Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made a surprise trip to Afghanistan Sunday, as the Biden administration faces a looming decision on whether to withdraw the last U.S. troops from what is already America’s longest war.
The Afghan government on Sunday morning confirmed local press reports that Mr. Austin had made an unannounced stop in Kabul after completing a tour of Asian nations that included previously scheduled stops in Japan, South Korea and India.
President Biden has said he is reconsidering the May 1 deadline for a full U.S. withdrawal, a deadline established in a deal last year between the Trump administration and the radical Islamist Taliban insurgency. Many fear the struggling U.S.-backed government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is still not ready to carry on the fight if the more than 10,000 U.S. and foreign allied troops exit the country.
Critics also say the Taliban leadership has failed to live up to many of its promises made in the February 2020 deal, keeping up a strong military offensive against the Afghan government and failing to break ties decisively with outside terror groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State, both of which operate inside the country. A U.N. report last month said there were still substantial links between the Taliban and the terror groups.
Mr. Austin said Saturday in India that he was “aware that there is speculation” that Mr. Biden is prepared to let more than 3,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan at least through Nov. 1, as power-sharing talks between the Taliban and the Ghani government proceed. The Pentagon already faces a steep logistical challenge if it plans to meet the May 1 full withdrawal date of U.S. personnel and equipment.
Mr. Austin told reporters in Kabul after meeting with Mr. Ghani that the U.S. is seeking “a responsible end and a negotiated settlement to the war,” hinting strongly that the Biden team is seeking more in a revised peace deal than what had been agreed to by the Trump administration.
“It’s obvious that the level of violence remains pretty high in the country [and] we’d really like to see that violence come down,” Mr. Austin said in Kabul. “If it does come down, it can begin to set the conditions for some really fruitful diplomatic work.”
Despite a 20-year military campaign in Afghanistan dating back to the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, top U.S. officials typically do not announce visits to the country in advance, given the Taliban’s control of much of the countryside and the almost routine terror attacks even in the heart of the capital.
One reason for the Austin visit was likely to meet with new Afghan defense chief Gen. Yasin Zia. The Pentagon confirmed Sunday afternoon that Mr. Austin did meet with U.S. Amb. Ross Wilson and President Ghani, but offered few specifics on the discussions.
“I really had a chance to hear from him and it was very helpful to me,” Mr. Austin said of his meeting with the Afghan leader.
U.S.-brokered peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban in Qatar have bogged down and the U.S. has floated a revised agreement that could draw in China, Russia, Iran and other regional players and keep U.S. and NATO forces in place at least through November.
But Taliban leaders have already warned Washington that there would be consequences if Mr. Biden did not honor the May 1 departure deadline.
Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban negotiation team, told reporters after a negotiating session hosted by Russia Friday that an extended U.S. mission “will be a kind of violation of the agreement. … Their violation will have a reaction.”
While violence has remained high in Afghanistan, direct attacks on U.S. forces have fallen sharply. Mr. Austin, who also met with U.S. Afghan commander Army Gen. Scott Miller, said after his meeting Sunday with Mr. Ghani that he was confident U.S. troops would be prepared for renewed direct attacks if the need arose.
“It’s the right of every commander to defend his troops,” Mr. Austin, a retired four-star Army general, said. “There is no question that Gen. Miller has the attributes and resources on hand to accomplish that.”
But Mr. Biden, who was skeptical of rising U.S. troops deployment in Afghanistan while vice president in the Obama administration, is facing conflicting pressures over whether to honor the May deadline. Many on the Democratic left in Congress are pressing the administration to stick to the current schedule, although some senior Democrats in both the House and Senate have said they are open to extending the May deadline.