With the Taliban making rapid advances across Afghanistan, the White House tried a new tack on Wednesday as it defended President Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops: Appeal to the Taliban’s better nature.
Press Secretary Jen Psaki said there was no getting away from the fact that Afghan government forces were struggling, but added: ‘The Taliban also has to make an assessment about what they want their role to be in the international community.’
It was part of a strategy designed to nudge them to the negotiating table.
But the immediate impact at home was a wave of ridicule.
‘Psaki won’t be able to tempt them to civility with a seat on the Human Rights Council or expect them to show up to a global warming get-together with Greta Thunberg,’ said Jim Carafano, national security expert at the Heritage Foundation.
‘This is an administration acting like a deer in the headlights on this issue.’
Commentators on social media were quick to mock Psaki’s comments, saying it was unrealistic to think the Taliban would suddenly change course after years of conflict and abuse
Others joined in on Twitter.
‘They want to lead the UN, solve climate change and win a Nobel,’ wrote author Bruno Macaes.
Her comments came as reports surfaced of Taliban fighters going door-to-door and forcibly marrying girls as young as 12 as they seized swaths of Afghanistan from government forces.
The United Nations reported that more than 1000 civilians have been killed in the past month and the International Committee of the Red Cross says it has treated more than four thousand people since the start of the month.
A slew of commentators said that after ruling the country under the harshest vision of Sharia law, harboring al-Qaeda as Osama bin Laden plotted the 9/11 attacks and keeping Afghanistan in a perpetual state of war, the Taliban had probably already made up their mind about their role.
But the jokes came with a more serious point: With troops coming home, Washington was losing its leverage.
‘Why fight the Taliban when we can lecture them instead,’ said Elliot Kaufman of the Wall Street Journal.
And Carafano added that it was naive to think the Taliban needed the approval of the international community.
‘First of all, for years they have demonstrated they can get all the funding, support they need from sponsors, illegal activity etcetera, he said.
‘They don’t need the Davos crowd.
‘Further, the Taliban want a close medieval society that they control, and they certainly don’t want Afghans to have access to the outside world.’
Psaki’s comments, he added, reflected how the administration had simply got Afghanistan wrong.
Afghans inspect damaged shops after fighting between Taliban and Afghan security forces in Kunduz city, northern Afghanistan, on Sunday
About 30,000 families have been displaced due to govt and Taliban clashes in the northern provinces. Some have arrived in Kabul where they are camping in public parks
Psaki has repeatedly issued warnings from the White House briefing room as officials tell the Taliban they risk international isolation if they do not commit to peace talks in Doha, Qatar
The Taliban’s rapid advance has seen them take control of almost two thirds of the country since President Biden announced the withdrawal of all remaining U.S. troops
The Taliban have surprised many observers with the pace of their advance since Biden announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of August.
U.S. officials insist the best hope of a lasting settlement is that government forces can bring the insurgency to a stalemate, so that the Taliban have no option but to take peace talks seriously.
But so far negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government remain stalled.
Instead Taliban fighters have seized district after district, and city after city, triggering a string of warnings that they are committing human rights abuses.
They captured three more provincial capitals and an army base on Wednesday. They now hold about two thirds of the war-torn nation.
The U.N. is warning of an impending civilian catastrophe and says it has reports of possible war crimes.
Meanwhile, Biden is under intense pressure to defend his decision for such a rapid withdrawal.
On Tuesday he urged Afghans to come together in the fight and added: ‘But I do not regret my decision.’
Against that backdrop, the U.S. is trying to persuade the Taliban to commit to stalled peace talks in Qatar and consider its international future.
Washington’s envoy Zalmay Khalilzad arrived there on Monday with a message that they faced isolation if they took power through a campaign of violence.
And on Friday, the White House added its voice to calls for the Taliban to halt their offensive when Psaki urged them to ‘strongly consider’ the peace talks.
On Wednesday, Psaki said Khalilzad had delivered his message.
‘And I know that Ambassador Khalilzad made comments when he was at the political negotiations yesterday making clear that the international community is going to watch closely how the Taliban behaves,’ she said.
‘They have a range of tools in their arsenal as well to take steps should they choose.’