Did President Joe Biden think spinning the narrative surrounding the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in a more positive light would make things go more smoothly? According to a transcript leaked to Reuters, it seems he did. During his final phone call with former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in July, as the Taliban seized territory ahead of the withdrawal, Biden urged his counterpart to paint a positive picture of the developing situation.
Biden Presses Ghani
The transcript was allegedly delivered by an anonymous official who was not authorized to leak the information. According to Reuters:
“In much of the call, Biden focused on what he called the Afghan government’s ‘perception’ problem. ‘I need not tell you the perception around the world and in parts of Afghanistan, I believe, is that things are not going well in terms of the fight against the Taliban,’ Biden said. ‘And there is a need, whether it is true or not, there is a need to project a different picture.’”
The keywords here are “whether it is true or not,” as it appears Biden was willing to give a false portrayal of the unfolding situation in Afghanistan. The president stated that if Ghani, along with other high-profile Afghan leaders, gave a press conference expressing support for the new military approach, “that will change perception, and that will change an awful lot.”
The Reuters report indicated that during the 14-minute conversation, neither leader appeared to be aware of the imminent danger coming from the Taliban at the time. However, it is apparent they knew conditions could get worse. Biden offered to provide aid if Ghani would publicly state he had a plan to deal with the terrorist group’s increasing hostilities. “We will continue to provide close air support, if we know what the plan is,” Biden said.
Biden touted the strength of the U.S.-backed Afghan armed forces, telling Ghani: “You clearly have the best military” and “you have 300,000 well-armed forces versus 70-80,000 and they’re clearly capable of fighting well.” The president also stated that the U.S. is “going to continue to fight hard, diplomatically, politically, economically, to make sure your government not only survives, but is sustained and grows.”
This is yet another indicator Biden may not have anticipated the Taliban takeover, which occurred a few weeks after the July 23 call. However, Ghani did point out that the Taliban was pushing toward a military confrontation with the Afghan armed forces. “We are facing a full-scale invasion, composed of Taliban, full Pakistani planning and logistical support, and at least 10-15,000 international terrorists, predominantly Pakistanis thrown into this,” he said.
As Reuters explained, “On August 11, U.S. intelligence reports indicated Taliban fighters could isolate Afghanistan’s capital in 30 days and possibly take it over within 90. Instead, the fall happened in less than a week.” However, according to other reports, members of the intelligence community said they warned the White House that a Taliban takeover could happen “rapidly.”
In another call, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan also spoke with Ghani and focused on shaping perceptions about the growing crisis. He said:
“The perception in the United States, in Europe and the media sort of thing is a narrative of Taliban momentum, and a narrative of Taliban victory. And we need to collectively demonstrate and try to turn that perception, that narrative around.”
What Did Biden Know?
Members of the Biden administration claimed the resurgence of the Taliban blindsided them. They insist they did not realize the extremist group could sweep through the country as quickly as it did. However, as stated previously, the intelligence community has pushed back against this contention.
Still, it is worth noting that the content of the phone call reveals both Biden and Ghani knew there was at least some danger on the horizon; otherwise, there would be no need to push a different narrative “whether it is true or not.” Moreover, Ghani himself explained that his government would be facing an imminent invasion, so this call does not necessarily show Biden was honest when he stated his team had no idea that the Afghan government would fold so easily.
After a botched evacuation and the death of 13 service members and 169 Afghans attempting to flee the region, the administration will have a lot of explaining to do in the coming weeks. The August 31 deadline to remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan has passed, and there are still at least 250 American civilians stranded in the country, along with an unknown number of Afghan allies. If the White House doesn’t figure out how to extricate these individuals, no level of spin will absolve the administration of its ignominious failure.