President Biden will today meet virtually with leaders of the G7 nations to discuss the ongoing situation in Afghanistan. The president has already spoken with many of his counterparts in advance of this small-scale summit. It is expected that the leaders will appeal to Biden to extend the August 31 withdrawal date to allow more time for evacuations; however, pressure from both the Taliban and Democrat leadership may mean the president rejects the request outright.
California Representative Adam Schiff (D) noted that the U.S. presence in Kabul was a prime target for terrorist groups, Taliban or otherwise. He said, “I think the threat to the airport is very real, very substantial … this would make a very attractive target for ISIS-K.” “It’s a very real risk, I think, to our aircraft, to our personnel, to people who have congregated around the airport. Whenever you have a mass gathering like that, it is an opportunity for improvised and other explosive devices,” he warned.
On Monday, August 23, U.K. media giant Sky News spoke with a representative of the Taliban leadership, Dr. Suhail Shaheen, in Doha, Qatar, on the prospect of the group agreeing to an extension. His response was blunt:
“It’s a red line. President Biden announced that on 31 August, they would withdraw all their military forces. So if they extend it, that means they are extending occupation while there is no need for that … If the U.S. or U.K. were to seek additional time to continue evacuations — the answer is no. Or there would be consequences.
“It will create mistrust between us. If they [the United States] are intent on continuing the occupation, it will provoke a reaction.”
So far, the Biden administration has remained steadfast in its opposition to pleas from G7 allies. However, as with all gatherings of those in high position, it is often possible to make power plays on the world stage or coerce concessions that would not be forthcoming in private conversations. Reports suggest that G7 leaders will make a united effort to convince Joe Biden to extend the evacuation process beyond the August 31 deadline.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made it clear that he will try to persuade Biden that an extension is in the best interest of Afghan allies who have worked to help NATO countries and now face persecution at the hands of the Taliban. However, ministers within the British government remain skeptical that the PM’s pleas will garner a positive result.
Ben Wallace, the British defense minister, told Sky News that as “we get closer it’s correct to say the security risk goes up, it gets more and more dangerous. Add-on groups and other terrorist groups like ISIS would like to be seen taking credit, would like to be seen chasing the West out of Afghanistan.” Indeed, it would be seen as a PR victory for the Taliban to reject overtures from foreign governments.
Behind the Scenes
Although the public-facing position of the Biden administration is that the government will not seek an extension, behind closed doors, operations may be underway to get more time. On Monday [August 23], CIA Director William Burns attended a meeting with Taliban frontman Abdul Ghani Baradar in Kabul. This was the highest level meeting so far between the U.S. and the Taliban since the takeover of Afghanistan. While it is not known what the two men discussed, it seems likely their talks involved operational issues and timetables. But was this a smart move?
Baradar was arrested as part of a joint Pakistan-CIA mission in 2010 and spent eight years behind bars. The involvement of the CIA in his arrest could signify bad blood between the counterparts, and any agreements made face to face are presumably being met with suspicion by Team Biden.
Another issue being largely ignored is the value of the August 31 deadline. The Fourth Estate is painting a specific picture of troops working up to the last minute to get out all Americans and allies in the region, but the reality is quite different. In fact, some lesser-publicized reports suggest that evacuations of non-military personnel could end within the next two days. From that point, all focus would be on safely withdrawing the military contingent.
Rock and a Hard Place
President Biden appears stuck between two unappealing outcomes. On the one hand, if he denies the extension requested by the G7 and the result is either death or a hostage situation for allies in the region, he will have blown the image that “America is back” in the world order, and lost the confidence of international partners. On the other, if he tries to extend the deadline, the Taliban could make Adam Schiff’s predictions of an airport attack a reality. Either way, Biden loses.
As commander-in-chief, the ultimate responsibility – whatever the outcome – rests with Joe Biden. With his failure to evacuate civilians before the military, leaving behind one of the largest arsenals in the world, and with his refusal to listen to NATO partners before the debacle began, the president may have permanently weakened the U.S. on the world stage. What he decides today may not save his career or his legacy, but it might just salvage America’s reputation.
Read more from Mark Angelides.