The Taliban's sweeping military victories in recent weeks have undercut the United States's final troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The White House and President Joe Biden himself have maintained for weeks it is not a foregone conclusion the Afghan government will fall once the U.S. pulls out. But after Taliban forces captured the second and third largest cities in the country on Friday, those claims are looking more hollow.
TALIBAN CAPTURES AFGHANISTAN'S SECOND-LARGEST CITY AS OFFENSIVE CONTINUES
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Friday the U.S. "takes the risks" posed by the Taliban "very, very seriously," but these statements from Biden and some of his top administration officials illustrate how that shift might have happened too late.
On July 9, Biden delivered a major speech from the White House to expedite the withdrawal timeline, originally set for Sept. 11, to the end of August. The president emphatically made his case for leaving the country, arguing it was time to hand security responsibilities to the Afghan government.
While fielding questions after the remarks, he was asked if he saw any similarities between the current situation in Afghanistan and the end of the Vietnam War, when the world watched the embassy get evacuated by helicopter in arguably the greatest military embarrassment in U.S. military history.
"None whatsoever. Zero," Biden responded. "They’re not remotely comparable."
The president added, "There’s going to be no circumstance when you’re going to see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan."
To date, no air rescue operations have taken place at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, but the State Department did announce in a dramatic press conference on Thursday that roughly 3,000 troops were heading back into the country to evacuate staff members.
State Department spokesman Ned Price tried to spin the decision during that press conference, telling reporters, "This is not abandonment. This is not an evacuation. This is not a wholesale withdrawal."
Still, it's hard to argue the "significant" reduction in the "civilian footprint" doesn't foreshadow Taliban forces soon descending on the streets of Kabul.
CHINA'S MEETING WITH TALIBAN LEADERS IS 'POSITIVE'
Taliban leaders traveled to Tianjin, China, in July to meet with Chinese government officials and discuss a peace plan after the American withdrawal, a development U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called "positive."
"No one has an interest in a military takeover of the country by the Taliban, the restoration of an Islamic emirate," he said at the time, adding he was pleased China was working toward a "peaceful resolution of the conflict" in Afghanistan.
However, Chinese officials heartily criticized America's "hasty withdrawal" in a statement following the Taliban meeting and added that "the Afghan people have an important opportunity to stabilize and develop their own country."
Taliban leaders released a similar statement, claiming China would not "interfere" in Afghan affairs following the withdrawal.
Furthermore, reports from Friday indicate China will recognize the Taliban should they capture Kabul and tackle the Afghan government.
WHAT'S THE TALIBAN'S 'ROLE' IN THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY?
White House press secretary Jen Psaki has fielded questions on the Afghan withdrawal for months, but at a press conference on Wednesday, she made statements about both the Afghan security forces and the Taliban that raised eyebrows.
Asked to respond to the reality Afghan security forces "don’t really have control" of the country, Psaki responded by suggesting they fight harder.
"Ultimately, the Afghan National Security Defense Forces have the equipment, numbers, and training to fight back. They have what they need," she said. "What they need to determine is if they have the political will to fight back, and if they have the ability to unite as a — as leaders to fight back. And that’s really where it stands at this point."
Later in the briefing, the top White House spokeswoman argued Taliban forces might stop short of dragging the country back into the quasi-medieval society that existed before 2001 because they have "to make an assessment about what they want their role to be in the international community."
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Psaki added that U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad commented when he was at the political negotiations on Tuesday, "making clear the international community is going to watch closely how the Taliban behaves."