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WORLD | 20-08-2021 17:14

Under-pressure Biden tries to reassure US on Afghanistan

US president says airlift from Kabul is “one of the largest and most difficult in history,” while warning he “cannot promise what the final outcome will be."

Joe Biden sought Friday to reassure the United States on the dramatic evacuation from Afghanistan, promising no Americans would be abandoned in one of the "most difficult" airlifts in history.

Widely criticised over the chaotic exit after a sudden Taliban victory, the US president warned that the frantic effort to fly Americans, other foreigners and Afghan allies out of Taliban-occupied Kabul was dangerous.

"This is one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history," said Biden in a televised address from the White House. "I cannot promise what the final outcome will be."

The White House says that about 13,000 people have got out on US military aircraft in less than a week, with the flow increasing. An hours-long pause was ordered Friday due to overcrowding at a base in Qatar, where planes were headed.

Biden cautioned that the US government does not know how many of its citizens are even in Afghanistan after 20 years of war. But he said firmly: "Let me be clear: any American who wants to come home, we will get you home."

He also said the United States was "committed" to rescuing Afghans who had worked alongside US forces against the Taliban and who now fear retribution.

Biden poured cold water on the idea of expanding the US military perimeter beyond Kabul's airport into Taliban-controlled streets, warning of "unintended consequences."

However, in one incident US troops did exit the airport to get 169 people inside to safety, the Pentagon said.

On the world stage, Biden rejected the notion that the military debacle, in which the US-trained Afghan army imploded and allowed the Taliban to take over almost without a fight, was hurting Washington's credibility.

"I have seen no question of credibility from our allies," Biden said.

 

Revenge fears grow

Fears were deepening Friday that the Taliban were reneging on promises to pardon opponents and their families, as NATO called on the hardline Islamists to let Afghans leave the country, with chaotic evacuations underway.

The militants seized control of the capital Kabul on Sunday after a rapid offensive that shocked the United States and its foreign allies, who were just two weeks away from completing their withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

Tens of thousands of Afghans have tried to flee the country, with the rushed exit leading to sporadic firing at the airport, people falling to their deaths from planes and roads paralysed with traffic. 

In a professed rebrand, the Taliban have repeatedly vowed a complete amnesty but an intelligence document for the UN said militants were going door-to-door hunting down former government officials and those who worked with US and NATO forces. 

According to a confidential document by the UN's threat assessment consultants seen by AFP, militants were also screening people on the way to Kabul airport. 

"They are targeting the families of those who refuse to give themselves up, and prosecuting and punishing their families 'according to sharia law'," Christian Nellemann, the group's executive director, told AFP. "We expect both individuals previously working with NATO/US forces and their allies, alongside... their family members to be exposed to torture and executions."

The German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle also reported that the Taliban had shot dead the relative of one of its journalists while searching for the editor.

"The killing of a close relative of one of our editors by the Taliban yesterday is inconceivably tragic, and testifies to the acute danger in which all our employees and their families in Afghanistan find themselves," DW director general Peter Limbourg said.

The Taliban have said their fighters are not allowed to enter private homes, but have conceded some of their fighters were breaking into properties.

"Some people are still doing this, possibly in ignorance," Nazar Mohammad Mutmaeen, a senior Taliban official, said in a Twitter post. "We are ashamed and have no answer for it.

 

'Sign of resistance'

During their first stint in power, before being ousted by a US-led invasion in 2001, women were excluded from public life and girls banned from school.  People were stoned to death for adultery, while music and television were also banned.

This week, there have been isolated signs of opposition to the Taliban in parts of Afghanistan. Local media reported on Friday that resistance fighters in northern Baghlan province had taken back three districts from Taliban control.

"Today Taliban... went to villages and were questioning people. That [caused] people to uprise," former interior minister Masoud Andarabi, who has fled the country, told AFP.

A resistance movement was forming in the Panjshir Valley, led by deposed vice-president Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massoud, the son of Afghanistan's most famed anti-Taliban fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Ahmad Massoud said he was "ready to follow in his father's footsteps."

Former top government official Abdullah Abdullah on Friday posted photos on Facebook of him and former president Hamid Karzai meeting with elders and resistance commanders in the province -- just days after the pair met with Taliban leaders. 

Small, isolated protests have also been held in cities in Afghanistan this week, with Afghans waving the country's black, red and green flags.

The United States said Thursday that it had airlifted about 7,000 people out of Kabul over the past five days.

A video on social media showed Afghans at the airport lifting a crying baby above a crowd and passing it to a US soldier.

An Afghan sports federation announced a footballer for the national youth team had died after falling from a US plane he clung to as it took off. 

 

– TIMES/AFP

Questions

The White House speech was only Biden's second on the crisis since the Taliban capture of Kabul last weekend. He also took questions from reporters after the address, the only time he has done so apart from an interview on ABC News.

Critics were attacking Biden not just for being caught unaware by the rapidity of the Taliban takeover but his relatively low profile.

The White House, however, was clearly banking on a strategy of trying to separate the military-humanitarian crisis from the political arena.

The Pentagon and US State Department were in charge of giving detailed, daily press conferences, where the focus on logistical details helped polish the administration's tarnished claims to competency.

By contrast, Biden's usually omnipresent press secretary, Jen Psaki, has held only one briefing this week.

The Democratic leader announced at the last minute Friday that he would not fly straight after his speech to his personal home in Delaware, as planned – although he is still heading there on Saturday.

 

Domestic agenda in peril

It remained unclear what went wrong in the Biden administration's calculations in Afghanistan.

However, the 78-year-old president appeared adamant that US voters will eventually forgive him for a terrifying and at times tragic few days in Kabul, instead remembering him as the president who ended 20 years of futile war.

White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield on Friday echoed Biden's comments about the impossibility of avoiding a messy exit and said that, rather than being caught flat-footed, the administration had in fact "prepared for every contingency."

There was "going to be a chaotic situation whether it happened five months ago, whether it happened five weeks ago or whether it happened this week," she told MSNBC.

The evacuation flights, secured by several thousand hastily deployed US troops, are not evidence of failure but of "foresight and planning," she said.

But the drama has left Biden's political fortunes in a perilous position.

Already his previously successful management of the Covid-19 pandemic was threatened by the Delta variant and ever fiercer politicisation of mask and vaccine policies.

And Biden's signature legislative success – getting trillions of dollars in infrastructure spending plans through a divided Senate – risks losing crucial momentum in the House at a time when his allies and advisors were consumed by the Afghan mess.

Polls showed that a large majority of Americans do not support war in Afghanistan, giving the White House confidence that eventually Biden will be able to say he was proven right.

But this was the first week where the average approval ratings for Biden dipped below 50 percent.

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