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The Taliban are gaining control of more territories in Afghanistan and could soon advance toward Kabul. Can Ashraf Ghani convince US President Joe Biden to keep backing his government even after the troop withdrawal?
Who will hold power in Afghanistan after international troops withdraw: President Ghani (right) or Taliban leaders (left)?
US President Joe Biden will host his Afghan counterpart, Ashraf Ghani, and other high-ranking Afghan officials, at the White House on Friday.
The meeting is taking place at a crucial time for Afghanistan. NATO forces have already started pulling out after their two-decade presence in the war-ravaged country. The withdrawal of all foreign troops is expected to be completed by September 11.
The big question is: What will happen to Afghanistan after the US exit?
The Taliban, emboldened by the 2020 deal with the US and the unconditional exit of foreign troops from Afghanistan, are gaining control of more territories in the country.
UN Special Envoy on Afghanistan Deborah Lyons said Tuesday that the Taliban have captured more than 50 of 370 districts in the country since May.
"Those districts that have been taken surround provincial capitals, suggesting that the Taliban are positioning themselves to try and take these capitals once foreign forces are fully withdrawn," Lyons told the UN Security Council.
With an obvious upper hand in the battlefield, the Islamist group could try to take over the capital Kabul from the Afghan government by the end of the year. But experts say that the militant group is being tactful about advancing towards provincial capitals.
"The Taliban are capable of capturing Kabul, but they don't want to take over major cities like Kabul or Mazar-e Sharif from Afghan forces yet. Taliban fighters are strengthening their presence in districts around big cities to put pressure on the government," Ahmadi Saidi, a former Afghan diplomat to Pakistan, told DW.
Assadullah Nadim, a Kabul-based security analyst, agrees with this assessment. "The Taliban have seized a lot of military equipment in recent months because of their rapid advances. They can capture provincial capitals, but I think they do not want make that move right now," he said.
Washington is hoping that the militant group will engage in intra-Afghan talks and work with the government to consolidate the peace process. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's government has repeatedly urged the Taliban to declare a countrywide cease-fire. However, attacks across Afghanistan have increased instead.
"The US-Taliban agreement in Doha last year and the unconditional withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan this year have boosted the Taliban's morale," Attiqullah Amarkhail, a Kabul-based security expert, told DW.
"Taliban leaders know they can defeat the government in Kabul. Therefore, we have seen a surge in their attacks on Afghan districts," he added.
The government in Kabul faces a tough challenge. It needs continued financial support from the US after the withdrawal of NATO troops from the country. President Ghani is likely to seek assurance from Biden that the US will not allow his government to collapse.
"President Biden won't be able to offer a lot to Ghani, I believe, although there will be public announcements about Washington's support to Afghanistan. The reality is that Biden believes Ghani and other Afghan leaders have wasted many opportunities for peace in the country," Saidi underlined.
Analyst Nadim believes President Ghani is "in a weak position at this point."
"Ghani desperately needs the military backing, which is dwindling with the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan," he said.
The collapse of the incumbent Afghan government could push the country to a civil war, and the Taliban would be the main beneficiaries of this scenario.
The Taliban have already dismissed the US visit of Ghani and chairman of Afghanistan's High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah as "useless."
"They will talk with the US officials for preservation of their power and personal interest," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.
"It won't benefit Afghanistan," he added.
But if the US refuses to help the Afghan government, it would certainly benefit the Taliban, experts say.
"I don't see the Biden-Ghani meeting as a negotiation. I think it will be more of a conversation — albeit likely a tense one — and an effort to provide reassurances about continued partnership and support," Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Washington-based Wilson Center, told DW.
Theoretically, the US can still do a lot for the Afghan government. It can provide assistance to Afghan forces and use military bases in neighboring countries to provide air support to the Afghan military.
But Kugelman says the Biden administration cannot offer much. "The most potent form of assistance — US firepower — is about to be taken off the table. The best the US can do is provide assurances to Ghani that US military support, in the form of financial assistance, will continue to flow into Afghanistan."
"The US will be careful not to do anything militarily that would violate its agreement with the Taliban. The last thing the US wants is for the Taliban to accuse the US of violating that agreement, and then retaliating against US forces in response," he added.
The US can also decide to roll back the troop withdrawal, but it is quite unlikely at this stage – even after clear indications that the Taliban could capture provincial capitals in coming months.
"The US has been clear and consistent in its messaging that it will be out of Afghanistan by September," Kugelman said.
Security analysts Nadim agrees: "US officials say that NATO troops will leave Afghanistan. If they reverse this decision, it will create problems for the US and its allies."
Washington, however, can still force the Taliban to agree to a power-sharing formula with different stakeholders. To achieve this goal, it can use its influence on countries like Pakistan.
But the Pakistan situation is tricky. Reports in the US media say that Washington and Islamabad have been discussing the possibility of US air bases in Pakistan. The Pakistani government, however, has been reluctant to provide these bases to the US due to a possible backlash from Islamist groups in Pakistan.
"I believe Pakistan will give its bases to the US but will deny it publicly due to its internal political issues," former Afghan diplomat to Pakistan Saidi said.
If the Pakistani military pressures Prime Minister Imran Khan to agree to it, there could be a severe rift between the generals and the civilian leadership, he added.
The other option is that Pakistan uses its influence on the Taliban to convince them that power-sharing is the only viable solution for Afghanistan. It is, however, unclear that the Taliban would pay heed to Islamabad's suggestion.
"Pakistan is ready to support the Afghan peace process but it doesn't want to work with President Ghani," Nadim said, adding that the Afghan president doesn't have many allies inside or outside of Afghanistan.