Washington (CNN)Sitting alongside Afghanistan’s President in the Oval Office last week, President Joe Biden didn’t try to sugarcoat the situation: Things were not looking great for his guest’s country.
“Every time I think I’ve got a tough job,” Biden said ruefully, gesturing toward Ashraf Ghani, “I think, Mr. President?”
Ghani managed a polite laugh in response, adding a brief moment of levity to a tough conversation.
After nearly 20 years in Afghanistan, the US military, at Biden’s direction, is in the final stages of withdrawing troops from the country, bringing an end to America’s longest war. Three months after Biden announced his decision to draw down troops by September 11, the pace of withdrawal is catching some in Washington by surprise, yet there is no indication that Biden or any of his top aides is second-guessing the move. Sources inside the White House tell CNN that the President and his team have measured the political and national security ramifications of the decision and remain confident it’s the right one.
But the grim consequences of withdrawal are only just starting to become clear. And while the White House remains united behind the decision, across the government concerns are rising about the deteriorating security in Afghanistan, the pace of withdrawal and the many questions that are still unanswered about America’s long-term strategy.
US intelligence services, military commanders and members of Congress are all warning that the Afghan government won’t be able to stand up to the Taliban without the backing of American firepower. The Taliban are already moving rapidly to take over districts in the northern parts of Afghanistan, leading US military commanders to raise the prospect of a civil war once US troops are gone.
Other big decisions have yet to be made, including whether and how the US will use drones in the future to target suspected terrorists in Afghanistan, how to secure the civilian airport in Kabul and how exactly to ensure the safe passage of Afghan translators and other workers who assisted American forces during the war and are now targets for the Taliban.
Looming over everything is the potential — increasingly likely, according to intelligence assessments — that the Taliban will overwhelm Ghani’s government and retake control of the country. Recent assessments have put the likely timeline of a Taliban takeover anywhere from six to 12 months, according to people familiar with the reports.
Top military leaders had hoped to persuade Biden to maintain at least a small troop presence in Afghanistan, but they have now accepted his decision, according to several officials familiar with the matter. Biden’s opposition to the war in Afghanistan is well-established. And now, after he fiercely questioned the war strategy as a US senator and clashed in the Situation Room with officials over troop levels as vice president during the Obama administration, the decision was finally his to make.
It was, and remains, a “gut decision,” according to one US official familiar with Biden’s thinking.
Despite being haunted during the decision process by the specter of American personnel being evacuated from Saigon in 1975, Biden remains convinced that after two decades of war, there is little American troops can do to resolve what is increasingly viewed inside the government as an intractable problem.
Indeed, the pace with which the Taliban have gained ground in recent weeks has, in a way, only solidified for the White House the merits of Biden’s decision, according to multiple officials.
That the country’s government could sit at the brink of failure in such an accelerated fashion, after 19 years of being trained, equipped and financed by America, gives credence to the idea that the long-term merits of maintaining a force presence in the country were limited, according to one official.
White House officials also say they were boxed in by the Trump administration and the agreement it had brokered with the Taliban, which they say would have eventually opened American troops to increased attacks.
“When the President made the announcement of our decision, it was in part based on a timeline that was committed to by the prior administration of May 1,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday. “And if we kept our troops in Afghanistan after May 1, they would be shot at.”
Biden told Ghani in the Oval Office last week that while the US would boost its economic support, there was zero chance he would change his mind and keep forces in the country beyond a small contingent to provide security at the US Embassy. The US is planning to keep up to 1,000 troops in Afghanistan to guard the embassy in Kabul and the city’s airport, though some officials insist the number will not top 650.
“Afghans are going to have to decide their future,” Biden said. “The senseless violence has to stop, but it’s going to be very difficult.”
Concerns on Capitol Hill
The prospect that the US-backed government in Kabul could fall soon after American troops depart has raised concerns among lawmakers about a resurgence of terrorism in the country. Republicans and Democrats have repeatedly pressed the Biden administration for details about its plan for conducting counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan once the withdrawal is complete, which could be as soon as next week, according to multiple officials.
In May, a group of Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee wrote to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin requesting that he provide a risk assessment of the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan. The Pentagon is legally required to provide that assessment to Congress before spending funds to draw down US military personnel in Afghanistan below troop levels of 4,000 and 2,000, according to the letter sent to Austin.
However, lawmakers were informed last week by Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl that Biden had granted a waiver, thereby allowing the Pentagon to move forward with the withdrawal without providing that assessment to Congress or answering a series of key questions about his plan for countering terrorists in Afghanistan going forward.
“The President was thoughtful and deliberate in considering a range of facts and advice before he made his decision to withdraw our remaining US forces from Afghanistan,” Kahl wrote to the Republicans in a previously unreported letter obtained by CNN.
That response has frustrated Republicans, who maintain the administration has yet to explain how it plans to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorists.
“It’s unfortunate the Biden Pentagon is unwilling to verify that our counter terrorism forces will be able to effectively continue their mission before withdrawing US forces and creating the circumstances for Al Qaeda and ISIS to come roaring back,” according to Rep. Michael Waltz of Florida, one of the Republicans who signed the original letter to Austin.
Meanwhile, the administration is still only in the early phases of a policy review of Pentagon and CIA authorities to target terrorists overseas, including in Afghanistan, officials told CNN.
Republicans have warned that Biden will be held responsible for the aftermath of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, something they said they had joined with Democrats to prevent then-President Donald Trump from carrying out. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell met with Ghani the day before the Afghan leader’s White House visit and blasted the White House’s withdrawal plans afterward.
“Increasing indications that this collapse could come soon after US withdrawal is complete are as tragic as they are avoidable,” the Kentucky Republican said. “Ghani and the people of Afghanistan are entitled to wonder why the Biden administration has chosen to abandon the fight and invite even greater terrorist threats.”
For many Democrats, there are lingering concerns that the Biden
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