Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visits Afghanistan as the withdrawal deadline expires
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Sunday as the Biden administration continues grappling with a schedule to bring home troops from America’s longest war.
Austin visited the US embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul before meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and other senior officials in the presidential palace. The defense chief spent about seven hours in the capital and is the first member of President Biden’s cabinet to visit the country.
His visit comes as the government stands before May 1 to withdraw all US and NATO troops from the country. The Trump administration reached an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020.
In an interview with ABC News last week, Mr Biden said it was “difficult” to meet the deadline. While stopping over in New Delhi, India, Austin said on Saturday, “To the best of my knowledge, the president has not made a decision or announced when he will decide to remove the troops.” There are currently around 3,500 US soldiers in Afghanistan.
The agreement the Trump administration made with the Taliban called on the group to reduce violence and separate from terrorist groups. US and NATO military leaders have said the violence is still too high to warrant full withdrawal.
Two of the region’s top commanders told the Los Angeles Times that conditions in Afghanistan may not justify meeting the May 1 deadline. Representative Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, recently reiterated that argument, saying the US would “not be out by May 1st – I think that is highly unlikely under the circumstances.”
The Biden government has proposed a series of steps for peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, according to a letter received from Foreign Minister Antony Blinken to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani earlier this month TOLO news. In the letter, Blinken said the government was continuing to consider withdrawing all troops by the deadline.
During his presidential campaign, Mr Biden said he would be pulling US combat troops out of Afghanistan in his first term and called for a remaining force to be left to fight terrorism.
“We should only have troops there to make sure that it is impossible for … ISIS or al-Qaeda to regain a foothold there to get from Afghanistan to the United States and attack the United States,” Biden said “Face the Nation” in February 2020.
Sunday marks Austin’s first visit to a war zone as chairman of the Department of Defense, but he has been to Afghanistan many times. There he served in the 10th Mountain Division and headed the US Central Command from 2013 to 2016, which also includes Afghanistan.