US pleads with Taliban to stop seizing Afghan cities in final days before troop pullout

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The Biden administration is pleading with the Taliban to call off its offensive to retake Afghanistan, as US troops exit this month and the militant group makes rapid gains.

Diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghanistan peace talks, is in Doha, Qatar, to meet with the Islamic fundamentalist group’s leaders and urge them to stop fighting after rapidly seizing six of 34 Afghan provincial capitals.

The State Department said in a press release that Khalilzad “will press the Taliban to stop their military offensive and to negotiate a political settlement, which is the only path to stability and development in Afghanistan.”

Khalilzad will hold three days of meetings to “press for a reduction of violence and ceasefire and a commitment not to recognize a government imposed by force.”

But the Taliban has ignored prior pleas — including from White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who on Friday said “we strongly urge them” to “devote the same energy to the peace process as they are to their military campaign.”

President Biden plans to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by Aug. 31, with the exception of those guarding the embassy.

Biden has insisted that there won’t be a humiliating capitulation of Kabul that results in an iconic moment of American defeat akin to the 1975 fall of Saigon in South Vietnam, when Americans were hastily airlifted from the roof of the US embassy.

“The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese army. They’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability,” Biden said last month.

But the Taliban has made steady progress with victories in a string of mid-sized cities and the early stages of offensives against Afghanistan’s largest northern city, Mazar-i-Sharif, and largest western city, Herat. The southern city Kandahar is under Taliban siege.

The Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and became notorious for public executions and for banning girls from being educated and forcing women into full-body Islamic coverings.

The US overthrew the Taliban, which had been hosting al-Qaida leaders, following the 9/11 attacks.

The US military is continuing to launch an unclear number of airstrikes in support of the Afghan government, but Pentagon spokesman John Kirby on Monday said that the US won’t be shouldering most of the responsibility for fighting the Taliban.

“It’s going to come down to [Afghan] leadership and what leadership was demonstrated, or not,” Kirby said. “It’s their country to defend now. It’s their struggle.”

Biden’s decision to remove US troops has bipartisan support, but also faces bipartisan opposition. 

Former President Donald Trump claimed credit for making the pullout possible and Biden’s aides have cited Trump’s course to deflect criticism. Trump said in April, “Getting out of Afghanistan is a wonderful and positive thing to do. I planned to withdraw on May 1st, and we should keep as close to that schedule as possible.”

But a capitulation in Afghanistan would still be a political liability for Biden.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last week slammed Biden for allowing the “pro-terrorist” Taliban to make gains and warned that they may again harbor jihadists who plan to attack the US.

“Much of the rhetoric from the president’s team has sounded almost laughably naïve,” McConnell said. “The Secretary of State has publicly suggested he thinks he can bribe the Taliban into being a responsible, peaceful regime with diplomatic carrots. That’s where we are.”

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