Biden sends duelling messages on Afghanistan

An American soldier sitting on a CH-47 Chinook helicopter flying over Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, on May 2, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - To listen to the White House and Pentagon, the exit of the last United States combat troops from Bagram Air Base is not the end of the mission in Afghanistan. At least that was the signal to the Afghans.

The US military will still help Afghan forces, just by teleconference from afar. Armed air force drones will still hunt Al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group terrorists, just from bases eight hours away in the Persian Gulf.

The Biden administration still plans to provide the Afghan government more than US$3 billion (S$4 billion) in security assistance, just with not as much oversight in the country to prevent corruption.

In reality, however, much has changed in the three months since President Joe Biden ordered most of the 3,500 US troops to leave by Sept 11.

There are no more Americans on the ground to advise and assist Afghan troops. Few of the 18,000 Pentagon contractors will remain to repair Afghanistan's air force and its fleet of American-supplied Black Hawk helicopters.

Only two other Nato military allies are staying - Turkey and Britain - and most of their troops will be holed up in fortified embassy compounds or securing Kabul International Airport, the last major gateway out of the country.

Speaking on Friday (July 2), Mr Biden underscored his administration's duelling messages as it sought to reassure the American public that its so-called forever wars are winding down, at least militarily, while trying to convince beleaguered Afghans that the US is not abandoning the country at a moment when intelligence analysts assess that the government could fall in as few as six months to a resurgent Taliban.

Asked whether the troop withdrawal he ordered in April was nearly finished, Mr Biden said that some troops would remain - mainly to secure the US Embassy in Kabul - but that "we're on track exactly where we expected to be" on the withdrawal.

Questioned about the risks of the pullout, Mr Biden said: "Look, we were in that war for 20 years. Twenty years."

He added: "The Afghans are going to have to be able to do it themselves with the air force they have."

That was the same message Mr Biden conveyed to President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, during his visit to the White House last week.

Pentagon officials said on Friday that a few hundred contractors would stay to August - a couple of months longer than expected - but after that they would troubleshoot maintenance issues from afar or bring aircraft out, as needed, for major repairs in Persian Gulf countries.

Pressed by reporters to elaborate on Afghanistan, Mr Biden cut off a questioner, saying: "I want to talk about happy things." He later cited Friday's upbeat jobs report.

Mr Biden remains resolute in his choice, top aides say.

According to an Associated Press/NORC poll last year, only 12 per cent of Americans said they were closely following news related to the US presence in Afghanistan.

His decision to withdraw US troops by Sept 11 is one of the most significant of his presidency so far, a deeply personal calculation that comes "from the gut", as one official put it.

And despite the spectre of gloomy intelligence reports and the likelihood the White House will confront terrible images of human suffering and loss in the coming weeks and months, Mr Biden has vowed to press ahead regardless of the conditions on the ground.

Administration officials said at least three major factors had influenced Mr Biden's calculus. First was the strong likelihood that peace talks in Doha, Qatar, between the Taleban and the Afghan government would not succeed.

That was largely preordained by the Trump administration's failure to hold the Taleban accountable to the terms of a deal signed in February last year, administration officials said.

The second major factor was that if the US did not honour the peace agreement and left, any remaining US forces would come under attack - an outcome the Taliban had generally avoided since signing the deal.

Under the new scenario, US air power could keep the Taleban, as well as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group, at bay, but there would be no clear political end in sight to a campaign that US commanders concluded long ago could not be won by military might alone.

Finally, US intelligence officials told Mr Biden that the threat Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group posed to the US homeland had been greatly diminished - and was likely to take at least two years to reconstitute.

To keep that threat in check, the Pentagon has already stationed armed MQ-9 Reaper drones at bases in the Persian Gulf to keep watch. But the long distances they must travel are costly and riskier.

"It's going to be extremely difficult to do, but it is not impossible," General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr, the head of the military's Central Command, told Congress in April.

Conditions in Afghanistan continue to worsen, prompting grim assessments from intelligence analysts as well as current and former commanders.

"Afghanistan's army and police, with material assistance, will be able to function for a period of time," said Mr Karl W. Eikenberry, who commanded US forces in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, and later served as US ambassador to Afghanistan. "But eventually, if the central government fragments and warlordism returns, and Afghanistan's neighbours begin to support their own favourite militias, the Afghan security forces will collapse."

Mr Biden's decision is also fraught with political risks at home. The President sought to defuse one of the politically volatile issues when he announced last week that his administration would begin moving thousands of Afghan interpreters, drivers and others who worked with US forces out of the country, in an effort to keep them safe while they apply for entry to the US.

"Those who helped us are not going to be left behind," Mr Biden told reporters at the White House last week.

The White House has come under heavy pressure to protect Afghan allies from revenge attacks by the Taleban and speed up the lengthy and complex process of providing them special immigrant visas.

Officials said the Afghans would be relocated possibly to Guam or somewhere else with close ties to the US, to await the processing of their visa requests to move to America. Many other logistical details must still be ironed out, officials said on Friday.

The departure of troops from Bagram drew criticism from Republican lawmakers who have warned that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a strategic blunder as the Pentagon is facing new security threats from China, Russia and Iran.

"As our only base sandwiched between China, Russia and Iran, it's a huge strategic asset," Republican Representative Michael Waltz, who served in Afghanistan as an Army Green Beret, said in a Twitter message late on Thursday.

"Why are we just giving it away? It's by far the biggest symbol of our 20 years of blood and treasure we have expended for all veterans that have served there," Mr Waltz said, in what is likely to be a common refrain for Republicans going into next year's midterm elections.

But some current and former military commanders questioned how much Afghanistan would resonate with voters.

Mr Jeffrey J. Schloesser, a retired two-star Army general who commanded US forces in eastern Afghanistan from 2008 to 2009, reflected on a conflict that involved three generations of his family.

His father, a veteran, served as a Defence Department contractor in Afghanistan. His son served there as an Army Special Operations Forces officer.

Mr Schloesser, the author of a new book, Marathon War: Leadership In Combat In Afghanistan, expressed disappointment with Mr Biden's decision to withdraw US troops, and predicted that Afghanistan would devolve into civil war. But he acknowledged his views might not be widespread.

"The broader population in America has forgotten about Afghanistan, unless they lost someone they know there," Mr Schloesser said. "The vast majority of Americans aren't paying attention."

In the end, that may be what Mr Biden is betting on.

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