Biden sets date for full Afghanistan withdrawal as Taliban seizes key crossing

Insurgent group claims to control 85% of the country as the US accelerates final pullout, set to be completed by August 31

President Joe Biden speaks about the American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, in the East Room of the White House, July 8, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Joe Biden speaks about the American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, in the East Room of the White House, July 8, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The Taliban said Friday they had captured a key border crossing with Iran, hours after President Joe Biden issued a staunch defense of the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The group on Friday said it has captured 85 percent of the country’s territory as the US accelerated its final pullout that began early May, with the insurgents now holding an arc of territory from the Iranian border to the frontier with China.

A government official said efforts were underway to recapture Islam Qala — the main conduit for trade between Afghanistan and Iran — as the insurgents continue to make sweeping gains across the country.

“All Afghan security forces including the border units are present in the area, and efforts are underway to recapture the site,” interior ministry spokesman Tareq Arian told AFP.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the crossing was “under our full control.”

Earlier, Biden said the US military operation in Afghanistan will end on August 31, delivering an impassioned argument for exiting the nearly 20-year war without sacrificing more American lives even as he bluntly acknowledged there will be no “mission accomplished” moment to celebrate.

In This February 20, 2019 photo, Afghans return to Afghanistan at the Islam Qala border with Iran, in the western Herat Province. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)

Biden pushed back against the notion the US mission has failed but also noted that it remains unlikely the government would control all of Afghanistan after the US leaves. He urged the Afghan government and Taliban, which he said remains as formidable as it did before the start of the war, to come to a peace agreement.

“We did not go to Afghanistan to nation build,” Biden said in a Thursday speech from the White House’s East Room. “Afghan leaders have to come together and drive toward a future.”

The administration in recent days has sought to frame ending the conflict as a decision that Biden made after concluding it’s an “unwinnable war” and one that “does not have a military solution.” On Thursday he amplified the justification of his decision even as the Taliban make rapid advances in significant swaths of the country.

“How many more, how many more thousands of American daughters and sons are you willing to risk?” Biden said to those calling for the US to extend the military operation. He added, “I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan, with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.”

The new withdrawal date comes after former president Donald Trump’s administration negotiated a deal with the Taliban to end the US military mission by May 1. Biden after taking office announced US troops would be out by the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attack, which al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden plotted from Afghanistan, where he had been given refuge by the Taliban.

With US and NATO ally forces rapidly drawing down in the past week, there was growing speculation that US combat operations have already effectively ended. But by setting August 31 as the drawdown date, the administration nodded to the reality that the long war is in its final phase, while providing itself some cushion to deal with outstanding matters.

The administration has yet to complete talks with Turkey on an arrangement for maintaining security at the Kabul airport and is still ironing out details for the potential evacuation of thousands of Afghans who assisted the US military operation.

A plane takes off from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

Biden said that prolonging US military involvement, considering Trump had already agreed to withdraw US troops, would have led to an escalation of attacks on American troops and NATO allies.

“The Taliban would have again begun to target our forces,” Biden said. “The status quo was not an option. Staying meant US troops taking casualties. American men and women. Back in the middle of a civil war. And we would run the risk of having to send more troops back in Afghanistan to defend our remaining troops.”

The president added that there is no “mission accomplished” moment as the US war comes to an end.

“The mission was accomplished in that we got Osama bin Laden and terrorism is not emanating from that part of the world,” he said. US forces killed bin Laden in 2011.

US forces this week vacated Bagram Airfield — the US epicenter of the conflict to oust the Taliban and hunt down the al-Qaida perpetrators of the 2001 terrorist attacks that triggered the war.

The remaining US troops are now concentrated in Kabul, the capital. The Pentagon said the top US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller, is expected to end his tour of duty this month as final arrangements are made for a reduced US military mission.

Biden, answering questions from reporters after his remarks on Thursday, said that Kabul falling to the Taliban would not be an acceptable outcome. The president also pushed back against the notion that such a scenario was certain.

“Do I trust the Taliban? No,” Biden said. “But I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more competent in terms of conducting war.”

To be certain, the West hopes Taliban gains will be confined mostly to rural areas, with the Afghan government and its allies retaining control of the cities where much of Afghanistan’s population resides. And while the Taliban remain a major power in Afghanistan, the government’s supporters hope that Afghans will work out the Taliban role in the post-US Afghanistan power structure more through political than military means, partly through the inducements of international legitimacy, aid, and other support.

Asked by a reporter whether rampant corruption within the Afghan government contributed to the failure of achieving the sort of stability that his predecessors and American military commanders envisioned, Biden didn’t exactly dismiss the notion. “The mission hasn’t failed — yet.”

Biden continues to face pressure from congressional lawmakers to offer further detail on how he intends to go about assisting thousands of Afghans who helped the US military as translators, drivers, and in other jobs. Many are fearful they will be targets of the Taliban once the US withdrawal is complete.

Former workers who had been employed with US troops at the Bagram airbase hold placards during a demonstration against the US government in Kabul, Afghanistan, July, 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

The White House says the administration has identified US facilities outside of the continental United States, as well as third countries, where evacuated Afghans would potentially stay while their visa applications are processed. Biden added that 2,500 Afghans have been granted special immigrant visas since he took office in January.

Still, the president faced Republican criticism following his speech.

“The Taliban is gaining more ground by the day, and there are targets on the backs of our people and our partners,” said Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “But rather than taking the opportunity to reassure the American people there are sufficient plans in place to keep American diplomats and our Afghan partners safe, President Biden only offered more empty promises and no detailed plan of action.”

John Kirby, chief Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday that the US military is considering several overseas bases around the world as possible temporary locations for those Afghans awaiting a visa. So far, he said, the numbers of those who have decided to leave Afghanistan are not so high that they can’t be handled with a range of installations.

“Our message to those women and men is clear,” Biden said. “There is a home for you in the United States if you so choose. We will stand with you, just as you stood with us.”

Biden noted that as a senator he was skeptical about how much the US could accomplish in Afghanistan and had advocated for a more narrowly tailored mission. He was somewhat opaque in answering whether the cost of the war was worth it, but argued that the US objectives were completed long ago.

“We went for two reasons: one, to bring Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell, as I said at the time,” Biden said. “The second reason was to eliminate al-Qaida’s capacity to deal with more attacks on the United States from that territory. We accomplished both of those objectives. Period.

“That’s why I believe this is the right decision and quite frankly overdue.”

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