WSHINGTON: President Joe Biden and other top US officials were stunned on Sunday by the pace of the Taliban’s nearly complete takeover of Afghanistan, as the planned withdrawal of American forces urgently became a mission to ensure a safe evacuation.
Earlier, President Joe Biden had brushed off concerns that Taliban would retake control of Afghanistan. As the Taliban captured Kabul and effectively took control of Afghanistan on Sunday, a video of US President Joe Biden from just 38 days ago resurfaced on social media in which he pushed back firmly against concerns that the Taliban would quickly retake control of Afghanistan as US troops withdraw from the country.
“No, it is not,” Biden quickly responded when asked by a reporter whether the Taliban’s resurgence and renewed control of Afghanistan was “inevitable.”
Biden said the Afghan government has “300,000 well-equipped” troops which were “as well-equipped as any army in the world”.
The speed of the Afghan government’s collapse and the ensuing chaos posed the most serious test of Biden as commander in chief, and he was the subject of withering criticism from Republicans who said that he had failed.
Biden campaigned as a seasoned expert in international relations and has spent months downplaying the prospect of an ascendant Taliban while arguing that Americans of all political persuasions have tired of a 20-year war, a conflict that demonstrated the limits of money and military might to force a Western-style democracy on a society not ready or willing to embrace it.
By Sunday, though, leading figures in the administration acknowledged they were caught off guard with the utter speed of the collapse of Afghan security forces. The challenge of that effort became clear after reports of sporadic gunfire at the Kabul airport prompted Americans to shelter as they awaited flights to safety after the US Embassy was completely evacuated.
“We’ve seen that that force has been unable to defend the country, and that has happened more quickly than we anticipated,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN, referring to the Afghan military.
The turmoil in Afghanistan resets the focus in an unwelcome way for a president who has largely focused on a domestic agenda that includes emerging from the pandemic, winning congressional approval for trillions of dollars in infrastructure spending and protecting voting rights.
Biden remained at Camp David on Sunday, receiving regular briefings on Afghanistan and holding secure video conference calls with members of his national security team, according to senior White House officials. His administration released a single photo of the president alone in a conference room meeting virtually with military, diplomatic and intelligence experts. The next several days would be critical in determining whether the US is able to regain some level of control over the situation.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday that the United States will only recognise a future government in Afghanistan if it upholds basic rights of its people and keeps terrorists out of the country.
Asked to comment on media reports that China was ready to recognise the Taliban as a legitimate government, Secretary Blinken said: “A future Afghan government that upholds the basic rights of its people and that doesn’t harbor terrorists is a government we can work with and recognise.”
Conversely, he added, “a government that doesn’t uphold the basic rights of its people, including women and girls; that harbors terrorist groups that have designs on the United States or allies and partners — certainly, that’s not going to happen.”
The top American diplomat appeared on a number of US television channels on Sunday to comment on the developments in Afghanistan where Taliban insurgents have entered Kabul, forcing President Ashraf Ghani to seek refuge in Tajikistan.
He warned that international assistance to a Taliban-led government in Kabul “will not be forthcoming, sanctions will not be lifted and their ability to travel won’t happen” if they did not respect basic rights and did not stop harboring terrorists.
When the interviewer argued that his statement sounded like a no to recognition, Mr Blinken said: “It’s incumbent on the international community, including the United States, to do everything we can using every tool that we have — economic, diplomatic, political — to ensure (those) rights are sustained.”
He also emphasised the need to ensure that “if the Taliban does not do that … it clearly faces the penalties for not upholding those rights,” adding “We will do everything we can to make sure that’s the case.”
Mr Blinken that in a recent statement, US President Joe Biden had insisted that the Kabul government would not fall and asked him how the president could “get this so wrong.”