In the last call between US President Joe Biden and his Afghan counterpart before the Taliban took control of the country, leaders discussed military aid, political strategy and messaging tactics, but neither Biden nor Ashraf Ghani did not appear aware or prepared for the immediate danger of the entire country falling to the insurgents, shows a transcript reviewed by Reuters.

The men spoke for about 14 minutes on July 23. On August 15, Ghani fled the presidential palace and the Taliban entered Kabul. Since then, tens of thousands of desperate Afghans have fled and 13 American soldiers and dozens of Afghan civilians have been killed in a suicide bombing at Kabul airport during the frenzied military evacuation of the United States.

Reuters reviewed a transcript of the presidential phone call and listened to the audio to authenticate the conversation. The documents were provided on condition of anonymity by a source which was not authorized to release them.

In the appeal, Biden offered help if Ghani could publicly project that he had a plan to control the worsening situation in Afghanistan. “We will continue to provide close air support if we know what the plan is,” Biden said. Days before the call, the United States carried out airstrikes in support of Afghan security forces, a move the Taliban said was in violation of the Doha peace agreement.

The US president also advised Ghani to get the buy-in of powerful Afghans for a future military strategy, then put a “warrior” in charge of the effort, a reference to Defense Minister General Bismillah Khan Mohammadi.

Biden praised the Afghan armed forces, which were trained and funded by the US government. “You clearly have the best army,” he told Ghani. “You have 300,000 well armed forces versus 70 to 80,000 and they are clearly capable of fighting well.” Days later, the Afghan army began to withdraw to the country’s provincial capitals with little fighting against the Taliban.

Much of the appeal, Biden focused on what he called the Afghan government’s “perception” problem. “I don’t need to tell you that the perception around the world and in parts of Afghanistan, I believe, is that things are not going well in terms of fighting the Taliban,” Biden said. “And there is a need, whether it’s true or not, there is a need to project a different image.”

Biden told Ghani that if Afghan politicians were to give a press conference together, supporting a new military strategy, “it will change the perception, and it will change tremendously I think.”

The American leader’s comments indicated that he had not anticipated the massive insurgency and collapse to come 23 days later. “We will continue to fight hard, diplomatically, politically, economically, to make sure that your government not only survives, but is supported and grown,” Biden said.

The White House declined to comment on the call on Tuesday. After the call, the White House issued a statement emphasizing Biden’s commitment to supporting Afghan security forces and the administration seeking funds for Afghanistan from Congress.

Ghani told Biden he believed there could be peace if he could “rebalance the military solution.” But he added: “We have to move quickly.” “We are facing a large-scale invasion, made up of Taliban, full Pakistani planning and logistical support, and at least 10-15,000 international terrorists, mostly Pakistanis thrown in,” Ghani said. . Afghan government officials and US experts have always stressed Pakistani support for the Taliban was key to the group’s resurgence.

The Pakistani Embassy in Washington denies these allegations. “It is clear that the myth of the Taliban fighters crossing Pakistan is unfortunately an excuse and an afterthought peddled by Mr. Ashraf Ghani to justify his inability to lead and govern,” a spokesman for the embassy.

Reuters tried to reach Ghani staff for this story, by phone and text message, without success. Ghani’s last public statement, believed to be in the United Arab Emirates, was on August 18. He said he fled Afghanistan to avoid bloodshed.

At the time of the call, the United States was well on its way to its planned withdrawal from Afghanistan, which Biden had postponed from the May date set by his predecessor, Donald Trump. The US military closed its main air base in Afghanistan at Bagram in early July.

As the two presidents spoke, Taliban insurgents controlled about half of the Afghan district centers, indicating a rapidly deteriorating security situation. Afghanistan promised a change in its military strategy, to start focusing on protecting “population centers” – large cities – rather than fighting to protect rural territories. Biden referred to this strategy with approval. He said this would help not only on the ground but in the international “perception” that was needed to build global support for the Afghan government.

“I’m not a military man, so I’m not telling you what a plan should look like specifically, you’re not only going to get more help, but you’re going to have a perception that will change…” Biden said. Ghani, for his part, assured Biden that “your assurance of support goes very far to enable us to mobilize really seriously.”

Just over two weeks after Biden’s call with Ghani, the Taliban captured several Afghan provincial capitals and the United States said it was up to Afghan security forces to defend the country. “These are their military forces, they are their provincial capitals, their people to defend,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on August 9.

On August 11, U.S. intelligence reports said Taliban fighters could isolate the Afghan capital in 30 days and possibly take control of it within 90 days. Instead, the fall happened in less than a week. The Biden-Ghani appeal also highlighted the lingering political feuds that plagued the Afghan government.

When Biden asked him to include former Afghan President Hamid Karzai in a press conference, Ghani pushed back. “Karzai would not be helpful,” he said. “It is opposite, and time is running out, we cannot bring every individual… We have tried for months with President Karzai. The last time we met for 110 minutes; he cursed me and accused me of being an American lackey.

Biden paused before responding, “I’ll reserve my judgment on this.” Karzai could not be reached for comment, despite calls and texts to one of his collaborators.

SECOND CALL WITH THE BEST STAFF

In a follow-up call later in the day that did not include the US president, Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Gen. Mark Milley, and U.S. Central Command Commander Gen. Frank McKenzie spoke in Ghani. Reuters also obtained a transcript of this call.

Also in this call, an area of ​​interest was the overall perception of events on the ground in Afghanistan. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Ghani that “the perception in the United States, Europe and the media is sort of a tale of the Taliban’s momentum and a tale of the victory of the Taliban. And we have to collectively demonstrate and try to reverse this perception, this narrative. “

“I don’t think time is our friend here. We need to act quickly, ”McKenzie added. A McKenzie spokesperson declined to comment. A spokesperson for Milley did not respond at the time of publication.