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Can Biden Save Ashraf Ghani?

To stop the Taliban’s advance and his government’s collapse, the Afghan leader must check his hubris at the White House door.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service.
Ashraf Ghani shakes hands with Biden.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani shakes hands with then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and then-U.S. House Speaker John Boehner after delivering an address to a joint meeting of Congress in Washington on March 25, 2015. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

On Friday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will visit U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House for the first, and what is likely to be the last, face-to-face interaction ahead of the remaining U.S. and NATO forces’ withdrawal from the war-torn country by Sept. 11.

Ghani, who wrote a book on how to fix failed states, seems to be writing a test case for how to help a state fail. This week, U.S. military officials confirmed a U.S. intelligence assessment, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, that the Afghan government could collapse as soon as six months after U.S. forces leave. Ghani is on a last-ditch mission to stave off gains by Taliban militants, secure continued U.S. financial support after the withdrawal of NATO troops from the country, and, above all, seek tangible assurances from Biden that the United States will not allow his government to fall.

More than 80 Afghan districts have fallen to the Taliban since April, when Biden announced his plan to withdraw all U.S. troops. In the last week alone, the Taliban have taken closer to 40 districts across northern Afghanistan, according to a source in Kabul. Many Afghan forces are fighting valiantly, but countless others are surrendering to the Taliban or simply abandoning their positions, leaving behind weapons for the Taliban to stockpile.

On Friday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will visit U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House for the first, and what is likely to be the last, face-to-face interaction ahead of the remaining U.S. and NATO forces’ withdrawal from the war-torn country by Sept. 11.

Ghani, who wrote a book on how to fix failed states, seems to be writing a test case for how to help a state fail. This week, U.S. military officials confirmed a U.S. intelligence assessment, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, that the Afghan government could collapse as soon as six months after U.S. forces leave. Ghani is on a last-ditch mission to stave off gains by Taliban militants, secure continued U.S. financial support after the withdrawal of NATO troops from the country, and, above all, seek tangible assurances from Biden that the United States will not allow his government to fall.

More than 80 Afghan districts have fallen to the Taliban since April, when Biden announced his plan to withdraw all U.S. troops. In the last week alone, the Taliban have taken closer to 40 districts across northern Afghanistan, according to a source in Kabul. Many Afghan forces are fighting valiantly, but countless others are surrendering to the Taliban or simply abandoning their positions, leaving behind weapons for the Taliban to stockpile.

Earlier this year, I argued that Ghani’s leadership and treatment of the military demoralized Afghan forces, which, in turn, helped fuel the Taliban insurgency. Since then, Ghani has continued to micromanage the war and undermine commanders—with disastrous results. Amid military setbacks, he revamped leadership in the security sector, changing interior ministers twice and replacing the minister of defense, army chief of staff, and half a dozen core commanders—some of them with more political savvy than military expertise. Hamdullah Mohib, his national security advisor with no military experience of his own, set up a command center in Afghanistan’s National Security Council, appointing district commanders and police chiefs over the objection of local leaders—even going so far as to dictate troop deployments and call in specific targets. Coalition military officials worry he is out of his depth and is weakening the resolve of the military, which is becoming increasingly reluctant to fight for the Ghani regime.

The Taliban have taken advantage of the vacuum. So far, they have avoided provincial capitals, strategically advancing on surrounding districts where they either have a decisive advantage or can easily pick off targets, strengthening their presence near cities to put pressure on the government.

But the cast-off arsenal they’ve acquired will make them formidable if and when they do move onto bigger cities like Kabul, when foreign forces are fully withdrawn. In many cases, the Taliban don’t even bother to hold the districts and simply move on after the army surrenders. That makes it harder for the army to target them, yet the psychological impact of so many districts falling to the Taliban remains.

As the military continues to suffer losses, militia leaders and warlords in Afghanistan’s north, including several prominent mujahideen commanders who fought the Taliban before 9/11, have stepped in to fill the void, once again taking up arms and calling on supporters to mobilize against the Taliban. Although it sounds patriotic, commanders on the ground are concerned it is contaminating the battlefield, making it harder to deconflict among the many militias and target the Taliban. For years, Ghani resisted pressure to devolve responsibility for security and governance to the district level. Now that local forces are seemingly the only thing preventing the Taliban from taking over, they will demand more power in their regions. After Kabul spent years building up a professional army, at great expense to the United States, the proliferation of freelance fighters risks a return of old rivalries and warlordism that could plunge Afghanistan back into civil war.

But the Taliban are only one of the existential threats facing Ghani. The other is largely of his own making. By resisting efforts to unite the country for a peace agreement, Ghani has wasted many opportunities for an end to decades of fighting, Biden believes. Ever since the United States announced its intention this spring to leave, a group of prominent Afghans have been working to assemble a national leadership council, chaired by Ghani and made up of like-minded leaders who support a modern vision for the country to present a united front against the Taliban. Such a national consensus would not only serve as a useful vehicle for ongoing peace talks, which Washington is pushing Ghani to focus on, but would also support the government. Yet Ghani, afraid the council will have too much power, has yet to endorse its creation. To save his government and his country, Ghani has been advised by Afghans and Americans alike to check his political hubris at the White House door and be practical and targeted when he meets with Biden.

As one U.S. military official put it, Ghani has had trouble in the past grasping the important versus the interesting. This time, instead of fuzzy political discussions, Ghani needs to arrive with specific requests to shore up his military right now and reshape U.S. assistance in the very near term. That could include helping Afghanistan maintain its aircraft, supplying ammunition and weaponry, offering special forces training, or figuring out if and whether the United States could provide air support in the future, perhaps from U.S. military bases in neighboring countries, without violating its agreement with the Taliban. But Congress is sure to balk at supplying weapons that will end up in Taliban hands, and there is no sense in talking about U.S. support for his government over the next two years if Ghani doesn’t have a country to run in six months.

The Taliban have already dismissed Ghani’s visit to Washington as “useless” and of no benefit to Afghanistan. Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said Ghani and another former Afghan leader, Abdullah Abdullah, who is accompanying him after Washington’s request, will “talk with the U.S. officials for preservation of their power and personal interest.”

Still, U.S. officials remain optimistic the Taliban are still interested in diplomacy and remain hopeful intra-Afghan talks (if they ever get back on track) will be able to diminish violence and put Afghanistan on a path to some kind of stability. Buoyed by their recent victories, however, the Taliban remain confident a military victory is achievable like it was a quarter century ago. Beyond demonstrating Ghani’s fecklessness, it remains far from clear how the Taliban plan to capitalize on their leverage acquired after the rampage in recent months. 

Afghanistan is a far different place than it was when the Taliban ruled in the 1990s. The group promised to continue fighting to establish an Islamic government, where the sexes will be strictly segregated, women will be forced to wear hijabs, and freedom of speech and expression are all but gone. But U.S. officials say the Taliban have been both surprised and alarmed at the speed of their own advance and are now showing little interest in or ability to govern—let alone adapt to—a modern country where urban centers are bustling and independent media is thriving. The realities of governing may be the one incentive for the Taliban to work with other Afghans who can do the job they can’t or won’t.

The Taliban may have shown Ghani is a pushover, but the Afghan people are proving they are not. If local uprisings spread throughout the country and make an impressive show against the Taliban, the dynamics could change—showing that although Ghani can’t prevail, the Taliban can’t either.

Elise Labott is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service. As a correspondent for CNN for two decades, she covered seven secretaries of state and reported from more than 80 countries. Twitter: @EliseLabott

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