WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden is meeting with Afghan leaders at the White House on Friday amid an ongoing U.S. military withdrawal as Afghanistan's future remains in limbo.
The president's Oval Office session with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, head of the country’s High Council for National Reconciliation, comes as U.S.-backed peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have stalled.
Meanwhile, the militant Islamic group has gained new territory at an alarming clip in recent weeks. Renewed fighting has stoked fears that the Taliban will topple the Afghan government once American and NATO forces have left.
"The senseless violence, it has to stop,” Biden said to reporters before the closed-door meeting began.
Biden said the U.S. was withdrawing militarily from Afghanistan but not disengaging from the country's future.
"Afghans are going to have to decide their future, what they want," the president said. "But we're going to stick with you."
Ghani said he respected Biden's decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan and welcomed the White House's promise to remain engaged with humanitarian assistance and other initiatives.
"President Biden’s decision has been historic," Ghani said. "It has made everybody recalculate and reconsider. We are here to respect it and support it.”
The Afghan president also paid tribute to the 2,448 American soldiers who have died in the 20-year conflict.
"The United States has not spared any effort in blood or treasure during these years. As a grateful nation I want to acknowledge that,” Ghani said.
He said the U.S. and Afghanistan were entering "a new chapter of our relationship, where the partnership of the United States will not be military but comprehensive."
Earlier on Friday, Ghani dismissed questions about a U.S. intelligence analysis that concluded his government may fall within six months of a U.S. military withdrawal.
“There have been many such predictions and they have all proven – turned out false," Ghani said at the Pentagon, where he met with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Austin said the U.S. remains committed to providing security assistance to Afghanistan's national defense and security forces.
As the withdrawal winds down, “I am confident ... we will make the transition to a new relationship with Afghanistan and the Afghan forces, one that continues to meet your responsibilities to your citizens," the Pentagon chief said to Ghani.
But the situation in Afghanistan is dire as Taliban forces rout Afghan security forces often without a fight, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly. Some Afghan army units have surrendered or abandoned their posts. Some are fighting, the official said, but Taliban forces are making steady gains.
The withdrawal of U.S. forces remains apace, with American forces set to leave the sprawling air base of Bagram north of Kabul expected within days, the official said. The withdrawal of all U.S. troops, except those needed to protect the embassy, is expected within weeks, well before the Sept. 11 deadline set by Biden. Taliban fighters have not attacked American forces during the withdrawal, but it’s not clear if that ceasefire will continue, the official said.
Pentagon officials have said they plan to strike terrorists operating in Afghanistan after the withdrawal. But military planners have yet to figure out how to monitor for terrorist activity and carry out attacks, the official said.
Afghanistan’s former president Hamid Karzai said the U.S.-led war is ending in "disaster."
“The international community came here 20 years ago with this clear objective of fighting extremism and bringing stability ... but extremism is at the highest point today," Karzai told The Associated Press on Sunday.
They are leaving Afghanistan "in total disgrace and disaster,” Karzai said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. would continue its humanitarian, economic and development support for Afghanistan, particularly initiatives aimed at helping women and girls who suffered under the Taliban regime.
U.S. officials know "there's a real danger" the Taliban will try to retake the country by force, Blinken told reporters on Thursday during a trip to Europe. The renewal of war "or possibly worse" is a "hard reality," Blinken said.
Ahead of Friday's meeting, the Biden administration confirmed it would relocate thousands of Afghans who worked with the U.S. military as interpreters and translators while their visa applications are being vetted, according to a senior administration official.
That decision came amid growing pressure from lawmakers in both parties who fear those Afghans who served alongside American troops will be killed by the Taliban as the U.S. completes its military withdrawal.
20 years of war in Afghanistan
In April, Biden announced the U.S. would withdraw all troops by Sept. 11, the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that triggered America's longest war. He said the U.S. had achieved its goals of routing al-Qaida.
"We delivered justice to Bin Laden a decade ago, and we've stayed in Afghanistan a decade since then," Biden said in an April 14 speech, referring to the 2011 killing of Osama Bin Laden, the onetime leader of the al-Qaida terrorist network.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the Biden administration remains committed to working with the Afghan government "to ensure the country never again becomes a safe haven for terrorist groups who pose a threat to the U.S. homeland."
Psaki said the U.S. will continue to press "all Afghan parties to participate" in the peace negotiations, which supporters say could lead to a power-sharing agreement between Ghani's government and the Taliban.
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was set in motion by former President Donald Trump. Under an agreement Trump's advisers brokered with the Taliban, the U.S. agreed to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban promised to sever its ties with al-Qaida and end its attacks on American forces.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other GOP lawmakers have blasted Biden's decision to complete the withdrawal that Trump began.
“President Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces leaves our Afghan partners alone to confront threats that his own top advisors acknowledge are grave and growing worse," McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement after meeting with Ghani on Thursday.
The Taliban has been "emboldened by our retreat," McConnell said, and "is rolling back years of progress ... on its way to taking Kabul."
But Ghani said he assured members of Congress "that they should not be overworried" and he dismissed the assertion that the U.S. was abandoning Afghanistan.
The "narrative of abandonment is just false," Ghani said in his remarks at the Pentagon.
Worry for Afghan women
Blinken and others say the Taliban has not fulfilled all its commitments, chiefly the promise to cut ties with al-Qaida, and Republicans in Congress fear the U.S. withdrawal will allow the Taliban to reinstate its brutally repressive laws on the Afghan people – particularly women.
Biden's ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, warned that a Taliban-led Afghanistan would not enjoy international recognition if its fighters retake the country by force and reimpose its repressive Islamic rule.
"There is only one way forward: a negotiated and inclusive political settlement through an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process,” Thomas-Greenfield said at the UN on Tuesday.
"We must push for meaningful and inclusive negotiations – with the full participation of women – that will lead to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire, and a just and durable political settlement," she said. "To the Taliban, we reiterate that the military path will not lead to legitimacy."
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY; Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden to meet Afghanistan leaders as US troop withdrawal nears finish