WASHINGTON, July 9 (Reuters) – President Joe Biden’s frustrations with Afghanistan spilled over more than a decade ago, and they have never abated again.
During a trip to Kabul in January 2009, shortly before taking the oath of office as vice president, Biden warned then Afghan President Hamid Karzai at a dinner party that he could lose the support for Washington unless it starts ruling for all Afghans, hinting at allegations of corruption targeting Karzai. brother.
Karzai countered that the United States was indifferent to the deaths of Afghan civilians.
As the argument progressed, Biden threw down his napkin and dinner ended abruptly, according to several people in attendance.
Biden had previously backed strong military and humanitarian efforts to rebuild Afghanistan after the United States overthrew the militant Islamist Taliban government in retaliation for its aid to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the attacks on the September 11, 2001 against the United States.
But the clash with Karzai and the remainder of an uncomfortable journey left Biden filled with the feeling that the war in Afghanistan was trapping Washington and might be impossible to win.
He returned to Washington with a stern warning to President-elect Barack Obama: Now is not the time to send more troops to Afghanistan.
“It wasn’t just impatience,” said Jonah Blank, a longtime former aide to Biden who was with him on the 2009 trip. “Year after year, his optimism began to wear off. “
Biden lost that political dispute as Obama finally ordered more troops to be sent to Afghanistan and prolonged the war until his tenure, which ended in 2017.
But Biden is now in charge in the White House, and he’s overseeing a near-total troop withdrawal despite objections from some military experts, Democratic and Republican lawmakers, and humanitarian officials.
Biden’s Republican predecessor Donald Trump struck a deal with the Taliban under which all US troops would leave by May of this year. Sources say Biden feared that failure to abide by the deal would court further attacks on US troops and prolong the war.
Biden acknowledged Thursday that a new civil war could erupt in Afghanistan, but reiterated his commitment to withdraw US troops. While the United States will maintain diplomatic and humanitarian support for the Afghans, Biden said their future depends on them.
It was the Democratic president’s most public effort to date to reassure Americans about strategy in Afghanistan as the Taliban seize swathes of a country on the brink of chaos.
“I made the decision with clear eyes,” Biden said. “I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan without any reasonable expectation of a different outcome.”
About 2,400 US servicemen were killed in America’s longest war – and several thousand more injured.
A majority of Americans support Biden’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, according to an April Ipsos poll, but only 28% of those polled agreed that the United States had achieved its goals in Afghanistan, while 43 % said the US withdrawal is now helping Al Qaeda.
Critics, including some U.S. government officials, warn that the pullout occurs without a guarantee that the Taliban will participate in a peace process or democratic elections, or sever ties with al Qaeda.
The Pentagon says the withdrawal of US forces is 90% complete and that the Taliban have launched an offensive by taking areas where they were once kept at bay. On Thursday, he captured a major border crossing with Iran.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who accompanied Biden on the trip to Afghanistan in 2009, said this week that Al Qaeda could reappear in Afghanistan and lay the groundwork for another attack on the United States. “It is not in the interests of US national security for the Taliban to take control of Afghanistan.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, said she was “deeply concerned” by conditions in Afghanistan.
Heather Barr, acting co-director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch who spent years in Afghanistan, also drew a grim record: “It looks like a complete disaster, as if the country is collapsing.
The decision to leave was not an easy one, but current and former aides said Biden’s concerns about the stalemate in Afghanistan began in the later stages of George W. Bush’s administration and crystallized in the past. over the years.
The 2009 trip convinced him that the policy was failing.
“What he saw and heard on the trip,” Obama wrote in his 2020 memoir, “A Promised Land,” “convinced him that we needed to rethink our whole approach” and that Afghanistan was a ” dangerous quagmire ”.
Biden was at times the only senior White House official to oppose troop increases to support the counterinsurgency strategy.
Yet the years that have passed have only heightened the concerns of Biden and those of his close associates, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The murder of Bin Laden in 2011, during a US raid of which Biden was skeptical in neighboring Pakistan, was a major achievement for Obama. But it also removed another reason the United States maintains a strong presence in the region.
“Biden argued throughout the process, and would continue to argue, that the war was politically unsustainable at home,” Robert Gates, a defense secretary under Obama who clashed with Biden, said in a brief. from 2014.
The Biden administration is hoping it can retain some influence over the Taliban in the US-backed peace talks with threats to suspend the financial aid the poor, landlocked country needs.
However, the rapid exit risks giving the Taliban carte blanche. Blinken told Reuters during the 2020 presidential campaign that Trump’s mistake was to agree to leave Afghanistan without extracting anything in return from the Taliban.
“We had better make sure we say we are pulling out, but in exchange for Taliban actions that we are looking for rather than pulling out for nothing in return.”
A bipartisan group of lawmakers and aid groups share concern that Biden’s own approach is now insufficient.
“Every time I have asked the administration for its plan on any of these issues, I am told, ‘It happens,'” said Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, his party’s senior member on the House Armed Services Committee. . “These bad decisions, I’m afraid, will require our return to Afghanistan in the near future.”
Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Jonathan Landay; Editing by Kieran Murray and Peter Cooney
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