.”

Officials have repeatedly stressed that security at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul is a critical requirement to keeping any U.S. diplomatic staff in Afghanistan. Still, the decision to keep additional troops there for several more months makes it more complicated for the Biden administration to declare a true end to America’s longest war until later this fall.

Getting most troops out by early July had been in doubt because of complications including an outbreak of COVID-19 at the U.S. Embassy and the push to get Afghan interpreters and others who helped the U.S. out of the country. Officials said U.S. commanders and NATO allies in Afghanistan have been able to overcome logistical hurdles that might have prolonged the withdrawal process. But they also warned that plans in place for the final stages of the U.S. military withdrawal could change if airport security agreements fall through or there are other major, unforeseen developments.

The roughly 650 U.S. troops that are planned to be a more permanent force presence in Afghanistan will provide security for the U.S. Embassy and some ongoing support at the airport.

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