ISLAMABAD - U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Sunday made his first visit to Afghanistan since taking up his post, as Washington considers whether to comply with a May 1 deadline for pulling out all troops from the country under a year-old deal it signed with the Taliban.
Austin held a meeting with President Ashraf Ghani after arriving in in the Afghan capital, Kabul, from a trip to India. A Pentagon report quoted Austin as saying he visited Afghanistan to "listen and learn” and that he wanted to understand what Ghani’s concerns were.
He also said the meeting “will inform my participation in the review we are undergoing here with the president. It's very helpful.”
An Afghan presidential statement said Ghani and Austin “expressed concern over the high-level of violence” and stressed the need to find a “just and lasting” peace in Afghanistan.
Austin also met with American and coalition leaders in Kabul to better understand the situation and see the way forward to a just peace in the long-troubled South Asian nation.
Speaking to reporters travelling with him, Austin would not comment on whether the Taliban have met the necessary conditions under the agreement that was sealed in Doha, the capital of Qatar, in February of last year.
“What I will say is that it is obvious that the level of violence remains pretty high in the country. We'd really like to see that violence come down. If it does come down it can begin to set the condition for some really fruitful diplomatic work.”
The objective is a “responsible” end to the conflict, he said.
“I heard from all of our partners here today that everyone is really desirous of a responsible end and transition to something else."
In an interview last week with ABC, U.S. President Joe Biden described as “tough” the May deadline for closing the Afghan war, which has been the longest in U.S. history. Biden did not rule out an extension for the U.S military mission but said that it wouldn’t be by a “lot longer.”
Biden’s national security team is reviewing the February 2020 pact with the Taliban that then-President Donald Trump’s administration sealed in an effort to end the war.
Ahead of Austin’s visit to the region, U.S. media reports said that Biden has decided to keep American troops in the country until November because the Taliban were not living up to their end of the agreement.
Austin dismissed those reports as speculation while speaking in India on Saturday, saying, “No decision on length of stay or troop numbers have been made to this point.”
“I'm a pretty prominent guy in those discussions typically and to my knowledge the president has not made a decision or made any announcements on when he'll decide to remove the troops...there’s a rigorous process that's ongoing as the president really works his way through making that decision,” the Pentagon chief said.
An estimated 2,500 American troops are stationed in Afghanistan along with several thousand forces from the NATO-led non-combat Resolute Support mission. All foreign troops are bound to leave the country by May in line with the U.S.-Taliban deal.
The Islamist Taliban have warned Washington against abandoning the May 1 deadline, saying it “will have a reaction.” Suhail Shaheen, a senior Taliban leader, issued the warning without elaborating further while speaking to reporters in Moscow at the end of a Russia-hosted peace conference on Afghanistan.
Shaheen maintained that his group had honored its obligations under the agreement.
For its part, the United States maintains the Taliban have neither fulfilled their obligations nor cut ties to transnational terrorist groups.
U.S. officials say the Taliban stopped attacks on international forces in the country after signing the deal, but that insurgent attacks against Afghan government forces and civilians have intensified.
While experts say the U.S. military requires more time to pull out all soldiers from Afghanistan, they warn that a complete troop withdrawal in the absence of a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government would trigger more bloodshed and chaos in the war-shattered country.
Austin addressed the drawdown challenges and insurgent warnings while speaking in the Indian capital, New Delhi, on Saturday.
“Well, we are mindful of the timelines and requirements that the Taliban has kind of laid on the table. I would just tell you that there's probably nobody who understands the physics associated with removing troops and equipment out of a place better than me,” Austin said.
The U.S.-Taliban pact encouraged the insurgents to open the first direct talks with representatives of the Afghan government in Doha last September to try to agree on a political deal that would end the nearly two decades of war.
But the so-called intra-Afghan peace dialogue has made little progress and remained stalled for most of the time, with both Afghan rivals accusing each other of delays.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a strongly-worded letter to Ghani earlier this month, said it is urgent for the Afghan government to accelerate the peace process.
Blinken said the Biden administration was also considering a complete foreign troop drawdown by May 1. He warned that even if the U.S. financial assistance continued for Kabul after the troop withdrawal, the Taliban would make rapid territorial gains.
Washington spends around $4 billion dollars a year to help the Afghan government sustain its security forces.
The U.S. has also shared a proposed peace plan with the Taliban and the Ghani government that seeks installation of an interim government in Kabul to oversee the peace talks between the warring sides.
Ghani has long resisted stepping down in favor of such a government, saying he will transfer power only through elections. His assertions have drawn criticism from Afghan opposition politicians and even the Taliban that Ghani wants to cling to power and prolong bloodshed in the country.
In a speech marking the Nawruz new year festivities Sunday, he urged the Taliban to cease violence against Afghans.
“We have the capacity to stand on our own feet, but it needs unity,” the Afghan president said, apparently downplaying U.S. assertions Afghan security forces will not be able to deal with the Taliban on their own.
The Taliban have ignored international calls for reducing battlefield attacks in Afghanistan until they strike a power-sharing agreement with Afghan rivals that would see formation of an “Islamic government” in the country.