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On the day the Taliban claimed its ninth Afghan provincial capital in quick succession, the Biden administration had a singular message for Kabul: fight back.
Sweeping gains by the ultraconservative Islamist militancy have outpaced expectations in Washington, raising the spectre of a Taliban takeover as the US pulls out its final troops.
“I do not regret my decision,” Joe Biden said on Tuesday of his order to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan in a bid to end America’s longest war. Instead, he came close to rebuking the Afghan nation the US has spent billions supporting. “They have got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation,” he said.
Biden said the Taliban would have directly targeted American troops if the US had stayed, and that the only way to deliver peace and security was for Kabul to “work out a modus vivendi with the Taliban”, insisting takeover by the Islamists was not “inevitable”.
Critics instead argue Washington’s efforts to shepherd such an outcome into existence have relied on a wrong-headed assessment of the Taliban.
“The US, starting under Trump and now president Biden, has miscalculated and poorly executed all facets of its Afghanistan policy,” said Asfandyar Mir, a security analyst who just returned from Kabul. “The peace process is basically not going anywhere right now.”
Detractors said one misapprehension was that the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan in the late-1990s until it was deposed in the 2001 US invasion that followed the 9/11 attacks, would forsake a military route to power and negotiate a peace process in good faith.
In 2020, Washington struck a deal with the Taliban that circumvented the Kabul government now suffering its consequences. The US pressured Kabul into freeing 5,494 Taliban prisoners as a confidence-building measure. Adela Raz, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the US, told the Financial Times that release was “the biggest mistake”. At least 720 of those released returned to the battlefield, according to Afghan officials quoted in a June UN report.
The report indicated the Taliban established positions near several provincial capitals last year in preparation for the eventual departure of foreign troops. Its fighters were then responsible for “unprecedented violence” at the start of 2021, it said.
The Biden administration stresses that Afghan national security forces have the numerical advantage: more than 300,000 fighters to the Taliban’s 75,000 or so. But a former senior US intelligence official who blames Taliban advances on “the very hasty” US departure said the psychological effect of losses of provincial capitals could lead to an acceleration of its campaign.
The US argues a power-sharing deal would avoid a protracted civil war or international pariah status should the Taliban force its way to power. Last week, while the US said the Taliban may be guilty of war crimes, officials also pressed the extremist group to seek “normalcy with the rest of the world”.
“Nowadays they do want to receive assistance, they say they want to get off the various lists that put restrictions on travel for them,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, US special representative for Afghanistan, who struck the 2020 deal.
Many say the group has access to international legitimacy elsewhere: Taliban leaders recently visited China, Russia and Iran. “The international community created a stage for legitimising a terrorist group,” said Raz, mourning leverage she said had fallen away.
The final misapprehension may be the most dangerous for the US. Biden argued that al-Qaeda, the jihadi group that launched the 9/11 attacks and triggered America’s global war on terror, was so degraded the US could stomach the risks of withdrawal.
Latest estimates put al-Qaeda numbers at a maximum of 500. But the UN report notes extensive ties with the Taliban. The report said the wife of a former al-Qaeda branch leader was among those released from prison last year, that al-Qaeda is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces, is shielded by the Taliban and celebrates US withdrawal as a major victory.
The former senior US intelligence official said the Taliban onslaught could lead to the establishment of an ultra-conservative Islamist emirate and the resurgence of al-Qaeda, even if it might not pose any threat to the US homeland “for some time”.
Most US public declarations had been “hollow and disingenuous at best”, the former official said, adding that the mistaken US assessment of the Taliban came down to something simple: “Wishful thinking seeking to provide a justification to leave.”