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US seeks to guide isolated Afghan president in US withdrawal

At the time of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Biden’s White House on June 25, U.S. intelligence services were increasingly concerned about the stability of the Afghan government. The Wall Street Journal had just reported the recent conclusion by the U.S. Secret Service that the government in Kabul could collapse within six months and that some Western officials predicted it would last no longer than three months.

While in the United States to meet with President Biden, and just seven weeks before Kabul fell to Taliban forces, Ghani also met with CIA Director William Burns to discuss the future of his government. and his country in difficulty. Two sources familiar with the June 24 meeting confirmed that the men met at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Va., To discuss the upcoming transition that is expected to take place as the United States withdraws its troops.

There were few people in the CIA room for what would be a meaningful conversation. Two sources familiar with the meeting described the conversation with Burns as “very politically focused” as the United States tried to guide Ghani on what steps he should take to manage the transition. It was a role that built on Burns’ decades of diplomatic experience as a former Assistant Secretary of State and veteran Ambassador.

The CIA declined to comment on the meeting.

Burns made it a point to visit Afghanistan in the spring on his first overseas trip as CIA director – a trip kept secret by the agency. A meeting with President Ghani and his national security team was on the agenda for this April trip, as was a discussion of the larger mission of extracting the Afghans who had worked with the intelligence agency in the country. in recent decades. Concerns were already mounting about the Taliban’s advances on the battlefield and the ability of the Afghan government to repel them after the US withdrawal. In a letter sent in early August to former CIA officers obtained by CBS News, Burns cited “disturbing Taliban advances” and explained that making Afghanistan his first stop was meant to reflect his point of view. that the country is important to the counterterrorism mission. of the agency.

Ghani and his advisers had been worried for months. Morale in their government and the Afghan army had deteriorated since the 2020 Doha deal between the Taliban and the United States. and declared the United States’ intention to conduct a full military withdrawal. The deal had a “demoralizing effect” on Afghan forces and will later play a role in melting those troops, as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testified last Wednesday.

Afghan morale took another blow when the Biden administration gave the Ghani team just hours’ notice before announcing the decision in mid-April to withdraw all US troops. This policy was a change from remarks Biden made during the 2020 campaign, when he publicly considered leaving residual force to fight terrorism. Ghani’s government hoped for some kind of continued US military support. A source close to Ghani’s thought explained that the Afghan president felt the United States was feeding him the Taliban and Pakistani meddling forces.

Last week, the head of the US Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie, said he recommended to Presidents Trump and then Biden that 2,500 US troops remain in Afghanistan to try to prevent the collapse of the government and the Afghan army. This figure matches the minimum number of forces the Trump administration had agreed to leave in the country to protect the US embassy, ​​as well as the CIA footprint in Kabul, according to a former senior White House official. .

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley also said this week that he agreed that some US forces should have stayed. Yet President Biden denied receiving such advice in an interview with ABC News in August.

But the US military also complained about Ghani and his own role in reducing the strength of the US-trained Afghan army. As Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will later testify, Ghani made “frequent and unexplained rotations” of leadership within the Afghan forces as they attempted to repel Taliban advances on the battlefield. Taliban forces were gaining ground as their negotiators participated in stalled diplomatic talks in Doha aimed at forming a new government, in which the Taliban would have a key role.

The clear message was that the Taliban was returning to power in one form or another, and for months the Biden administration was frustrated that Ghani’s government had not come to terms with this reality and failed to negotiate its own. peace agreement with the Taliban.

The most experienced person in Afghanistan in terms of its political actors is the United States Special Representative for Afghanistan, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. His relationship with Ghani had been strained for a long time, and that rift only widened after the Trump-era deal with the Taliban. This left Ghani without a trusted US official to guide him through any theoretical diplomatic process – or at least anyone he trusted.

In April, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made what would be his first and last brief visit to Kabul. Ghani also did not have a close relationship with him, and the secretary’s past attempt to pressure the UN to help form a new Afghan government that included the Taliban had failed. Blinken did not participate in Ghani’s June visit to the White House, as he was traveling in Europe at the time.

“[W]hen the president made the decision in April, that was when the Taliban knew they were going to win, and that was when the Afghan government knew it was going to lose, ”said Michael Morell, former director. deputy of the CIA. and senior national security contributor to CBS News. “And if you look at what happened right after that announcement, the Taliban accelerated the extent to which they were encircling provincial capitals.”

“The number of desertions among Afghan security forces skyrocketed after the announcement. Either they returned home or they turned to the Taliban,” Morell said, speaking at a virtual event. hosted Thursday by the Michael V. Hayden Center at George Mason University. “And it should come as no surprise that senior Afghan government officials are starting to think about saving their own necks.”

It is not known when the CIA and the Biden administration learned that Ghani would flee the presidential palace when the Taliban reached Kabul. Blinken has repeatedly said in interviews that he was personally unaware and that Ghani had not told him he intended to flee when the two spoke on August 14, just hours before. that the city does not fall into the hands of the Taliban forces. Ghani and dozens of his collaborators first fled to Uzbekistan and now reside in the United Arab Emirates.

A week later, Burns visited Kabul again – this time to ask the then de facto Taliban leader, Mullah Baradar, to give the United States more time to withdraw. The request was denied.

Olivia Gazis contributed reporting.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include additional reports related to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.


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