KABUL – US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin landed in Afghanistan on an unannounced, full-day visit on Sunday. This is the new high-level administration’s first trip as President Joe Biden faces a May deadline to decide whether to withdraw remaining U.S. troops from the country.
Austin, who in 2011 as Army General oversaw the large-scale withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, visited Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in the presidential palace and spoke to high-ranking US military officials, which the Pentagon chief described as a listening visit to inform would be the ongoing government review of Afghan policies.
“What we want to see is a responsible end to this conflict,” Austin told reporters at the NATO military headquarters in Kabul. “A lot of energy is put into doing what is necessary to responsibly end this conflict.”
The visit comes amid concerns of some senior US military and Afghan officials that an early American withdrawal could lead to a repeat of the Obama administration’s withdrawal from Iraq. US and Afghan officials fear the Taliban will retake much of Afghanistan and turn the clock back on human rights that have advanced in nearly two decades of American troop presence.
In any case, the Biden government has logistical problems trying to remove the 2,500 US troops remaining in Afghanistan within the May 1st negotiation deadline set by the Taliban. Austin and other officials have stressed Biden made no decision. NBC News reported this week that the government is apparently targeting November for more drawdowns. The Taliban’s fighting season usually starts in summer, another factor that could weigh on the decision.
“I would tell you there is probably no one who understands the physics of troop and equipment removal better than I do,” Austin told reporters in New Delhi before traveling to Kabul, insisting that the United States ” would keep open as many “options as we can. “Biden was already hinting that the May 1 deadline could be difficult to meet, suggesting that former President Donald Trump, who negotiated withdrawal with the Taliban last year, had left him with a weak hand.
“This wasn’t a very solidly negotiated deal that the president, the former president, worked out,” Biden told ABC News.
Soon after meeting Ghani, Afghan outlet TOLO news reported for the first time on the visit, which had previously been kept secret for security reasons. The visit came on the Nowruz holiday, which a US official said was usually a time of heightened security concern as the Islamic State had in the past attacked the Persian New Year celebrations.
The Biden administration is being pushed back by U.S. military and Afghan officials for an urgent withdrawal, as has the Trump administration, which has withdrawn 2,000 soldiers in the last few days of its tenure.
“To me, it’s stupid as hell, it’s the worst we can do,” said a former senior administrative officer Foreign policyspeak on condition of anonymity. “They’re going to start executing people in football stadiums and all that crap.”
Many experts argue that more US troops – closer to the 4,500 who were there last year – could allow the United States to train Afghan troops, continue the war on terrorism against al-Qaeda and close the US embassy in Kabul to back up. The former chief administrative officer said that the higher number would allow a footprint in the southern and eastern parts of the country and in the major cities of Jalalabad and Kabul. The United States could further reduce exposure by mainly using the remaining troops in a training role, the official said.
Another factor in the ongoing deliberations is the Taliban’s continued refusal to reduce violence, a key condition of the peace agreement last year. The Taliban are calling for the withdrawal of all US troops as a condition of the agreement; The United States wants the violence to decrease first. Austin admitted to reporters on Sunday that it was “obvious” that the level of violence in the country had remained “fairly high”.
“We would really like to see the violence subside, and I think if it subsides it can set the stage for some really fruitful diplomatic work,” Austin said.
A senior Afghan diplomat said there are several cracks in the Taliban movement that complicate talks and possible reconciliation with the Kabul government, especially among those who have refused despite demands from the US and Afghan governments to break ties with al-Qaeda. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the diplomat urged the United States to avoid deadlines and a possible interim government.
Despite the Trump administration’s last-minute withdrawal, the withdrawal of American troops may have been slower than publicly acknowledged. The New York Times reported last week that up to 3,000 U.S. troops are staying in the country. The senior Afghan diplomat said officials in Kabul are in the dark about how many U.S. forces and contractors are at Bagram Airfield and other U.S. facilities.
For the Biden government, the decision of what to do in Afghanistan will inevitably depend on the events in Iraq, where the Islamic State broke out after the US withdrawal.
“I know people are fed up with warfare,” said the former senior civil servant. “[But] In five years all papers will be writing about how the Taliban will regain power. “