Biden struggles to detail post-withdrawal Afghanistan plans

The Biden administration is struggling to articulate how it will keep Afghanistan from falling to the Taliban after American forces depart, even as the U.S. is more than halfway through its troop withdrawal.

The Pentagon’s top brass have insisted the U.S. military will conduct operations launched from outside the country if needed, but they’ve offered few details on logistics such as where those troops would be based. 

The lack of specifics came into focus Friday when the Afghan government's chief peace envoy warned that the Taliban will not have an interest in reaching a peace agreement with Kabul after American and NATO forces depart.

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The head of Afghanistan's National Reconciliation Council, Abdullah Abdullah, told The Associated Press that withdrawal “will have an impact on the negotiation with the Taliban.”

He said Taliban leaders “may find themselves further emboldened and they may think — some of them at least — that with the withdrawal, they can take advantage of the situation militarily.”

The remarks come amid reports that the Taliban are quickly reclaiming territory they had lost during the 20-year conflict, putting more pressure on the Biden administration to spell out how it plans to provide support to Afghanistan’s government after all U.S. troops exit the country by September.

During a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing Thursday, Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: First group of Afghan evacuees arrives in Virginia | Biden signs Capitol security funding bill, reimbursing Guard | Pentagon raises health protection level weeks after lowering it China moves quickly to replace America in Afghanistan Harris to travel to Vietnam, Singapore in August MORE said there was a “medium” risk that an extremist group such as al Qaeda could regenerate in Afghanistan just two years after U.S. forces leave the country.

U.S. Army Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyOvernight Defense: First group of Afghan evacuees arrives in Virginia | Biden signs Capitol security funding bill, reimbursing Guard | Pentagon raises health protection level weeks after lowering it Watchdog warns US will repeat mistakes of Afghanistan Adaptability remains a constant — even as the 'character of war' changes MORE, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also testified at the hearing, backing up Austin’s claims and adding, “If certain other things happen, if there was a collapse of the government or dissolution of the Afghan security force, that risk would obviously increase.”

The United States has been in Afghanistan since 2001, invading the country following the 9/11 terror attacks by al Qaeda. The militant group planned and carried out the attack from Afghanistan, where it had been given safe haven by the Taliban. Coalition troops have been there ever since to prevent similar terrorist attacks on the U.S. or its allies.

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But President BidenJoe BidenGOP report on COVID-19 origins homes in on lab leak theory READ: The .2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Senators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session MORE in April said the roughly 2,500 remaining U.S. forces will withdraw from the country by Sept. 11, as will the approximately 7,000 NATO troops. 

Though Biden has given a general outline of the plan, specifics have remained few and far between. 

While in Brussels for his first NATO summit this week, Biden was repeatedly questioned on plans to bolster the Afghan government after U.S. troops leave. He declined, however, to provide specifics on securing critical infrastructure such as embassies and airports or how to ensure the Taliban will not once again place strict rules on girls and women.

“Our troops are coming home, but we agreed that our diplomatic, economic and humanitarian commitment to the Afghan people and our support for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces will endure,” Biden said Monday after meeting with other NATO officials.

Some lawmakers say they fear that with no solid plan in place, the U.S. is creating a recipe for disaster, especially amid reports of fighting in 80 of the roughly 400 districts.

“I'm very concerned that Afghanistan is going to fall to the Taliban and that we once again will see the imposition of Sharia law and that girls and women will not be allowed to pursue an education or participate fully in society,” Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSchumer: Democrats 'on track' to pass bipartisan deal, .5T budget Sunday shows - Delta variant, infrastructure dominate Collins says negotiators are 'just about finished' with infrastructure bill MORE (R-Maine) told Milley on Thursday.

Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenSenators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Senate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session Senate holds sleepy Saturday session as negotiators finalize infrastructure deal MORE (D-N.H.) later followed up, questioning whether the United States was working with international partners to protect vulnerable populations once American troops leave.

“Realistically, if we're not there, we're going to have very limited impact on the protection of those that are still in Afghanistan,” Milley replied.

Also tied up in those concerns is increasing alarm over the fate of Afghans who helped U.S. troops during the war. 

Lawmakers this past week repeatedly warned that the Biden administration must act with more urgency to grant visas to those Afghans and evacuate them before the withdrawal is complete, as they risk being executed by the Taliban for working with U.S. forces.

“If he doesn't act and he doesn't get these people out, blood will be on his hands and on his administration's hands,” Rep. Michael WaltzMichael WaltzHouse lawmakers push for diplomatic boycott of Beijing Olympics Overnight Defense: US to evacuate Afghan allies at end of July | Biden meets with final top US commander in Afghanistan | Weapons buyer nominee withdraws amid IG probe US to evacuate Afghans who assisted US military MORE (R-Fla.), a former Green Beret, said of Biden at a news conference Wednesday. “The time for talk, the time for debate is over.”

A day earlier, Sen. Angus KingAngus KingManchin 'can't imagine' supporting change to filibuster for voting rights New Senate bill would hurt charities and those they serve Overnight Health Care: CDC advises vaccinated to wear masks in high-risk areas | Biden admin considering vaccine mandate for federal workers MORE (I-Maine) said the White House should have its “hair on fire” over the issue.

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The Pentagon has maintained it is prepared to help Afghans in any way but stressed it is the State Department, not the Defense Department, that is in charge of processing visas. 

Milley on Thursday sought to alleviate concerns, emphasizing that while there are many other outcomes that are possible for Afghanistan, the military will “work to try to have those outcomes achieved as opposed to the worst case outcome.”

“It's the president's intent to keep an embassy open, to keep our security forces around the embassy and to continue to work with the Afghan government to continue to fund the Afghan security forces and to keep that situation from devolving into the worst case, and that's what we're planning on, and that's what we're working toward,” he said.

“There are not guarantees in any of this,” he added.