An Afghan army soldier walks past Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, MRAP, that were left after the American military left Bagram air base, in Parwan province north of Kabul, Afghanistan, July 5, 2021.
An Afghan army soldier walks past Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, MRAP, that were left after the American military left Bagram air base, in Parwan province north of Kabul, Afghanistan, July 5, 2021.

ISLAMABAD - U.S. President Joe Biden spoke Thursday about the U.S. military withdrawal in Afghanistan, which is facing criticism amid advances by Taliban fighters.

Biden’s address came after he and Vice President Kamala Harris met with national security leaders for an update on the pullout.

On Tuesday, the U.S. military announced the withdrawal process was more than 90% complete. Biden said Thursday that the entire process is expected to finish by August 31.

NATO troops also are following suit, and most of them already have left the country.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday the United States supports diplomatic negotiations to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan, and that after the military withdrawal it intends to have diplomatic and humanitarian presences in the country.

“One of the reasons that the president made the decision he did is because he does not feel there’s a military solution for a 20-year war,” Psaki said.

Taliban fighters have made rapid territorial advances across Afghanistan since May 1, when the United States and NATO allies formally began withdrawing their last remaining troops from the country.

The insurgents have since overrun at least 150 of Afghanistan’s more than 400 districts.

Authorities in Afghanistan said Wednesday pro-government forces had pushed back Taliban insurgents from parts of a northwestern city and regained control of official buildings after hours of fierce clashes.

Fighting erupted in parts of Qala-e-Naw, the capital of Badghis province, after the Taliban assaulted it overnight from multiple directions. Residents and officials said insurgent fighters pushed their way into the city, taking over key security installations, including provincial police headquarters, and freeing about 600 inmates from the central prison.

Video footage released by the Taliban showed the prisoners escaping from the facility and insurgent fighters riding motorbikes moving into different parts of the city.

Provincial Governor Hessamuddin Shams told VOA the Taliban captured all the districts around Qala-e-Naw in recent days, enabling them to attack the provincial capital.

Clashes continued in the city throughout Wednesday before Afghan forces, backed by airstrikes, pushed the insurgents out of the city later in the afternoon.

Shams later claimed while talking to reporters that most of the prisoners had been recaptured.

An Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman, Fawad Aman, tweeted government forces inflicted heavy casualties on the “fleeing” insurgents.

The assault on Qala-e-Naw was the first by the Taliban against a provincial capital, fueling fears the insurgents intend to regain power in Kabul by force instead of returning to the table for peace talks with Afghan government representatives to negotiate a political settlement.

The Taliban also have encircled other provincial capitals, particularly those in northern and northeastern Afghanistan, raising alarms in neighboring Central Asian states.

The insurgents there have captured dozens of districts in recent days, largely because pro-government forces either retreated to safety or surrendered. About 1,600 soldiers also fled to Tajikistan from the embattled border province of Badakhshan to escape Taliban attacks.

U.S.-led foreign forces are supposed to fully withdraw from Afghanistan by the Sept. 11 deadline set by Biden in mid-April.

The foreign troop exit is the outcome of a peace deal negotiated by Washington with the Taliban in February 2020 under then-U.S. President Donald Trump. It requires the insurgents to fight terrorism on Afghan soil and negotiate a political peace deal with the Kabul government.

However, the U.S.-brokered intra-Afghan peace negotiations have moved slowly since they started last September in Qatar and have met with little success. 

American troops vacated Bagram Air Base, the largest such facility in Afghanistan, in the middle of the night last Thursday, prompting criticism and complaints by Afghan commanders they were kept in the dark about the departure plans.

U.S. officials maintain the transfer of Bagram was fully coordinated with Afghan leaders, just as the handing over of other military bases in the country was.

The abrupt exit, Afghan officials insisted, allowed looting on the military base by locals before Afghan forces arrived and took control of the facility.

Meanwhile, the acting U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Ross Wilson, urged the Taliban to cease violence and negotiate “in good faith and a genuine will” a permeant end to fighting.

“The Taliban offensive is bringing hardship to communities across Afghanistan already grappling with drought, poverty & COVID. It violates Afghans’ human rights and provokes fear that a system this country’s citizens do not support will be imposed,” Wilson wrote Wednesday on Twitter.

Iran hosted Taliban and Afghan government delegates Wednesday and urged them to move quickly to negotiate a settlement to the crisis.

“Return to the negotiation table among all Afghan factions and commitment to diplomatic solutions is the best choice for Afghanistan’s leaders and political factions,” official media quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif as telling the visitors.

Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Asad Majeed Khan, echoed those sentiments Wednesday during an appearance in Washington.

“The only way forward is to come to some common understanding,” he said at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “If the peace process unravels, we will go back to the old scenario where you will have militias. The countries will start to hedge also. That is going to be a recipe for disaster.”

Kahn also pushed back against assertions from top Afghan officials that Pakistan has been providing safe haven and support for the Afghan Taliban.

“Havens is really a question that, frankly, has become irrelevant,” the ambassador said. “The Taliban, in any case, do not need sanctuary in Pakistan because they are increasingly occupying space and territory in Afghanistan.”

Late last month, Pakistan Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed admitted in an interview with the privately-owned Geo News television channel that Taliban families do live in Pakistan, including in areas around the capital, Islamabad.

Khan sought to play down, however, any notion that Pakistan has been less than sincere in its efforts to prevent Afghanistan from descending into chaos.

“What we have made very clear is that we want Afghan parties to talk to each other and we will help in every possible way,” he said.

VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.