WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his former political foe, Abdullah Abdullah, on Friday to discuss Washington’s support for Afghanistan as the last US troops pack up after 20 years of war and government forces struggle to repel Taliban advances.
Biden, seated beside Ghani and Abdullah in the Oval Office, called them “two old friends” and said US support for Afghanistan was not ending but would be sustained despite the US pullout.
“Afghans are going to have to decide their future, what they want,” said Biden, saying the senseless violence has to stop.
Ghani said Afghan security forces had retaken six districts on Friday. He said he respected Biden’s decision and that the partnership between the United States and Afghanistan is entering a new phase.
“We are determined to have unity, coherence,” he said.
The meeting could be as valuable to Ghani for its symbolism as for any new US help because it will be seen as affirming Biden’s support for the beleaguered Afghan leader as he confronts Taliban gains, bombings and assassinations, a surge in Covid cases and political infighting in Kabul.
“At a time when morale is incredibly shaky and things are going downhill, anything one can do to help shore up morale and shore up the government is worth doing,” said Ronald Neumann, a former US ambassador to Kabul. “Inviting Ghani here is a pretty strong sign that we’re backing him.”
Biden’s embrace, however, comes only months after US officials were pressuring Ghani to step aside for a transitional government under a draft political accord that they floated in a failed gambit to break a stalemate in peace talks.
Hours before the talks, Biden said on Twitter that he looked forward to the meeting and that “as the US military drawdown continues, we affirm our enduring support for the Afghan people”.
He has asked Congress to approve $3.3 billion in security assistance for Afghanistan next year and is sending three million doses of vaccines there to help it battle Covid.
Officials in Washington, however, have been clear that Biden will not halt the American pullout likely to be completed by late July or early August and he is unlikely to approve any US military support to Kabul to halt the Taliban’s advances beyond advice, intelligence, and aircraft maintenance.
Before heading to meet Biden, Ghani and Abdullah, chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, met US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and other top civilian and military officials.
Austin reaffirmed continued security aid to Afghanistan, according to a Pentagon official.
Speaking of a “new phase” in the US-Afghan relationship, Ghani asserted that the “narrative of abandonment is just false,” and that his forces have made “significant progress” even though the situation “presents challenges,” the official said.
Earlier, the Afghan leaders met for a second day on Capitol Hill, where Biden’s withdrawal decision met objections from many members of both parties.
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, welcoming Ghani to a bipartisan leadership meeting, said she looked forward to hearing about what more can be done with US humanitarian aid, especially for women and girls.