U.S. President Joe Biden told key allies in June that he would maintain enough of a security presence in Afghanistan to ensure they could continue to operate in the capital following the main U.S. withdrawal, a vow made before the Taliban’s rapid final push across the country, according to a British diplomatic memo seen by Bloomberg.
Biden promised U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other leaders at the Group of Seven summit in Cornwall, England, that “critical U.S. enablers” would remain in place to keep Kabul safe following the drawdown of NATO forces, the note said. British officials determined the U.S. would provide enough personnel to ensure that the U.K. embassy in Kabul could continue operating.
But the withdrawal of U.S. forces saw the Afghan government collapse as Taliban fighters raced across the country seizing provincial capitals, culminating in scenes of chaos at Kabul’s airport this week as Western governments tried to pull out their diplomats. The British Embassy has since been evacuated, Johnson’s office said, and the U.S. Embassy is now shuttered.
The discussions between G7 leaders highlight how many governments were caught off guard by the speed of the Taliban advance. Foreign ministers in both the U.K. and Germany have faced calls to quit over their initially sluggish efforts to extract officials on the ground, other nationals and the Afghans who worked with them.
Pressure is also growing on Biden to extend his Aug. 31 deadline to pull out troops from the country in order to get as many people as possible safely out of Afghanistan. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday that some of the alliance’s members want to see the U.S. mission extended, a position pushed by many Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress.
The British document also showed that the U.S. was privately briefing allies that they should be prepared for a Taliban offensive before any settlement that might have allowed former President Ashraf Ghani to remain in power. U.S. diplomats said that the Taliban would “test the Afghan government militarily” before they started taking seriously peace talks that were taking place in Doha, the note said.
White House officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The circumstances surrounding the U.S. withdrawal have served as a harsh wake-up call to European leaders struggling to adjust to the reluctance in Washington to operate as a global policeman. They had discussed with Biden at the G7 summit the need to continue supporting the government in Kabul in order to prevent the country from once again become a haven for terrorist operations. Those discussions continued at the NATO summit a few days later.
During the same period, the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, was warning U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken that withdrawing troops from Afghanistan risked giving the Taliban the upper hand and such a shift could pose a direct threat to European security. After dealing with more than a million refugees reaching the EU in 2015, the bloc’s leaders are anxious that a broader collapse in Afghanistan could lead to similar problems.
NATO members agreed in May that they would maintain a civilian presence in Afghanistan after the military withdrawal to support the Afghan government, facilitate training for the Afghan military and work on contracts for Kabul’s airport as well as hospitals and communications infrastructure.
British diplomats still operating in Kabul have moved their operations to the vicinity of the airport. The embassy building “is not occupied currently,” Johnson’s spokesman, Max Blain, told reporters on Wednesday.
For now, Biden appears to be sticking with the end-of-August deadline. He said on Friday that “any American who wants to come home — we will get you home.” He said he would make a similar pledge to Afghan allies still stuck in the country, with a caveat.
The Afghan refugees are “equally important, almost” as the U.S. citizens seeking to leave, he said.
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