As the pullout draws to a close, Biden urges Afghans to “decide their future.”

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U.S. President Joe Biden talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the White House on June 25, 2021, in Washington, D.C. AFP/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON, June 25 (Reuters) – The U.S. On Friday, US President Joe Biden met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his former political foe, Abdullah Abdullah, at the White House, where he urged Afghans to decide their country’s future as the last US troops leave after 20 years of war and government forces struggle to repel Taliban advances.

Biden, seated beside Ghani and Abdullah in the Oval Office, called them “two old friends” and said U.S. support for Afghanistan was not ending but would be sustained despite the U.S. pullout.

“Afghans are going to have to decide their future, what they want,” said Biden, saying the “senseless violence has to stop.”

Ghani said Afghan security forces had retaken six districts on Friday. He said he respected Biden’s decision and that the partnership between the United States and Afghanistan is entering a new phase.

“We are determined to have unity, coherence,” he said.

Ghani told reporters following the conference that the US choice to remove troops was a sovereign one, and it was Kabul’s responsibility to “manage consequences.”

He went on to say that Biden had explicitly stated that the US embassy will continue to operate and that security aid would continue, albeit at a faster pace in some situations.

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In a Reuters interview following the Biden meeting, Abdullah stated that delayed intra-Afghan negotiations on a political settlement to decades of conflict should not be abandoned unless the militants themselves withdraw.

“I think we shouldn’t shut the door unless it’s completely shut by the Taliban,” Abdullah said. “We can’t say no to talks despite a lack of progress or in spite of what’s happening on the ground.”

The Oval Office meeting could be as valuable to Ghani for its symbolism as for any new U.S. help because it will be seen as affirming Biden’s support for the beleaguered Afghan leader as he confronts Taliban gains, bombings and assassinations, a surge in COVID-19 cases and political infighting in Kabul.

“At a time when morale is incredibly shaky and things are going downhill, anything one can do to help shore up morale and shore up the government is worth doing,” said Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Kabul. “Inviting Ghani here is a pretty strong sign that we’re backing him.”

Biden’s embrace, however, comes only months after U.S. officials were pressuring Ghani to step aside for a transitional government under a draft political accord that they floated in a failed gambit to break a stalemate in peace talks.

Biden has asked Congress to approve $3.3 billion in security assistance for Afghanistan next year and is sending 3 million doses of vaccines there to help it battle COVID-19.

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U.S. officials have been clear that Biden will not halt the American pullout – likely to be completed in the coming weeks -and he is unlikely to approve any U.S. military support to Kabul to halt the Taliban’s advances beyond advice, intelligence, and aircraft maintenance.

Earlier, the Afghan leaders met for a second day on Capitol Hill, where Biden’s withdrawal decision met objections from many members of both parties.

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, welcoming Ghani to a bipartisan leadership meeting, said she looked forward to hearing about what more can be done with U.S. humanitarian aid, especially for women and girls.

Many lawmakers and experts have expressed deep concerns that the Taliban – if returned to power – will reverse progress made on the rights of women and girls, who were harshly repressed and barred from education and work during the insurgents’ 1996-2001 rule.

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The Ghani-Abdullah visit comes with the peace process stalled and violence raging as Afghan security forces fight to stem a Taliban spring offensive that threatens several provincial capitals and has triggered mobilizations of ethnic militias to reinforce government troops.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking during a visit on Friday to Paris, said Washington is “looking very hard” at whether the Taliban are “serious about a peaceful resolution to the conflict.”

The crisis has fueled grave concerns that the Taliban could regain power – two decades after the U.S.-led invasion ended their harsh version of Islamist rule – allowing a resurgence of al Qaeda. U.S. and U.N. officials say the extremists maintain close links with the Taliban.

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Officials in the United States replied that the country will be able to detect and counter any new threats posed by al Qaeda or other Islamists. The Taliban maintains that al Qaeda is no longer present in Afghanistan.

According to US government officials acquainted with US intelligence information, the situation is severe. According to them, Ghani has been encouraged to do more to increase pressure on the militants while US-led coalition forces remain on the ground.

Jonathan Landay and Steve Holland contributed reporting, as did Patricia Zengerle, Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali, and Mark Hosenball. Mary Milliken and Daniel Wallis edited the piece.

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