Afghanistan is ‘Not a Winnable War,’ White House Says as Taliban Storms Country
President Ghani leaves Washington empty handed, as Biden rejects Republican calls to reverse U.S. troop withdrawal.
The conflict in Afghanistan—which the United States is preparing to hand over to the government in Kabul—is “not a winnable war,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday, dismissing Republican calls to reverse the withdrawal from the 20-year conflict hours before President Joe Biden met with his Afghan counterpart in Washington.
At the White House, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani capped a week of meetings, including with several members of Congress and defense officials at the Pentagon. After hearing Ghani talk about the security situation in his country, several Republican lawmakers asked Biden to reverse his decision to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan no later than Sept. 11.The military is on track to complete the drawdown much sooner.
Ghani said he respects America’s decision to withdraw and rejects any “false narrative of abandonment.” Still, he painted a grim picture of the security situation in Afghanistan, comparing it to the United States in 1861, when the Civil War that ultimately killed more than 600,000 people began despite President Abraham Lincoln fighting to unite a bitterly divided nation.
“The then-young republic of the United States was under attack and unity, determination, and ensuring that an exclusionary agenda was not allowed—[this] is the type of moment for us,” Ghani told the press after his meeting with Biden. “The support for the republic is intense, immense, and across the board.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., after meeting with Ghani on Thursday, said that the Afghan government is being left “alone” to handle a security situation that is “grave and growing worse,” the same day a new U.S. intelligence assessment found that the Afghan government could fall as soon as six months after American troops depart, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Ghani said he did not ask the president to change his plans for U.S. troops, during their meeting.
“This is a sovereign U.S. decision. We respect that decision. Our course is to manage the consequences and to ensure that the people of Afghanistan rise to the challenge,” Ghani said.
Asked to respond to the pleas on Capitol Hill, Psaki said Biden made his decision based on the mess he already faced in Afghanistan when he first took office, pointing to decisions made by the Trump administration to cut the number of troops in the country and negotiate an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw all troops about three months after Biden’s inauguration.
“It’s important to take a step back and remember what we inherited,” Psaki said. “That’s the hand we were dealt. The president made a decision, which is consistent with his view that this was not a winnable war, to bring the U.S. troops home.”
“Are there challenges to it? Of course,” Psaki continued. “Will we continue to be engaged, as today is evidence of, with the government about how we can continue to provide humanitarian [and] security support? Yes, we will.”
Part of that support includes leaving about 650 troops in the country to protect the U.S. embassy in Kabul, officials told the Associated Press on Friday.
As a senator in the wake of 9/11, Biden supported the war in Afghanistan. But according to several reports, Biden privately pressed President Barack Obama to limit the size and scope of the United States’ surge, in 2009. When Biden announced his decision to withdraw U.S. troops, in April, he said his position on the war changed in 2008, when he realized on a trip to Afghanistan that “only the Afghans have the right and responsibility to lead their country, and that more and endless American military force could not create or sustain a durable Afghan government.”
Even after that trip, however, Biden did not publicly advocate for the United States to withdraw its troops during his eight years as vice president. The Obama administration sent an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan to increase training capacity, and the administration’s 2009 policy review on the conflict, which was drafted while Biden was vice president, did not push for a drawdown. Instead, Biden argued for a smaller troop presence more focused on counterterrorism.
Friday’s meeting between Biden and Ghani was expected to be a symbol to the world of continued American support for the Afghan government. But Ghani did not receive the same treatment as other foreign leaders who have visited Biden at the White House. Biden and Ghani did not conduct a joint press conference following the meeting. Instead, Ghani later held a solo press conference at a nearby hotel.
It’s a departure from the precedent Biden has set so far. The president held joint press conferences with both other foreign leaders he has welcomed to the White House since January, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in April, and South Korean President Moon Jae-In in May. President Barack Obama also held a joint press conference with Ghani when he visited Washington in 2015.
Ghani is returning to a country in trouble. The Taliban controls 144 districts in Afghanistan, according to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. More than 170 districts are contested, and the government has control over just 83 districts.
Amid the growing violence, Ghani is facing political pressures and is seen as out of touch with a dwindling number of allies, Al Jazeera reported. His future political career is also at risk. He won just over half of the vote in September 2019, and he has proposed holding another election within six months.