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Biden under fire, Taliban on the march amid ‘meltdown’ of Afghan security forces

The rapid disintegration of Afghanistan has sparked a blame game across Washington and throughout the world as a series of stunning Taliban victories have left the U.S.-backed government in Kabul reeling and the Biden administration scrambling to stop the bleeding.

Insurgent Taliban fighters on Monday claimed their sixth provincial capital in Afghanistan, capping a whirlwind weekend offensive in which the group overran government forces in strategically vital regions and led to a warning to Americans from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to get out of the country as soon as possible. The fall of Aibak, the capital of the northern province of Samangan, seems to offer more confirmation that the Taliban‘s long-term strategy to wait for the U.S. military withdrawal and then launch major urban offensives was correct. 

The Taliban victories also have renewed skepticism about the reliability of Afghan security forces, which despite tens of billions of dollars in investment and two decades of U.S. training have suffered decisive defeats in key battles over the past several weeks.

The deteriorating situation is providing ammunition to critics in the U.S. who warned that President Biden’s total withdrawal of American troops would spark a chain reaction that would lead to the downfall of the Afghan government and the possible resurgence of al Qaeda. Leading Republicans seized on the news to again take aim at Mr. Biden, who decided on a full U.S. withdrawal against the advice of some of his top generals.

“Reality was clear to everyone but the very top of the Biden administration. … The administration‘s decision appears to have rested on wishful thinking and not much else,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said on the chamber floor.

“The notion that Afghan forces might be able to stop the Taliban‘s advance with only ‘over the horizon’ support? That’s proven to be wishful thinking. That the Taliban might respond to the diplomatic plying of the international community? Wishful thinking, too,” Mr. McConnell said. “As the administration‘s withdrawal proceeds at full speed, expert warnings have become deadly realities.”

Mr. Biden has argued that there will never be a perfect time to leave Afghanistan and that he does not want to continue a “forever war” in a historically chaotic nation. His decision to withdraw from Afghanistan followed the path of President Trump, who struck a deal with the Taliban in February 2020. The deal called for a U.S. withdrawal in exchange for security guarantees from the Taliban.

In addition to 3,500 U.S. troops, thousands more NATO forces are exiting the country. Other key NATO partners are sticking by that decision despite Taliban advances.

“Are society and parliament prepared to send the armed forces into a war and remain there with lots of troops for at least a generation? If we are not, then the joint withdrawal with the partners remains the right decision,” German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said in a Twitter post.

U.S. and European officials have urged the Taliban to seek a long-term cease-fire deal with the Afghan government. Still, analysts generally agree that the insurgents will continue their military offensive as long as possible to gain even more leverage at the negotiating table. 

‘Meltdown’ of Afghan troops

Mr. Biden and military leaders have vowed that the U.S. will maintain “over the horizon” capabilities to hit terrorists should they set up shop in Afghanistan. American air power in recent days has hit Taliban positions to slow the group’s advance toward key cities.

But the pace of U.S airstrikes isn’t enough, and there is little indication that the Defense Department is prepared to ramp up attacks dramatically. In the absence of a more aggressive bombing campaign, Pentagon leaders have insisted that the U.S.-trained Afghan security forces have the necessary skills and equipment to fend off the Taliban, particularly when the fighting reaches major urban areas such as Kabul.

There are serious questions, however, about that assessment.

Afghan forces in some parts of the country have reportedly given up with little fight. In other instances, they have been overwhelmed and given up police headquarters, prisons and other important government buildings to the Taliban.

Regional observers say there must be an international reckoning with that reality.

“The capacity-building, the training, the equipment … where is it?” Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said at a news conference Monday, according to Al-Jazeera. “Issues of governance and the meltdown of Afghan national defense forces need to be looked into.”

Some foreign policy analysts agree but argue that the shortcomings of Afghan troops offer a further reason for leaving now rather than spending more taxpayer money and risk more American lives in a futile effort to build up the Kabul government’s capacities.

“The state-building mission failed, and building a capable military on top of a bad state foundation is nearly impossible,” said Benjamin Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, a think tank that advocates for a more restrained U.S. foreign policy and long advocated a withdrawal from Afghanistan

“The Taliban‘s recent progress is a tragedy for Afghanistan but a largely inevitable one,” he said. “U.S. forces, we have learned, can indefinitely prop up the Afghan security services and delay the Taliban‘s gains, but they cannot stop them without staying forever in fighting someone else’s civil war.”

Meanwhile, the administration is warning Americans in Afghanistan to evacuate.

“The U.S. Embassy urges U.S. citizens to leave Afghanistan immediately using available commercial flight options,” said a Monday alert from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. “Given the security conditions and reduced staffing, the embassy‘s ability to assist U.S. citizens in Afghanistan is extremely limited even within Kabul.”

The U.S. maintains an embassy in Kabul that is guarded by hundreds of Marines. Despite the Taliban gains elsewhere across Afghanistan, an attack on the well-fortified city of Kabul would be a tall order for the insurgent group.

Other major cities are far less protected and have proved vulnerable.

In addition to the fall of Aibak, the Taliban in recent days have seized the provincial capitals of Kunduz, Sar-e-Pul, Taloqan, Zaranj and Sheberghan. Six of the country’s 34 provincial capitals are now in Taliban hands.

Afghan officials dispute the notion that some of those capitals have entirely fallen, with government troops still stationed in parts of the cities and fierce fighting still raging. But Taliban fighters reportedly control the majority of each city and control key buildings such as police departments and government headquarters.

In Aibak, the Taliban takeover appears virtually complete. Samangan’s deputy provincial governor told Al-Jazeera that the Taliban are in “full control” of the city.

Joseph Clark contributed to this report.

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