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Blinken makes unannounced stop in Afghanistan to sell Biden troop withdrawal

Secretary of State Antony Blinken
Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Wilmington, Del., in November.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Thursday to sell Afghan leaders and a wary public on President Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country and end America’s longest-running war.

Blinken was meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah and civic figures a day after Biden announced that the remaining 2,500 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan would come home by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that led to the U.S. invasion.

His trip also came after NATO immediately followed suit with its own announcement, saying that the alliance’s roughly 7,000 non-U.S. forces in Afghanistan would depart within a few months. The withdrawals would end a foreign military presence that had been a fact of life for a generation of Afghans in a nation already reeling from more than 40 years of conflict.

Blinken sought to reassure the Afghan leadership that the withdrawal did not mean an end to the U.S.-Afghan relationship.

“I wanted to demonstrate with my visit the ongoing to commitment of the United States to the Islamic Republic and the people of Afghanistan,” Blinken told Ghani as they met at the presidential palace in Kabul. “The partnership is changing, but the partnership itself is enduring.”

“We respect the decision and are adjusting our priorities,” Ghani told Blinken, expressing gratitude for the sacrifices of U.S. troops.

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In Afghanistan, Taliban militants could threaten major cities unless President Biden’s administration can progress on a peace deal by May, top U.S. commanders said.

Blinken arrived in the Afghan capital from Brussels, where he and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III briefed NATO officials on the move and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg announced that the alliance would also be leaving.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed warned Wednesday that “problems will be compounded” if the U.S. misses the May 1 deadline for withdrawal set by the Trump administration. The insurgent movement has yet to respond to Biden’s surprise announcement that the pullout would only start on that date.

Biden, Blinken, Austin and Stoltenberg have all sought to put a brave face on the pullout, maintaining that the U.S.- and NATO-led missions to Afghanistan had achieved their goal of decimating Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network, which launched the Sept. 11 attacks, and clearing the country of terrorist elements that could use Afghan soil to plot similar strikes.

However, that argument has faced pushback from some U.S. lawmakers and human rights advocates who say the withdrawal will result in the loss of freedoms that Afghans enjoyed after the Taliban was ousted from power in late 2001.

Young Afghans fear losing new freedoms and their lives to the Taliban as U.S. troops prepare to exit.

“My views are very pessimistic,” Naheed Farid, a member of parliament, told reporters when asked her thoughts about the future of her country. Farid was one of a half-dozen civic leaders, most of them women, who met with Blinken at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. She did not elaborate.

Despite billions of U.S. dollars in aid, Afghanistan has a poverty rate of 52%, according to World Bank figures. That means that more than half of Afghanistan’s 36 million people live on less than $1.90 a day. Afghanistan is also considered one of the worst countries in the world for women’s rights and well-being, according to the Georgetown Institute for Women Peace and Security.

For many Afghans, the past two decades have been disappointing, as corruption has overtaken successive governments and powerful warlords have amassed wealth and heavily armed militias. Many Afghans fear even worse chaos once the U.S. leaves.

At a news conference in Kabul before leaving, Blinken said that although the U.S. is drawing down its military force, it is stepping up its engagement with the Afghan government and people and will continue financial support for the Afghan National Security Forces. Washington pays a $4-billion-a-year bill to maintain Afghanistan’s security forces.

“Our partnership with Afghanistan is enduring. We will remain side by side going forward,” Blinken promised.

Peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government are at a stalemate but are supposed to resume later this month in Istanbul, though the Taliban have not said if they will participate.

Blinken had stern warnings for the religious militia, saying it would never gain the international recognition it wants if it drives Afghanistan toward civil war rather than embraces the peace talks.

“It’s important for the Taliban to recognize that it will never be legitimate and it will never be durable if it rejects the political process and tries to take the country by force,” he said.

Under an agreement signed between the Trump administration and the Taliban last year, the U.S. was to have completed its military withdrawal by May 1. Although Biden is blowing through that deadline, angering the Taliban leadership, his plan calls for the pullout to begin May 1. The NATO withdrawal will commence the same day.

“It is time to end America’s longest war,” Biden said in his announcement in Washington on Tuesday, but he added that the U.S. will “not conduct a hasty rush to the exit.”

A family-run, glittering new gated community in Kabul appeals to powerful Afghans who, like its developers, are betting big on Afghanistan’s future.

On Thursday, Blinken reiterated that message in a meeting with Abdullah Abdullah, who heads the National Reconciliation Council. Blinken said that “we have a new chapter, but it is a new chapter that we’re writing together.”

“We are grateful to your people, your country, your administration,” Abdullah said.

In a meeting with staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Blinken said he understood this was a time of “real transition” for the entire U.S. mission in Afghanistan and that it was “particularly stressful” because of the uncertainties raised by Biden’s announcement on top of the challenges they have already been facing, including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are committed to Afghanistan, and despite the fact that our military forces are leaving Afghanistan, we are not,” he said, in a reference to Washington’s continued diplomatic presence in the country.


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