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Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Saul Loeb/AFP, Farshad Usyan/AFP, and Javeed Tanveer/AFP via Getty Images

The Taliban has stunned even some seasoned military and national security officials in the U.S. government with the speed of its conquests over the past week, sources with direct knowledge of the developments tell Axios.

Why it matters: President Biden isn't budging — resolved to get out by Aug. 31, no matter what — people briefed on his thinking say. He may not see much of a pause between his total withdrawal from Afghanistan and the country's total collapse into a bloody civil war.

Driving the news: "I do not regret my decision," Biden told reporters Tuesday. "We spent over a trillion dollars, over 20 years. We trained and equipped with modern equipment over 300,000 Afghan forces ... they've got to fight for themselves."

Behind the scenes: Senior U.S. officials privately express little confidence in the Afghan security forces, citing military incompetence, disorganization and poor communications skills rendering them unable to adequately coordinate U.S. air support to protect territory against the Taliban.

  • It's unclear what advice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley will give to President Biden on whether the U.S. should continue airstrikes against the Taliban after Aug. 31. The Pentagon declined to comment.

A former senior U.S. intelligence officer with extensive experience in the region said even if Biden were to later want to change course and authorize a significant post-withdrawal air campaign, doing so from outside Afghanistan's borders would be expensive and logistically difficult.

  • The source, who remains in touch with his former colleagues, said they were despondent and had accepted that Biden is "dug in" and that resistance is "futile."

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, at a press conference on Monday, said of the Afghan security forces that "it's their country to defend now; this is their struggle."

What they're saying: Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Axios he discussed the situation in Afghanistan on Monday with Secretary of State Tony Blinken, and there's "no chance" Biden changes his troop withdrawal strategy.

  • The committee's chairman, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), told Axios he respects Biden but disagrees vehemently with the plan. "He doesn't want to have an endless war; I get that," Menendez said. "But I always thought that a contingency would have stemmed the tide... the president has to consider whether what's happening is what he envisioned."
  • Still, many Democrats support the withdrawal. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told Axios: "We need to be able as a nation to pivot to other contests that matter more than Afghanistan… this is proof positive that Afghanistan is beyond saving."

The intrigue: A Biden State Department spokesperson told Axios that Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy, is in Doha, where the Taliban has its political office, to "press the Taliban to stop their military offensive and to negotiate a political settlement."

  • "If the Taliban continue down this path," the spokesperson added, "they will be an international pariah without support from the international community or even the people they say they want to govern."
  • Asked about that, the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Axios: "We have never yielded to any foreign pressure tactics before and we do not plan to capitulate any time soon either."

Between the lines: People who've worked at the highest levels on this issue say it's long past time to admit the peace process has failed.

  • Lisa Curtis, a former senior NSC official who sat alongside Khalilzad during the Trump administration's negotiations with the Taliban, called on the Biden administration to "end its feckless calls for the Taliban to engage in peace talks when it's crystal clear they have no interest in a peaceful settlement."
  • "Instead, the administration should lead an effort at the UN to slap sanctions on key Taliban leaders for the atrocities they are committing against civilians, such as the assassination of the government media chief last Friday.
  • "While such sanctions may have little material impact, they would help deny the Taliban international legitimacy," she added. "On the other hand, standing by idly and doing nothing but pleading with the Taliban to enter negotiations only serves to legitimize them and their brutal behavior."

Alayna Treene and Margaret Talev contributed to this report.

Go deeper

Oct 26, 2021 - World

Ted Cruz will lift his confirmation blockade for Biden’s ambassador to China

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Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) does not plan on stalling the confirmation of President Biden's ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, as he has done with dozens of other State Department nominees, according to a source familiar with the decision.

Why it matters: Burns, a former career diplomat widely viewed as one of Biden's most qualified nominees, will be tasked with managing the president's defining foreign-policy challenge: preventing "intense competition" with China from spiraling into outright conflict.

Oct 26, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Biden plan expected to include at least $500B for climate

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The White House is privately telling lawmakers the climate portion of President Biden's roughly $2 trillion social spending plan is "mostly settled" and will likely cost more than $500 billion, two sources familiar with the talks tell Axios.

Why it matters: A price tag of $500 billion to $555 billion is a huge number and, if it holds, would likely be the single biggest component of the sweeping package. It also isn't far off from the roughly $600 billion proposed when the bill was expected to cost $3.5 trillion.

Updated Oct 25, 2021 - World

U.S. threatens to cut aid to Sudan after military takeover

Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok during a 2020 news conference in Khartoum, Sudan. Photo: Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Sudan's civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was put under house arrest and several other ministers were detained Monday in what appears to be a military coup in the country, per local reports.

The latest: The head of the military faction of the Sudanese government, Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Burhan, said in a statement that he is announcing a state of emergency, suspending several parts of the interim constitution and dissolving the civilian government and interim sovereignty council — the highest governing body in the country.