WASHINGTON — With the Afghan government collapsing to a surging Taliban, President Joe Biden sought to project an image of resolve Saturday, speeding the deployment of an additional 1,000 troops to Afghanistan as he announced a series of steps that he said would protect U.S. interests.
The announcement came hours after the Taliban seized the last major city in northern Afghanistan, Mazar-e-Sharif, marking the complete loss of the country’s north as they appeared on the verge of a full military takeover. A day earlier, two key cities in southern and western Afghanistan fell to the Taliban.
The insurgents now effectively control the southern, western and northern regions of the country — nearly encircling the country’s capital, Kabul, as they press on in their rapid military offensive. The Taliban blitz began in May, but the insurgents have managed to capture more than half of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals in just over a week.
The loss of the north — once the heart of the resistance to the Taliban’s earlier rise to power in 1996 — offered a devastating blow to morale for a country gripped with panic.
Biden’s statement Saturday did little beyond asserting what the administration has already been doing: proclaiming support for the government of Afghanistan, warning the Taliban not to attack U.S. troops and undertaking the intensive process of giving special immigrant visas to fleeing Afghans who worked for the United States over the past 20 years.
The president defended his decision to leave the country after two decades of war, a departure that has led to the near-disintegration of the Afghan military.
He also sought to spread the blame, accusing former President Donald Trump of boxing him in by agreeing to a May 1 deadline to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country.
“I faced a choice — follow through on the deal, with a brief extension to get our forces and our allies’ forces out safely, or ramp up our presence and send more American troops to fight once again in another country’s civil conflict,” he said.
He added, “I was the fourth president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan — two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth.”
Trump has criticized Biden’s decision to withdraw; in reality, both men promised to end America’s longest war.
Biden’s top national security aides were huddled in meetings at the White House all day Saturday, as an unrelenting stream of bad news came in from Afghanistan. The president, in his statement, directed his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, to support President Ashraf Ghani and other Afghan leaders as “they seek to prevent further bloodshed and pursue a political settlement.” As part of the effort, Blinken will also contact top officials in the region, the White House said.
An administration official said the administration would also reach out to the Taliban in the next day. It was unclear whether the outreach would go further than the warning Biden reiterated Saturday, “that any action on their part on the ground in Afghanistan that puts U.S. personnel or our mission at risk there will be met with a swift and strong U.S. military response.”
Biden’s decision Saturday to accelerate the deployment of an additional 1,000 troops to Afghanistan brings the number of U.S. troops on the ground to 5,000. The Pentagon had announced this week that 3,000 forces would join the 1,000 already in the country as part of the effort to evacuate Americans and their allies. In addition, the Pentagon said Friday that it would send an additional 3,000 from the Army’s 82nd Airborne to Kuwait as a sort of insurance policy, so they could be in the region if needed; the additional troops Biden ordered to Afghanistan Saturday were among those bound for Kuwait.
A senior U.S. official said Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief U.S. negotiator with the Taliban in peace talks in Doha, Qatar, has asked the extremist group to not enter Kabul until the United States concludes evacuating what could be more than 10,000 U.S. citizens, including Afghan Americans, embassy staff and translators and other Afghans who have worked with the U.S. government. It was unclear how quickly the evacuations could be completed or if that was even possible.
Taliban officials have countered by asking that the United States cease airstrikes against its fighters as they take over cities across Afghanistan.
As his army has all but collapsed and his government’s control shrinks, Ghani is facing pressure to step down. Yet in a recorded speech televised early Saturday afternoon, he promised only to “prevent further instability” and did not resign. With Taliban forces having captured Pul-e-Alam, a provincial capital only 40 miles from Kabul, Ghani said he had begun “extensive consultations at home and abroad” and that the results would soon be shared. He said remobilizing Afghanistan’s military forces was a priority.
Still, he has little apparent support at home, and thousands of his soldiers were surrendering. Ghani was not “worth fighting for,” Omar Zakhilwal, a former finance minister, tweeted Friday.
With most of Afghanistan under the control of the Taliban, and with Kabul one of the last bastions held by government forces, many of the city’s residents expressed fatalism and fear at the prospect of their home falling into the hands of the militant group.
The Taliban seized Mazar-e-Sharif barely an hour after breaking through the front lines at the city’s edge. Shortly thereafter, government security forces and militias fled — including those led by warlords Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Muhammad Noor — effectively handing control to the insurgents.
In the late 1990s, Mazar-e-Sharif was the site of pitched battles between the Taliban and northern militia groups that managed to push back the hard-line insurgents before the group took over the city in 1998. The victory followed infighting and defections among the militias and culminated with the Taliban’s massacre of hundreds of militia fighters who had surrendered.
During the current Taliban military campaign, Mazar’s defense was almost completely reliant on the reincarnations of some of those very same militias that have all but failed to hold their territory elsewhere in the north. Some are led by Dostum, a former Afghan vice president who has survived the past 40 years of war by cutting deals and switching sides.
Others were led by Noor, a longtime power broker in Balkh province who fought the Soviets in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s. During the civil war, he was a commander in Jamiat-e-Islami, an Islamist party in the country’s north, and he was a leading figure in the Northern Alliance that supported the U.S. invasion in 2001. He subsequently became Balkh’s governor, deeply entrenched as the singular authority in the province. He refused to leave his position after Ghani fired him in 2017.