Grim Afghan news raises risk for Biden of Taliban takeover

A rapidly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan weeks before the official end of the U.S. military mission is putting pressure on President Biden as he sticks to his plan to pull America out of its longest war.

Over the weekend, the Taliban seized a string of provincial capitals, including the strategically and economically important city of Kunduz.

The fall of several provincial capitals was the latest grim news out of Afghanistan after reports of skyrocketing civilian deaths, targeted killings of senior Afghan officials and other atrocities.

With fears spiking of a total Taliban takeover, opponents of the withdrawal on Monday sharpened their recriminations of Biden and called on him to reverse course.

“President Biden’s legacy will be stained with the bloodshed of innocent Afghan women and children who have been left at the mercy of a merciless terrorist organization,” House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said in a statement. “President Biden cannot hide from this catastrophe. It’s happening on his watch because of his actions. He must change course or be held accountable for his decision.”

Administration officials also briefed senators on the situation behind closed doors Monday and faced what Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) described as “tough” questions.

“As the administration’s withdrawal proceeds at full speed, expert warnings have become deadly realities,” McConnell said in a floor speech.

“This morning I attended a classified briefing from administration officials about current conditions on the ground,” McConnell added. “Needless to say, the briefers faced some tough questions about an entirely avoidable situation that is deteriorating faster every day. And they’ll certainly face more as global terrorists feed from the rise of an extremist government in Afghanistan.”

On Friday, Zaranj, the capital of Nimroz, became the first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban since Biden announced in April he was withdrawing all U.S. troops from the war. That was followed the next day by the capital of Jawzjan province, Shibirghan.

On Sunday, the capitals of Kunduz, Sar-i-Pul and Takhar all fell.

Then on Monday, the Taliban claimed a sixth capital, Aybak in Samangan province.

Meanwhile, Taliban sieges of key cities such as Lashkar Gah, Kandahar and Herat continue.

The battlefield gains come as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is largely done, with an official end date set by Biden of Aug. 31.

Using so-called over-the-horizon forces, the U.S. military in recent days has conducted some airstrikes in support of Afghan forces, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby confirmed Monday, but he declined to provide any specifics.

“The secretary shares the concern of the international community about the security situation in Afghanistan, which is clearly not going in the right direction,” Kirby said. “Clearly, the security situation is deteriorating, and just over the last, what, 72 hours, roughly five provincial capitals fell to the Taliban. That’s deeply concerning.”

Still, Kirby made clear the Afghans are largely on their own now.

“It’s their country to defend now. This is their struggle,” Kirby added. “This is their country. These are their military forces. These are their provincial capitals, their people to defend. And it’s really going to come down to the leadership that they’re willing to exude here at this particular moment.”

Kirby also declined to “speculate” on whether the limited airstrikes the United States is still providing will continue after Aug. 31.

The Taliban’s victories come amid warnings about mounting civilian deaths, particularly among women and children.

The United Nations reported last month that 783 civilians were killed and 1,609 were injured in May and June alone, the highest number of civilian casualties for those two months since tracking began in 2009. And on Monday, UNICEF reported that 27 children had been killed in the last 72 hours.

“In the past weeks, the war in Afghanistan has entered a new, deadlier and more destructive phase,” the U.N. special envoy for Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, said in a Security Council briefing Friday. “This is now a different kind of war, reminiscent of Syria recently or Sarajevo in the not-so-distant past. To attack urban areas is to knowingly inflict enormous harm and cause massive civilian casualties.”

The Taliban has also continued its assassination campaign against Afghan officials and civil society leaders, including killing the head of the Afghan government’s media center, Dawa Khan Menapal, on Friday.

“This is horrific & demonstrates the dire conditions in Afghanistan as the Taliban makes gains,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), one of the few Democratic opponents of Biden’s withdrawal, tweeted Monday about Menapal’s death.

“Every measure must be taken to protect those who have fought for a brighter future in Afghanistan,” she added. “We cannot allow 20 years of progress to fall to the wayside.”

Amid the worsening situation, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Saturday urged U.S. citizens to “leave Afghanistan immediately using available commercial flight options.”

“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 alert added.

Biden has shown no sign of changing course even as conditions deteriorate.

On Friday, after Menapal’s death and Zaranj’s fall, White House press secretary Jen Psaki held that Biden “knew from the beginning” there would be “difficult choices a commander in chief needs to make on behalf of the American people.”

“The president made clear: After 20 years at war, it’s time for American troops to come home,” she said. “He also feels and has stated that the Afghan government and the Afghan National Defense Forces have the training, equipment and numbers to prevail, and now is the moment for the leadership and the will in the face of the Taliban’s aggression and violence.”

Biden allies in Congress are also sticking by his withdrawal.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said when administration officials were pressed at Monday’s briefing on why Afghan forces were “losing territory and melting away into the landscape,” the briefers were “were very candid: It’s not a failure of training. It is a mission that frankly cannot be accomplished.”

“There comes a point when we have to acknowledge that we cannot ask another American to die in a vain effort to change Afghanistan into a modern nation,” Durbin said. “That will only come when the Afghan people reach that conclusion.”

Tags Afghanistan Dick Durbin Jeanne Shaheen Jen Psaki Joe Biden Mike Rogers Mitch McConnell Pentagon

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