WASHINGTON – Less than four weeks before the fall of Afghanistan, President Joe Biden urged Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani to demonstrate a more capable military defense to change the “perception” as the Taliban made significant gains.
Biden relayed that message in a July 23 phone call, according to excerpts reported by Reuters that shed new light on Biden’s thinking before the Taliban on Aug. 15 abruptly seized control of the Afghan government.
Neither leader discussed the threat of an imminent Taliban takeover in their last phone call, according to Reuters, but one theme was consistent from Biden: The situation needed to improve to change the optics in the final month before the U.S. was to complete its withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“I need not tell you the perception around the world and in parts of Afghanistan, I believe, is that things aren’t going well in terms of the fight against the Taliban,” Biden told Ghani, according to excerpts of the 14-minute phone call obtained by Reuters that was authenticated by audio from the call. “And there’s a need, whether it is true or not, there is a need to project a different picture.”
Two weeks before the call, on July 8, Biden told reporters in the U.S. that it was “highly unlikely” the Taliban would take control of Afghanistan.
That prediction proved wildly incorrect. The Taliban quickly took over Kabul after the Afghan National Security Forces mounted little resistance, prompting Ghani to flee the country. The final U.S. troops left Afghanistan before a self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline, ending a 20-year war after a chaotic withdrawal that included the death of 13 U.S. service members and at least 169 Afghan civilians from a terrorist attack by the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate, often referred to as ISIS-K.
In the phone call, Biden advised Ghani to “put a warrior in charge,” such as Afghanistan Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, to focus on large population centers. He said Ghani should bring together other former and current Afghan leaders to show unity behind the Afghan army’s strategy. He said these steps “will change perception, and that will change an awful lot I think.”
“I don’t know whether you’re aware just how much the perception around the world is that this is looking like a losing proposition,” Biden told Ghani, “which it is not, not that it necessarily is that.”
A defiant Biden on Tuesday, defending his withdrawal, said his assumption that the Afghan army would hold off the Taliban “turned out not to be accurate.”
Biden and Ghani met in person at the White House on June 25. Days before the phone call, the U.S. supported Afghan National Security Forces with airstrikes, a move the Taliban said violated the Doha peace agreement with the U.S.
In the phone call, Biden committed to provide continued U.S. assistance to the Afghan army if Ghani could demonstrate a plan and told his Afghan counterpart that his army is superior to the Taliban.
“You clearly have the best military,” Biden told Ghani, according to the Reuters transcript. “You have 300,000 well-armed forces versus 70-80,000, and they’re clearly capable of fighting well. We will continue to provide close air support, if we know what the plan is and what we are doing. And all the way through the end of August, and who knows what after that.”
But Ghani didn’t appear to project much confidence back to Biden.
“Mr. President, we are facing a full-scale invasion, composed of Taliban, full Pakistani planning and logistical support, and at least 10-15,000 international terrorists,” Ghani said, “predominantly Pakistanis thrown into this, so that dimension needs to be taken account of.”
Ghani told Biden that the Afghan army’s military pay hadn’t been increased in a decade adding, “We need to make some gestures to rally everybody together.”
He requested more U.S. assistance to support its air force and told Biden “the Taliban showed no inclination” of being willing to negotiate.
“We can get to peace only if we rebalance the military situation,” Ghani said, later adding, “We will be able to rally. Your assurance of support goes a very long way to enable us, to really mobilize in earnest.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, asked about the phone call at a Wednesday press briefing, declined to weigh in on “private diplomatic discussions” and reiterated the administration’s claim that no one predicted the Afghan government would fall so quickly. She said the phone call is “consistent” with what Biden said publicly.
“What we saw over the course of the last few months is a collapse in leadership, and that was happening even before Ghani left the country,” Psaki said. “What the president has conveyed repeatedly, privately and publicly is you need to stand up and lead your country.”
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @Joeygarrison.