The very realistic prospect that the Taliban will be able to seize control of Afghanistan once the US and its allies have completed their scheduled withdrawal in September has prompted the Biden administration to seriously rethink its policy on future Afghan security.
On one level, US President Joe Biden is keen to satisfy the growing demand from the American public for Washington to end its 20-year military engagement in the Afghan conflict – indisputably America’s longest war. On the other, there is a growing awareness among senior officials within the administration that without continued military support the Afghan security forces will struggle to contend with the Taliban’s undeniable ability to extend their control over large swathes of the country.
The extent of the Taliban’s resurgence since Mr Biden announced the US withdrawal decision in April – a move that prompted other Nato coalition partners like Britain to end their involvement – is reflected in the latest UN report, which warns that the insurgents continue to make strong gains and have captured 50 of 370 districts in Afghanistan, many of them on the outskirts of major Afghan cities.
Security officials believe the seizure of so many districts, close to the centres of major Afghan population hubs, suggests that the Taliban are positioning itself to seize control of the districts once the last of the foreign forces have withdrawn.
In a demonstration of the Taliban’s increased effectiveness, the extremist group earlier this week seized Afghanistan’s main Shir Khan border crossing with Tajikistan.
There are also concerns that in too many case, western-trained Afghan security forces are simply laying down their weapons and surrendering in the face of the sustained Taliban onslaught, which began on May 1.
As Bilal Sarwary, a Kabul-based journalist, told the BBC this week: “We are seeing mass surrenders of Afghan security forces. The Taliban have shared videos on their WhatsApp channels and websites showing government soldiers surrendering and being told to go home.”
The growing threat posed by the Taliban will certainly be a key issue for discussion when Mr Biden meets Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the White House on Friday for their first face-to-face meeting, and has already prompted the Pentagon into reconsidering its withdrawal options.
While Mr Biden’s original announcement promised all US troops would be out of Afghanistan by September, in recent weeks US officials have given briefings that the pull-out is ahead of schedule and could be completed as early as July.
American commanders have already handed over several of the last remaining US bases to the Afghan forces, which means that more than half of the last stage of withdrawal is complete.
Recent Taliban gains have made the Pentagon review its withdrawal plan, even if the September deadline stands
But the pace of the American handover also means that the US is no longer able to provide the same level of support to the Afghan security forces, with the result that there are fears the Taliban have an advantage over the Afghan security forces. The Taliban’s cause has been greatly helped by the acquisition of significant amounts of western military hardware that the insurgents have acquired as a result of the withdrawal.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby confirmed earlier this week that as the pace of the US withdrawal continued to grow so America’s ability to continue providing military backup Afghan forces was being diminished. “So long as we have the capability in Afghanistan, we will continue to provide assistance to Afghan forces,” he said. “But as the retrograde gets closer to completion, those capabilities will wane and will no longer be available.”
Recent Taliban gains have now prompted the Pentagon to review its withdrawal plan, even if the September deadline remains in place.
“The situation in Afghanistan changes as the Taliban continue to conduct these attacks and to raid district centres as well as the violence, which is still too high,” Mr Kirby explained. “If there need to be changes made to the pace, or to the scope and scale of the retrograde, on any given day or in any given week, we want to maintain the flexibility to do that,” he said.
Security issues are likely to dominate the agenda when Mr Biden meets with Mr Ghani. Also present at the meeting will be the chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, Dr Abdullah Abdullah.
A White House statement said Mr Biden will seek to reassure the two Afghan leaders of continuing US support for the Afghan people, including diplomatic, economic and humanitarian assistance. Mr Biden will also repeat his pledge to ensure that the country never becomes a haven for terrorist groups.
“The visit by President Ghani and Dr Abdullah will highlight the enduring partnership between the United States and Afghanistan as the military drawdown continues,” the White House said.
The Biden administration’s emphasis on preventing extremist terror groups from using Afghanistan as a refuge is certainly a concern for the Afghan authorities, as they believe safeguarding the country’s newly established democratic institutions, which have allowed for a more liberal approach to Afghan social trends, are of equal importance.
Many Afghans, especially the country’s emerging class of well-educated professionals, fear the country will be subjected to more conservative strictures if the Taliban extend their influence over the country.
The only lingering hope that further bloodshed can be avoided rests with the stalled peace negotiations that are supposed to be taking place in Qatar, with Washington still pressing for a final settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban before the withdrawal process is completed.
But with the Taliban showing little interest in a negotiated resolution to the conflict – the group has not yet submitted a written peace proposal that could be used as a starting point for substantive talks – the omens for Afghanistan’s future security and stability are not looking good.
Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National