US officials talk with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani as Taliban advances

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin sought to reassure Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani Thursday as the Taliban captured the second and third-largest cities in the country and President Joe Biden ordered thousands of troops to help evacuate US embassy staff from the capital, Kabul.

The State Department said Austin and Blinken “exchanged views” with Ghani on the security situation, with the secretary of state confirming that the US “remained committed to support a political solution to the conflict” and both officials stressing that “the United States remains invested in the security and stability of Afghanistan.”

The department also said that Austin and Blinken informed Ghani that America would be “reducing our civilian footprint in Kabul in light of the evolving security situation” and promised to pick up the pace of flying out Afghans who have worked with US and NATO forces and could be marked for extra-brutal retaliation by militants.

The Taliban seizure of Kandahar in the southeast and Herat in the west of Afghanistan marked the biggest battlefield successes so far for the hardline fighters. Witnesses described seeing Taliban fighters once detained at Herat’s prison now freely moving on the streets.

The Pentagon had announced 3,000 troops would reinforce troops already stationed around the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.
The Pentagon had announced 3,000 troops would reinforce troops already stationed around the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.
AP

Meanwhile, a Twitter account attributed to Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi reported that Kandahar’s prison had been “completely conquered” after “a long siege and violent attacks.”

“The personnel surrendered and all the prisoners were released,” the message added, giving no indication of what happened to the prison staff.

Witnesses told the AP that the governor of Kandahar Province and other officials fled the onslaught, catching a flight to Kabul.

The swift advance has led US officials to warn that Kabul would most likely fall to the Taliban within 30 to 90 days.
The swift advance has led US officials to warn that Kabul would most likely fall to the Taliban within 30 to 90 days.
AP

In all, the Taliban have captured 12 of the country’s 34 provincial capitals since beginning their latest offensive in May. One of those captured cities, Ghazni, sits on a major highway linking Kabul and Kandahar. Its fall effectively cuts off Ghani’s government from the southern provinces of Afghanistan.

Ghazni provincial council member Amanullah Kamrani alleged that the provincial governor and police chief made a deal with the Taliban to flee after surrendering. Taliban video and photos purported to show the governor’s convoy freely passing by insurgents as part of the deal.

The swiftness of the Taliban’s advance has led US officials to warn that the fall of Kabul could come within 30 to 90 days, according to The Washington Post. Thirty days from Thursday is the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on America, as well as the initial date Biden gave for ending America’s combat mission in Afghanistan.

Earlier Thursday, the Pentagon announced that 3,000 US troops would reinforce the more than 600 forces already working at or near the embassy, with press secretary John Kirby saying US officials didn’t want to “wait until it’s too late” to secure the safety of diplomatic personnel.

Separately, the United Kingdom said 600 of its troops would be deployed on a short-term basis to support British nationals leaving the country. Late Thursday, the Associated Press reported that Canadian special forces would be sent to Kabul to help with the evacuation of embassy staff. CTV News reported that “sensitive documents” were being destroyed at the Canadian embassy in anticipation of an evacuation.

The White House has insisted that Afghan security forces have all the manpower, equipment and training they need to stem the Taliban tide. But video clips of militants riding on American-made Humvees and pickup trucks with M-16s slung across their shoulders has led to recriminations in Washington.

“Afghanistan is careening toward a massive, predictable, and preventable disaster,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement Thursday. “And the Administration’s surreal efforts to defend President Biden’s reckless policy are frankly humiliating.”

“President Biden’s decisions have us hurtling toward an even worse sequel to the humiliating fall of Saigon in 1975,” added McConnell, who urged Biden to commit more support to the Kabul government’s forces. “Without it, al Qaeda and the Taliban may celebrate the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks by burning down our Embassy in Kabul.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has compared President Biden's decisions regarding Afghanistan to Saigon in 1978.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has compared President Biden’s decisions regarding Afghanistan to Saigon in 1978.
AP

At the United Nations, Reuters reported Thursday that a statement was being drafted by diplomats from Estonia and Norway that would condemn the Taliban attacks, threaten sanctions, and affirm the non-recognition of an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

In Qatar, where peace talks are ongoing, international envoys who met with Afghan government negotiators and Taliban representatives, reaffirmed that foreign capitals would not recognize any government in Afghanistan “imposed through the use of military force.”

With Post Wires

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