A ‘Saigon moment’: Biden feels political heat as chaos looms in Afghanistan

Biden risks being seen as the president who lost Afghanistan – and Republicans know that.

GOP lawmakers have a confrontation with Biden, suggesting the president will face the consequences of an Afghan debacle – both politically and otherwise. Some compared it to former President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq in 2011, which helped set the stage for the rise of Islamic State. Others referred to older analogies.

“This could be the ‘Saigon moment’ when the helicopter takes off and everyone connects with it [Biden’s] Politics, ”said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), A member of the House Armed Services Committee. “It’s eerily similar [to Iraq]. We pulled out of Iraq on a politically motivated schedule to fulfill an election promise, and then there is chaos on the ground and a caliphate arises.

“From the moment a stupid White House employee decided that we would make September 11th, giving the Taliban this propaganda victory in addition to giving up territory, is the moment we realized that this was a political effort, not a serious geopolitical “effort,” he added.

Developments in Washington and Afghanistan are not surprising given the course of the conflict and the fragility of the Afghan state. Nonetheless, they highlight the political risk Biden took in choosing to leave Afghanistan unconditionally so early in his tenure.

When asked for comment, a senior civil servant said the White House remains committed to the Afghan people and that when Biden met with senior Afghan officials on Friday, “the need for unity, cohesion and focus of the Afghan government on key challenges facing Afghanistan . “

On Wednesday, reported the Wall Street Journal that US intelligence agencies believe the Afghan government could fall just six months after the American withdrawal.

Texas MP Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, predicted the U.S. embassy in Kabul could also fall. “The crown jewel will be the message in the end,” said McCaul in a short interview.

Most of Biden’s Democratic allies on Capitol Hill stand by his decision to withdraw, even if the situation on the ground worsens.

“It has been proven beyond doubt that our military cannot solve the problem,” said House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.). “So it would never be a great situation. But I think [withdrawal is] the best decision among a poor range of options. “

Since Biden announced his withdrawal plans in mid-April, the Taliban have made territorial gains. The group has been captured, according to a United Nations official more than 50 out of 370 Afghan districts since the beginning of May. Some of the Afghan national troops hardly fought the Taliban.

The militants are supposed to have peace talks with the Afghan government, but these negotiations appear to be on hold.

The U.S. had 2,500 to 3,500 troops in Afghanistan earlier this year, but has withdrawn more than half since then, and the rest will likely have disappeared well before Biden’s 9/11 deadline. But Biden has insisted that while the US withdraws its troops, it will not abandon Afghanistan.

Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other high-ranking government officials have promised that the US will continue to provide economic, diplomatic and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. This also includes financial support for the Afghan military. Pentagon officials have made no commitments to continue the Afghan armed forces training mission in a third country, but the NATO alliance has announced that it will work on just that. US officials also say it is possible to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan to threaten the US, even without American troops on the ground.

A senior Biden government official confirmed Thursday that the US is planning to evacuate Afghans who have been waiting for “special immigrant visas” for helping Americans. The plan is to relocate these people – possibly thousands or tens of thousands if their families are included – to a country outside of Afghanistan so that they can complete the visa process. The aim is to evacuate them before the September 11 deadline, the official said, specifically pointing out that these Afghans served as interpreters or translators.

“These are people who are already in the [special immigrant visa] Pipeline, ”the official said in a statement to POLITICO, confirming a New York Times report. “We would make any move in full compliance with US consular law and in full coordination with Congress.”

Added to the government’s obstacles is a severe Covid-19 outbreak at the US embassy in Kabul, which affects more than 100 employees. The post has been suspended, making it even more difficult for staff to process visas for vulnerable Afghans.

Biden’s political allies note that the government is preparing various proposals aimed at maintaining support for the Afghan government in a way that protects American interests without having US troops on the ground.

“My constituents are not convinced that holding back the Taliban is a wise spending of US taxpayers’ money when we believe there are other ways to protect the nation from a terrorist attack,” said Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn. ), a. Member of the Committee on External Relations.

“We all knew that there would be bad news from Afghanistan. But, you know what? There was a lot of bad news from Afghanistan while we were there. Every year the Taliban gained more territory. Every year the government remains completely incompetent and corrupt, ”he added.

Biden will meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation, on Friday. The two Afghan leaders met with Congressmen on Thursday.

For Ghani, the visit is a pivotal opportunity to convince Biden to adjust his approach to US withdrawal, said Lisa Curtis, who served as senior advisor to the National Security Council to former President Donald Trump.

Despite requests, Biden is unlikely to keep U.S. troops in the country, but Ghani could influence him to find ways to keep U.S. contractors there and prioritize continued U.S. air support to Afghan troops, Curtis said. In particular, without this air support, the Afghan armed forces will likely have difficulty preventing territory from falling to the Taliban. Meanwhile, the contractors are providing essential services, including the maintenance of Afghan military facilities.

The idea of ​​providing air support from third countries or the sea – the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower is en route from Japan to the region – is something that has been difficult to explain to military officials. The possibility is there, but it is expensive, time consuming and dangerous. Fighter planes would be in the air longer and would have to refuel, which increases the risk and cost.

Curtis said she had heard no regrets about the president’s withdrawal plans in her conversations with Biden government officials, but there was a lot of cynicism.

“Some people assume that the Taliban are destined to come back to power,” said Curtis. “That’s just too cynical. We have invested so much over the past 20 years. We really owe it to the Afghans to give them a chance to fight. “

Afghans have struggled in some form or manner for decades, enduring Soviet occupation, clashes between warlords – some with the support of the United States – and the violence of life under the rule of the ultra-conservative Islamists of the Taliban. The country was an important base for al-Qaeda, including its leader Osama bin Laden, prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. The attacks led to the US invasion of the country and overthrowing the Taliban government.

The Taliban had done international harm for its human rights violations, including banning girls and women from school and work. Over the past 20 years, Afghan women have made significant advances in education and in the workplace, while minorities like the Hazaras have found more freedom and opportunities.

“So I was disappointed with the decision to resign as quickly as the president suggested,” said Senator Jeanne Shaheen (DN.H.), one of the few democratic critics of the Afghanistan decision, about her concerns about women’s rights and girls in the country.

A State Department official said US diplomats were “terribly afraid” that all of these human rights achievements could be undone if the Taliban gain power in Afghanistan. But no one in the Biden administration appears able or willing to change course, the official said.

“Everyone can see the cliff in front of them and all the way up to the top everyone agrees that cliffs are difficult to navigate, but nobody knows how to brake,” said the State Department official.

Paul McLeary contributed to this report.

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